GAME CHANGER

DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Jonathan Hopfner

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.

BY JONATHAN HOPFNER PHO­TOGRAPHS BY ROBERT KOEHLER

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