ODAESAN NATIONAL PARK IS A REALM OF DIGNIFIED PINE AND YEW TREES, ROLLING MOUNTAIN VISTAS, AND CRYSTALCLEAR RIVERS
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.
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.