There's no business like snow businessWhen I'm struggling to find a reason to escape Seoul during the winter, all I have to do is think about my childhood in New Jersey.
The snowfalls are heavy there, and my brother, sister and I often built snowmen in our front yard. Once, the morning after a snowstorm, we decided to try something different.
Two of the neighborhood kids trudged over to our yard. The snow was deep and untouched except for the tiny footprints of birds and squirrels. It was perfect for building a snow fort. Only ours was going to be made from snow bricks, like an igloo. It was even going to have a tunnel entrance.
The problem was shaping the bricks. We rolled a couple snowballs and smacked the tops flat. They broke. We tried shaving the edges off with a twig, but that took too much time.
We needed a mold. I sneaked into the kitchen and found a loaf pan. My brother went into the garage -- which was off limits -- and took my dad's brand-new snow shovel. We met back at the half-circle we had drawn in the snow to build our fort. My brother shoveled. I packed. My sister and I lined the bricks to form the fort's foundation. Soon, the neighbors started lobbing snowballs at us from their hastily constructed fortress.
"That's not fair!" my brother yelled. "We're not finished."
How did the Eskimo do this? We were going nowhere fast. We finished one layer of snow bricks. Then, my sister asked, "Do you think Mom made lunch?"
Those were the magic words. We left the shovel, loaf pan and bricks in the yard and went inside our house in search of food.
I can't remember what we did that afternoon, but we didn't go back outdoors. It snowed that night. We found Dad's missing shovel and Mom's rusted loaf pan in the spring.
It's unlikely that I'll ever be able to build a snowman in Seoul. But I love going to the countryside where there are igloos and sculptures made of snow and ice.
Korea has more snow festivals than any place I know. And now is the time to enjoy them.
Take a train tour to see the snow flowers bloom
The definition of a snow flower: a snowflake cluster on a tree branch that is so large and billowing that it looks like a flower.
There aren't many in Seoul, where heavy snowfalls are rare and the air simply isn't clean enough to produce many snow flowers.
But there are plenty in the countryside, and easy to see on the Korean National Railroad's day-long sightseeing tours.
The time spent staring out the train's windows and at way stations is as important as the final destination. Travelers get half-hour breaks at the various countryside stops to take photos and breath the crisp, cold mountain air.
This year's tours run until Feb. 28. Prices range between 29,000 won and 41,900 won ($25-36). For information, call 1544-7788 or visit the Web site at korail.go.kr.
Mount Taebaek in Gangwon province provides a stunning backdrop for winter. The best time to go is during the Taebaek Snow Festival, which runs Jan. 18 to 26, although the tour package is available daily until Jan. 27, and again on Feb. 4-16.
The train leaves Yeongdeungpo Station at 7:40 a.m. and arrives at Taebaek Station at 12:35 p.m. From there, travelers can go to the festival, visit a coal mine or go hiking or sledding. The train leaves for Seoul at 5:05 p.m., arriving at Yeongdeungpo Station at 10:25 p.m. The cost of a round-trip ticket is 40,900 won to 44,700 won.
Daegwallyeong's snow festival runs until Jan. 19, but the Gangwon province area is scenic all winter long. Tours packages are available through Jan. 27, on Feb. 4-8 and Feb. 10-15.
The overnight train leaves Cheongnyangni station at 11:40 p.m. and arrives in Jeongdongjin at 6:10 a.m., just in time for the sunrise. A bus takes travelers to Daegwallyeong, where people can also hunt for snow flowers or go sledding. The return train leaves Jeungsan station at 4:25 p.m. and arrives at Cheongnyangni at 8:45 p.m.
The Hwangsangseon Snow Flower Tour includes a stop at Chujeong, the highest train station in Korea, and Seungbu, famous for its snow flowers and long icicles that hang from rooftops. Tours are available until Jan. 27. Train leaves Cheongnyangni at 7:45 a.m. and arrives at Cheoram Station, Gangwon province, at 3:07 p.m. After a brief stop, the train returns to Seoul , arriving at 8:56 p.m.
White meadows, snow-capped peaks and a sea of clouds has given the Sobaek Mountain range the reputation of being the Korean Alps. The Sobaek Snow Flower Tour runs until Jan. 27 and again on Feb. 4-28. Train leaves Cheongnyangni at 9 a.m. and tours several provinces. At the Pungi stop, Gyeongsang province, travelers can visit a ginseng market. The return train leaves Pungi at 6:05 p.m. and arrives at Cheongnyangni at 9:37 p.m.
Muju in Jeolla province may be famous for its ski resort, but even nonskiers can enjoy the winter views, as well. Muju Deokyu Mountain Snow Flower Tour is available until Jan. 27 and again Feb. 4-28. The train leaves Seoul Station at 8:15 a.m. and arrives at Yeongdong station at 10:45 a.m. There, travelers can ride the gondola up the face of Muju, go sledding or see Chilhyeon Valley, famous for pottery. The return train leaves Yeongdong at 7:34 p.m. and arrives at Seoul Station at 10:07 p.m.
Daegwallyeong fest site is vying for the 2010 Winter Olympics
Snow falls hard in the Taebaek Mountains, particularly by Daegwallyeong Pass. It wasn't unusual, just a few decades ago, for the highlands of Pyeongchang County, Gangwon province, to be cut off from the rest of the world in the thick of winter.
With snow banks 3 meters deep, the people of Daegwallyeong had to travel mountain paths using seolpi, or snowshoes. Goods were transported on horse- or ox-drawn sleds, called balgu.
But modern technology has put an end to that. Western-style homes, ski resorts and highways have cut into the landscape of firs. The days of hunting and tobogganing are fast becoming a distant memory.
So several inhabitants of Dae-gwallyeong have decided to preserve their heritage. They launched the first Daegwallyeong Snow Festival about a decade ago.
Residents recall there weren't many visitors at the first fest. But those who came seemed to enjoy walking on snowshoes and making snowmen.
The festival has grown tremendously. Organizers, now at the Pyeongchang County Office, are expecting up to 300,000 people to take part in this year's festival, which starts tomorrow and runs through Jan. 19. The fest features castles, dragons and mountains carved out of ice blocks and brightly lit from within by colored lamps.
Activities include making snowmen, ice sliding and going for sleigh rides. There is a snow sculpture tournament, a sledding contest and a skiing competition. There also is a nude foot race for naturalists brave enough to risk frostbite.
In addition, organizers this year are rallying support for Pyeonchang as a candidate for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Getting there: The bus from East Seoul Terminal to Pyeongchang Terminal takes 2 hours and 30 minutes. Flights from Gimpo Airport to Gangneung Airport take 50 minutes.
Accommodations: Dragon Valley Hotel (033) 335-5757; Hotel Mt. Odaesan (033) 330-5000; Phoenix Park (033) 333-6000; Yonpyeong Youth Hostel (033) 335-5757
Web site: www.snowfestival.net, or www.happy700.or.kr.
Enjoying the frost closer to home
There are plenty of opportunities to revel in the snow close to Seoul. The area's theme parks all have activities planned.
Everland recently unveiled an ice playground, open through Jan. 19. It features an ice palace, a fully stocked ice aquarium and a labyrinth with 2-meter-high ice walls. There also is an an ice rink and an animation ice park with ice sculptures of cartoon characters.
Everland's other winter activities run through the entire season. One of the most popular is its Snow Buster, a sledding course for kids of all ages. There are also slopes for young kids only and for families, a ski-and-sleigh course and a bobsled course.
For visitors in search of warmer climes, Everland offers Caribbean Bay's indoor pools.
Getting there: Take subway line No. 2 to Gangnam Station, exit No. 6. Catch the bus for Everland in front of Kookmin Bank. The trip takes 50 minutes and costs 1,400 won.
Web site: www.everland.co.kr.
Lotte World in Jamsil is having an ice festival until Jan. 26. There are ice sculptures grouped under five themes.
Getting there: Take subway line No. 2 to Jamsil Station.
Web site: www.lotteworld.co.kr.
by Joe Yong-hee