Multiple friends and family members in Seoul told me enthusiasm for the Olympics still felt lukewarm in the city. They wondered if more people would get excited once the events began.
I hopped on a train to Gangneung — a seaside city famous in Korea for its beaches, seafood and tofu — where many of the indoor ice events will be held. I was driven to the media village by a volunteer from Seoul, who played ABBA’s greatest hits in the car while peppering me with questions in Korean about the United States.
We passed the Olympic Village, a cluster of cream-colored high rises on the outskirts of the city. Italian and Japanese flags hung outside the windows of the complex. On Friday, an enormous North Korean flag emerged outside one of the windows, too — a significant sight, given that it is normally illegal to fly a North Korean flag in the South.
I checked into my room — a cozy studio with heated floors and a balcony looking out toward the nearby mountains. There were no hints of the horror stories of Sochi, where visitors landed in rooms without toilets or locks on their doors or actual doors, or with other visitors sleeping in their beds.
Then I took a 35-minute trip to Pyeongchang in an empty bus. It was bone-chillingly cold in the mountains where the outdoor events will be held, and temperatures have been hovering in the teens all winter. At the entrance of the main press center, eight young security guards in black bubble jackets joked around with one another and doodled in notepads.
A row of restaurants down the road has been catering to the first trickle of foreign visitors. In one establishment serving Japanese comfort food, a young cook in a white apron who spoke some English was repeatedly summoned to the dining room to help the waitresses communicate with the foreign customers wearing news media badges.
Communication can be an obstacle at every Olympics, and many businesses in Gangneung and Pyeongchang spent the previous months updating signs and menus to include some English.
In a small commercial district that sits between the media village and athlete accommodations, a woman sold hot snacks from a red roadside tent. Some items, like lamb and chicken skewers, were advertised in English; others, like Korean fish cakes, were left untranslated.
In a nearby hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Friday afternoon, groups of media members from Japan, China and Korea cheerfully scarfed down bowls of pork bone stew. I squeezed in between them and ordered one of my own. The bowl was plopped down in front of me enveloped in a plume of steam. The biting cold suddenly seemed far away.