[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
[b] did not buy futuristic electronic gadgets for cheap
[c] most certainly did not eat dog meat
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 long-term 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.
The opening and closing ceremony is scheduled to be held at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, very close to the Alpensia resort.
If all the cold gets to you, then head for a Korean spa and sauna (locally known as Jjimjilbang). They’re quite common in Seoul city but one place which is close to the Yongpyong resort is Peak Island. This has a temperature regulated pool, and spa and sauna facilities.
For the uninitiated, a Korean bathhouse (Mogyoktang) requires you to shed all your inhibitions and all your clothes. There are separate sections for men and women though. For those not keen on being in their birthday suit, there are other Korean-style sauna rooms (Hanjeungmak) to try out. The sauna rooms are intensely hot (average 70 degrees), dome-like kilns with walls made of stone and plastered with minerals.
* Say Kimchi!
If there’s one thing more ubiquitous than the name ‘Kim’, it’s the side-dish Kimchi, without which no Korean meal is complete. Baechu-kimchi (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!
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!
* 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.
* Wi-Fi is pretty fast, available at most public spaces.