In South Korea, history meets the neon haze of city life. Now, after winning the 2018 Winter Games bid, its snowy slopes are also in focus
SO, I: [a] did not meet Kim Jong-Un (for all the people who asked me whether I would, he’s in a different country). The only Kim I met was Moonjoon Kim, our guide, though he did tell me that if I threw a stone up in the air in South Korea, it would fall on some Kim or the other
HOWEVER, ON my recent media trip to Seoul, South Korea, I did knock back several soju bottles and consumed the most delectable sausages off roadside eateries. Soju is arguably the most popular alcoholic drink in South Korea (and in Delhi’s Paharganj, if you know where to go!) and is consumed neat. Makgeolli, a milky rice wine, is also quite popular though its alcohol content is lower. There’s actually a wide variety of traditionally made grain liquor in Korea to choose from. But before I give the impression of having experienced the country through a soju-induced haze, let me introduce you to Pyeongchang.
If you haven’t heard of the place before, you will very soon. Located in Gangwon province, a couple of hours drive from Seoul city, Pyeongchang will host the 2018 Winter Olympics as well as the Paralympics. And the Yongpyong Ski Resort in Pyeongchang will be one of the key venues where a number of snow sports such as alpine skiing, bobsleigh (teams of two or four in a sled) and luge (single or two members per sled) will be held.
Yongpyong has 31 gorgeous snow-draped slopes to choose from and 15 ski lifts. The resort, also known as Dragon Valley, has an impressive choice of deluxe accommodation but during peak winter, it can be difficult to get a room as it is hugely popular with foreigners and locals alike.
Thankfully I went in end-February, so despite the temperature hovering around minus nine, the coldest days were over, which was great relief for a Bengali man such as yours truly. Even better was the fact that the resort rooms were heated using the Ondol technique – a form of underfloor heating mechanism in Korea which traditionally used hot air from a fireplace, usually located in the kitchen, and spread the heat via passageways under the floor. This helped the rooms stay nice and toasty.
A shot at skiing was naturally in order, the slopes were just two minutes away from the hotel. And so one morning, I trudged along like a zombie towards the slopes. The resort offers all the equipment that you need for skiing. You can either rent it or buy it off retail outlets, all within walking distance of Dragon Valley. Once I was ready with the equipment and looking like a disoriented yeti in my skiing jacket and blades, I hit the slopes. There are plenty of instructors on the spot to teach you the basics. If you’re looking for proper longterm courses, those are available too. Also worth checking out is the Alpensia ski resort, which is quite close to Yongpyong. Alpensia will be a primary draw for those who want to catch all the ski-jumping action during the Olympics. In
ski-jumps, participants ski down at high speed and jump off a ramp overhanging the slope. Alpensia has some impressive slopes made for ski-jumps, including one which, I was told, was 125 metres high. I didn’t bother with what exactly that number meant in the context of the sport since anything which entails a 125-metre value is probably not for me anyway.
Seoul city has lots of places to check out too. If you’re pressed for time though, then the National Folk Museum and the Gyeongbok Palace are a must-visit. The museum was originally established in 1945 as the National Museum of Ethnology and reopened as the National Folk Museum of Korea in 1993. It has three permanent exhibition halls depicting the history of the Korean people, the Korean way of life and Korean life cycles respectively. The first hall primarily showcases aspects from Korea’s Three Kingdom period (they were Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla). The other two halls show different facets of Korean society during arguably its most influential time in history – the Joseon period, pegged between 1392 and 1910. One major highlight of the Joseon period was the deep-seated following of Confucianism, especially by the middle and higher classes. It’s said that one of the codes of Confucianism propagated the segregation of men and women from as young an age as seven (Mr Kim replied in the negative to a query by another tourist about whether it had anything to do with the 7-year itch!).
Even the residential complexes had separate chambers for males and females. This logic would seem to fit right in if you do a recce of the Gyeongbok Palace where the quarters of the king and queen are separated as well. The palace though, remains a major example of Japan’s aggression of the time: it saw multiple invasions by Japanese forces between 1592 and 1598. And in 1895 the queen, Empress Myeongseong, was assassinated by Japanese agents. Mr Kim gave much of this historical context even as he punctuated his sentences with a shake of his head and the phrase, “Very bad Japanese.”
Tons of cheap eateries dot Seoul’s streets. If you’re a carnivore then be sure to sink your canines into galbi (marinated pork or beef ribs), ginseng chicken soup and bibimbap (a rice-based dish of Buddhist origin). Speaking of Buddhist dishes, another fascinating experience has got to be savouring Buddhist temple-style cuisine.
Sanchon, a very popular restaurant in the Insadong district, offers set menus of temple food. True to custom, the floors are ondolheated and there are only low-rise tables. Established around 1981, the owner is a genial monk named Jungsan.
The story goes that at the age of 15, Jungsan entered a Buddhist temple and enjoyed the fare on offer. But he was shocked to learn that there were no preserved records about Buddhist food. Subsequently, in 1981, he opened Sanchon to promote authentic Buddhist fare. Wild herbs, roots and shoots of various kinds, acorn from the hills – it’s all part of some dish or the other here. Of course, there’s a staggering array of kimchi on offer too. While you’re eating, sip on some song cha – it roughly translates to pine tea but it is actually a kind of alcohol, with a nice gingery flavour.
If you’re in the Insadong neighbourhood, exploring the area’s numerous tearooms is a good idea. Most will have a wide range of tea to choose from and usually, there’s some complimentary sweet that comes along with the tea. Take your pick between daechu cha (made from jujube), saenggang cha (made from ginger root), maesil cha (from Korean plum) and other varieties I couldn’t get hold of the translations of !
(This trip was sponsored by Korea Tourism Organisation)
QUICK TRAVEL FACTS
Korean Air and Asiana are the two major carriers, with direct flights from a number of destinations around the world – they fly from Mumbai and New Delhi. Incheon International Airport is the biggest airport in Korea and serves as the main gateway for most international travellers. It’s about an hour or so away from Seoul city.
Official currency is Korean won. One US dollar is roughly equivalent to 1,200 won and one rupee equals about 17 won. A Coke can cost roughly 1,500 won.
If there’s one thing more ubiquitous than the name ‘Kim’, it’s the side-dish Kimchi, without which no Korean meal is complete. Baechukimchi (made with whole white cabbage) is apparently the most popular. In fact, most Koreans own two refrigerators: one for daily use, and one specially designed for kimchi. These kimchi-customised fridges are manufactured by many brands, notably LG and Samsung.
The fleshy roots of the ginseng plant are said to have numerous health benefits. Our guide, Mr Kim, swore that the smooth skin of Korean women, even when they grow old(er), can be directly attributed to ginseng. Each root is cultivated at pre-approved and carefully graded farms. An ideal harvest for high-grade ginseng can only happen in the sixth year of plantation. No wonder it’s incredibly expensive!