**In Korea they drive on the right so I must drive on the right**
That’s basically what I’m repeating to myself in my head every time I get in the driving seat of the car. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, buying a used car in Korea. There isn’t a huge amount to say on this except that if you are using anyone but James Lee, you need to switch agents NOW. James is an American-Korean who just gets it and makes the process of car buying really easy. The best way to get in touch with him is through his Facebook page and he will almost immediately contact you to find out what you are after. A word of warning, don’t join the page until you are really ready to buy – this guy works fast! He’s great at working with requirements and budgets and will give you a bunch of options online before taking you to a car lot or two in Suwon. If you don’t want the diplomatic plates, you can drive away in your car on the same day. Between James and the protocol officer at the office, the paperwork, including the obtaining of Korean driving licences, was easy. Oh and by the way, to get your Korean driving licence, you don’t need to hand over your home country licence – you’ll have to give it to the protocol officer to show but he will return them to you.
So this is Bertie. Full name: Bertram Park Bavishi. He is named after one of my all time favourite literary characters (thanks Wodehouse) with a little nod to his Korean heritage. Obviously the naming was all me, I think Raj would be happy to call him ‘car’ but I’m lucky that he is so indulgent of my whims. We opted for the Diplomatic Blue Plates (the 137 denotes The GCF) and he is a joy to drive. He came with lots of fun extras too – a rear camera, a front camera and a navigational system that we don’t know how to use yet. Also, FM radio 102.7 is the local American Military radio station for when you want to listen to something in English that is more current than what is probably (judging by my iPod) on your iPod.
Again, I don’t have a lot of information on this other than that James gave us a number for a company with a 24 hour English help line (Tip: Save it in your phone, as well as a picture/copy on Dropbox of your insurance policy). Raj set up the insurance quickly and initially we took the insurance that allows anyone over 30 yrs, with either a Korean licence or International Driving Permit to drive the car. This was needed so that the protocol officer could drive the car to the various offices to complete the necessary paperwork/get the updated licence plates. Now that all that is done, there is the option to downgrade to main driver plus Spouse, which is a bit cheaper but on balance, we’ve kept the everyone insurance in preparation for visitors coming to town. The recovery service is amazing here. When we came back from Australia, Bertie’s battery had gone flat, probably due to the extreme cold. Luckily, I’d saved the English phone number so we called and they said they would send someone to us within 20 minutes. There was a bit of back and forth via text during that 20 minutes to find our policy (I had it saved on dropbox so I sent screenshots to the company and that helped) and within 30 mins of placing the call, the service truck had come and gone and we were on our way home.
DIPLOMATIC vs REGULAR PLATES
As with anything, both options have their pros and cons:
Diplomatic Plates: When you have your blue plates, you are exempted from the bi-annual road tax and you get free parking at the airport. This might not seem like a huge deal, but its a saving of a few hundred dollars on tax and for the airport – it depends on how long you have to park for. When we parked for 3 weeks for Australia, our bill would have been $500 plus so that was a definite win. The downside is that it takes longer (about a month) for you to be able to drive off in your car as the car needs to be registered with immigration etc and if you want to sell it on, you either have to sell it to someone on a similar visa type or go through the process of de-registering it and making the plates regular again. We opted for the Diplo plates and having waited for 10 months to buy a car in the first place, the extra one month of waiting didn’t make a difference.
Regular Plates: If you take this route, you can drive away in your car much faster (same day in some cases) and re-sale is easy. There is still a bit of paperwork but in both cases, the team at the office at super helpful in getting it all done.
PETROL & CAR WASHING
Ok, driving fail – I’ll admit that I haven’t figured out how to fill petrol (diesel. Must remember that we have a diesel car. diesel.) yet. I mean, I know the mechanics of putting the pump into the car obviously, but before you can lift the pump, there is a series of buttons to press on the self-serve pumps in Korea. Now I’m told that most petrol stations (I will not say gas. Petrol). have someone on hand to fill your car for you, but at some stage, I’ll take some pictures of the buttons and the order in which they need to be pressed to make the whole thing work. Most petrol stations have a car wash and air filling station too – again, use a bit of charades to get across what you need to and there are plenty of helpful staff around to make it all happen! Haven’t yet seen anyone who hand-washes cars in shopping centre car parks, but I am sure there will be some when spring arrives.
So this was fun. We’re now in a country of “right on red” U-turns and multiple traffic lights. In all honesty, Songdo was a great place to practice driving on the wrong side of the road, as the wide roads with multiple lanes and limited traffic meant that I could safely make a few minor errors and get away with it.
So, right on red. That’s obvious. Even if the traffic light is red when you have a clear opening, you can still turn right and continue on your merry way. A lot of road have dedicated right turn lanes which ever get backed up because of this. If there is a pedestrian crossing upon turning right, obviously let the people go first before continuing… but then, if you didn’t have that much common sense, you probably shouldn’t be driving here.
So this kind of 3-light traffic light is easy and universal. When the light is green you can go straight, U-turn, turn left etc. Just remember to check the road markings to make sure you are in the correct lane and it isn’t a no turn road that the maps are trying to direct you into.
a. These are all the lights that show up on a 4-light traffic light. Just for reference.
b. Nobody can go (except for those turning right)
c. Get ready to go
d. Those people turning left or u-turning in the dedicated lanes can go (and the right-turners)
e. Only those going straight (or right) can go
f. Left, U-turn, straight and right can all go.
So, in the left hand lane, where there is a dotted line, that’s where you can carry our your turn. To turn left, you can go a bit further or be in the second to left hand lane. Sometimes there will be a left hand turn lane, which also has a straight arrow on it, which (duh) means you can turn or go straight but be careful – some of the turning lanes will have the straight arrow crossed out so if in doubt and you want to go straight, stick to a middle lane.
Like I said, Songdo is GREAT for getting used to the different road markings and signs so give yourself a few practice drives around here before taking on the drive to Seoul (the drive is fine, but some of the road signs are worse than Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction so it can be a challenge figuring out your route).
TOLLS AND HI-PASS
Several roads have tolls of varying amounts on them – for example from Songdo to Incheon Airport is 6,200 KRW each way. Here to is Gwangmyeong (IKEA) , two lots of 1,100 KRW each way and so on. So its worth keeping a bag of change in your car, although many of the tolls do accept card payments too. The best option is to get a Hi-Pass. This is like a T-money card for the car – you fix it into the car and you can use the automated payment lines (denoted by the thick blue line painted in the middle of the lane) when approaching tolls. I understand that you buy your first card from the offices located at the side of the toll stations during working hours and from then, can top up in convenience stores. I haven’t done ours yet but I’ll let you know what the offices look like once I do!
So we already know that Google Maps is not a reliable source of navigation here in Korea. The good news is that in the last couple of months, Apple Maps has started working well here. Some of the pronunciation of the road names can be a bit confusing (Senturello, for Central-Ro) but once you get used to it, it is a nice and reliable way to get around. The only downside is that it does not reflect current traffic on any route. So whilst the drive to Myeongdong in Seoul shows up at 30 minutes, the reality is that you’ll be in the car for at least 1.5 hours. A lot of people really like to use Waze. Now this does accurately reflect traffic but personally, I find the app itself a bit confusing when it comes to which lane I need to be in etc. What I tend to do is find my preferred route on apple, check the traffic on Waze so I can plan how long I need to leave to get somewhere and then use Apple Maps to direct me in the car. I got a little phone holder thingy from Daiso (where else) and am good to go anywhere that I can find an address to!
Last but not least, parking. Most places in Songdo have underground parking so that’s a no-brainer. Sometimes the Diplomatic plates confuse the automated payment systems too much so the parking winds up being free, but by and large there is a person around to help out. I haven’t figured out the rules for street parking yet but from what I can see in Songdo, people park wherever they can fit. I’m sticking to single yellow lines for the time being but as and when I find an update, I’ll let you know!
So that’s all I can think of for now. Like I said, having the car really has made life easier here and we’ve got road trip plans a plenty for the future months. Well, at least I do and lucky Raj just gets to come along wherever I make him go. In the meantime, repeat after me ” In Korea they drive on the right so I must drive on the right, In Korea they drive on the right…”