On most prominent public holidays, Seoul resembles a zombie town. I’d only heard about it and never experienced it until Lunar New Year last month. For starters, getting out of Seoul becomes a nightmare. If you have a car, it’s best to leave in the wee hours (around 2 AM) of the morning. For the rest of us mortals, who depend on the KTX/ITX or the intercity buses, tickets are as easy to get as freshly baked egg tarts. Fortunately, Chuncheon, in Gangwon-do Province, can also be reached by subway transfers between the Gyeongui–Jungang Line and Gyeongchun Line. In hindsight, it turned out to be a better way to escape packed roads and crowded trains. The subway was a smooth two-hour ride to Chuncheon.
We reached Chuncheon shortly before lunch and walked directly to the local tourism booth — next to the exit. We picked up maps and got a rough itinerary from the local tourist guide. We covered a lot of ground over a period of a day and half. Sometimes we walked and when we were tired, we used public transport (bus/cab). If you want to save time, you can opt for the Chuncheon Tour Bus instead. There are three tour courses and you can board the bus outside Chuncheon Station. Chuncheon is famous for a lot of things. If you have barely two days (in winter), here’s a list of the top 10 things you might want to see, taste, or experience.
1.Taste the Smoky Flavours of Dakgalbi
Our first meal in Chuncheon had to be Dakgalbi. I lost count of the number of friends who insisted that we try Chuncheon’s famous Dakgalbi. Myeondong Dakgalbi Street is a 15 minute walk from Chuncheon Station and signboards are easy to find. In winter, it’s perfect to explore the city’s dreamy landscape.
We reached around 2 PM and fortunately, some restaurants were still open. We chose a quaint restaurant, tucked in the far corner of a side alley. The owner was into collectibles and almost every shelf was filled with wrestling figures.
Traditional Dakgalbi is chicken that’s marinated in a spicy sauce and cooked over a slow flame with an assortment of leafy vegetables. We opted for a variant of the same marinade, but barbecued the chicken instead of cooking it. The flavour was spot on, although I found the spice a little difficult to handle. Chuncheon was gearing up for the Winter Olympics and it was hard to miss the restaurant menu printed in English with an added page for common phrases.
2. Listen to Soyanggang Cheonyeo
After lunch, we walked around and decided to visit at least one landmark, before, we head back to our pension house — tucked in the city. Local buses connect most tourist places of interest, but if you don’t mind exploring, the walk to the Soyanggang River is quite scenic. The Soyanggang Maid is a striking bronze statue surrounded by the blue waters of the river and lofty mountains. The statue was built to commemorate a famous Korean song about a young girl waiting for her lover. You can press a button (on the upper deck) to hear the song.
The Soyanggang Skywalk was on top of my list of sights to see in Chuncheon. However, the weather plays an important role in the operation of the skywalk. Sadly, it was closed on the day of our visit.
3. Set your Imagination Free
Chuncheon is the capital of Gangwon-do Province. The city isn’t as densely populated as Seoul, but has a constant buzz of development and construction work in progress. The city centre resembles any developed Korean city. The landscapes in-between the pockets of development can prove to be pretty surreal. Not far from where we lived, we saw these giant metal monsters trapped on a small patch of land.
4. Walk on a Frozen Lake
On the second day of our trip, we were too late to take the tour bus, and had to take a local bus to get to Chuncheon Station. En route, we stopped by a gorgeous lake (Uiamho Lake would be my guess) — frozen under a thick blanket of ice. A walking path circumscribes the lake and it’s possible to cut across Gongjicheon Stream by the overhead bridge. On one side of the lake, there’s a boardwalk hugging a hiking trail that’s perfect for vantage views of the lake below.
Initially, I wasn’t sure about walking on the lake. It was hard to know if the ice was thick enough to bear our weight. After watching a mother and her kids play a ball game on an ice rink on the lake; Basil walked ahead to explore. I was hesitant and eventually, I walked as well. It’s one of the strangest feelings to experience. Walking on frozen water makes you feel divine in many ways. Gaping holes, probably used for fishing, were scary to look at, especially when we looked into the darkness of the lake below.
The Memorial Hall for Ethiopian Veterans makes a striking picture. Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to enter it.
5. Try Ice-Fishing
Ice fishing is quite a popular festival in South Korea and the Hwacheon Ice Festival attracts a lot of local and foreign tourists. Comparatively, this part of the lake was very quiet and we found a local testing his luck.
6. Strike a Pose at Sculpture Park
Gongjicheon Sculpture Park lies on the other side of the lake. In winter, the trees are bare and snow covers the park. I’ve always been amazed by the lifelike emotions of Korean sculptures. There’s a certain sadness trapped inside them and it’s hard not to feel something when you look at them.
7. Walk in the Middle of Nowhere
Gongjicheon Sculpture Park is a 10 minute ride away from Chuncheon Station. We had to alter our plan for the day and make a difficult choice between the famous sights that could be seen in half a day. We walked towards the station, took a detour by mistake, and explored the rustic scenery of the city. We walked for nearly 30 minutes, in the middle of nowhere, and saw: isolated alleys, colourful construction sites, and vast empty spaces of nothing — under the blue sky.
8. Cross the Soyang River Dam
After a quick lunch at Chuncheon Station, we took a local bus to Soyang Dam. There are a couple of observation points on the curved route to the main dam above. It’s best to have your own car because walking is not alway easy with the traffic on the side. Soyang Dam is the fourth largest rock-fill dam in the world and the largest in Asia. The beauty of the locale sinks in — only after you reach the top. Rock, snow, mountain, and lake all come together beautifully.
There’s a pavilion on the top of a small peak — on the other side of the bridge. It’s a pretty steep climb to get to the top, but can be done under 10 minutes. The panoramic view from the top is stunning and worth the effort.
9. Leave your Footprints in Snow
We found this shoe-flower left behind. It’s hard to get bored here, even if sightseeing isn’t your thing, there’s always something new to take up. Leaving footprints might just be equally exiting.
10. Give in to the Picture Frenzy
Chuncheon harps on romance. Photo-ops are located everywhere and ignoring them will be harder than you think.