Thursday, February 08, 2018

The Ask a Korean! Winter Olympics Travel Guide

PyeongChang Winter Olympics officially opens tomorrow. If you happen to be visiting Korea for the Olympics, let the Korean take you around. Like my last attempt at a travel guide, this is not a collection of "best of"s or "must see"s; it is just a number of things I would suggest if we were friends. If that sounds good, off we go.

Before We Go

Let's go over some super basics. This is where we are going:

We will be hanging out in Gangwon Province, the mountainous eastern seaboard region of Korea. It is not far from Seoul (less than two hours on a high speed train,) but it will feel very different from Seoul. Gangwon has beautiful nature (both mountains and the ocean!) and interesting food that draws from fresh ingredients. Oh, and it will be really, really cold. PyeongChang Olympics may end up being the coldest Winter Olympics ever, with single digit temperature throughout the Games. But don't worry--there is plenty on this trip to make up for the cold weather.

To get in the mood, I'd suggest watching a few Korean movies set in Gangwon, perhaps on the plane ride to Korea. Welcome to Dongmakgol [웰컴 투 동막골], set in a remote, isolated village in Gangwon, features a relevant topic: reconciliation with North Korea. For a movie featuring the stark and striking beauty of Gangwon in winter, I recommend End of Winter [철원기행].

You will likely land in Incheon Airport west of Seoul. (If you want to check out the sights in Seoul, you can take a look at my previous travel suggestions that include a 3-day itinerary for Seoul.) There is a high speed train going directly from the airport to the Olympic sites. The roads are also straight and smooth should you choose to take a bus or drive. On the way there, you can listen to some classic Korean pop music about the winter. My favorite is The Winter Sea [겨울 바다]. At the Ski Resort [스키장에서] is also solid if you want something more upbeat.

Now that we are in the mood, we will get going. Gangwon can be roughly divided into two parts: west and east of the Taebaek Mountain range. PyeongChang is in the west, nestled within the jagged mountain range. But much of the Games (usually involving skating and indoor activities) will also be in Gangneung, a port city on the other side of the mountains. (They are about a 30 minute drive from each other.) Both sides of Gangwon have something different to offer, so do visit both cities at a minimum.

(More after the jump.)

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Near PyeongChang

PyeongChang is a mountain hamlet just south of Odaesan National Park [오대산 국립공원], a gorgeous mountain with ancient Buddhist temples. Driving up toward the mountain, the first temple one meets is Woljeongsa [월정사], "the Temple of the Moon Spirit." You would come to the temple after taking a brief hike through a forest of fir trees.

Woljeongsa and its Nine Story Pagoda
Founded in 643 A.D., the temple went through several rounds of destruction, most recent one of which was during the Korean War in 1951. But the striking nine-story pagoda that stands in the middle of the modern reconstruction is the Goryeo Dynasty original from the 11th century.

Further up the mountain (you can drive up further or hike about 5.5 miles) is Sangwonsa [상원사], established in 705 A.D. The "Temple of High Completeness" is the home to Korea's oldest bronze bell, built in 725 A.D. Sangwonsa is fairly close to the Odaesan mountain peak: only 2.2 miles away from the temple. A leisurely 1.5 hour hike each way would get your body temperature up, with a nice view from the top as a bonus.

After exercising, it's time to eat. In my view, the most distinctive and underrated component of Korean cuisine is vegetables. The lack of options for cooked vegetables in America drives me nuts, because Koreans are not about throwing together raw vegetables and pretend it's food by calling it "salad." Koreans eat thousands of vegetables cooked in all kinds of ways: grilled, fermented, pickled, tossed, or all of the foregoing in different orders. Because different Korean regions grow different vegetables, the vegetable dishes are the ones that really show off the regionality in Korean cuisine. 

And you could do worse for vegetables than the interior parts of Gangwon Province, where people have subsisted on vegetables by necessity because rice hardly grows in the mountains. Visit Buil Sikdang [부일식당] (Gangwon-do Pyeongchang-gun Jinbu-myeon Jinbujungang-ro 98), located in a village on the foot of the Odaesan mountain, just outside of the National Park to the south. And please, eat your vegetables.

Mountain Vegetables at Buil Sikdang
While you're on the interior side of Gangwon Province, you should also try dishes made of buckwheat, the grain of choice for the mountainous region that cannot grow rice (which requires flat land and lots of water.) Gangwon makes all kinds of food with buckwheat--noodles, jelly, pancakes, dumplings. A good place to try them all is Maemilkkot Pilmuryeop [메밀꽃 필무렵] (Gangwon-do Pyeongchang-gun Bongpyeong-myeon Yi Hyoseok-gil 33-13), a short drive away from the Olympic Village. 

The restaurant is named after a short novel by Yi Hyo-seok [이효석], When the Buckwheat Flowers Bloom, considered the finest naturalist work in Korean literature. (The short story is available in English, thanks to the great people at Korean Literature in Translation. It is worth your time.) The restaurant is right near Yi's birth house and a cultural village, which you can check out if you're interested in Korean literature.

Other places to eat:

Napjak Sikdang [납작식당]. Gangwon-do Pyeongchang-gun Daegwanryeong-myeon Daegwanryeong-ro 113.  Walkable from the Olympic Plaza, this restaurant is known to be the inventor of another Gangwon Province specialty, osam bulgogi [오삼불고기]--a spicy mix of grilled squid and pork belly.

Yongpyeong Hoegwan [용평회관].  Gangwon-do Pyeongchang-gun Daegwanryeong-myeon Hoenggye 2-gil 15.  Come on, did you really think I'd leave you without Korean barbecue while you are in Korea? The mountainous Gangwon Province is also home to Korea's finest beef. The sugar-and-soy-sauce marinaded slop is not the thing to get here, although it is available if you really want it. Instead, go for the thinly sliced brisket, lightly grilled and dabbed in sauce. Finish it up with some hot soup made with homemade doenjang [된장, soy bean paste].

Near Gangneung

Gangneung (pronounced "Gah-ng Nung"), located a 30 minute drive east from PyeongChang, is a different kind of town. It is not a large town by any definition, but compared to a mountain hamlet that is PyeongChang, Gangneung may as well be a metropolis. As a longtime resort destination, Gangneung boasts a beautiful white sand beach with clear blue water, dotted with evergreen pine trees. So what if the water is so cold you'd probably die within minutes of jumping in? There are plenty of history, sights and food to enjoy.

Near the city center there are two of the best preserved Korean traditional mansions: Ojukheon [오죽헌] and Seongyojang [선교장]. Ojukheon, the "Black Bamboo Villa," is the birth place of Yi Yi [이이], one of the foremost Confucian scholars during the Joseon Dynasty. How foremost was Yi? Both Yi and his mother Sin Saimdang [신사임당], who is also considered the apex of Confucian womanly virtue, appear on the modern Korean money. (Check out your KRW 5,000 and 50,000 bills.) Seongyojang, "the Boat Bridge Mansion," is widely considered the most immaculately preserved traditional Korean homes.

Ojukheon during winter. The namesake black bamboo forest is visible in the background.

Randomly, Gangneung also has the world's largest collection of Thomas Edison's gramophones. Chamsori Gramophone & Edison Science Museum [참소리 축음기 & 에디슨 과학 박물관], Gangwon-do Gangneung-si Gyeongpo-ro 393, holds more than 5,000 pieces of Edison's gramophones and other inventions, which amounts to more than one-third of all Edison's inventions.

Time to eat! You're by the ocean, so you must try the seafood. There are hundreds of seafood restaurants along the beach, but if you can get a seat, Yeongjin Hoetjip [영진횟집] (Gangwon-do Gangneung-si Yeongok-myeon Haean-ro 1427) is the place where you can get the sashimi of the delicious local black porgy (called gamseongdom [감성돔] in Korean.) Korea's eastern seaboard is also where all the squids in Korea come from. If you fly into Korea at night, you can see the incredibly bright lights of the squid boats in the East Sea all the way from the sky. Make sure to try some, either raw or cooked.

Unless you grew up in an East Asian country, chances are you've never had freshly made tofu. Trust me on this--freshly made tofu is the greatest, most delicious thing in the world. So don't miss out your chance here: Gangneung is the home to Korea's best freshly made tofu, because a proper tofu requires seawater to make. For the best one in town, visit Chodang Halmeoni Sundubu [초당할머니순두부], Gangwon-do Gangneung-si Chodangsundubu-gil 77.

Terarosa Coffee House
Either before or after a meal, do not miss the chance to have coffee in Gangneung. Gone are the days when the only decent coffee (I use the term loosely) in Korea came from Starbucks. Coffee in Korea today is legitimately very, very good, and Gangneung--the seaside resort where hipsters gather--is one of the cultural centers for coffee in Korea. Visit Bohemian Roasters, Crema Costa, or Terarosa; you can't go wrong with any one of them.

Elsewhere in Gangwon Province

From Gangneung, you can drive up and down the coastline for stunningly beautiful scenery. Drive north from Gangneung to visit Naksansa [낙산사], the "Temple of the Falling Mountain." Built on the seaside cliff, the 52-feet tall statue of Haesu Gwaneumsang [해수관음상, the "Ocean Boddhisattva"] that looks out into the sea will be an image you will keep in your mind long after you leave Korea.

Drive even further north to the Goseong [고성], the northernmost city of South Korea. Visit the beautiful Hwajinpo [화진포] beach, a quiet, isolated beach (a rarity in Korea!) that also has the former summer home of Kim Il-sung, the granddaddy of the current North Korean dictator. Hwajinpo briefly belonged to North Korea from 1948 to 1953, and the Kim family used the villa to vacation. It is now a museum.

Drive all the way north along the beach until you can't go anymore. There, you would run into the Goseong Unification Observatory [고성 통일전망대]. Although there are several Unification Observatories along the DMZ, the one near Goseong is the farthest north you can go in South Korea. At the Observatory, you can look over the DMZ and straight into North Korea, as well as the rail tracks and roads that used to carry millions of South Korean tourists into North Korea less than 20 years ago.

On the way back west toward Seoul, you can try hitting the northern part of the Gangwon interior, straight north from PyeongChang. Chuncheon [춘천] is a gorgeous "City of Lakes," known for their dakgalbi [닭갈비, chicken barbecue] and makguksu [막국수, buckwheat noodles]. For dakgalbi, visit Wonjo Sutbul Dakbulgogi [원조숯불닭불고기] (Gangwon-do Chuncheon-si Nakwon-gil 28-4) or Useong Dakgalbi [우성닭갈비] (Gangwon-do Chuncheon-si Human-ro 81). For makguksu, visit Yupori Makguksu [유포리막국수] (Gangwon-do Chuncheon-si Sinbuk-eup Maekguk 2-gil 123) or Nambu Makguksu [남부 막국수] (Gangwon-do Chuncheon-si Chuncheon-ro 81-gil 16).

Straight north from Chuncheon is Cheolwon [철원], another significant location in the inter-Korean relations. Here, you can visit The Second Tunnel [제2땅굴], one of the numerous tunnels that North Korea dug underneath the DMZ through which to send spies and the military. There is also the old Korea Workers' Party Headquarters [조선노동당사], a stark shell of a building that used to house the local North Korean government. 

Hope you enjoyed the trip.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I heard doenjang jjigae was good in this area, or rather, folks from this area prefer it over other dishes. c/d?

    1. Not sure about doenjang jjigae, but I've been to Gangneung and the surroundings so many times, and I've noticed squid 오징어 is the most "venerated" thing there. So, I'd suggest anything with squid. Also Sundooboo (is this how your spell 순두부 in English?) is very very popular, and I've been to this one very nice 순두부 restaurant which offered rich fish food side dishes. And I love fish, so for me that was heaven.

  2. I have wondered for years about the apparent Korean obsession with cylinder phonographs and Morning Glory Horns. They show up in a surprising number of dramas, usually in the homes of the ultra rich. There were several rare, unusual machines in Bridal Mask in the homes or offices of Japanese elite. I'm not sure that the Edison Museum explains this, but it does verify that Edison's phonographs are big in Korea. I notice these, BTW, because many years ago I had an business in NYC repairing and restoring vintage phonographs. A curious intersection of interests!

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