On the slopes in Korea: Not the Alps, but not badWinter’s here again, and with it the skiing season. Yes, it’s the time of year when hordes of reckless maniacs haul their snowsuits out of the closet, dust off their boots and boards, load it all into their SUVs and head for the slopes. And although Korea has not yet staged a Winter Olympics, 13 major ski resorts nationwide ― five within easy reach of Seoul ― make it as good a place to ski as almost any.
But don’t you need snow to ski? What if the white stuff declines to spread itself in a crunchy carpet over the landscape? Traditionally, that has been the trouble with skiing: if it doesn’t snow, the chair lifts don’t go. Not even the most hardened enthusiast can glide gracefully over mud and rocks.
Nowadays, however, we humans simply produce artificial snow by the bucketload if Mother Nature fails to cooperate. We may not be able to control weather and climate just yet, but that doesn’t mean we are obliged to wait for the sky to dump a load of soft frozen water on us in order to have a little fun. Snow-making technology has advanced far enough for resorts to blow snow across the piste in sizeable quantities without breaking the bank, as long as the air temperature’s cold enough to prevent it from melting once it lands.
So skiing in Korea is a going concern from now until early March. That gives you at least three full months to don goggles and silly hat and risk life and limb sliding downhill on two planks.
Of course, you’re wondering about the cost. Skiing is a notoriously expensive hobby. In Europe it’s often considered a sport for the rich only. To rent a chalet in the Alps costs an arm and a leg, and you’ve still got the lift pass to buy. A week’s skiing later and you’d better take out a second mortgage on the house.
But skiing is surprisingly affordable in Korea. Even at the priciest resort, you should be able to get in a full day’s skiing, including rental of all equipment, for around 100,000 won ($84). That is an absolute bargain compared to European rates.
And it’s convenient, too. If you’ve got your own skis, boots, poles, snowboard or whatever, then that’s fine. If you haven’t, you can just show up at the foot of the slope and be outfitted with everything you need in 10 minutes flat for one all-inclusive fee. So there’s no excuse for huddling indoors all winter with the ondol burning a hole in your backside while a Christmas-pudding paunch grows on your torso.
There’s only really one obstacle to getting out on the slope and discovering muscles you never knew existed: the crowds.
If you attempt to ski on the weekend, you’ll soon discover that everybody else had the same wonderful idea. Standing in line half an hour for the lift in a chilly wind soon negates the glowing feeling of sailing downhill on a layer of powdery ice. And at two trips an hour, you may start thinking that the lift fee wasn’t so reasonable after all. Sunday is the worst day to attempt to do anything pleasurable in Korea, since that’s the day everyone has off. (Except the guys who operate the chair lift.) And Saturday isn’t much better.
The solution is to ski during the week if you can. Go on another day and you’ll find the slopes delightfully free of tumbling infants, and the lines for the lifts mercifully short.
So, where to go? There are a decent number of resorts to choose from. Gangwon province contains half of them, and has probably the best conditions given its high mountains. Avid skiers might head for Pyeongchang’s Yongpyong or Phoenix Park resorts, which would have been used for the 2010 Winter Olympics had Vancouver, Canada, received a couple fewer votes.
If your aims are more modest ― like simply to avoid falling over ― the resorts closer to Seoul, situated on smaller mountains with less demanding slopes, might be fine. They also happen to be close enough to Seoul for a day trip, meaning that you don’t have to fork out for accommodation if you don’t want to.
The best-known Gyeonggi province resort is probably Bears Town (pictured below), about 50 kilometers northeast of Seoul and accessible by city buses (see factbox). It has 11 slopes, including a “plaza-style” piste for beginners that is 600 meters long and 65 meters wide. Plenty of room to maneuver. And don’t worry, you won’t be the only one with skis in the air and face in the snow.
Bears Town’s basic hours run from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. (there may also be early morning as well as night skiing, but call to check). Ski rental for the whole day will set you back only 30,000 won, and Master Hong’s Expert Tune-up Center, at the foot of the hill, will adjust the gear to your size on the spot. If you have energy for only half a day’s exercise, the rental fee comes out to 22,000 won for the morning (9 a.m. to noon) or 24,000 won for the afternoon (1 p.m. to 4:45 p.m.). Fees for children are generally about 30 percent lower.
If you’d prefer to surf downhill on a snowboard, this is slightly more expensive at 38,000 won for the full day, or 26,000 won for half a day (morning or afternoon). It is also possible to rent skiwear at 20,000 won for the full day, or 15,000 won for half a day.
As for the all-important lift fee, unavoidable unless you want to spend all day lugging your pointy sticks up the hill, rates are as follows: A full day’s riding on the chair lift costs 44,000 won for adults and 28,000 won for children. If you intend to swish your elegant S-shape for only half a day, the fee is only 33,000 won for either the morning or afternoon (22,000 won for children). Night skiing costs 36,000 won for adults, 24,000 won for children, and runs from 6:15 to 10 p.m.
There are two other resorts slightly closer to Seoul. Chonmasan Ski Resort is only 32 kilometers to the east and is renowned for night skiing. With a car, it is therefore possible to head out and get in a couple of hours’ skiing in the evening. The Seoul Ski Resort is very near Chonmasan. These resorts have five and four slopes respectively, and their equipment rental and ski lift rates are slightly cheaper than at Bears Town.
For those wishing to make a longer trip, say a full weekend, there are hotel and condominium accommodations available at all resorts at varying rates. At Bears Town, skiing and snowboarding lessons in English or Japanese are also possible upon request; call to inquire about rates and to make a booking. Other facilities at the Bears Town Resort, if you should need them, include restaurants, snack bars, convenience stores, sauna, electronic games room, swimming and karaoke. So there’s no need to rough it.
There remains only the vexed question of how Korean ski resorts measure up by world standards. Does all this artificial snow have the same feel as the real stuff? And are the pistes as good as the classic European Alpine ones?
“The snow is amazingly like real snow,” says Karin Muller, an MBA student and experienced skier from Germany visiting Bears Town for the first time. “That’s no problem. And the facilities are very well set up. Of course the skiing is not quite as good as in the Alps, the slopes are not as fast, but that’s a small matter. On the whole I am happy to be able to ski here. I just wish the queues were a little shorter. But that’s Korea.”
How to get to Korea’s ski resorts
Bears Town Resort
Cheongnyangni subway station (line No. 1); take exit 5, cross road to Hyundai Core Department Store, take bus No. 707 to Gwangneungnae (1 hour, 1,300 won). At the terminus, change to local bus No. 7 (700 won); 20 minutes to the resort.
Chonmasan Ski Resort
Cheongnyangni subway station (exit 2); take bus Nos. 330-1, 765, 765-1, 1330, 3300 (1 hour).
Seoul Ski Resort
Cheongyangni subway station (exit 2); take bus Nos. 765,
765-1, 1130 (1 hour).
Yangji Pine Resort
Seoul Nambu Bus Terminal (subway line No. 3); take a bus to Yangji (40 minutes), then a taxi to the resort (5 minutes).
Jisan Forest Resort
Dong Seoul Bus Terminal (subway line No. 2); take a bus to Icheon (3,300 won, 1 hour), then bus No. 12 to the resort.
Dong Seoul Bus Terminal; take a bus to Hoenggye (12,100 won, 3 hours), then take the free shuttle bus from Hoenggye Post Office.
Dong Seoul Bus Terminal or Sangbong Bus Terminal (line No. 7); take a bus to Ganseong (15,000 won, 4 hours), get off at Jinburyeong, take a shuttle bus to the resort.
Dong Seoul Bus Terminal; take a bus to Jangpyeong Terminal (10,200 won, 2 hours 30 minutes), then take the free shuttle bus to the resort.
Hyundai Sungwoo Resort
(02) 523-7111 (English),
(02) 520-2341 (Japanese, Chinese)
Dong Seoul Bus Terminal; take a bus to Wonju (5,500 won, 1 hour 30 minutes). Then take the free shuttle bus from Wonju New Bus Terminal to the resort.
Daemyung Vivaldi Park
Dong Seoul Bus Terminal or Sangbong Terminal; take a bus to Hongcheon Terminal, then take a city bus to the resort.
LG Gangchon Resort
Cheongnyangni Train Station (short walk from Cheongnyangni subway station) to Gangchon Train Station (1 hour 30 minutes), then take a free shuttle bus to the resort.
North Jeolla province
email@example.com (English, Chinese and Japanese)
Seoul Nambu Bus Terminal; take a bus to Muju (11,000 won, 2 hours 40 minutes), then take a free shuttle bus to the resort from the Muju Raje Park Hotel.
North Chungcheong province
Suanbo Sajo Resort
Dong Seoul Bus Terminal; take a bus to Suanbo (9,200 won, 2 hours 30 minutes), and then take a free shuttle bus to the resort.
by Jeremy Garlick