Far from the madding crowd
My companion and I are tucked inside a gondola lift. We have just passed a sign telling us we’re 850 meters (2,788 feet) above sea level, yet it’s only been a few minutes since we left the base terminal of Mount Balwang, rising 1,458 meters above the ground in Yongpyeong Resort, Asia’s largest ski resort, in Pyeongchang County, Gangwon.
Suddenly, a morning breeze wafts through the gap of our open window; my companion sighs deeply.
A minute after the gondola’s departure, scenic forest unscrolls beneath us like an ink painting. The slopes are starkly steep, reminding us that we are passing over the resort’s most difficult course.
But ever since the county lost its bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games to Russia last year - despite months of government lobbying and overwhelming public support - Pyeongchang seems to have lost its previous vibrancy.
A year after the bad news was announced at the International Olympic Committee’s general assembly meeting, banners that once welcomed IOC inspectors on almost every street corner now carry messages of blame, accusing government authorities of a lack of preparation for the meeting.
A gondola takes 18 minutes to reach the peak of Balwang and the views are imposing.
Few trekkers know about the trails here. The resort gives visitors the choice of three. The Golden Trail, which starts from Birch Hill, is the longest trekking course, ending at Dragon Peak, Mount Balwang’s highest point.
The Silver Trail starts at the entrance of Verde Hill, also ending at Dragon Peak.
For amateur trekkers, the resort also suggests a forest walkway which passes a cozy spring and a path lined on both sides with towers made of hand-piled stones.
The trail is blissful. Shortly after the entrance, a sign encourages you to take your shoes off; the idea is to get an invigorating foot massage as you walk.
Koreans call trails like these “forest bathing houses.” They believe that breathing in the natural air in the forest is a remedy for exhaustion, much like having a long soak in a hot bath.
If all this is too much of a hassle, lazy travelers can exercise the option of taking a leisurely gondola ride.
But summer in Yongpyeong has other delights in store for curious funseekers, too.
In addition to an annual music festival, the Great Mountains Music Festival and School, which takes place every August and ends today this year, there are unique attractions like a spanking new water park and an outdoor snack joint on the bottom of a ski slope, which is open through midnight.
One of the region’s major attractions is two sheep farms near the resort.
Samyang Ranch is a sprawling countryside estate surrounded by Mount Hwangbyeong, a popular backdrop for Korean movies and television dramas.
The other, Daegwallyeong Sheep Farm, is only about one-tenth the size of Samyang.
The difference in size says it all. Samyang is a corporate ranch with over 600 dairy cows producing over 270 tons of milk a day. Sheep are a side livestock here.
Daegwallyeong’s main purpose is as a tourist farm, concentrating on sheep. The size of the ranch is much more intimate; it takes roughly 40 minutes to walk a full circuit.
Yet on a sentimental level, Dae-gwallyeong evokes an experience that’s more harmonious and personal. The sheep are chubbier, look more peaceful and are not afraid of human contact. Even as kids approach the fence and reach out to pat the sheep, they don’t look disturbed; they just continue grazing or dozing under a tree.
In some ways, this seems to encapsulate the spirit of the town. Koreans often describe Gangwon as being tranquil and relaxed. This is not entirely a myth.
During my visit, I dined at a small noodle joint next to a bus terminal in Hoenggye, a small town from which you catch your transit bus to the resort.
Shortly after the peak lunch hour, a group of male workers swarmed into the restaurant and ordered noodles.
The restaurant owner, seemingly unmoved by her boisterous clientele, announced that she would serve vegetable pancakes instead, because they had come in just as she was about to take a nap.
Delicacies here vary from mountain herbs to vegetables like local potatoes. Yongpyeong’s hanwoo, or Korean beef, is also known as the finest of the country’s finest.
You don’t have to hang around outside the meat alleys near the resort for long before you spot the vans of Korean celebrities from Seoul pulling up in the restaurants’ parking lots.
The meat is tender and flavorful, but frankly not as spectacular as the locals claim.
Still, a summer excursion to Yongpyeong is well worth the trip. It’s peaceful, laid-back and the perfect way to avoid the winter hassle of driving through snow.
By Park Soo-mee Staff Reporter [email@example.com]