- 21 March 2014
Where did it all begin? I often ask myself that question. If I really think about it, it probably began as a young boy, riding my first surfboard. My mates might think the recently acquired snowboard akin to another 40-something-year-old's red sports car. It’s not that. I am saving something spectacular for that mid-life crisis. It’s just that I’ve always been a board man, hooked on the sensation, gliding at speed at the mercy of nature. And now I find myself in front of my computer, writing about a mad snowboarding trip through South Korea. If you had tried to tell the young surfer me I'd be doing this 30 years later I think he would have thought you were weird.
The transition from surfboard to snowboard started when work took me away from the beach to strand me in a city, limiting my access to waves. The dreaming first really transformed to action in the winter of 2011. With determined optimism I found myself steering my family through Incheon Airport, Seoul despite no language and limited cultural understanding. I did however have a pre-booked pimped up van (this thing had neon LEDs on the roof that flashed in time with the blaring KPop) hopefully waiting outside to take us north. Sometimes you just have to trust in the Universe.
When we first stumbled on a family holiday option to South Korea there was little or no English language information on the web. It was just luck we came across the van as a comfortable option for the 3.5 hours trip from Incheon Airport to PyenongChang. Mr Google found a transport service with enough English to confirm the booking. I could have kissed Mr Lee from the transport service when he greeted us at the airport with his sign for “Mr Hughes“.
Alpensia Resort won our business on that first trip. Holiday Inn Hotel and Suites (a reputable international hotel chain which offered confirmation in English on the local toll free number) provided self-contained on-snow accommodation. It was only later we learnt we had ended up in the heart of the 2018 Winter Olympics venues. All on the wing of a prayer, in this case the wing being provided by Southern China Air who had the cheapest airfares available online at the time.
Fast forward 2 years. Now road trips are nothing new, writing about them even less so and I'm no Jack Kerouac. This one though became really interesting as optimism collided head on with reality when I had to deal with little things like not being able to secure an English-speaking guide to travel around with me coupled with a free thinking GPS nicknamed Brun Hilda who selected routes at will, her will. All this of course while driving on the wrong side of the road. Luckily the Universe came through again!
After a couple of seasons with the family I figured it might be time for a solo reconnaissance of some of the other resorts to investigate the slopes, service and whether it was really a feasible proposition for the linguistically challenged traveller. Nothing really happened though until chatting with my wife about a research trip for our information / blog site. "Why don't you do 14 ski resorts in 14 days in 2014? Could be fun!" says she out of the blue. That's when this adventure really came to life. Why the hell not, I thought. I pounced before she realised what she had just said. Remember about trusting the Universe?
Kyle's 'Krazy' Korean 14 Adventure, 14 Ski Resorts in 14 days in 2014, was off and running!
Seoul, a high-energy megacity of more than 20 million, is easily accessible by air from most countries. It's also relatively easy to navigate the metro rail system when you arrive. Ticket booths have English language options and station announcements are in Korean, Japanese, Chinese and English. You just have to know where you want to go. That can sometimes be the hard bit. Driving though, now that's a completely different proposition.
In some Asian countries you can just pick up a car, most of which come with a driver. Not Korea. "Stressed" doesn't adequately describe my condition driving out of Incheon airport to Bear Town Resort that first day. It was actually child's play though compared to driving during seollal (Korean New Year) holiday navigating my way back to Gangnum from the mountains. My life was in the hands of the gods and Brun Hilda that day, as I made my way back to the JEEP Korea showroom to return my trusty steed. Only hours of sitting in a metallic conga line provided relief from an over stimulated adrenalin gland.
The freeway also provides challenges for the toll system virgin with options including prepaid, post-paid, pay-as-you-go. Unlike the metro there are no signs in English. This usually left me in the wrong lane forcing the booth operator out of his warm hut to free the Krazy waygook (foreigner in Korean) from the clutches of the evil boom gates with traffic grinding to a halt in my wake. Mercifully they were extremely helpful and patient. Eventually I caught onto the system, to the relief of the tool booth operators union no doubt.
Away from the city madness and on the open road, Korea unfolds to reveal a wonderful country for a road trip. The freeway infrastructure is great and the 4 lane national highway is gradually being extended east. My love-hate with relationship with Brun Hilda ended up a blessing in disguise. Due to her stubborn intractability, I was lead through shimmering wintery landscapes on back-country roads exposing glimpses of contemporary rural life in Korea. Men crossing ice-ponds, fishing rods shouldered to cut holes into the ice for the chance of an evening meal. Stunning postcards flipped past – frozen alpine lakes overlooking Nami Island on sunset, an ice cliff at Wonju Pandae Artificial Ice Park littered with climbers, their picks and tents on frozen ice at base camp. The drive from Suanbo Sajo Resort to Deogyusan (Muju) Ski Resort took me across glorious alpine plains around the town of Goesan, known for trout-fishing and chilli peppers. Not many Westerners around those parts and I attracted curious stares. All up I drove about 2,000 kilometres over 14 days, in snow, in mud and slush, up mountains and down into valleys, singing praises to my wife for her careless words or dancing to myself/in my head in the mobile solitude
In that time I managed to visit and ride nearly all of the 15 Korean ski resorts marked on my map, more resorts than many of my Korean mates had seen in their own country. The oldest ski resort in Korea is Yongpyong, which was opened in 1975 and is still one of the biggest and best. The relatively new recreational snow sports industry in Korea is reflected in the resorts and infrastructure. That's to say, the facilities are world class, from ticketing, to lifts and gondolas and state of the art snow making equipment to keep the runs in top condition. Korea has transported its obsession for technology, KPop and crazy neon lights to the slopes. The ski resorts are like a combination of high-tech amusement parks and vibrant outdoor nightclubs on snow. Phoenix Park Ski Resort has a giant 20-metre electronic snow dome that lets you post a picture. You look up to see digital snow falling over your giant face rotating above you. Most resorts provide huge screens blasting KPop videos or stages with live acts or Idol contests. Nearly all resorts in Korea are around-the-clock operations, closing only for a small window in the early morning to allow the groomers up to slopes to repair the damage. A night snowboarding session at minus 20 degrees Celsius is equivalent to a night on the town. You finish boarding at midnight and back up with a visit to a bar or at your apartment doing soju (Korean rice wine) shots and eating until you fall over. The entire experience in uniquely Korean!
Korea has 3 distinct ski resort areas catering for all levels and experience. If you're in Seoul and looking for a day on the mountain, you can't go past Bear Town Resort, Konjiam Ski Resort and Elysian Gangchon Ski Resort. All are either a 45-minute drive or train ride from down-town Seoul. Great facilities open well into the early hours of the morning enticing locals up the mountain after a day at the office.
To the east in the Pyeongchang region my picks are Vivaldi Ski Resort, Welli Hill Ski Resort, Phoenix Park Ski Resort and, of course, Yongpyong Resort. About a 2.5-hour drive from Seoul, these resorts are easily accessed by car or the very efficient coach system, a favoured mode of transport for locals. Down south, I fell in love with the picturesque faux-Tyrol village of Deogyusan (Muju) Ski Resort. Due to the unforgiving weather, I wasn't able to fully explore this beautiful resort but definitely plan to revisit on my next trip. Stay tuned on this one, I will be back.
Most resorts have on-snow accommodation or a village at the base. As my little expedition coincided with the colourful and busy Korean New Year holiday I decided it might be smart to book ahead. I discovered "Love Motels" were a very good option to save a bit of money here and there. The cost about US$45 per night, and at reception you are very discreetly given a hygiene 'pack' (condoms, lubricant, toothbrush and razor) to take to the privacy of the brightly coloured room. Lovely green furniture and divet-patterned wallpaper in the 'Hole-in-One' golf themed room and a silver lame doona cover at the Hotel Iris are things you just have to experience. Décor aside, the rooms are cheap, cheerful, clean and perfect for the budget conscious traveller. They were definitely an experience but maybe not with the wife and kids in tow.
Snow conditions are fairly reliable, with higher elevation resorts getting an average snowfall of three metres a year. Some of the resorts closer to Seoul are not as snow sure and there is a heavy reliance on snow making to keep them operational over winter. Bearing in mind that during the middle of my snowboarding escapade an unseasonably warm front hit the Korean peninsular, turning powdery mountains into a long slushy. The good old Universe came through again though, and on the morning of my birthday a cold front hit, the snow fell and I was able to celebrate with endless rides on my favourite Gold Fantastic run at Yongpyong Resort. Even now as I write, snow continues to fall in the PyeongChang region and will definitely take most resorts to the close of the season. I'm not sure all the snow will have melted by the time the fanatical Korean golfers hit the paddocks as the resorts transform for their summer season.
Korean people can be a little quiet and reserved, but I have never been enveloped in such a feeling of joy, happiness and so many smiling faces as I did while tripping from resort to resort. The local people seem determined to make the most of life and have a great time. It's a highly infectious attitude you just can't resist. Maybe it has something to do with a history steeped in invasion and rebuilding. This sense of squeezing life for all it's worth pervades everything. From eating with gusto (and often) to the bright neon-coloured, sequined, glittery, furry punk fashions on the ski slopes that might hurt your eyes but will most certainly spark a smile. My hosts at Snowple, Ski Korea and JEEP Korea were generous beyond measure. Strangers I met along the way friendly and open, often inviting me to ride with them and always happy to crack a 'V' at any photo opportunity.
Once an old hippy surfer dude friend of mine, a skier, told me that every ride on the mountain was an epic wave you didn't have to sit in the line up for. On the crest of my first big mountain, I understood instantly what he meant. I'm no expert rider, but my experiences in the Korean alps always leave me in wonder and awe, feeling completely at one with the Universe. She just keeps giving!
On the 14, 14 and 14 expedition we visited Bear Town Resort, Elysian Gangchon Ski Resort, Daemyung Vivaldi Park, Welli Hilli Park, Yongpyong Resort, Phoenix Park Ski Resort, Alpensia Resort, O2 Resort, High1 Resort, Oak Valley Snow Park, Konjiam Resort, Yangji Pine Resort Ski Valley, Suanbo Sajo Resort, Jisan Forest Ski Resort and Muju Deogyusan Resort.
Korea-Snow was given vehicle support by JEEP Korea for part of this trip. The rest of this trip was self-funded.
Many thanks to the crews at Snowple and Ski Korea for the rides and feeds and to Mr Injun Park, General Manager Yongpyong Resort, for his hospitality.