What is PyeongChang, South Korea like?
A story of picturesque views, gondola rides and spider bites
|Fantastic views in the Fall from the top of the mountain at Phoenix Snow Park, PyeongChang, 2013.|
|Olympic prep and advertising was ongoing, even in 2013. Woot woot!|
The Olympics will soon begin in PyeongChang, South Korea bringing the global media spotlight to Korea for a month. I made a trip to PyeongChang in September 2013, when preparations for the Olympics were already underway. My impression of PyeongChang from my brief trip there is likely a typical refrain as a foreigner venturing outside the big cities in Korea: Delicious food, friendly and helpful people in the town, beautiful clean air, gorgeous natural scenery, traditional buildings and.... MASSIVE SPIDERS. MASSIVE. SPIDERS.
Korean Spiders: Demons of the countryside
The hype for the Olympics has brought memories from PyeongChang to the front of my mind, including an unfortunate encounter with a Korean spider. I'm from New Jersey so I've only grown up squishing the occasional, non-menacing daddy-long-legs. In Korea, especially in the spring and summer, exotic looking black and yellow spiders pop up all over the place. (Google "Korea banana spider" if you aren't afraid of them like me). This PyeongChang spider wasn't a banana spider and I'm too freaked out to Google "massive nightmare-inducing countryside spider Korea" so just use your imagination in this story:
After hours of travel by bus, I was eager to get to our accommodation and shower. The owner of the pension had picked us up from the bus station. (Apart from the spider encounter - unavoidable in the countryside - I would give this accommodation 10/10). We stayed at the Mayfair Walden Star Pension. (Scroll down if you don't care about spiders & are asking "What is a pension?" to read more about the Mayfair Walden). Once in our room, I turned the shower on, undressed, put my bare feet inside the bathroom slippers, when I suddenly felt SHARP PAIN on my toe. I must have been stung by a bee?! I screamed and kicked the slipper. One of the biggest spiders I had ever seen scurried out from within and positioned itself in the corner of the room. It was too fat to fit through any crack in the floor and would have to use the same door I did to escape. Its legs were long and reminded me of a miniature version of a scalp massager, you know what I mean? (<-- for those who hate spiders like me, this is not a picture of a spider it's a head massager ^^).
I yelped and cursed in the bathroom, adrenaline rushing and inarticulate. My boyfriend at the time thought I was joking or just shouting nonsense because I was being so hysterical and the din from the running water softened my outburst. When he saw the spider even he was shocked but jumped to action. This next part will sound like a lie but I swear it is true:
He took out a lighter. Grabbed a bottle of hairspray. Lit the flame and sprayed hairspray into it. He lit the spider on fire. He lit the spider on fire. I will never forget how its entire body spasmed on the floor and then slumped motionless when the flame stopped. He picked it up with toiler paper and flushed it away. I stared at him, toe throbbing and dumbfounded. "Was that really your first inclination? Is this a Korean thing? In America we just smash them."
Let's look at some details of what happened in those chaotic seconds:
1). The spider was big enough to visibly twitch and spasm when it was lit on fire. I have NEVER seen that in my life before or since. (As I write this I subconsciously feel my toe throb and skin crawl on my legs. Ah!) Also, being naked just made it worse - I felt totally vulnerable! My toe throbbed for hours afterward and was red and swollen. It even hurt to put shoes on. After a day it was fine. During that time I washed my toes like crazy despite the discomfort. Nasty-ass bugs! (Still waiting for Spiderman powers to emerge).
2). Let's note that both the lighter and hairspray were not mine, but belonged to my then boyfriend who smoked and was inarguably more stylish than me. (One of the cultural oddities to me at the time was routinely asking him "Should I leave the straightener on?" as we got ready to go out together).
What is a Korean Pension? Our Pension in PyeongChang:
|Is there anything better than Korean BBQ in a pension outside the city? This is the Mayfair Walden Star Pension.|
|Loved this rustic, beautiful pension. This is one of many houses where you can stay.|
|This pension projected music videos all afternoon and a movie in the evening onto the side of one of their buildings, making it easy for everyone to enjoy while eating on the outdoor patio.|
|Little pension puppy begging for food. He belonged to the owners and was only a few months old!|
|Getting ready for BBQ on the patio and having flashbacks to the spider bite, no doubt.|
|Puppies make everything better!|
I have been using the word "pension" a lot in this post. (Look here at #10 for another description of pensions). For those that don't know, a pension is a kind of accommodation in Korea. The pensions I've stayed at in Korea have been charmingly decorated and reminded me of staying in B&Bs. However I think pension accommodations can be larger and provide more comfort and services than a B&B. I've been to pensions that range in size but generally I would say they may have 20-50 rooms for rent. To me the biggest difference between a pension and a hotel is the design. The rooms are spread out, typically not contained in one rectangular building that we would call a hotel. For example our PyeongChang pension was a rustic collection of multiple wooden houses, and each house had a certain number of rooms for rent inside. Each room had a private bathroom, kitchen area, living room area, and sleeping area. Along with additional communal living rooms, there was also a communal patio area where you could reserve tables for outdoor BBQ and mingle with other guests.
I always preferred staying in pensions because they were a refreshing contrast to my tiny Seoul apartment. Most Koreans live in urban settings, in apartment buildings that look identical to each other. Pensions are an escape from the monotony of Korean apartment complexes. This pension in PyeongChang felt like a summer camp for adults!
What to do in PyeongChang: Phoenix Park
PyeongChang is known as a winter destination in Korea but it was beautiful and warm in the early fall as well. The highlight of the trip for me was going to Phoenix Park. While this is a popular ski and snowboard destination in the winter, it transforms into a hub for other outdoor activities in the non-snowy months. You can still ride the gondola to the top of the mountain. At the summit, there is a restaurant and cafe with an outdoor balcony which provides beautiful views. They have a "photo zone" with cute characters surrounding a swing to sit on and take photos. There was also a petting zoo with goats and sheep. It's a massive, well-known resort in PyeongChang. (Take a look at some events that will take place at Phoenix Park during the Olympics!).
|After the gondola ride, at the summit of Taegisan Mountain in Phoenix Park.|
|Petting zoo on top of the mountain at Phoenix Park.|
After taking the gondola back down the mountain, there were other activities at ground level including zip lining (!) and bike riding. There's an official Phoenix Park 5-Star Hotel, as well as a hostel on the premises. A grocery store, noraebang, spa, multiple restaurants, and other amenities made it such that you could spend your entire PyeongChang trip at Phoenix Park if you wanted to. Without a car, we essentially made a few trips into the town to get groceries, spent a day at Phoenix Park, and spent the rest of the days relaxing at the pension and enjoying the outdoors.
I would love to re-visit PyeongChang after the Olympics and see how the area has changed. Korea has invested so much money into the area, even opening a new KTX route from Incheon Airport to PyeongChang in less than 2 hours. It's interesting that despite the price tag and economic losses, countries still vie for the opportunity to host the Olympics. For example it's kind of baffling that Korea is tearing down the $100 million dollar stadium they built for the opening and closing ceremonies soon after the Olympics finish. Hopefully Korea can find some way to repurpose the other arenas they built. I remember visiting the World Cup Stadium on Jeju Island and being surprised that a movie theater had been constructed under the stands! A small but imaginative way for locals to get greater use out of the stadium. Hopefully Korea has some more creative ideas like this up their sleeve so PyeongChang doesn't turn into an Olympic graveyard. Opening ceremonies are Friday, February 9th at 6:00 AM EST and I will definitely be watching! 평창 2018!