Why Gangwon-do is a Region to Remember
Pack your biggest bags for the host province of the 2018 Winter Olympics, a wonderland of tall peaks, ski resorts and lively food markets.
Nami Island often teems with tourists, but a walk down its dreamy Metasequoia Lane dispels the worst of crabbiness. Photo by ©tawatchai prakobkit/Alamy.indiapictures.
Three hours east of the capital, Seoul, lies the northeastern province of Gangwon-do, where Koreans go for a taste of the mountains, the snow, the beach, and all else that nourishes the soul. Pyeongchang, one of its counties, is the main venue for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
There is no bad time to visit this region, where 82 per cent of the land is thickly wooded. One autumnal morning, in the lake city of Chuncheon, I see couples step into canoes at the Mullegil waterway, laughing as they paddle straight into the vegetation. They soon disappear along the Uiamho Lake. My guide tells me summer draws hikers to the Taebaek mountains, which stretches along the eastern boundary of North and South Korea. Come winter and the province is carpeted by snow. Ski resorts like Alpensia and Yongpyong in Pyeongchang county are dotted with skiers and snowboarders throwing up powder well past midnight.
The northern boundary of Gangwon-do meets the Demilitarized Zone, the buffer area around the border between North and South Korea, also the world’s most heavily armed border. Observatories, museums, and war sites in Gangwon-do are popular attractions for history buffs.
Our little cable car rising over the pointy ribs of Seoraksan National Park is utterly silent. Below, red pine, oak, and Korean maple carpet the hills as far as my eye can see. Streams cut through the green swathe like bolts of lightning in this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a four-hour-drive from Seoul. Not far in the distance, says my guide, there are hot springs and hermitages. Giant waterfalls curve over the bizarre rock formations, and red panda, musk deer, Asian black bear roam these 400 square kilometres. I hear chanting in the distance, and learn that these mountains also hold two beautiful temples, Sinheung-sa and Baekdam-sa from the Silla era, both built in the seventh century.
A 20-minute uphill hike takes me to the ruins of the 13th-century fortress Gwongeumseong, at a height of 2,200 feet. Daecheongbong Peak, Seoraksan’s highest at 5,604 feet, isn’t visible from this point; I see a row of cross-legged hikers gazing at nine other peaks jutting out beyond, oblivious to scores of selfie-takers.
Leap of Faith
Looking down the sheer drop of the 322-foot-long ski jump from the top at the Olympic venue of Alpensia Ski Resort, I can almost feel 13,500 people who will be in the stands below in February, holding their breath. To my left is the 394-foot jump, and around me are six ski slopes, which annually see thousands of skiers and snowboarders from Seoul and beyond.
But not this year. Construction is in full swing around Alpensia. Hotels, supermarkets, and restaurants selling pizza and soju are springing up. “I am proud to see this in my lifetime,” says Choi Il Hong, manager of Alpensia Business Division. “We lost the bid to host the games twice, and it hurt a lot. This means a lot to us South Koreans,” she says with a hint of pride (www.alpensiaresort.co.kr, www.pyeongchang2018.com).
Sea of Shelves
Seoraksan National Park is in the port town of Sokcho, whose Sokcho Tourist and Fishery Market is a local favourite. It is a curry of different smells, sights and sounds. Slightly bent uncles carrying fish-filled plastic bags jostle among stalls of dried stingray, octopus, and snails. Hawk-eyed grannies patrol around tables of orange snow crabs. Octopuses unfurl their tentacles in glass water tanks; crabs elbow each other in an enclosure nearby. Sea smells mingle with aromas of pickles and waft in the air. Bargaining with ajummas (Korean for aunties) here is an art, and everyone gives it an earnest shot. One of my companions, Kate, points to the squid. “We keep it really simple,” she says, “boil it, add vinegar and pepper powder, and roast it; or simply dip it in gochujang, our traditional red, sweet-and-spicy fermented paste of soybean and chilli, and it’s ready.
I learnt it from my mother,” she grins.
It is sacrilege to leave Sokcho without trying Dakjeon Golmok’s dakgangjeong (sweet and sour chicken). Patiently queue up at the shop to be rewarded with glazy pieces of chopped chicken deep fried in sweet-and-sour sauce and sprinkled with crushed peanuts.
“Here in Korea,” says the cook at the Jeonggangwon culture centre, “we believe that touch makes or breaks the dish.” She is gently mixing some cooked ingredients in a large wooden bowl with her hands: rice, mushrooms, eggplant, cabbage, zucchini, radish, carrots, egg, and gosari (bracken fern). Some sesame oil and a dollop of gochujang paste seem satisfactory to her.
Bibimpap, a Korean classic, has as many variations as there are cooks. Some contain beef, and are cooked in stone pots until the rice forms a toasty crust, but every combination is a fresh, filling affair. It is comfort food.
Jeonggangwon tries to preserve Korea’s culinary heritage, teaching visitors traditional dishes like kimchi, mackerel ssamjang, and the region’s signature tofu made with beans crushed on a millstone. Outside, hundreds of ceramic pots are being sunned to ferment the kimchi and soy sauce within. The compound has guesthouses nestled in traditional wood-framed homes called hanoks, green walking trails, and fountains suffuse the land with warmth (www.jeonggangwon.com).
For more feels, head to the Daegwallyeong’s Sheep Farm. Children run amok along grasslands, halting only when it’s time to feed the fat sheep. Hop on the bus that takes visitors farther into the ranch, to a stretch full of windmills (skyranch.co.kr).
To explore more of South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympics, read our guide here.
After a 10-minute ride, the ferry from Gapyeong Wharf in Chuncheon city comes to a halt. The second we touch the shore, a wee girl spreads her arms and runs towards the gates of Nami Island. It seems right out of a Korean drama, and I think she knows.
I follow her to the dreamy lane of metasequoia trees beyond, now immortalised in the hit 2002 Korean show, Winter Sonata. It is far lovelier in person. It is easy to imagine how mist floats amid its bare branches in winter, or how sunshine-yellow leaves rustle along the gingko tree lane in autumn.
Every corner of the 4,60,000 square metres of Nami is thoughtfully curated. Naminara Hotel, where I spend the night, seems to be hewn from the woods surrounding it. My room has a distinctly hanok-like feel to it, and has a library with poignant children’s books. I reread one based in Jeju Island (South Korea’s largest). Magma Boy tells the life stories of the Jeju haenyeo (female divers). Some of them well into their 80s, they don wetsuits, hold their breath, and dive almost 33 feet down the East China Sea to harvest seaweed or shellfish. The haenyeo are known for the distinctive sound they make as they resurface, as the cycle continues for hours each day. I spend hours poring over other books, each curated to give the guest a deeper, diverse look into South Korean life.
I walk around Nami late into the night, not caring where I end up. There are dirt pathways and rows of maple, zelcova, ginkgo, cherry, and silver birch trees, where silence feels fragile. The morning after, I trace the same paths and find so much more: geese frolicking in waterholes, wooden bridges arching over ponds surrounded by droopy willows. At every green bend there are little wooden sheds, which on a closer look I discover are free libraries. A rambling walk takes me to a spot with a massive sculpture of a woman nursing her children: a homage to how the rivers Yangtze and Yellow nourish China. Nearby are coy metal sculptures of the lead actors of Winter Sonata, a popular photo spot for travellers. I pass women manually mowing grass in Nami’s gardens, and walk into a gallery that displays playful works of a Chinese clay-doll artist. For an idyllic place, Nami has a lot going on—a ceramic studio, an eco ‘school’, stores, cafés, even an annual children’s book festival.
I leave Nami with a shot of adrenaline. I join a queue full of couples and come down the zip line stretched along the Han River, right into the island. My eyes fixate on a statue of a mermaid partly submerged near the shallow end of the waters. The rare ruddy kingfisher found in Nami might be in flight somewhere over this shockingly green patch of land. Nami is compact and quiet, and a world unto itself (namisum.com).