Winter's silver lining in Korea

by Josh Foreman and Shelley DeWees
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

Trudging through slush and darkness to toil for 10 hours before walking home again in the dark, you might wonder: “Should I go on living? Is this living?” You are spoiling slowly, freezing but not preserved. And this will last another two months.

But there is good news for you. Not far from your urban winter cave, there is a place where the sun shines over serene forest, towering mountains and frozen waterfalls, all blanketed in the purest, whitest snow. That place is Outside Seoul.

Groove Korea has teamed up with the newly launched Photographers in Korea magazine and some of the peninsula’s finest photographers to share these pristine scenes from outside of the city, which are some of the most rewarding winter travel destinations in the country. Feel the sun on your face, the crisp air against your skin and once again think, “Perhaps there is some point to this after all.”

Bundang

While “Bundang” isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think “vacation,” the Gyeonggi Province satellite city’s shopping, restaurants, parks and general orderliness make it a great day trip from Seoul.

Start at Bundang Central Park, an expansive green space (or in this season, white space) in the center of the city. There are walking paths around a pond in the middle of the park, pictured here. Keep an eye peeled for rabbits — Bundang residents have let pet bunnies go over the years and seeing one or more is a common occurrence in the park.

Bundang is one of the richest areas in Korea, and boasts some of the best shopping in the country. AK Plaza is another de facto city center, with dozens of restaurants surrounding it. A few hours at the sauna is a great way to cap off a trip to Bundang. Try Amigo Tower Spa, just outside Yatap Station, exit 3.

GETTING THERE
Take the Bundang Line to Jeongja Station or the 16-minute express train from Gangnam Station to Jeongja Station.

Byeongsan Seowon (Andong)

Korea’s emphasis on education goes back hundreds of years to a time when private schools became centers of learning during the Joseon period. A prime example is Byeongsan Seowon, which was built in the 1500s and operated on Confucian principles until the 1800s. The complex, composed of several traditional buildings and gates, is bordered by Byeong Mountain on one side and the Nakdong River on the other. You can continue the history tour in Andong, the nearest town, which is known as a folk center and the most important site in the country for Confucian thought. The pop.-167,000 town has its own version of bibimbap called “heotjesabap,” made with soy sauce instead of gochujang.

GETTING THERE
Trains from Seoul Station run once daily and take five hours.

Seoraksan National Park (Sokcho)

Seoraksan National Park is well known for its warm-season trekking and spectacular fall foliage. But it’s also spectacularly beautiful when snow-covered in winter, especially amid the serene silence of the low season. If you’re the adventurous type, you can still hike or climb Seorak’s mountains in the winter. You’ll need the proper equipment for some areas of the park, but there are still plenty of trails that require no more than warm clothes and sturdy boots.

Sokcho, on the east coast, is the nearest large city and is worth a visit year-round. Sit and contemplate the vastness of the sea while indulging in one of Korea’s heartiest and most unique dishes: squid sausage. They aren’t really sausages, of course, but hollowed-out squids stuffed with rice, tofu, onions, carrots and egg.

GETTING THERE
Buses run frequently from Dong Seoul Terminal to Sokcho. The trip takes about three hours.

Pyeongchang

Get the jump on the pros and visit the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics. If you love winter sports, there’s no better place to go than here. It’s near Seoraksan National Park, but the focus here is on skiing and snowboarding rather than trekking and climbing.

Alpensia, the massive complex that will host some of the events in 2018, has six hills for skiing and snowboarding, one for sledding and a ski-jump tower. There’s also a luxury hotel on the premises with a spa and casino, and a contrasting 400-year-old Buddhist temple in the area called Woljeongsa.

GETTING THERE
Take a bus from Dong Seoul Terminal. The trip takes around three hours. A high-speed railway is being built that will take Seoulites to the area in under an hour, but it won’t open until 2017.

Hwacheon

The rivers of this northern county support a population of “sancheoneo,” a very special, very picky trout that can only be found in the cleanest, coldest waters of the mountains. Each year over a million visitors descend on Hwacheon to catch a few of these tasty critters with their own bare hands — a jaw-clenching five minutes of hell made worse by the required shorts and T-shirts — or, for those looking to stay warm, with a regular pole and lure. Afterwards you can step up to one of the barbecues, throw your fresh fishy on the charcoal and savor the sunlight at the annual Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival this January, one of Korea’s biggest winter parties.

GETTING THERE
The Gyeongchun Line from Sangbong Station goes to Chuncheon, and from there it’s a windy but beautiful 45-minute bus ride to Hwacheon. Buses run every 30 minutes.

Maisan

Those looking to venture out during these otherwise nondescript months need only turn their toes toward Maisan, a bizarre double-point mountain with stellar views and twisted laws of physics: Bowls of water left outside will reach for the sky and freeze in a spike.

Maisan’s odd charms make for a unique winter hiking destination, but it’s not for the faint-hearted; temperatures in rural North Jeolla Province plunge deeper than most places in Korea, usually hovering right around minus-3 degrees Celsius in the daytime. Getting here is a bit tricky, too, but your hardiness will be rewarded when you gaze upon the vacant alien landscape with nothing to bother you but the wind and the promise of a bowl of sanchae (mountain vegetable) bibimbap. Bring napkins.

GETTING THERE
Take the KTX to Jeonju then a bus to Jinan (they depart every 10 minutes). In Jinan you can stock up on kimbap before grabbing one of the many buses headed to Maisan Provincial Park, a 10-minute ride.

Hallasan (Jeju)

With January temperatures averaging a comfortable 8 degrees Celsius here, there’s no reason to think of Jeju as a summer-only destination. Take a trek up the highest mountain in Korea while the rest of the country shivers with their soju. The path to the top is open all year long except in the very worst of conditions, and despite the likely cloudiness at the top, you will still be rewarded with a breathtaking view. And you won’t even need your down coat.

GETTING THERE
Ticket prices to Jeju are ludicrously low in January; both Jin Air and Jeju Air offer multiple flights at rates below 20,000 won each way. To save even more cash you can forego a hotel and settle in at a family-run pension or guesthouse. Strapped at this time of year, they’re often willing to toss you low prices, steaming breakfasts and big baskets of winter tangerines in appreciation for your wintertime patronage.

Bogyeong Temple (Gyeongju)

If temples in Korea leave you feeling a little blasé, pack yourself down to Pohang for an eye-opening experience at Bogyeongsa, a refreshing place embosomed in the piney foothills of Naeyeonsan. The temple itself is impressive: hall after hall, Buddha after peaceful Buddha and enough intricate paintings to make your eyes glaze over.

Bogyeongsa’s real magic, though, is in the valley just behind it, accessible on foot only. Thirteen waterfalls plunge down Naeyeonsan in a shining frozen spectacle that increases as you get deeper into the valley, with the towering Yeonsan Falls at the end of this 7-kilometer trail.

GETTING THERE
The journey is a matter of several buses and several bowls of ramen, so pack extra. Start at the Express Bus Terminal in Gangnam and take a bus to Pohang (4 hours 40 minutes), then hop on the 510 bus to Bogyeongsa from there.
Rumor has it there are two 510 buses, so make sure you jump on the one that reads “Bogyeongsa” (보경사).

Bulgapsan and Bulgap Temple (Yeonggwang)

Bulgapsa Temple is the oldest of its kind in Korea and attracts swarms of visitors in the summer months. But those looking to convene with contemplation, snatch a few special photos or take in a fantastic sunset behind a 2,000-year-old temple will have an easier time of it in the quiet of wintertime. With tourists far gone, the grounds are peaceful, and the area’s true mystique emerges uninhibited.

When you feel it’s time to move again, pick up the pace and haul yourself up the 516-meter-tall Bulgapsan. If the stairs upon stairs on the 30-minute trail don’t leave you breathless, the 360-degree view of Gwangju and its surroundings will.

GETTING THERE
Buses leave from Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal to Yeonggwang every 40 minutes and take just over three hours. From Yeonggwang Terminal, jump on another bus bound for Bulgapsa.

Jeonju

Recognized as a culinary center by UNESCO, Jeonju is the home of bibimbap and the heart of Korean cuisine. Jeonju is also home to several famous artisans who hand-produce fans, furniture and lacquerware.

The city is one of the oldest settlements in Korea, with history around every corner. It is also known as a hub for Korean Catholicism, home of the Jeondong Catholic Church that was built to commemorate the execution of Christian martyrs at the turn of the 18th century. All throughout the area are pavilions, craft shops, museums and charming alleyways. Jeonju Hanggyo, a Confucian school dating back to the early 1600s, is also located here.

GETTING THERE
Take the KTX or Mugungwha from Yongsan Station. The trip takes two to three hours, depending on which train you take.

MORE INFO
Photographers in Korea magazine assisted in curating the photography for this package. Many thanks to Adam Nicholson, Fergus Scott, Greg Timlin, James Ho, Joe Wabe, Namho Park and Simon Bond for their contributions.

Groove Korea website

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