This year, the Winter Olympics coincided with our Chinese New Year break. Now, I’ll fully admit that the Olympics isn’t the top of my list “must-do in life” list, but I do think the whole idea of being able to say “I vacationed at the Winter Olympics in Korea” is pretty cool. So, when my friend asked me at the time if it would be something to consider, I agreed. Now, we were coming over from Harbin where I had been super cold the majority of the time…I was relieved that I didn’t need all of the layers I was using days previously when we arrived in Gangneung (via a flight from Harbin into Incheon and a ride on the Korail train to Gangneung). The moment we left the station in Gangneung to meet our AirBnB host (information to follow because he was awesome) I was relieved at the pleasant temperatures (which I find a tad sad since the temps were still in the 30s and 40s [Fahrenheit]).
We were whisked away in our host’s van to the adorable cabin (sorry, I’m a slacker and never took a picture of it), skipping the long taxi queue. It was dark at the time so I was not able to see the beautiful nature that we passed on the 45-minute drive.
The next morning, we woke up early for our ride back into the city to the Gangneung Olympic Park. Our first event (we went to three in all) was a medal event for the Men’s Figure Skating, a super hot ticket this year. I had tried for over a month trying to secure the two tickets for us. In fact, it was only the day before we left on the grand trip that I was able to find the two tickets. Yes, the event was the most expensive ticket, but come on—it was a medal event. I’ve been watching those medal ceremonies for years and was finally going to be able to see one in person. The entrance to the Park was packed, and you could totally feel the buzz of excitement as we walked to the arena. We found our seats (quiet snug) and waited for the skaters to take the ice.
Learning moment: For those who have never been to an ice skating final event, let me explain (the best I can) a little bit about how it goes. They take all the skaters and arrange them into four sessions, with 15-minute intermissions in between. The first group that skates are the men that scored the lowest in the first round, held a few days before. The final group is comprised of the higher scoring men. It’s a long event (like at least a couple of hours). Plus, I am not sure how the judges score. I get that the more complicated moves get more points. But I still think if a skater’s hand touches the ice or he falls, he should not get a score higher than a skater who skates a near perfect routine even if it’s not as filled with those complicated moves. Just saying.
I tried my best to pay attention. But I couldn’t take it. Finally, after the second session, I got up during intermission to go to the restroom and walk a little. I walked around that whole arena looking for the shortest bathroom line. It was impossible to find. So, I just picked a line and decided to spend the whole third session not watching figure skating. As soon as I finished in the bathroom, I went to one of the stores inside of the arena…then went to the larger store outside the arena (but still within the venue area)…followed by finding some food. I returned to my seat just as the third session was wrapping up.
The fourth session was exciting. I had heard about two Japanese skaters that were quite popular. The moment they took the ice, the stands became a sea of Japanese flags. It was pretty overwhelming and cool to see. After the session, the scores determined the gold, silver, and bronze medal winners. This was it! The moment I had wanted to see. The reason I spent so much money on the bloody ticket. THE MEDAL CEREMONY.
Unfortunately, the Pyeongchang Olympic Committee decided to try something different this year with the medals. Instead of giving medals directly after the event, they handout a stuffed animal (the mascot) and the medal winners take pictures and wave at the crowd and press. At the end of each day, there’s a medal event at the Pyeongchang Olympic Village area for all of the medal winners of the day. So, yeah. Thanks, POC, for trying something new this year.
After my disappointment of not seeing a medal ceremony, we hoofed it to the curling center to see a round robin of the men’s curling. It was the cheapest ticket but offered quite a lot to see. It was a short event, but it was nice that it kept my interest. I could even follow the sport and understand the point system. Plus, allow me to mention the eight teams of men showing off those arm muscles! And the best part of this event was that we were sitting closest to where the Korea team was curling. It almost made up for the lack of the medal ceremony at the previous event.
That afternoon, after curling, we spend the time walking around the Gangneung Olympic Village. We even went to the huge shopping center…which was a 45-minute wait to enter. When we finally reached inside, it was every man for him/herself. Chaos. And items were not stocked well. That was just the first tent. The second tent where you paid for your items was just as chaotic. It was not a place I wanted to revisit. Soon, our ride came and we went back to the cabin.
Now, I am a HUGE k-drama fan. I’m convinced that one day the actor Kim WooBin will realize he loves me. I also like GongYoo. What does this have to do with the Olympics? Great question. One of my all-time favorite K-dramas had a couple of very important scenes filmed in Gangneung. I was not going to leave the town before checking out the spot. Before arriving, I had arranged with our AirBnB host a short trip to the spot. He knew exactly where I was talking about. So, that morning, we woke up and I was taken to the dock that juts out into the water where Ji EunTak, wearing the iconic red scarf, gives buckwheat flowers to Kim Shin after summoning him in “Goblin: The Great and Lonely God”. No, I’m not obsessed.
I popped out of the van the moment we pulled up to the dock. I dashed through the sand to go to the end of the dock, where our fabulous host and I proceeded to have a photo shoot. It was truly an awesome moment and just one of the highlights of this trip.
Once we were finished letting me have my moment, we took the
train to the Pyeongchang Olympic Village where the torch was located. This area was much larger than the Gangnueng Olympic Village. We didn’t have to purchase tickets to enter since we had event tickets later that day so we walked in to admire the row of all the country flags. Next, we were headed for the torch when I got distracted by the G-Dragon sign (he sings for the KPop band, Big Bang). We took a quick detour to get the information about that particular pop-up experience before continuing our stroll to the torch
(I was told we could go back). It was windy that morning so the torch wasn’t exactly blazing like you see on TV, but we still got to see part of it.
Once again, though, I was distracted by the intoxicating aroma of a Korean pancake. I placed an order and it was amazing. Inside was some seed paste mixture (I was told later on that it was nuts, which I usually hate, but not in this delightful treat) that oozed once you bit into the fluffy pastry dough. As you can tell, it was one of my favorite parts of this Olympic experience.
One of the other pop-up experiences offered in the village was an interactive light gallery. We walked through a hallway where it looked like raindrops of lights were falling from the sky into another room with slow moving lasers. It was an interesting pop-up, but it was time for the pop-up I was promised we’d return to.
The entertainment pop-up offered VR opportunities to sky and snowboard, photo shoots with KPop and K-drama stars. But the best part of this pop-up was the hologram concerts with singers and bands…including G-Dragon! My travel companion was super kind and understanding in recognizing that I had to go to the “concert”. I felt like he was there singing a few of his hits. It was so fun! I’m sure I stood out as being the only westerner in the room singing along, but ask me if I cared (I didn’t). It almost made up for not seeing the medal ceremony the day before.
Before returning to Gangneung we went to the actual town of Pyeongchang where the Phoenix Snow Park hosted the snowboarding and some of the skiing events. What was interesting (or at least I found interesting) was that there were tons of signs accusing the Olympic Committee of murder. Now, it wasn’t actually killing of people they were accused of murdering, but the killing of businesses. Months before the actual start of the Olympics, the Committee came in and closed the snow park to prepare for the event. The snow park is the source of income for the majority of the businesses there as it is a ski/snowboarding town. Most of the events weren’t even held in the small town of Pyeongchang. It’s disappointing that news of this sort of thing isn’t well known and that such an amazing opportunity for athletes can cause such disruption in the average family’s life. Anyway, no events were happening at the park so no one was allowed to enter, so we headed back to Gangneung to hang out before the night’s event we were attending (hockey).
Back at Gangneung, we had some dinner from the McDonald’s pop-up restaurant (a blow-up tent). Next, we shopped at the North Face pop-up, which was tiny but much better managed than the huge event store. We also got to put a huge coin into an even bigger Coke vending machine to get some free cans of Coke (plus we won a couple of tote bags).
My favorite pop-up at Gangneung had to be the Team Korea House. Inside, I was able to dress up in a traditional Korean hanbok; mine was a hanbok a queen would wear (of course). Tea was being served and medals were displayed. I was even able to become a KPop dancer to one of Big Bang’s songs (“Fantastic Baby”). Side note: For all that watched my “dance”, you’re welcome for that bit of entertainment.
Our event that night was hockey, Korea vs. Canada. Now, I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t take a lot of thought to know who would win that game. But I wasn’t going because I was interested in the sport. I’ll admit, I like the fights of hockey games, but that’s about all I can follow in the game. We went to this one because my co-traveller liked hockey and wouldn’t mind watching the Canadian players, while I would not mind watching the Korean players. There was a good mixture of fans from both sides. I cheered with the Korean family sitting next to me, even though I knew it was pointless. Our seats were amazing, a few rows up from the glass. The highlight of the evening was when one of the players got three teeth knocked out. Personally, I admit, I was hoping for a few more bang up moments, but nope; all men were basically well behaved. So disappointing.
That concluded our Olympic time. Overall, though I’m pretty sure I’m not the best Olympic event spectator, I would probably go to another Olympic event, especially so I could gain entry into the different Olympic Villages to enjoy the various pop-ups and food.
AirBnB Host in Gangneung: Hyeonbuk-myeon, YangYang