The Olympics are happening in one of the most remote, ruggedly beautiful parts of South Korea, an area known for icy winds, a collapsed mining industry, towering granite mountains that blot out the horizon and for a tough, proud, rapidly aging population as curious about the approaching foreign masses as outsiders are about the place they’re heading.
Here are some answers to questions about Pyeongchang and the Korean Peninsula:
Q: Is the Korean Peninsula safe?
A: Yes, with a half-century-old caveat.
South Korea is one of the safest places in the world to live and visit. People regularly leave their cellphones and bags on restaurant tables when they go to the restrooms.
But it’s also an easy drive to the edge of an incredibly hostile, and nuclear-armed, North Korea. Since U.S. President Donald Trump has begun matching the over-the-top rhetoric North Korea has always favored, there have been worries over the possibility of war. South Koreans, used to decades of threats about turning Seoul into a “sea of fire,” are still fairly nonchalant about the North. The presence of 28,500 U.S. military personnel and a massive amount of U.S. and South Korean firepower aimed at North Korea helps. North Korea’s dictatorship values its existence above all things, and knows that it could not win a war with South Korea and its U.S. ally. This has tempered the threat since the Korean War ended in 1953.
Q: Do people speak English?
A: Not many.
But the government has paid for English lessons for some people in the service industry; there will be translation apps and English-speaking volunteers; phone hotlines are available. Adding to these efforts will be South Koreans’ natural hospitality and curiosity.
Q: Where, exactly, am I going?
A: To a lovely, frigid land of mountains, streams and clean air. But also to a more temperate, coastal region known for its seafood and beach.
The Olympics are actually being held in three areas: Pyeongchang, known for mountains and winter sports; Jeongseon, a blue-collar former mining region; and Gangneung, the biggest of the three Olympic towns by far and a bustling port and vacation area along the Sea of Japan, known here as the East Sea. Together they take up South Korea’s northeast corner, not far from the border with the North. The inland areas have always been isolated, and while sections have been revamped for the Olympics and the coastal areas are well developed, many places are proudly as they’ve always been, which is to say they have little in common with the skyscraper glitz and “Gangnam Style” glamour of Seoul.
That, for many Koreans who visit, is the point.
Q: What can I eat?
A: Korean cuisine is some of the world’s best, a daily joy to explore.
Spicy, pungent kimchi; thick fermented soups filled with meat so tender it falls off the bone; barbecued everything; all of it washed down with ubiquitous soju liquor. While food options here aren’t as wide as in Seoul, there are local delicacies, including dried pollack (fish), in stews and grilled; grilled and marinated pork and squid; tofu; riced steamed with mountain herbs and some of the country’s best beef.
Q: What’s the weather like?
A: Bundle up.
Gangwon Province is one of the country’s coldest places. The wind is brutal, and the stadium for the nighttime opening and closing ceremonies is open air and has no heating system. Locals make it a matter of pride not to complain about daily wintertime life, but visitors risk misery if they’re unprepared.
Q: How will I get around?
A: Just in time for the games, high-speed trains will whisk people from Seoul and the Incheon airport to the area in about an hour, compared to three hours or more by car. Also available: more taxis than usual, 150 free inter-city buses and shuttle buses that connect with major hotels and the local airport. Officials hope to reduce traffic by restricting locals’ car usage. Outsiders driving in can choose from seven parking lots near the Olympic venues, then take free shuttles to stadiums.
Q: What else is there to do in Pyeongchang and South Korea?
A: Pyeongchang County is famous for winter sports, with plenty of area ski rental shops. Just driving among the massive granite peaks and frozen streams can be breathtaking. For scenic views, try Odaesan National Park and the Woljeongsa Buddhist temple, which offers overnight stays. You can hike Mount Seonjaryeong and visit sheep ranches in the mountain town of Daegwallyeong.
Jeongseon, with one Olympic venue, the downhill skiing course, has the country’s only casino where Koreans may gamble — Gangwon Land. You can pedal “rail bikes” amid the mountains at the Jeongseon Railbike Park, an abandoned coalmining railway track, or walk over a cliffside see-through floor at the Jeongseon Ski Walk on Mount Beyongbangsan.
Gangneung has the vibrant Sacheon and Gyodong districts near the city’s famous Gyeongpo Beach and hosts five Olympic venues handling skating, curling and hockey. The Ojukheon House and Municipal Museum is a well-preserved 16th-century Joseon Kingdom-era house. And Jeongdongjin Sunrise Park arguably provides South Korea’s best mainland sunrise view.
Seoul offers shopping and nightlife in Gangnam south of the Han River. In the north there are Namdaemun’s open air markets and several royal palaces and gardens. A short drive away is the Demilitarized Zone, where soldiers glare at each other across the border, the South Koreans through mirrored sunglasses, as tourists gawk. The always odd mix of Cold War tension and modern tourist trap (the southern side has a Popeyes and amusement park) has gotten stranger since the recent defection of a North Korean soldier. He’s recovering from being shot five times by his former comrades during a dash across the line.
—As Olympics approach, things to know about Pyeongchang. With the Olympics just a few weeks away, here are some answers to questions about Pyeongchang and the Korean Peninsula. Also, the Korean cuisine is some of the world’s best, a daily joy to explore.