Explore the Taebaek and Charyeong Mountain regions and discover not just sporting facilities and sport venues, but a collection of ancient temples and sites that reveal the essence of Korea culture and practices
It takes approximately three hours to drive from Incheon Airport to Gangwon province a mountainous and forested area in South Korea renowned for its pristine natural environment. The drive covers 134km and in winter, it is common to see the passing scenery look like an unfinished painting. Much of the canvas remains white, as if waiting for an artist to finish up the drawing. And when the snow starts to melt, the rolling hills still form an amazing panoramic view.
But by the end of 2017, a brand new high-speed rail and the second Yeongdong Expressway should be ready to charter tourists from Incheon to Gangwon Province in just 90 minutes. The transit is specific to Pyeongchang as it is the main event venue for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games (PyeongChang 2018), alongside Gangneung and Jeongseon. These venue cities are filled with breathtaking scenery and various tourist attractions throughout all seasons.
“Winter in Korea often follows a cycle of four extremely cold days, followed by a lull period of three days,” Jenny Oh, our translator and guide for the trip tells us. “I feel so embarrassed that you do not get to experience snowfall these few days.”
The amiable young lady shared a couple facts with me during my three-hour bus journey. Apparently, highway rest stops (where we stopped for lunch) are a huge part of Korean culture, one that is well loved by both tourists and locals alike for its wide selection of food, snacks and sometimes, souvenirs. Expect to find Ddeokbokki (Korean Spicy Rice Cakes), Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken Soup), Jjimdak (Braised Chicken), Juk (Korean Traditional Porridge), Bibimbap (Korean Mixed Rice), Bulgogi (Grilled Marinated Meat) and Sundubujjiegae (Spicy Tofu Stew).
I step out of the bus expecting the weather to be bitterly c old despite the lack of snowfall but it wasn’t. Although it is 3°C, my sweater and scarf are surprisingly sufficient for me to roam comfortably the grounds of Gangneung City. This coastal city is well known for its beautiful beaches and decent bar scene but this trip will focus on the progress for PyeongChang 2018.
Back in May 2016, at the 1,000 days-to-go celebration for the PyeongChang Organising Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG), the signature slogan “Passion. Connected.” was revealed. Both words were chosen to represent PyeongChang 2018 as the stage of a global festival, one where Koreans’ warm unique hospitality and cultural convergence can be felt, and a platform where the country’s cutting-edge technology can be shared with the world. These words are clearly expressed outside the makeshift colourful container boxes that hold key information leading up to the games. A large electronic countdown screen, life-size sport figurines (with a short summary of the sport), 4D motion ride, VR experience and a hands-on Ice Hockey experience are all part of the immersive and educational programme for visitors.
The crowd is a river of people, everyone moving in the same direction. There are only joyful faces as the lot heads into the Gangneung Ice Areana for the short track finals test event— a sporting event that raises the adrenaline of even the audience. The crowd moves not like pebbles in a jar, but like water molecules flowing smoothly past one another, kids grabbing onto their parent’s hands with dear life and friends staying together with fingers entwined. Short track speed skating has its roots in Canada and the United States of America where mass start competitions on an oval track began in 1905. It is a form of competitive ice speed skating and in the race, athletes compete not against the clock, but against each other in the pack.
This introduces the elements of strategy, bravery and skill needed for racing. It is pretty invigorating catching the ‘live’ sporting event, considering the fact that I only just learnt of it minutes ago. Throughout the course of 2017, each sport will hold its test events at the completed competition venues, and sporting aficionados can take the opportunity to explore the Gangwon Province region.
By the end of the test event, night had fallen fast upon the land. Not more than an hour ago, the sky was painted in hues of red, orange and pink but all colours have faded and only a matte black canvas remains. At a distance I spot a cluster of bright shining lights and blankets of snow on the ground. We have arrived at Alpensia Resort, an entertainment destination centre located at a highland 700m above sea level, the optimum height for human health and biorhythm. Alpensia features a main stadium, ecological golf course, world-class ski slopes and ski jump slopes, as well as a couple of accommodation options. I settle into Intercontinental Alpensia Pyeongchang Resort, a 238-room luxury alpine hotel and resort nestled within an Alpine-style village among the unspoilt beauty of the Taebaek Mountains. Tonight, it is silent and the stars have hidden well behind a wall of foreboding clouds.