Never heard of Pyeongchang? You will: the little-known South Korean county is set to bask in the global limelight when it hosts the 2018 Winter Olympics this February. But for those with a taste for mountain scenery, temples, and hearty rural cuisine, the region makes for a beguiling destination year-round.
Photos by Robert Koehler.
For the next few months at least, it’s safe to say that Pyeongchang will, for the first time in its history, be a worldwide household name. And not to claim bragging rights, but it’s probably also safe to say I was one of the few foreigners that had a passing acquaintance with South Korea’s soon-to-be host of the 2018 Winter Games when its Olympic dream was still of the pipe variety, having ventured out to the area a couple of times in the aughties when I was based in Seoul.
So when the opportunity came to visit again, I jumped at it for a couple of reasons. First, I recalled mountainous Pyeongchang as being an exceptionally pretty corner of the country. And second, who could pass up a chance to see how a small, hitherto little-known place prepares for one of the biggest sporting events in the world?
The answer to that, it turns out, is with the characteristic national industriousness. Home to some of South Korea’s leading ski resorts, Pyeongchang was never really destined to be a backwater. But I was still taken aback at the extent to which the Olympics are reshaping the place, and the speed at which it’s morphing from a largely local secret into a plausible playground for the world. At the same time, I was reassured by other things that seem largely impervious to change. Pyeongchang may now be synonymous with the Olympics, but it has qualities that will endure long after the last medals are handed out.
By the time the festivities begin in February, Pyeongchang will be connected to Seoul via a new high-speed rail line that will whisk visitors here from the capital in around an hour. I, however, had to settle for the bus—a three-hour-plus journey that underscored the area’s relative isolation. Beyond Seoul, suburban sprawl gave way to a series of long tunnels that knifed their way through ever-higher mountain ranges, interspersed with small towns huddled in deep green valleys.
Pyeongchang—the name translates as “flourishing peace”—is one of the 11 gun (counties) of Gangwon-do, South Korea’s northernmost and least-populated province. Prior to its recent emergence as a winter wonderland, it was a hardscrabble place, better known for coal mining and rural poverty, its rugged peaks effectively cutting it off from the rest of the country.
The tourist dollar has already erased much of that legacy, and the bet is the Games will make it disappear completely, with economic benefits estimated by the Hyundai Economic Research Institute to be in the US$60 billion range. Nancy Park, a spokesperson for the Pyeongchang Olympic Games Organizing Committee, says her organization is betting the event will transform the region into “an Asian winter sports hub and year-round tourist destination.”
But perhaps not quite yet. Visitors disembarking at the “Pyeong-chang” bus station may be surprised to find a nondescript town with a slightly down-at-heel air that even the recently added Olympics banners can’t shake. This is Pyeongchang-eup, the regional administrative center. Home to less than 10,000 people, the town itself won’t be staging any Olympic events—these will be spread throughout the county and in neighboring Jeongseon and the east-coast city of Gangneung (where the high-speed rail line terminates). But as the name on the banners and host to the highest-profile events, the Games are very much Pyeongchang’s party.
The epicenter of Olympic activity will be Alpensia, the jewel in the county’s recreational crown. Situated near the town- ship of Daegwallyeong and only really completed in 2011, the resort complex looks like it has always been there, a passable representation of a Swiss village nestled against a backdrop of forested hills crowned by lazily spinning wind turbines.
Alpensia is home to a pair of hotel properties led by the imposing InterContinental, which tempers the vaulted ceilings, stout wooden beams, and crackling fireplaces beloved of ski lodges worldwide with a dash of Asian minimalism. This will be the local headquarters for the International Olympic Committee, and its members are likely to find little to object to in the well-appointed rooms and carefully manicured gardens. (According to InterContinental Hotel Group’s regional general manager, Christian Pirodon, the place is “completely booked out” for the Olympics and subsequent Paralympics period.) Journalists, meanwhile, will have to make do with the somewhat less posh Holiday Inn next door.
Regardless of where they are staying, Olympic delegates will have the full run of a complex that’s essentially a self-contained city, complete with a main street populated by restaurants, bars, and convenience stores. (That said, when I was there in August during the late-summer off-season, Alpensia was eerily quiet, with the exception of an indoor water park that a bunch of families were using to maximum effect.) Other on-site amenities include a full-size cinema, a concert hall and casino, two golf courses, and a convention center. And then, of course, there’s the primary reason most people visit: six ski runs designed for a range of skill levels, as well as an “Alpine Coaster” ride that ensures guests can still barrel down the mountain at heart-stopping speeds in the warmer months.
These slopes will probably satisfy most thrill-seekers, but of course Olympic athletes are cut from a different cloth, a fact that’s underlined when visiting the nearby Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre. Crowned by a gravity-defying tower from which gigantic ramps descend at what appear to be injury-inducing angles, this will be the venue for the ski jumping, Nordic combined, and “big air” snowboarding competitions. As one of the only completed Olympic venues partially open to the public (at least at the time of my visit), it has swiftly become a landmark and de facto symbol of the Games for curious locals.
As I waited in line for the monorail that ferries visitors to the top of the tower, a fleet of tour buses pulled into the parking lot, disgorging a cargo of wizened retirees who milled around in wide-eyed wonder, taking in the fluttering flags, the sporting insignia, and the vast open stadium where jumpers will land. It looks like it’s been carved out of the surrounding rock. On the ride up, I shared a cabin with an elderly Korean couple who spent the brief journey gazing out the window in stunned silence. “We did all this,” the man finally said to his wife. He seemed to be speaking for the entire country, his tone somewhere between pride and disbelief.
Circling the tower’s observation deck, I could understand the sentiment: the view encompassed the nearby mountain ranges and, just below, the Olympic biathlon and cross-country centers, as well as a snaking road network festooned with rows of neon construction pylons. Many of the Pyeongchang Olympic venues are upgrades of existing ones, which should help the county avoid the rampant overbuilding that too often accompanies Olympic hosting, leaving a trail of international-class, but chronically underused, sports sites in its wake. Athletic schools and training centers are already mushrooming around the Olympic zone to capitalize on what will be left after the competitors head back home.
Back on the ground, the Ski Jumping Centre also houses a small museum chronicling the evolution of the winter sport in Pyeong-chang. One of its more interesting features is a series of photographs of people zipping down the slopes in the early 1950s—the years of the fratricidal Korean War. Nothing, it seems, can stop the dedicated skiing enthusiast.
Betting they had the Pyeongchang tourist circuit locked down, I decided to follow the tour buses to their next destination, which turned out to be the Daegwallyeong Sky Ranch. This is one of a few “farms” in the area where visitors can immerse themselves in a postcard-perfect pastoral experience, meandering (or riding tractor-pulled carriages) along trails that wind up and down grassy hillsides where sheep and cattle graze contentedly, at least until the snows come. Some of the farms do in fact make a limited amount of cheese and other produce, but they’re primarily for display, photography, and petting zoo purposes; the animals are not shy at all about flocking to visitors in hopes of securing a snack. The ranch is a pleasant environment—not to mention a surefire hit with the kids—but a bit too popular to be truly idyllic.
After feeding Pyeongchang’s animals, visitors have the option of turning the tables. The slender, russet-red cattle that dot the county’s pastures are the source of what is regularly held up as the finest hanwoo (domestic beef) in the country. And the most expensive. Still, there are few places to get it cheaper than at the source, as I discover with a detour to the nearby Daegwallyeong Hanwoo Town for dinner.
The “town” lives up to its name: it’s not a single restaurant but an entire complex of them. Some offer traditional dining in refined surroundings. Or you can opt for a kind of DIY-hybrid experience, selecting cuts of meat at a butcher’s shop and taking them to a more bare-bones, cafeteria-like area where formidably fast servers equip your table with a range of accompaniments (like soy paste and lettuce for wrapping), red-hot coals, a grill, and all the beer or rice wine you can handle (for a small additional fee, of course). I elected for this option, and though it involved work—you have to do the actual cooking and fetch refills of kimchi yourself—it was worth it for the sheer intensity of the atmosphere, something equivalent to a hundred raucous family barbecues crammed into a single space.
The next day, I decided to forego the Olympics completely in favor of Pyeongchang’s more timeless side. And there’s no better place for that than Odaesan (“Five Plains Mountain”) National Park, home to South Korea’s largest natural forest and some of its most treasured religious sites.
About a half-hour’s drive from Alpensia, it feels a world apart from the resort’s more manufactured offerings: a realm of dignified pine and yew trees, rolling mountain vistas, and crystal-clear rivers. Not far from the park entrance is Woljeongsa, the head Buddhist temple for the area, a planet orbited by a number of smaller temples and hermitages accessed by isolated trails. Having been through a restoration and expansion since my last visit, Woljeongsa’s wooden halls burst with color and conveyed an air of prosperity, though they’re not necessarily architecturally distinguished. Pride of place is reserved for the complex’s stunning nine-story stone pagoda, which ascends heavenward in a series of finely carved octagonal layers, looking every bit as graceful as it must have when it was first built some 1,000 years ago.
Woljeongsa is also one of several such sanctuaries in Korea offering “temple stay” programs for visiting foreigners keen to sign up for a night (or more) of monastic-style living. A small visitor’s center staffed by eager ambassadors dispenses information about the experience; the instant I stopped to look over a schedule posted out front, a middle-aged man in layman’s gear bounded out with a broad smile. “You … this weekend?” he said, beckoning me hopefully inside. Seeing that the itinerary included a pre-dawn wakeup for a couple of hours of sitting meditation, I politely shook my head and walked away, resisting the urge to break into a run.
Deeper into the mountains is Sangwonsa, another temple that dates back to the seventh century. Approached by steep stone steps, much of it is built on a massive terrace overlooking the forests and rivers below, giving it the appearance of being suspended in thin air. This, combined with the temple’s relative remoteness, lends it an almost otherworldly serenity. It is also home to a national treasure: a massive yet artfully cast bronze bell that, having been forged around the time of Sangwonsa’s founding, is the oldest surviving example of its type, and a testimony to the ability of early Korean craftsmen to create artifacts that were simultaneously imposing and ethereal. On the sides of the bell, the sublime half-smiles of lute-playing nymphs still stand in sharp relief.
While I might have passed on the temple stay, the day was not entirely without a certain amount of physical and spiritual rigor. Part of the Baekdudaegan, a vast spine of mountains running down the Korean Peninsula, Odaesan is also a popular spot for hikers, and I resolved to tackle what appeared to be a straightforward trek from Sangwonsa to Birobong, the park’s highest peak at 1,563 meters above sea level.
The initial leg of the ascent was soothing. I followed a series of wooden walkways lined with stone lanterns past numerous small temples and shrines. These included Jeokmyolbogung, or “Palace of Nirvana,” which is said to house some of the Buddha’s bones. But the path swiftly turned rockier and steeper, and I found myself questioning whether all the huffing and puffing could possibly be worth it—until I reached the summit and gazed down at nothing but clouds and mountains in all directions.
I rewarded myself for this effort with a meal at Sansumyeongsan, a humble-looking restaurant on the fringes of Odaesan National Park that came highly recommended by plugged-in local friends. Decades old, it’s a family-run spot specializing in set meals that feature locally grown vegetables and herbs plucked from the surrounding mountains. If that sounds slightly austere, rest assured the result was anything but. Within minutes my table groaned under dozens of plates and platters piled high with wild greens and a potent soybean-paste stew; crunchy, slightly bitter deodeok root brushed with red pepper paste; grilled mackerel; and memil jeonbyeong, a buckwheat pancake native to the region stuffed with diced tofu, radish, and bean-sprouts tossed in a spicy sauce. In Seoul, the latter would be considered a delicacy. Here, it’s served almost an afterthought.
Lee Seung-hwan, the owners’ son, not only did the serving, but also was happy to stick around and walk me through the lesser-known dishes. When I remarked that he would make a fine culinary ambassador for any visiting athletes, he beamed merrily—then shared some insights. Like most Pyeongchang-ites, Lee was proud the county would soon be welcoming the world, and he appreciated the support that restaurants in the area were receiving from the local government—including funds for physical improvements, the development of multilingual menus, and on-call interpretation services.
But other “help” seemed to me to be less well advised. Lee showed me some literature from a course local officials had been running to encourage restaurateurs to develop “fusion” dishes for mild-palated foreigners who might not be able to handle “real” Korean cuisine. Looking at the suggested recipes and weighing them mentally against the meal I’d just had, I made Lee swear there and then not to capitulate. So will the Games be a success? “We’ll try our best,” he told me, with a smile that was not entirely free of apprehension.
Beyond Odaesan and its temples, Pyeongchang’s biggest pre-Games claim to fame may be as the birthplace of Lee Hyo-seok (1907–42), arguably Korea’s first great modernist writer. Bongpyeong, Lee’s hometown, is now effectively a shrine to the man and his rural childhood, with an abundance of stylized country houses surrounded by fields of dainty white buckwheat flowers—the very fields that may have inspired Lee’s best-loved work, When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom, a short, poignant tale of love and family bonds.
The town’s centerpiece is a memorial that is somewhere between mock village and museum, with a large outdoor park featuring trails, scenery and sculptures inspired by Lee and his life, and an indoor exhibition space and lecture halls. Even on a short visit (and despite the minimal explanations in languages other than Korean), it’s hard not to be absorbed by the tranquil setting and the tale of Lee’s short, tragic life.
An unrepentant wanderer, he was remarkably cosmopolitan for his time, inspired by Thomas Mann and Anton Chekhov and (so one of the museum attendants whispered to me) known to pursue various French actresses. Yet in his work and in his mind, he always returned here, and now many Koreans strangely nostalgic for a rural idyll they’ve probably never really known, along with international visitors, follow. As with much else in Pyeongchang, the sense of pride and place is palpable, and should ensure that in the years ahead the Olympics are not the county’s only draw, or its sole reason to celebrate.
The high-speed KTX rail line to Pyeongchang is expected to commence operations in December, with stops at Jinbu (for Alpensia) and Gangneung. There are also daily shuttle bus services to Alpensia from Incheon International Airport and several places in central Seoul, for a journey time of three hours. For more information about local transportation, accommodation, and the Winter Olympics schedule, visit Pyeongchang2018.com.
Where to Stay
InterContinental Alpensia Pyeongchang Resort;82-33/339-1225; doubles from US$245
What to See
Where to Eat
Sansumyeongsan Jinbu; 82-33/333-3103
Daegwallyeong Hanwoo Town
This article originally appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Game Changer”).