Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How I Got to Five Korean National Parks by Mass Transit

In April 2017 I visited five of South Korea's twenty-two national parks. In this post I document how I got to each park by rail and bus.

I had not planned to spend much time in South Korea, but thanks to the authorities in Shanghai, China, I found myself with an extra week in South Korea. This was an opportunity to explore some national parks.

I spent a good part of some evenings figuring out how to navigate the next day. Some people like crossword puzzles or sudoko, I like figuring out how to get around like a local who does not own a car. On all my solo visits to Asia I have relied 100% on public transport, my feet, and the occasional unsolicited car ride; I have never taken a cab.

I would not be able to travel like this without the Internet. The Korean National Parks Service has an English language site that is a good starting point for research. Blog posts sometimes provide specific information, but can be outdated, incorrect, or incomplete. Google Translate translates Web pages and signs in bus stations into workable English.

I treat most information with skepticism, something to be tested against alternate sources.

Paying for Rail Travel

I decided to buy a four-day rail pass for non-residents that allowed unlimited rail travel on four not necessarily consecutive days. For me, this turned out to be a poor value: I would have spent less purchasing individual tickets.

Depending on where you look on the Web, it is sometimes mistakenly implied you have to purchase and print a voucher outside South Korea, then exchange it for a rail pass upon arrival. I was able to purchase a pass in three steps in the main hall of Seoul Station where there is English signage:
  1. At the Korail Travel Guide Center I purchased a voucher to be exchanged for a rail pass. I paid by credit card.
  2. At the Information kiosk, I exchanged the voucher for a rail pass.
  3. At the ticket office, I reserved a seat: I showed the agent a screenshot on my phone of the train time in the Korail timetable.
Figuring out Train Times

Figuring out trains was easy because the Korean Rail system (Korail) has an English language site where I can query the timetable. It's clunky: sometimes I found it better to figure out a routing with a map, then look up individual segments in the Korail timetable.

When reserving a seat, I showed the Korail agent the train on my phone screen.
Paying for Bus and Metro Rides

A T-Money stored value card is the easiest way to ride metro systems and city buses throughout South Korea. I purchased mine using a credit card at a machine in Seoul Station's metro station. There's an option for instructions in English.

I installed the T-Money app on my phone so I could keep track of the remaining value of my card. To review the balance, I simply held the card against the back of my phone. (The phone must support NFC.)

I took country buses that only accept cash or a ticket purchased at a bus station counter. I've also seen country buses that accept T-Money.

I took one long-distance bus. The ticket had to be purchased at a machine or a counter in the bus station.

Figuring out Bus Times

Figuring out buses proved to be problematic as there is no single source of information. Some bus stations only have signs and information in Korean.

Google Maps sometimes showed bus stops. (Be sure to select the Transit layer.) Sometimes I could click a bus stop on the map and get real-time bus times for some, but not necessarily all buses for that stop.

Google Maps is also an essential tool to track a bus journey and to know when to get off the bus.

Stowing my Backpack
I never had to hike with my backpack because lockers are ubiquitous in train and bus stations. After a day of hiking I supplied my fingerprint to retrieve my backpack from a locker, then moved on to a new town and a new hotel.

Trail Maps

I usually collected an adequate trail map at the entrance to each park, and trails generally had good signage. Google Maps usually does not show trails, so I used free OpenStreetMap maps that include trails on both my phone and Garmin GPS.

On my phone I downloaded maps to the MAPS.ME app.

On my handheld GPS I downloaded Garmin-format GPX maps from OpenStreetMap.

As with any maps, I used these with caution. However, they accurately depicted the trails I walked.
Interactive map
Wolchulsan National Park

Train station: Mokpo.
City bus stop: northbound on main road (Yeongsan-ro) in front of the station. Take the frequent city bus 1 to the bus terminal (about 2 miles).
Bus terminal: buy a ticket for the bus to Yeongam at the counter. I used Google Keep to show the agent the name. Via gesticulation I learned the departure gate and time.
The little green bus passes within 45 minutes (walking) of two park entrances. I've read there are occasional shuttles.

Naejangsan National Park

Train station: Jeongeup.
Walk: Take stairs towards the main road in front of the station.
You can check the details of these instructions at the information office, on the left, as you reach the road.
At the main road, turn left.
Cross the street at the first traffic light and continue to walk until you reach the bus stop on the right hand (eastbound) side of the street.
Bus stop: Catch bus 171. The journey costs 1,400 Won and takes about 25 minutes. There are one or two buses per hour.

Mudeungsan National Park

This park on the outskirts of Gwangju is easily reached by city bus 1187.

Train station: Gwangjusongjeong. The KTX bullet train stops here.
Subway to Heajeong.
Walk a few blocks north to the large central bus station, U-Square.
Bus stop: On the main road in front (north) of the bus station.

Take the eastbound bus 1187. The bus is every 20 to 27 minutes, and the journey takes about 55 minutes.
If you arrive at Gwangju train station, you can pick up the 1187 bus near the station. Walk south, cross the main road, then walk east to the East bus stop. (There's English signage.)
The 1187 bus terminates at the national park.
1187 bus times at Mudeungsan National Park for the trip back to the city

Gyeongju National Park

Getting to Central Gyeongju
Train station: Singyeongju. The KTX bullet train stops here, a few miles west of the city of Gyeongju.
Bus stop: There are frequent, well-identified buses from Singyeongju to central Gyeongju (e.g., bus 50, 70, or 700).

The city of Gyeongju is surrounded by national park locations, and buses are well-identified. Some sights are walking distance from the city, others can be reached by the number 10 or 11 bus (they hit the same spots) from outside the express bus terminal.

I walked a lovely one-way route up Mt. Namsan past historical sights, entering and leaving the park at different entrances. The same buses ran past both entrances.

Mt. Namsan Hike
Bus stop:  Poseok-ro (street) southbound, opposite a historic area that includes the Cheonmachong Tomb.
Bus: 500, 505, 506, 507 or 508, southbound for about 3 miles.
Get off at Samneung. It's a short walk to the park entrance.

Bukhansan National Park
The park is a short walk from several metro stations.

Train station: Seoul Station.
Metro (subway) line 1 to Dobongsan.
Walk a few blocks west to the park entrance.

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