With the Winter Olympics almost upon us, we thought we’d revisit our feature from October 2016’s Ski+board magazine.
There’s something commuter-like about skiing in South Korea. Yet it’s strangely addictive, as Ben Clatworthy discovered.
How time flies. In just over a year, South Korea will host the Olympics. It’s a country famous for computers, cars and hot dogs (the real ones) — but not winter sports. In fact, few people, even those in the Far East, had heard of South Korea’s skiing credentials before the International Olympic Committee awarded it the 2018 Games, staving off competition from both Munich and Annecy. Winter sports fans let out a collective groan.
Four years earlier, the same committee had awarded Sochi the Winter Games, and they became the most expensive Olympics in history with a bill totalling £38 billion. And South Korea, with its mere 17 resorts, and handful of lifts, seemed another baffling decision.
Keen to discover this bizarre skiing destination, I landed at dawn in Seoul on a bitterly cold February day. We bundled into our driver’s van, which had a sign reading ‘Foreign Tourists on Board’ displayed in the windscreen. I had arrived in the right Korea, hadn’t I?
Seoul is a city that pulsates with life — a mish-mash of markets and skyscrapers that glitter in the sun by day and flash neon signs by night. I spend the day exploring the metropolis, but only scratch the surface. Lunch at the vast Dongdaemun market district — with H its 30,000 shops — is a highlight. In the main food alley 200 market stalls serve every traditional dish. We opt for one where a few old men are huddled on a bench heated by electric-blankets scoffing plates of food. A woman is crouched over an oversize pestle and mortar grinding mung beans. These accompany delicacies such as stewed pig trotters and snouts, all washed down with copious amounts of rice wine, even at lunchtime.
The next morning, we leave the city for Pyeongchang, the region hosting the Games. After negotiating crammed city streets, we are on the motorway driving through mountainous countryside. It’s still bitterly cold, at minus 10°C, yet there’s not a flake of snow to be seen.
Our first stop is at Phoenix Park. This is the resort two hours’ east of Seoul that will host the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events. It’s a striking juxtaposition — the vast wilderness interrupted by a purpose-built ski resort. At the base, industrial prefab buildings cluster around the resort’s only gondola and the main ‘ski house’. Here there’s equipment rental, sports shops and a restaurant, which, though it looks like a school canteen, serves wonderful noodles in tasty hot broth, for about £8. Once we’ve had our fill and negotiated the rental shop — “you want one ski, or two?” the technician asks in a series of bizarre questions in pidgin English — it’s time to join the mêlée of schoolchildren on the mountain, all wearing bibs to denote which class they are in.
Looking up from the bottom, the slopes resemble white ribbons cut into the dense forest that covers the mountainside. There’s a mix of very slow chairlifts, the type found in France a generation ago, and a single gondola, which serves the so-called ‘Mont Blanc’ peak, at just over 1,000m. Once on the slopes, it’s soon apparent that, in spite of the resort’s bold claims of having 22 pistes, you’re looking at more like ten ‘proper’ runs, once slope divisions are excluded. The longest is Panorama, which is an “impressive 2.2km length” according to the resort. However, size isn’t everything and in terms of terrain, the resort reminds me of Cypress Mountain, near Vancouver, where the freestyle events of the 2010 Games were successfully held.
I spend the afternoon zipping about the slopes, which are signposted only in Korean, making it well nigh impossible for me to locate myself on the piste map. Luckily, France this is not, and it’s hard to get lost with most runs funnelling back to the base.
That’s not to say I didn’t find challenges. Despite my race training, I am unable to grip the snow, because my skis are so blunt. On one hair-raising descent I almost collide with a woman — out of control and holding a selfie stick out in front of her as she goes. While I am struck by the views of the vast and snowless wilderness that stretches as far as I can see, my fellow skiers seem more obsessed with taking pictures of themselves.
Later, I meet Lee Jongbin, the resort’s assistant manager. He’s excited by the Olympics' arrival, and says the money will be welcome in upgrading the facilities, adding: “At the moment we have one hotel, which will be completely refurbished by 2018.” A second five-star hotel opened last season, and the final renovations ahead of the Games are due to be finished in time for the start of the 2016-17 season.
Whistle-stop tour complete, it’s on to my second resort, Yongpyong. This is the country’s largest resort, with 16 lifts and 31 slopes. It will also be the main venue for the Games, with a temporary Olympic stadium, capable of seating 50,000 people, due for construction.
Yongpyong caters best for the international market, with several apartment blocks, and the Dragon Valley hotel, the resort’s most upmarket place to stay. We check-in here, but exhausted from the 12-hour flight, and with the nine-hour time difference catching up on me, I eschew the chance to stay in a traditional Korean ‘ondol’ room, where you sleep on a heated floor with just a thin blanket and yoga-type mat, opting instead to stay in a spacious Western bedroom with double beds.
The next morning, ski suited and booted, after an appointment with a technician who seems more au fait with ski gear, I tackle what will be the main Olympic slopes. The ambience at the resort’s main lodge takes me by surprise. There’s a hustle and bustle more akin to a rush-hour railway station than a holiday destination. At the top of an escalator, a resort worker, decked in a high-visibility jacket, shouts a long, garbled sentence in Korean, before offering a simple translation in English of “skiing” and points us to a door.
Outside things are different. Huge advertising hoardings flank the sides of the pistes, and tinny Proms, and are interspersed with muffled safety announcements. The experience is somewhat surreal, and this time I find myself rather enjoying it.
The slopes aren’t as busy here as in Phoenix Park, and while the terrain is far from challenging, it is varied, despite the snow being almost entirely artificial and rock-solid under a soft layer. We spend the morning exploring the small Rainbow sector, whose three pistes will be used for the Slalom and Giant Slalom at the Olympics. It’s the mountain’s one steeper area and is served by a high-speed lift, allowing us to get a few quick laps and some miles under our skis. On the chairlift I get chatting to a student from Seoul, who is wearing just a tatty jacket, and tracksuit bottoms.
“I hadn’t skied until last year,” he tells me. “I’ve only been to the small places near the city, but my friends said here is best, so I drove this morning.” He’s not staying overnight because “it’s too expensive” but says the trip was worth the drive. Koreans appear far less hard-core than European skiers, most returning to the base at lunchtime. But there is one on-mountain lunch option: Dragon Castle, a proper sit-down affair at the resort’s 1,458m summit, serving succulent stir-fried beef tenderloin with rice.
Feeling full, and a tad lethargic, we spend the afternoon moseying around the gentle Red and Gold Zones, which have wide easy breezy slopes, served by both fast and slow chairlifts. All the skiing is below the treeline, and I look out over rolling hills of dense deciduous forests that were snowless when I was there.
By now it’s late afternoon, and normally my thoughts would turn to après-ski. Except skiing here doesn’t end when the sun dips behind the peaks of the Taebaek mountains. Like most things in South Korea, the sport is as much a hobby enjoyed by moonlight (or rather powerful floodlights) as by sunlight. There’s a brief hiatus, while the groomers work their magic, but once complete, it’s all systems go until around midnight. It’s only then, in the small hours, that the après-ski proper kicks-off underground at the resort’s emporium of bars and arcades. We settle on bowling (though karaoke is by far the most popular choice) accompanied by many rounds of beer and rice wine.
South Korea may not have the long pistes, glitzy bars or restaurants, but skiing is not about that here. Yes, I’ve skied loftier, ‘greater’ resorts, but skiing Korea’s Olympic resorts, I found stations that had a quirkiness I shan’t forget — from the tinny music to the compressor pumps that clean snow off your skis. Seeing how other cultures adapt to any sport is intriguing, and all the more so when a country is preparing to host the Games.
And the latest news on that front is good. Though there are worries over the soaring cost of construction, the first test events held last season were a success, with the Alpine athletes seemingly happy with the chosen venues, if a little underwhelmed by the steepness of the Downhill, which was at a resort I didn’t visit. A lot can change in a year, and I’m sure a lot of work has gone on since I visited six months ago.
Of course, you’re unlikely to take the 12-hour flight solely to ski in South Korea. But combining it with a trip to Japan’s resorts allows you to ski the best of the Far East and sit back in front of the TV next season and say: “Yes, I’ve skied that.”