JEONGSEON, South Korea: “It’ll take one and a half hours to climb up and down the mountain, max,” our guide, Angela, assured us with confidence.
Three hours later, we were still huffing and puffing up the jagged fringe of Mindungsan. “Almost there!” Angela called out cheerily, pausing to wait for us for the umpteenth time. The steep ravine to our left, a tangle of trees, fallen debris and terrifyingly empty space, was a warning not to falter no matter how tired we get.
It seemed like everyone else is going in the opposite direction. A Catholic nun we first saw at the rest stop around the halfway point bounded past us so fast her black tunic flew behind her. She was already making her way down after visiting the peak, which was nowhere in sight from where we were standing. An elderly couple, supported by a pair of hiking sticks each, sped past us soon after, talking and laughing merrily.
South Koreans, we learned, hike a lot.
With a country that is about 80 per cent mountain, it is a national past time of sorts. Angela’s parents, for instance, are both about 70 years old and go hiking every weekend. They even camp out overnight in the mountains almost monthly, she told us.
But during winter, the mountains are blanketed in snow. Gangwon province (or Gangwon-do as it is known locally), has some of the chilliest temperatures in South Korea and the sleepy towns see a surge in traffic around December to March when ski lodges are booked full.
As we tottered along the rock and leaf-strewn path up Mindungsan in late October, the air was already turning cooler, to about 15°C in the afternoon. The breezy weather made the physical exertion bearable, as did the picturesque views that greeted us at every turn.
The mountain, about 1.18km high, was our last stop in Jeongseon – one of three host cities in the province for next February’s Winter Olympics.
Mindungsan means “bare mountain” in Korean, owing to the fact that its summit is almost devoid of trees with an unobstructed view of the fluffy “silver grass”, or eulalia, that blooms across the peak every autumn.
The sight is so well-loved, there is a festival dedicated to it every year around September to October. The Mindungsan Mountain Eulalia Festival features music concerts, photo exhibitions, food stalls and contests where participants sing Arirang, the famous Korean folk song originating from Jeongseon.
Along our trail, the fuzzy, silver-beige grasses finally appeared at around the four-hour mark – in small patches at first, breaking the monotony of the red, green and gold background that accompanied us for most of our hike.
Then all of a sudden, they were everywhere.
Amid the surreal, almost wintry surroundings, we celebrated making it to the top with a refreshing drink of makgeolli (a milky Korean rice wine) in paper cups.
The journey up Mindungsan is well worth it, especially during eulalia blooming season. Just be mindful to budget more time than local estimates if you’re not a seasoned hiker. The sun sets by about 5pm in autumn, so if you’re not careful you might (as we did) find yourself edging down the slope by torchlight – an exciting but somewhat dangerous proposition.
Address: 12, Mindungsan-ro, Jeongseon-gun, Gangwon-do
Operating hours: Always open
OTHER ACTIVITIES IN GANGWON-DO
The main stage for the 2018 Winter Olympics will be Pyeongchang – the opening and closing ceremonies and most of the snow sports will be held there. Meanwhile, alpine speed events will take place in Jeongseon and ice sports will be in Gangneung.
My group visited all three cities before the snowfall started, to chase the scents and sights of autumn.
A far cry from Seoul, with its neon lights and bustling shopping streets, the province is best known for its clean air and fresh produce. Pyeongchang and Jeongseon are nestled inland among the mountains, while Gangneung, along the coast, boasts dramatic cliffs and seaside cafes.
They are accessible by bus, train or car, and are about a two- to three-hour drive from the capital city. A high-speed rail is also being built for the Winter Olympics and is scheduled to open in December, which is expected to cut the travel time from Seoul to Pyeongchang to less than two hours.
Aside from hiking, the host cities of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have plenty of activities to offer. Here are some of them.
Pyeongchang: Daegwallyeong Sky Ranch
This massive ranch – 900 million sq m in size – has a history of more than 40 years but has only been open to the public for three.
Started in 1974 by Hanil Cement, it produces about 1,400 tons of milk every year and has hundreds of cows which graze freely. The eco-friendly ranch only opened to the public in 2014, and most of the land has been kept in its natural state, with tourist facilities confined to a small area.
Visitors can run around with fluffy sheep, learn how to ride horses or take a wagon powered by a tractor to the top of the pasture, where there is a sweeping view of peaceful meadows lined with giant windmills. It is a breathtaking sight and one I absolutely recommend.
Daegwallyeong Sky Ranch
Address: 458-23, Kkotbadyangji-gil, Pyeongchang-gun, Gangwon-do
Entrance: Adults – 6,000 won (S$7.50) / Children – 5,000 won
Operating hours: April to September – 9am to 6pm / October to March – 9am to 5.30pm
Gangneung: Jeongdong-simgok Badabuchae-gil Trail
Formerly a patrol route for the military, the 2.86km-long Jeongdong-simgok Badabuchae-gil Trail between the Jeongdong and Simgok harbours was previously a restricted area. It opened to the public in June.
The rocks along the coastal terrace, which appear in the shape of a wide-open fan (buchae in Korean), are protected as a natural monument in South Korea. Pebbles line the sides of the walking trail, some stacked in conical towers; a local superstition is that if you wish upon a stone and add it to the pile your wish will come true.
It’s a pleasant walk of one or two hours, accompanied by the sea breeze and the sound of crashing waves.
Jeongdong-simgok Badabuchae-gil Trail
Address: Jeongdong entrance near Sun Cruise Resort & Yacht 950-39, Heonhwa-ro, Gangdong-myeon, Gangneung, Gangwon-do
OR Simgok entrance at 135-2, Simgok-ri, Gangdong-myeon, Gangneung, Gangwon-do
Entrance: Adults – 3,000 won / Teenagers aged 13 to 18 – 2,500 won / Children aged seven to 12 – 2,000 won
Operating hours: April to August – 9am to 5.30pm / October to March 9am to 4.30pm
Jeongseon: Rail Bike
Can’t cycle? No worries, this biking activity requires no steering or sense of balance.
The 7.2km railway was built in the 1960s to service the coal mining industry but was abandoned as the industry declined. In 2005, it reopened as a biking track.
You can choose between a two- or four-seater vehicle, so this is more of a team sport than a solo activity. The route is a continuous descent and takes slightly more than an hour at a leisurely pace, which allows you to soak in the attractive scenery.
Along the way, we passed by clear streams, fields of crops and crimson-topped mountains. The tunnels were also an immersive spectacle of light and music.
At the end of the trail, there is a small cluster of somewhat kitschy shops, including a cafe in the shape of two large fish. From there, there is a free open-air train to return to the starting point – a fun and scenic journey that only takes 15 minutes.
Jeongseon Rail Bike
Address: 745, Nochusan-ro, Yeoryang-myeon, Jeongseon-gun, Gangwon-do
Entrance: Two-seater bike – 25,000 won / Four-seater bike – 35,000 won
Ride timings: March to October – 8.40am, 10.30am, 1pm, 2.50pm, 4.40pm / November to December – 8.40am, 10.30am, 1pm, 2.50pm
We spent four days in Gangwon-do, but it was hardly enough to pack in all the possible activities there. For those craving more than shopping and eating on their trip to South Korea, the province – off the well-trodden path of Seoul, Busan and Jeju Island – is a refreshing alternative.
All visuals by Melissa Zhu. This trip was made possible by the Korea Tourism Organization.