DestinAsian - - GAME CHANGER -

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 Pyeongchang. 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 luteplay­ing 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 multi- lin­gual 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 Buck

wheat 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.

Clock­wise from right: Memil jeon­byeong (buck­wheat crepes) are a re­gional spe­cialty; a room at the In­terCon­ti­nen­tal Alpen­sia Pyeongchang Re­sort; an­other view of Sang­wonsa Tem­ple.

Sang­wonsa Tem­ple.

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