Pyeongchang | Adventure Travel Guide
Pyeongchang is hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics, but it's not just Olympians who should be headed there
The 2018 Olympics in Pyeonchang sees skiers, snowboarders, and other winter sports athletes heading to South Korea, all with dreams of winning an elusive gold medal. Before long, the world will be glued to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but what do you really know about the region hosting the Pyeongchang?
To introduce our new Adventure Destination Of The Month feature, we asked Abi Butcher to give us the local insight, and tell us what Pyeonchang is really like.
South Korea is a quirky and contrasting place. It’s the most connected country in the world — where nearly 100% of households are online enjoying the globe’s fastest internet speeds — and yet one where ancient traditions are simultaneously observed and upheld.
"South Koreans are passionate about skiing and snowboarding, and in most resorts you can stay on the slopes until midnight"
This month it’s hosting the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, in an area that relies heavily on artificial snow and features banal, rather unexciting skiing — yet has four horrendously steep and icy runs (Rainbow One, Two, Three and Four) on which the Olympic downhill events will be help.
While it’s an ordered version of Asia — brand new, big 4X4s are as commonplace on the streets as they are in North America, and skiers and snowboarders are expected to brush the snow off their equipment before walking inside after a day on the slopes — street vendors cook silkworm pupa (see box) and chicken feet and you’re as likely to find accommodation in a temple as you are in hotel.
Why Go To Pyeongchang
There are around 17 ski resorts in South Korea, but it’s those clustered in the Taebaek Mountains in Pyeongchang, two hours’ drive to the north east of Seoul, that are hosting the 2018 Olympics.
South Korea’s biggest ski resort YyongPyong and its neighbour Alpensia, will host the lion’s share of the action, though there are 12 Olympic venues in total, all within a 30 minutes’ drive of one other which makes this one of the most compact Games in Olympic history.
South Koreans are passionate about skiing and snowboarding, and in most resorts you can stay on the slopes until midnight — in sub-zero temperatures. However, given its lack of natural snow, don’t confuse a skiing and snowboarding trip here with one to Japan. Bring your gear to Pyeongchang for a cultural experience, rather than powder.
"While backcountry adventures are virtually impossible in the main ski resorts, the far south-east of Korea is a Mecca for off-piste adventures"
If you’re just passing through, you can hire kit here along with winter clothing, helmets and pretty much anything else you’ll need for the slopes. However, the rental gear is not always the best, and their knowledge of bindings and waxing is slightly questionable
While backcountry adventures are virtually impossible in the main ski resorts (they are fenced off from the rest of the mountain and lacking snow), the volcanic Ulleung Island on the far south-east of Korea is a Mecca for off-piste adventures, receiving around four metres of Japan-style light and cold powder during the winter.
The other region to explore for backcountry adventures in South Korea is Mt. Halla on Jeju Island, the highest mountain in the country (1950m, around 6400ft) and another inactive volcano
But take a bike and you’ll be free to explore the world’s longest and most highly engineered network of car-free paths. The multi-million-dollar bike network currently covers 1,677 miles and will, when finished, extend to 3,106 miles, through forests, down river valleys and over mountain crests. The routes are dotted with guesthouses and eateries to keep cyclists sustained along their way.
You can’t visit Soeul, the capital city of the most connected country in the world, without heading to the Samsung d’Light showrooms — Samsung’s global promotion and exhibition centre.
After that, eat lunch in the bustling Gwangjang market (and try the silkwoom pupa) and then mix it up with a visit the fashionable art spaces, shops, restaurants and cafes of Seongsu — an up-and-coming neighbourhood frequently compared to New York’s Brooklyn.
Learn about South Korea’s history — and present — and put this country into context with a visit to the de-militarised zone (DMZ), 90 minutes north of Seoul. This barren, two-mile strip of land offers startling evidence of the silent war going on between North and South Korea. Crawling with troops, guard posts, tanks, tunnels, missiles, bunkers, gun emplacements and land mines, it’s living history and more than worth the day trip.
Walk down one of the infiltration tunnels that North Korea built to reach the South — and if you hire a local guide they’ll explain how heartbreakingly hard it is for families split by this divide to see each other.
Koreans prefer to lay mats on the floor to sleep, although the more Westernised hotels have rooms with beds. While there are some good four-star hotels in the area, including the Dragon Valley Hotel in YyongPyong and Intercontinental in Alpensia, one of the best ways to experience South Korea properly is with a local family in a homestay, the traditional accommodation option for visitors.
During the Winter Olympics around 900 local PyeongChang families have been accredited to offer “homestays", generating huge income in the area. As a result of this, the Organising Committee PyeongChang Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG) has been awarded the ISO20121, an international standard for minimising the burden on local communities and maximising the benefits.
Thirteen local temples across the Gangwan region have also been opened to accommodate visitors for the Games, staffed with volunteer translators, and around the country South Korea’s Temple Stay programme is gearing up to host increased numbers of tourists — and offer visitors an insight into Korean Buddhism.
Where To Eat In Pyongchang
Base lodges on the slopes are also fairly devoid of character, but they offer an incredible change to the usual ski resort fodder: steaming bowls of noodles or the nation’s unofficial national comfort food bibimbap (mixed rice, vegetables and broth) — tasty, healthy and hearty lunches for around £4 a pop.
"Never lose your plastic hotel key card — hefty fines will result, and you risk upsetting your hosts."
Where To Drink In Pyeonchang
South Koreans aren’t huge on drinking. You shouldn’t try to order alcohol without ordering a side dish (see box) and you have to be seated to drink.
While in Pheonix Park there are several different nighclubs in the basement of its fairly unattractive high-rise hotels, in the country’s largest ski resorts, YyongPyong, nightlife is centred around a food court, arcade games area, huge bowling alley, singing room “fun" and karaoke “square" but the “pub" is a pretty soul-less, brightly lit affair with little character and not somewhere you’ll while away the hours drinking beer after beer.
Local Tips For Pyeonchang
Don’t ever lose your plastic hotel key card — hefty fines will result, and you risk upsetting your hosts.
Take your shoes off when entering a room — that includes hotel rooms, tea rooms, homes, restaurants.
Don’t order alcohol without a side dish of food, and don’t drink standing up.
British Airways flies directly from London Heathrow to Seoul's Incheon Airport (ICN) in just under 11 hours.
Ski Safari offers a combined trip with South Korea and Japan called the Ski Asia Safari, prices from £2195.
Exodus offers a 12-night cultural tour of South Korea including a temple stay from £3995
For more information on visiting Korea, see www.gokorea.co.uk