I’ve always been a fan of the summer Olympics and dreamed of going one day. So, when I found out that the 2018 Winter Olympics would be in South Korea, I was mildly intrigued. Once I was sure that I would be in Korea during the winter Olympics, you can bet your life that a thrill-seeker like me was going to get in the mix.
The Bizarre Plan
The Lunar New Year holiday (a national holiday in South Korea and a few other countries) overlapped with the winter Olympics, which meant I could go on my day off from work.
There were a couple of foreigner-lead travel groups with trips to the Olympics during the holiday, so my friend and I decided it would be easier to catch a bus with a travel group since it was difficult to get to PyeongChang on our own. PyeongChang is 7 hours away from Busan via ground transportation (also, the train ticket prices were inflated for the event).
The plan was to go all the way to the Olympics for one day, watch two events, then to catch the express bus back to Busan once we arrived back in Seoul. The total trip would take less than 30 hours and we could enjoy the rest of the holiday recovering.
We booked seats on the one-day Olympics trip bus with Wink Travels in Seoul. The bus left at 6 a.m. So, we had to high-tail it to Seoul before then. We took an overnight express bus from Busan which took 4 hours and 15 minutes.
*Side note: If you are ever taking an express bus from Busan to Seoul or vice versa, I’d highly recommend taking the premium bus. The seats are bigger; complete with a TV screen and tray table, USB ports are available on the chair, and you can almost flatten the seat into a bed.
Once we were on the Wink bus, it was about another 3 hours to PyeongChang. No surprise that we slept the entire way there.
Wait…Where are the Olympics?
We got to Gangneung Olympic Park around 10:30 a.m. but we decided to get off at the Kwandong Hockey Center, though we weren’t going to the hockey game. We thought there would be some cool stuff to check out there since our first event, the women’s cross-country, skiing wasn’t until later.
When we got off the bus, it was unusually quiet and empty for an Olympic venue. There was a hockey game starting around the time we got there. My friend and I looked at each other like and said, “Um… are we in the right place? Is this really the Olympics? Where are all the people? Where is the action around this place?”
The café across from the venue wasn’t even open until 12 p.m. It was only 11 a.m. and time was ticking since we only had one day. We decided to try to find the Olympic village and asked some volunteers how to get there, but they didn’t know what we were talking about. I searched on the app’s map (that app was a freaking joke as far as directions go), still didn’t know where to go and there was not another venue anywhere close by.
This has got to be a joke?
We remembered the first place the bus stopped at didn’t seem that far. we figured we could try walking back to that venue. WRONG! When I typed the location into Google Maps, it said the place was more than 8 KM away. The next plan of escape was to take a city bus or taxi to the venue. WRONG!
Though we found a bus stop, we didn’t know which bus to take or which direction to go. I also couldn’t order a taxi on my Kakao Taxi app, nor did we see any available taxis on the street. We seemed to be stuck at the hockey arena, with a slim chance of escape at this point.
Right place, right time… well, sort of
It was now after 12 p.m. We decided to go back to the café we saw earlier to regroup on how to get out of that area. While charging our phones and waiting on food, a young guy wearing some USA apparel and an official Olympic lanyard caught my attention as I suspected him of being an Olympian.
He met with an older couple who seemed thrilled to see him. The older man said something about being happy to see the young man compete the other day. Just then, another young man, dressed similarly to the first one, came in.
I told my friend that the guys were Olympians and we should take a picture with them before they left. She was too shy and the people were getting ready to leave, so I pulled up my camera on my phone and jumped up to stop them.
Me: Excuse me, but would you guys happen to be Olympians from Team USA?
Guy 1: Yes, we are.
Me: That’s so cool! We’re also Americans and want to know if we could get a picture with you guys.
Both Guys: Sure, no problem.
Woman: I’ll take the picture for you (she was sweet and bubbly)! That’s my son.
Guy 2: Why don’t you two stand in the middle?
Me: OK, sure. (My friend and I squeeze in between the guys).
After the pictures, we chatted with the parents and the athletes a bit more about where we are from and told them we lived in S. Korea. One of the guys said that the group was heading to the hockey game and they had two extra tickets if we wanted to join them.
We said we would love to join them. But after the guys checked the tickets, they found out that they only had one extra ticket for the hockey game. The other ticket was for ice skating (that started at 10:30 am). They said we could still join them at the game, if we bought another ticket. I remembered we hadn’t received the drinks and food that we ordered yet. We also had to be at another venue by 2:30, so we passed on the offer.
We finally found out how to get to our next destination. We had to go up the hill, down the street, and around the corner to find the shuttle buses. After that it took 3 shuttle buses and traveling for over an hour to get to the Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Center. When we arrived at the venue it had the same key elements to it: a small crowd with little to no sound, or signs of an energetic atmosphere.
Better on TV
We were relieved and excited to watch our first Olympic event after the hectic but quiet morning. We had standing tickets. Which meant that we had to stand behind the gate along the track near the path to the finish line. The weather was warm (warm for a winter day in that area) during that time and the sun shone brightly. The most active section during the event was the unified Korean section. They had their own hype man leading the chanting. Other than that, the crowd was quiet most of the time unless a skier passed by their section.
When you attend an event in-person, you have a limited view of the action. From our position, we could only see the skiers start and finish (which was like 5-7 minutes of action). We had to watch the other parts of the race from the jumbo screen when it was available. I didn’t get any extra fulfillment from watching the race after I took my first few pictures and videos.
The best part of the event for me was watching the fans from different countries bond together in a respectful and friendly way as they cheered on their home countries. There was a peaceful presence among the fans that was a pleasure to be around. I also enjoyed watching the Olympians sportsmanship towards each other.
Glad I went, but I’m also glad it’s over
By the end of the Women’s Cross-country Skiing event, it was starting to get cold, so we didn’t stay for the full medal ceremony.
We had about 4 hours until the luge event started, so we got back on the shuttle bus and headed to the PyeongChang Olympic Plaza. We ate, did some shopping, watched the medal ceremony for the Women’s Alpine Skiing event and then we headed over to the Olympic Sliding center for the luge.
By the time we got there, it was dark and freezing cold. We were also exhausted from being on the move all day. The venue had a small quiet crowd. We posted up at the finish line, but the athletes came down the track so fast we could barely process what happened.
There were also no TVs on the track for the crowd to watch what was happening. By the time we heard the first “whoo” and turned our heads to see what happened, the race was over. The crowd barely responded (I think mostly because the race was so fast). I was definitely missing the slow-motion race clips that would have been shown on TV during the race.
That’s all for now
The Olympics was not what I imagined it would be like. The small crowds and the lack of an energetic atmosphere was a shock for me. Nevertheless, I’m still grateful for the experience and I learned a lot about the Winter Olympics. I also learned how to plan my next Olympic trip. Click here for part 2.