Preparing for the Olympics
On my very first day as an EPIK employee, on my very first bus ride out to the east coast of Gangwon Province, I heard about the Olympics. We made a pit stop in Pyeongchang County, and our provincial coordinator proudly announced that this sparsely-populated stretch of mountain region would be hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Let it be clear so that no one flubs it like Mr. Sapit, who accidentally wound up in North Korea en route to a United Nations conference: Pyeongchang is a small town in Gangwon Province, South Korea. Pyeongyang is the capital of North Korea.
Since my first day, the Olympic fervor has only increased. It became even more prevalent when I moved to Gangneung, where many of the facilities intended for the games are being built. In Gangneung City Hall, right next to the live camera footage of Dokdo, is a countdown clock announcing how many days remain until the start of the Games. At the time of this post, that number is 725.
There’s also a countdown clock outside of the HomePlus shopping center in downtown Gangneung, and several signs and monuments around Gangneung and Pyeongchang, just in case you didn’t know what was going to happen. Sometimes I get a little annoyed hearing about it all the time, but I also think it’s cool to see the way a city prepares to host a major international sporting event.
Above: the countdown clock in Gangneung City Hall, Olympic rings by Gyeongpo Beach, and murals under a bridge in Hoenggye, Pyeongchang Province.
With such large plans, it’s obvious that some parts of the city would change. There are more stadiums, for starters. Two of the skating rinks are going up on the southwest edge of Gyeongpo Lake, and other facilities are being built around Gwandong Catholic University.
Above: the projected design for one of the speed skating facilities. Below: Another speed-skating rink, as seen from Gyeongpo Lake.
For that matter, I see more luxury hotels along the beachfront. When I arrived, the shining white Seamarq (sic) hotel was just being completed.
Now another one—the Skybay—is underway. The plans for it, which are posted outside the construction site, look pretty... unique.
Prospective future travelers. But where did all the Koreans go?
There are other parts of Gangeung that have changed a lot even since my arrival in Korea, when I would come to the city on a day trip out of Donghae. Many pieces of “old Korea” around town have started to disappear, to be replaced with shiny new facilities like makeup shops and cafés. And while locals and expats alike celebrate the new, a little part of me mourns the passing of the old.
In my first year, when I went to the Dano Festival with my co-teacher and his family, we passed through an alley between some shops and the train tracks, which were elevated above the pedestrian level on a concrete wall. The market was narrow, cramped, and dark, and covered with tarp. People were shouting, food was prepared under suspicious conditions, and there was a general vibe of chaos. At the same time, I found it charming. It hearkened back to a time when all restaurants were little shacks like these, run by regular people who remembered your face. Over half of this area has been cleared out, and the feel of the place is very different now.
Luckily, I’ve managed to take pictures at some of these locations before they were destroyed. Other images in this post were taken from the street view mode on Naver Maps, a Korea-based search engine. According to the time stamp in the corner of the images, these are from October of 2014, and have yet to be updated as of this post.
The old street market downtown, before:
Just down the road, the street by Pogyodang-gwaneum-sa (포교당관음사), a temple in downtown Gangneung, has opened up, and the buildings next to it are gone. Here it is then:
And this is now:
The biggest change in the downtown area, which has greatly impacted the look of the neighborhood, is the absence of train tracks. This is the street outside HomePlus. Before:
The Gangneung Train Station doesn’t exist anymore, but it’s still a bus stop and point of reference in town. I have a feeling they’ll be rebuilding it as they work on the Seoul-Gangneung train line, which looks like it will cut through Pyeongchang. As a result, the countryside is changing, too.
Tunnels under construction between Bongpyeong and Jangpyeong, Pyeongchang County.
In the midst of all these changes, one thing is certain: Korea is going to look quite different once 2018 rolls around.
I can’t say how the country will pull off its role as an international host during the Olympics. I don’t know how the locals will respond to the sudden influx of short-term foreign guests—or how those visitors will respond to the locals. Maybe Korea will become more open to different cultures, or perhaps things will go back to the way they were once the last guest has left. Yongpyeong Ski Resort in Pyeongchang County hosted the Korean National Winter Sports Festival last February as a sort of trial run for 2018. The people in Gangwon Province seem to be taking a lot of time and care in their preparations.
During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, I was thinking of Pyeongchang. Sochi’s facilities were lampooned with an embarrassing amount of glee by the media upon its arrival in Russia. Some of the complaints were downright childish, and yet conditions in Russia are similar to those of Korea. Plumbing in both areas often isn’t strong enough to process toilet paper, so most people throw used toilet paper in a wastebasket. Some places don’t have clean tap water. Moreover, this isn’t unique to Korea or Russia. I hope the international media feels at least a small amount of shame for having come down with such scorn upon a nation where life is just a little different. With any luck, they’ll be in a better mood in two years.
As always seems to be the case with these international events, the big question is what the community will do with these facilities after the Olympics end. The train line, at least, will remain, which should be good for Gangneung’s tourism industry. I wonder if it will build itself up to the status of bigger Korean cities like Busan or Daegu.
In the midst of plans, promos, budget cuts and trial tours, there’s one implication that I have trouble shaking. These changes around Gangneung and Pyeongchang seem to suggest that a local culture can’t be valued by international visitors unless it has morphed itself to meet international (and vaguely acultural) styles. As much as Korea’s quirks and strange workplace rituals frustrate me, the feeling results from my poor compatibility with Korean society rather than Korea’s lack of civility. In living where I have, I’ve seen a part of the country that most of the world has never known—and, I’m afraid, may never know again.
An image of the old street market in downtown Gangneung.