Olympics plus Lunar New Year adding up to 'nightmare' travel for people in South Korea

The boulder-sized moon atop a hill just beyond the Olympic Village seems like a fitting symbol for the logistical concerns now looming over the Winter Games in PyeongChang.

Caught in the gravitational pull of the Lunar New year, the biggest holiday of the Korean calendar, are scores of Olympic ticket-holders, athletes’ loved ones and locals, all jockeying for rides on the high-speed KTX train.

But good luck finding seats.

Blocks of train tickets have been wiped out during the three-day holiday known as “Seollal,” which begins on Friday. This, the biggest travel period of the year, will see 33 million people migrating to visit their hometowns.

“That’s almost the population of Canada,” as Seoul-based radio host Amy Aleha noted.

The expat from Caledon, Ont., has tickets to Saturday’s Team Canada men’s hockey game against the Czech Republic. She’s excited to catch the action at the Gangneung Hockey Centre — if she can only figure out how to get there in time for the puck-drop at noon.

This artificial moon was erected on a hill beyond the athletes village in Pyeongchang to celebrate the Lunar New Year.(CBC)

The Korean railway’s website is showing no workable options.

“It’s been a logistical nightmare,” said Aleha, who may end up renting a car and braving a possible four-hour drive for what would normally be a two-hour commute.

An estimated 4.2 million cars will be clogging the highways for Seollal, as locals journey back to their hometowns to pay respect to their elders and ancestors, make dumplings, eat rice-cake soup and collectively turn a year older.

‘Left in the dark’

Aleha said foreigners were “left in the dark” about train reservations last month, as KTX prioritized who got first dibs on bookings on special release dates for Seollal tickets.

While Korean residents were able to reserve train tickets for the holidays starting at 6 a.m. on a Korean-language website, the English website didn’t open until 4 p.m.

Last year, KTX tickets for Seollal sold out within 30 minutes. In an email statement to CBC, Korail said it is running extra trains to meet increased travel demands.

As many as 25 Canadians, among them family members of Olympic athletes, are having to rely on privately hired buses to attend their loved ones’ events during what’s generally regarded as the most celebrated holiday on the Korean calendar.

The Lunar New Year is generally regarded as the most celebrated holiday on the Korean calendar.(Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

But even planners with the foresight to purchase special PyeongChang Rail Passes granting them unlimited KTX travel have been out of luck. Their passes allow for back-and-forth train travel, but don’t guarantee seats, which still had to be reserved ahead of Seollal.

Across the street from the Gangneung train station on Thursday, where a crowd of people watched a nongak farm dancer twirling white streamers from his hat, Team Canada hockey fans from Nova Scotia grumbled about the inauspicious timing.

“Who in their right freaking mind says, ‘Hey, let’s put the Olympics in the same window as the Lunar New Year?'” said Darrell Roddick, a teacher at an international school who has lived in Seoul since 2009. The Canadian said he only managed to get train tickets on one of the busiest travel days of the year because a Korean-speaking assistant bought them on his behalf as soon as possible — at 6 a.m. on Jan. 17.

Travelling for the Lunar New Year is always an ordeal for South Koreans, but it has been made even more complicated this year with the country hosting the Olympic Winter Games.(Jung Yeon-Je/AFP Photo)

“She went online the moment these tickets went on sale. It gave her a number: She was 10,000th in the queue,” Roddick said.

It’s also frustrating for people with Olympic tickets but no way to get to their desired events.

Nicola Platzer and Kiersten Westbrook, a pair of tourists from the U.S., missed their 11 a.m. snowboard cross event because train tickets to Jinbu station from Seoul were sold out all morning.

‘Standing seats’

On a Thursday train bound for Gangneung, one Korean man said he wasn’t able to get “seating seats,” just “standing seats.”

American tourists Jack Moores and Laura Rosenboom had been on their feet for two hours in the vestibule of a train known for hurtling at speeds of up to 350 km/h. They were on their way to a curling event.Team Canada hockey fan Darrell Roddick, a teacher at an international school in Seoul, blamed poor planning for the overlapping Korean Lunar New Year and the Olympics in Pyeongchang.(Matt Kwong/CBC)

“With the new year and everything, it’s just been a big challenge,” Rosenboom said, standing at the entryway.

“Lines have been crazy,” Moore added.

When a train stopped at Jinbu terminal, closer to where some freestyle skiing and snowboarding events are being hosted, a stampede of foreign fans streamed into the station, making a beeline for ticketing kiosks so they could figure out how to get back to Seoul.

Left scratching his head was Sangkeun Park, a Korean-Canadian carpenter from Calgary with a ticket to the men’s hockey game on Thursday evening between Canada and Switzerland.

The match at the Kwandong Hockey Centre ended around 11:30 p.m., he said, and his family is expecting him back in his home town of Wonju first thing in the morning for New Year’s rites to honour elders and ancestors.

“I’m looking for tickets. They’re already sold out,” he said, scanning a bus map. “I’m trying to figure out what to do.”

Park said he might have no choice but to stay overnight near Gangneung, hopefully finding a good hotel room for around $ 50 US.

Making it work

It doesn’t look promising. Pyeongchang’s hospitality profiteers have hiked up rates to cash in on the Olympics.

Romanian-Canadian speed-skater Alexandra Inaculescu, left, with her mother, Sanda Langer. For Langer, watching her daughter perform in Pyeongchang became more complicated when she couldn’t book the train ticket she wanted.(Submitted by Alexandra Inaculescu)

Toronto’s Sanda Langer, the mother of Romanian-Canadian Olympic long-track speed-skater Alexandra Ianculescu, found only “sketchy” AirBnB listings in Gangneung for under $ 400.

So she’ll watch her daughter compete at the Gangneung Oval in the evening, then take a late-evening train back to Seoul. She has a Pyeongchang Rail Pass, but the Olympic event overlapping with the end of the Lunar New Year holiday means she has no reserved seat and will likely stand for two hours on the KTX around midnight on Sunday.

Doesn’t sound like fun, said Ianculescu, who is competing for Romania. An hours-long commute and a few hours standing on a train will be tiring, her mother said, but she also wouldn’t miss her daughter’s dream, no matter how difficult the logistics.

“If she had to crawl up a mountain to get here, she would,” Ianculescu said.

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