LIFE&STYLE

Exploring Seoul, one subway stop at a time

By Paul Kerry
  • Published : Mar 30, 2011 - 19:43
  • Updated : Mar 30, 2011 - 19:43

Founders of Speakeasy magazine for creative people launch urban exploration blog


With over 2 billion passenger rides per year, Seoul’s metropolitan subway system is one of the busiest in the world. But how many people venture beyond the stations they use for work, school or home?

This is the question that drives Seoul Sub-Urban, a blog aiming to explore the less-traveled stops on the sprawling subway map.

Run by American expats Charlie Usher and Elizabeth Groeschen, Seoul Sub-Urban began in late 2009 as a way to hone their writing and photography skills, whilst also venturing into new parts of Seoul.

Elizabeth Groeschen and Charlie Usher  (Elizabeth Groeschen)

“I wanted to see a lot more of the city, but I knew that I needed to have something that would keep me on task,” said Usher. “So the idea of starting a blog came into my head.

“Using the subway as an organizing device just seemed very natural. So many people use it, it’s what I always use to get around the city, it’s so extensive and you can get pretty much anywhere. So I thought it was a good framing device.”

In the past 18 months Usher and Groeschen, with occasional help from friends, have explored the areas around more than 30 subway stops. Usher provides written descriptions while Groeschen focuses on photography.

Each Saturday the pair meet at a designated stop, chosen at random by its number, get their bearings, and begin exploring.

“We try to make a circle around a station,” said Groeschen. “We’ll get to a certain point and one of us will know if we’re encroaching on another subway’s territory, and then we’ll stop.”

Taking anywhere from an hour to a half a day to browse around each stop, Usher and Groeschen collaborate and share their experiences with each other to ensure photos and descriptions mesh and flow on the blog.

Both Usher and Groeschen came to Korea to teach English about five years ago, and met here while working together on Speakeasy, a bi-lingual magazine Usher had started to provide a creative outlet for both Koreans and expats in Seoul.

After teaching English for two years, both left Korea, Groeschen to return to the United States to study, Usher to travel more, before their paths eventually crossed again in Seoul about two years ago.

“One of the benefits of being here, being in an overseas situation, is that I feel like here I have the space to play around,” said Usher. “Coming here, being outside your own culture, it’s kind of a blank slate. If you want to do something, it’s quite easy to explore that.

“A lot of Seoul can be quite repetitive, just apartment tower after apartment tower. I wasn’t sure if we were going to start this and then a month later find out we were just seeing the same neighborhood over and over. Fortunately it hasn’t turned out that way. It’s struck a cord with a lot of people who live here.”
A statue of a flying Astroboy by Bulgwang Stream near Saejeol Station.
Curls of felt at a shop near Euljiro-4-ga Station.

Seoul Sub-Urban’s adventurous theme has strong appeal, and the blog’s following is slowly growing.

The site caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times late last year, and this year began a regular column in Seoul Magazine. Usher can also be heard fortnightly on TBS radio in a segment called “My Secret Seoul.”

“It hits on an idea that a lot of people have been found to be pretty attractive, and so the success that we’ve had with magazine and radio (coverage) is way disproportionate to the amount of people that actually read the blog,” said Usher.

“It doesn’t have nearly as big a readership as a lot of other blogs here. But I think the people who have come across it have been overwhelmingly positive about it.”
A woman works in a hanbok shop near Saejeol Station.
A boy peeks out of the entrance to Cheongryeong Temple near Singil Station.

While Groeschen hesitates to call the blog a travel or tourist guide, she hopes that Seoul Sub-Urban might be a useful “point of reference,” and might prompt travelers to step out of their comfort zones.

“I like to do things that scare me or make me a little nervous. So I would pick the one thing that scares you or makes you a little nervous, and do that, because that’s going to be the thing that you’re going to remember,” she said.

“We do want to encourage people to get out and see parts of the city that aren’t Itaewon, or Gangnam, or Jungno, because it’s a huge city. There’s a lot going on here, a lot to do,” said Usher.

Usher and Groeschen concede there have been a few stops so far that have not excited them.

“We’ve been to a few stops where we’ve been like ‘Dude, this is boring,’” Usher said. “But even at the lame ones we’ve found something.”

“My favorite stops are usually the ones we roll up to and it is so unexpected,” Groeschen said. “We both get really excited when there is a surprise at the stop.”

Although the blog originally began primarily as a personal venture, Usher and Groeschen are both now beginning to look ahead at potential growth in the idea.

“We’ve discussed putting a book together eventually,” said Usher. “And Liz and I have been talking about having an exhibition, mostly to focus on her photography, but then paired with some excerpts and some brief descriptions of stations.”

But they aren’t getting too far ahead of themselves yet. With over 400 stations still to go, it’s difficult to predict what lies down the tracks said Usher.

“We’ve been really, really happy with how it’s developed so far. With the small number of stops that we’ve done, it’s been a great success so far.”

To check out the blog for yourself, visit http://seoulsuburban.com/

By Hamish Boland-Rudder (hamish.bolandrudder@gmail.com)