As Olympics near, things to know about Pyeongchang

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - SPORTS - BY FOSTER KLUG As­so­ci­ated Press

The Olympics are com­ing to one of the most re­mote, ruggedly beau­ti­ful parts of South Korea, an area known for icy winds, a col­lapsed min­ing in­dus­try, tow­er­ing gran­ite moun­tains that blot out the hori­zon and for a tough, proud, rapidly ag­ing pop­u­la­tion as cu­ri­ous about the ap­proach­ing for­eign masses as out­siders are about the place they're head­ing.

With the Olympics just a few weeks away, here are some an­swers to ques­tions about Pyeongchang and the Korean Penin­sula:

Q: Is the Korean Penin­sula safe?

A: Yes, with a half-cen­tury-old caveat.

South Korea is one of the safest places in the world to live and visit. Peo­ple reg­u­larly leave their cell­phones and bags on restau­rant ta­bles when they go to the re­strooms.

But it's also an easy drive to the edge of an in­cred­i­bly hos­tile, and nu­clear-armed, North Korea. Since U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has be­gun match­ing the over-the-top rhetoric North Korea has al­ways fa­vored, there have been wor­ries over the pos­si­bil­ity of war. South Kore­ans, used to decades of threats about turn­ing Seoul into a "sea of fire," are still fairly non­cha­lant about the North. The pres­ence of 28,500 U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel and a mas­sive amount of U.S. and South Korean fire­power aimed at North Korea helps. North Korea's dic­ta­tor­ship val­ues its ex­is­tence above all things, and knows that it could not win a war with South Korea and its U.S. ally. This has tem­pered the threat since the Korean War ended in 1953.

Do peo­ple speak English?

Not many.

But the gov­ern­ment has paid for English lessons for some peo­ple in the ser­vice in­dus­try; there will be trans­la­tion apps and English-speak­ing vol­un­teers; phone hot­lines are avail­able. Adding to th­ese ef­forts will be South Kore­ans' nat­u­ral hos­pi­tal­ity and cu­rios­ity.

Where, ex­actly, am I go­ing?

To a lovely, frigid land of moun­tains, streams and clean air. But also to a more tem­per­ate, coastal re­gion known for its seafood and beach.

The Olympics are ac­tu­ally be­ing held in three ar­eas: Pyeongchang, known for moun­tains and win­ter sports; Jeongseon, a bluecol­lar former min­ing re­gion; and Gangne­ung, the big­gest of the three Olympic towns by far and a bustling port and va­ca­tion area along the Sea of Ja­pan, known here as the East Sea. To­gether they take up South Korea's north­east corner, not far from the bor­der with the North. The in­land ar­eas have al­ways been iso­lated, and while sec­tions have been re­vamped for the Olympics and the coastal ar­eas are well de­vel­oped, many places are proudly as they've al­ways been, which is to say they have lit­tle in com­mon with the sky­scraper glitz and "Gang­nam Style" glam­our of Seoul.

That, for many Kore­ans who visit, is the point.

What can I eat?

Korean cui­sine is some of the world's best, a daily joy to ex­plore.

Spicy, pun­gent kim­chi; thick fer­mented soups filled with meat so ten­der it falls off the bone; bar­be­cued ev­ery­thing; all of it washed down with ubiq­ui­tous soju liquor. While food op­tions here aren't as wide as in Seoul, there are lo­cal del­i­ca­cies, in­clud­ing dried pol­lack (fish), in stews and grilled; grilled and mar­i­nated pork and squid; tofu; riced steamed with moun­tain herbs and some of the coun­try's best beef.

What's the weather like?

Bun­dle up.

Gang­won Province is one of the coun­try's cold­est places. The wind is bru­tal, and the sta­dium for the night­time open­ing and clos­ing cer­e­monies is open air and has no heat­ing sys­tem. Lo­cals make it a mat­ter of pride not to com­plain about daily wintertime life, but vis­i­tors risk mis­ery if they're un­pre­pared.

How will I get around?

Just in time for the games, high-speed trains will whisk peo­ple from

Seoul and the In­cheon air­port to the area in about an hour, com­pared to three hours or more by car. Also avail­able: more taxis than usual, 150 free in­ter-city buses and shut­tle buses that con­nect with ma­jor ho­tels and the lo­cal air­port. Of­fi­cials hope to re­duce traf­fic by re­strict­ing lo­cals' car us­age. Out­siders driv­ing in can choose from seven park­ing lots near the Olympic venues, then take free shut­tles to sta­di­ums.

What else is there to do in Pyeongchang and South Korea?

Pyeongchang County is fa­mous for win­ter sports, with plenty of area ski rental shops. Just driv­ing among the mas­sive gran­ite peaks and frozen streams can be breath­tak­ing. For scenic views, try Odae­san Na­tional Park and the Wol­jeongsa Bud­dhist tem­ple, which of­fers overnight stays. You can hike Mount Seon­jaryeong and visit sheep ranches in the moun­tain town of Daeg­wal­lyeong.

Jeongseon, with one Olympic venue, the down­hill ski­ing course, has the coun­try's only casino where Kore­ans may gam­ble — Gang­won Land.

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