Pyeongchang in South Korea is set to bask in the global limelight when it hosts the 2018 Winter Olympics. But for those with a taste for temples and mountains, the region makes for a beguiling destination year-round.
NEVER HEARD OF PYEONGCHANG? YOU WILL: THE LITTLEKNOWN 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.
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 “Pyeongchang” 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 township 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),
Above: Regional fare—including fiery kimchi—at the family-run Sansumyeongsan restaurant. Opposite, from left: A view over Alpensia from the observation deck of the resort’s ski jump tower; a monk’s shoes outside Woljeongsa Temple.