South Korea: Hitting the slopes

With South Korea set to host the 2018 Winter Games, the resorts of Dragon Valley and Phoenix Park are set to gain fame on the world stage. But how do they compare to the traditional Alpine destinations? And can you really ski at 2am?

By Matt Carroll
Published 21 Sept 2015, 09:00 BST, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 11:02 BST

What on earth am I doing here? This is the thought that flashes across my mind at 2am, as I strap into my snowboard and prepare for a late-night run.

Sure, the slopes are quiet — the kind you've always craved while elbowing your way down the overcrowded 'motorways' of the French or Swiss resorts. And the snow is pretty sweet, albeit man-made. Although the unavoidable truth of the situation is that it's two o'clock. In the morning. I should be asleep.

But having tossed and turned for the past three hours, trying to find my way to the land of nod, it simply wasn't happening. So I'd done what any 'normal' person would do in this situation: gone snowboarding. Simply because in South Korea, you can.

Unlike the traditional European resorts that many of us are used to, where dancing on tables during the wee small hours is accepted practice, here in the resort of Yongpyong, skiers would rather be slotting in a few runs in the dead of night. And with slopes open each day from 8.30am to 2.30 the following morning, it's possible to rack up some serious overnight miles if you're so inclined.

Generally, I'm not — under normal circumstances. The earliest I've ever arisen for skiing was 6am, and that was for one of the best powder days I've ever experienced. But jet lag can make you do strange things, and having only recently arrived off an 11-hour flight, I was still feeling a bit doolally.

Which begs the question: why come all the way to South Korea to ski, when we've got world-class resorts right on our doorstep? It's a question the International Olympic Committee must have asked itself when it appointed South Korea to host the 2018 Winter Games (yes, really). However, while the resorts you'll find here are generally smaller and lower than those you get in Europe and most other 'traditional' skiing nations, the infrastructure at Korea's major resorts is certainly on a par with what you'd expect elsewhere.

There are 17 resorts here, most in the north of the country, within a few hours' drive of the capital city, Seoul. By and large, the 2018 Games will be split across two main venues: the east coast city of Gangneung, which will be home for all the indoor events, and Alpensia, a resort that will host outdoor competitions including the slalom events, ski jump, biathlon and others. Only the freestyle skiing and snowboarding, and the downhill competitions will be held elsewhere — in Bokwang and Jeongseon respectively — both still conveniently close to Gangneung.

Seoul man

Barely 48 hours before my insomnia-inspired run, I'd touched down in Seoul to find a bustling dreamland, where street signs and storefronts are utterly indecipherable. I felt truly like a foreigner; even simple things like ordering a coffee involved a ritual of gestures and tongue-twisting attempts at using local phrases, which people found pretty amusing.

While I'd love to paint a picture of myself as the intrepid traveller getting stuck into the local lingo, in reality my guide, Lin, was on hand to smooth my path. Having booked a week-long trip with UK-based Ski Safari, my plan was to soak up Seoul's hustle and bustle before heading out to explore what Korean skiing had to offer. This included stopovers at Phoenix Park, Alpensia and Yongpyong, the latter two both set to feature in the 2018 Winter Games.

After meeting me at the airport, Lin shepherded my jet-lagged carcass to a waiting minivan and whisked me into town for a much-needed shower. The journey into the city takes an hour or so (traffic-permitting), but within minutes I found my bleary eyes widening at the site of Seoul's skyscrapers, rising up out of the horizon.

Whizzing past the minivan's window on the way into town I saw ancient temples, their curlicued roofs silhouetted against the crisp blue sky. A respectful sense of tradition still pervades here — even down to your choice of hotel rooms, which included 'Korean-style' options, with features such as rolled-out bedding on a heated floor.

However, this is one of the most advanced nations on the planet, responsible for creating a vast amount of the sexiest tech on our high streets — not to mention car brands including Kia and Hyundai. Indeed, even simple things like going to the loo were an exotic experience — with various buttons to heat your bottom and sprinkle the bits other toilets can't reach. It took the concept of a 'comfort' break to a whole new level.

Suitably 'refreshed', I hit the city. First stop was the 110-year-old Gwangjang Market, buzzing with a blend of office workers, school kids and other lunch-breakers. There are 70 markets on this site — some dating back 600 years — selling everything from silk pyjamas and spices to the latest electronic gadgetry not yet available back home. But really there was only one thing on my mind: food.

Fortunately, this was easy to find. Being six foot six, I'm freakishly tall compared with most Koreans, which gave me a distinct advantage when it came to sniffing out lunch. Peering out over the shoulders of my fellow shoppers, like a slightly disheveled, modern-day Gulliver, I spotted a gaggle of traditional street food stalls.

Sizzling away were tasty bindaetteok (pancakes) made from mung bean paste, which cost around £2.50, followed shortly after by sundae — a Korean blood sausage containing rice noodles. Before I knew it, there were platefuls of dishes being waived under my nose, none of which I recognised, most of which I liked.

That afternoon, with the sun casting long shadows, I grabbed a quick power-nap at the hotel before heading back out for dinner. Nightlife in Seoul is among the liveliest in Asia — easily comparable with the bright lights of Tokyo. For those still struggling with the lingo (yep, that's me), Itaewon is an easy place to dip your toe in the water; there are tons of Western-style bars and clubs to explore, with lots English speakers.

Nearby Hongdae, close to the Han River, is packed with bars, restaurants and clubs (expect to pay around £6/KRW10,480 for entry), but for a dose of glitzy Seoul you need to experience Gangnam — inspiration for the eponymous (uber-annoying) pop song from a few years back.

While you're unlikely to be accosted by its chubby superstar singer, Psy, invoking you to dance 'Gangnam-style', what you will find is an array of cocktail bars and classy restaurants where you can have a grown-up night out. However, with skiing at Phoenix Park on the agenda early the next morning, I applied a gentle handbrake.

Rise of the Phoenix

The drive to Phoenix Park only takes three hours or so, but half of that was spent escaping Seoul's ever-expanding sprawl. Only in the last few miles did the scenery turn sufficiently mountainous to become skiable, and I stumbled across a gaggle of resort buildings that wouldn't look out of place in North America.

Although this feels like a big resort — with the series of hotels, high-rise condos and a huge water park spread around its base — there's actually only five miles of skiable terrain here, compared with the 250 miles you'll find at Les Arcs, France, for example. But simply comparing stats with the resorts we're used to would be missing the point; this place is all about the overall experience. And what an experience it was.

Queuing for the lift, I felt like a (very) minor celebrity, as a sea of Korean faces simultaneously turned and stared, presumably wondering who the giant was. Either that or they were fans of my new ski jacket.

Although the white stuff was a little thin on the ground, the snowmaking facilities are sufficient to ensure things will always stay open. The slopes here are ideal for beginners and intermediates, with a good mix of runs spread over two mountains, Phoenix Peak and Mont Blanc, separated by a valley. Everything funnels back down to the base — ideal if you're in a mixed group, as you're unlikely to lose anyone.

After taking the main gondola (one of nine lifts) up to the top of Mont Blanc, I spent the next few hours cruising the blues and blacks leading you back down.

Despite being only 3,600ft high, the views from the top were pretty spectacular. Pausing for the requisite selfie, I had 360 degrees of mountaintops to choose as my backdrop. Unlike the Alps, the mountains here are lower, less vertiginous and speckled with feathery trees.

Lunchtimes were lively. Instead of a wood-panelled Alpine restaurant, I lined up in the dining hall at the base for a bowl of beef bulgogi (stir-fried strips of marinated beef) with rice. Like many dishes here, it was laced with garlic.

One day was enough to see everything, so come evening I moved to Yongpyong (aka Dragon Valley), about 40 minutes' drive away. Korea's biggest resort, with 18 miles of slopes and 15 lifts, it will host the slalom events at the 2018 Games.

When it comes to après, don't expect the beer-swilling, tabletop-dancing craziness of Europe. Instead, Koreans are much likelier to lug a few beers and plates of fried chicken up to their rooms, before hitting the slopes again — something that definitely wasn't on my agenda initially. After a few games of pool in the nearby bar, the jet lag was working its magic once more and I headed for the sack — for all of three hours.

This being the second night of semi-sleeplessness, counting sheep had lost its effectiveness. It was then I realised that with the ski lifts still running there was no reason why I couldn't take this opportunity to squeeze in some more runs. So here I am at 2am, cruising my way down quiet slopes, while the rest of my group sleeps. Despite my dreamy state, the crisp night air and a dose of adrenalin made me feel more alive than I have in months.

I point my board towards the lights at the bottom of the hill and let it glide over the recently groomed snow. At this time of night there's not much noise, except the whir of the lifts and the swoosh of skis; it's soporific stuff, especially with the twinkling lights and the ethereal trees lining the slopes. After a couple of runs, I've crossed late-night skiing off my bucket list and am ready to crawl back to bed.

Next morning, I feel remarkably fresh as I pop over to the tiny nearby resort of Alpensia. Although the skiing itself is limited — just six runs, for beginners and intermediates — there's a plush InterContinental Hotel at the base of the slopes, where you can sit and sip the froth off a latte while watching skiers strut their stuff.

Alpensia will host the ski jumping, Nordic skiing, bobsleigh and other events at the 2018 Games. Indeed, the ski-jump stadium and Nordic centre look almost finished, and after a couple of runs at the main resort I make the five-minute drive over to watch a group of cross-country skiers in training.

The main focus of my day, however, lies back at Yongpyong — the big daddy of Korean skiing, with 31 runs. As with all this country's resorts, the bulk are aimed at intermediates; however, there's a series of cheeky blacks (Rainbow 1, 2 and 3) accessible from the main gondola, which is where the slalom events will be held in 2018.

Even with my jet lag now cleared, this all still feels like fantasyland, as I float above the trees in the gondola on the way up. Approaching the peak, the tiled roof of the top station appears from the mist like a spectre from Korea's ancient past.

Although not steep by European standards, these three blacks are pitchy enough to get your attention — especially with conditions being 'scrapy'. On the other side of the mountain it's generally mellower, with trails like Gold Fantastic leading you on a long cruisy run down the edge of the resort. Keep your camera handy, the scenery's pretty spectacular.

With Dragon Valley's nightlife being on the quiet side, that evening I head to the tongue-twisting town of Daegwallnyeong-myeon (about 30 minutes' taxi ride away), where a smattering of neon-lit bars and restaurants vie for my attention. My driver, 'Luke' leads the charge as I duck into a series of neon-lit bars and restaurants — including a chimaek, Korean slang for 'chicken and beer'. Probably not the most traditional meal I have during my stay, but after a day of pounding the slopes it definitely hits the spot. Once again, I'm ready to hit the hay, hopefully with no interruptions this time.


Getting there
British Airways, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines fly direct from Heathrow to Incheon International Airport in Seoul.
Average flight time: 10h50m.

Getting around
Domestic flights are frequent and relatively cheap; trains are best for big distances. A KR Pass (KRW168,400/£91.10 for seven days) gives unlimited travel on all Korail trains, including the high-speed KTX service. A comprehensive bus network connects even remote areas to all major cities. It's best to buy tickets from terminals. Taxis are cheap in Seoul. 

When to go
The ski season is winter (January-March). The north of the country is slightly cooler than the south; summers can be humid, with temperatures up to 30C. 

Need to know
Visas: British citizens can stay up to 90 days with a regular passport.
Currency: South Korean won (KRW). £1 = KRW1,848.
Health: Ensure you're up-to-date with tetanus and other jabs. You may need malaria tablets for certain areas if you're arriving in summer — check with your GP.
International dial code: 00 82.
Time difference: GMT +8.

More info

How to do it
Ski Safari offers an eight-night trip, from £1,280 per person, based on two adults sharing. It includes a stay at the Hotel ibis Ambassador Seoul Insadong and Yongpyong Resort Dragon Valley Hotel, plus British Airways flights and transfers.

Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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