Oh, what fun it is to ride in a two-dog open sledPYEONGCHANG, Gangwon ―The weather forecast had warned that the first heavy snowfall of the year was on its way the night we arrived at a small town in this mountainous region northeast of Seoul. The news was enough to make the villagers anxious.
“When it snows here, it snows until you feel sick,” said Lee Gi-cheol, the head of Sulimdae Village, a farming town that offers seasonal guesthouses for urban visitors. Last winter he had to suffer one day when 30 centimeters (12 inches) of snow fell and froze traffic throughout the area.
But snow was just what we were hoping for ― it meant the snow dog sledding arena up in the highlands would be open. Without snow the arena would be used for dog-pulled wagon rides. We had been told this by the arena owner a week previously. He had warned us that he would not be able to take out his sled unless it snowed the very day we arrived.
Ignoring the excitement we felt about the next day’s potential for adventure, the town’s representative suggested we spend the rest of our evening making popcorn over a large campfire that had burned down to its hot embers.
“We will not be able do this [popcorn-making] tomorrow night if the snow is really bad,” he said.
The next day the world was drenched with white. Soft, puffy snow covered the roofs, the roads, the trees and all of the hills all the way to the horizon. When I took a step out the door, my hiking boots sank right into the fresh bed of snow with a loud crunch. We left Mr. Lee behind to grumble. As we walked away we could hear him thanking heaven that “it only snowed this much,” but soon his voice faded away to be replaced by the soft sounds of our footprints in the snow. It was a delightful experience.
Chung Cheol-hwa, the proprietor of 700 Village, a guesthouse and winter recreation center where he is also the activity instructor, waited for us at the bottom of the slope near Mount Jangam. He announced that the large 45-person that had collected us from Sulimdae could not climb up the curvy road because the sudden snow has made it too slippery. So we hopped into his mini-van instead and soon we were high above the village.
Ten Alaskan malamute huskies were waiting for us, tied to a pole. Sleds are pulled by two or four dogs. Depending on how well and quickly visitors learn during the 10-minute beginner’s training, they are either assigned to be the musher or the person who takes a seat in front of the musher. Her job is to hold tightly to the side of the sled. I was assigned to sit (Mr. Chung usually prefers the male to be the musher).
“It’s important that you make a thunderous holler at the snow dogs if you want them to listen,” Mr. Chung said. “Speak with a tiny voice and the dogs will pay no attention to your orders.”
The dogs had a strange linguistic anomaly. They were trained to understand “Gaja gaja,” meaning “go go” in Korean, to start running, but they only stopped if one yelled “Stop!” in English.
Mr Chung said it was important for mushers to look ahead and never turn their head unless the sleigh is stationary. Apparently the dogs get confused by horizontal movements of their harness.
The first musher in the line held tightly to the harness with a firm nod. He was ready to roll. He yelled, “Gaja gaja!” But the dogs stood still in their place, whimpering.
“I told you to make a thunderous roar,” Mr. Chung shouted at the embarrassed boy before he gave a loud yell at the dogs himself and the sled slid away. The girl in the front squealed as she was pushed back to the seat by the sudden jerk.
Dogs ran up the hills and down the hills again. The boy had trouble controlling them so they would turn them around to come back to the starting line. But Mr. Chung rode on his ATV alongside his novice mushers. He frequently repeated the order that the musher must use a loud voice. The dogs were well-trained and they only followed the snowy trail they were already familiar with.
“Siberian huskies are fast but they are not too speedy for beginners,” said Mr. Chung. He explained that he chose Alaskan malamutes because they are milder and stronger. A four-dog sled led by these Alaskan malamutes can go up to 30 kilometers per hour if an advanced musher leads the dogs.
Mr. Chung’s 700 Village is one of the rare permanent snow-sledding arenas in the country. Ski resorts occasionally sponsor dog-sledding events on their ski slopes, but the sport is still relatively unfamiliar in this country, where it is hard to maintain the necessary snow-covered tracks that need to run for miles through the mountains. Pyeongchang county sits over 700 meters above sea level, making it an ideal place for dog-sledding. (And that’s the reason why “700” is often included in the title of quite a few businesses found around here).
Mr. Chung said he would never have started his business if it weren’t for the fact that his guesthouse is located at least 40 minutes by car from the popular ski resorts. He was losing customers to nearby Yongpyong and Phoenix Park ski resorts and he needed new ideas to make his lodge a popular destination for visitors. He got in contact with a group of amateur dog sled racers from the Korea Sled Dog RacingAssociation, which now has over 100 members in Korea, (see www.ksdra.org). They needed a place to practice, and he thought the area around his lodge was a good place for them. He learned about sled dogs himself. From then on, he started to rent his tracks to amateurs who brought their own snow dogs. For visitors, he charges 10,000 won for 30 minutes of yelping through the snow.
After almost an hour on the snow tracks, dogs had begun to huff and puff with steamy breath in the cold air and Mr. Chung suggested we let the dogs rest.
“It may be bad news for the villagers down there if it snows more,” he said. “But for us up here, the more snow, the longer the tracks can be used for the dogs to run freely.”
To reach the 700 Village dog-sled arena by car, take the Gyeongbu Expressway, exit at Singal and take the Yeongdong Expressway toward Gangneung. Follow the signs toward Pyeongchang town center, and look for Nosan Church, one of the biggest landmarks in the village. From there, it’s a 10-minute drive up the hill to 700 Village. A sign is posted. For public transportation, there is an express bus that departs from Dongseoul Express Bus Terminal and goes to Pyeongchang-eup (Pyeongchang town center) Terminal. From there, contact 700 Village at, (033) 334-5600, for a lift to the resort (reservation is necessary).
Sanbada Travel is offering a package tour to Pyeongchang every weekend. For 119,000 won ($128) per person it provides a round-trip transportation, three meals, lodging, shopping and a dog-sledding experience. For a reservation, call, (02) 739-4600.
For general travel information on Pyeongchang tours, contact the county-run “Happy 700 Stay” agency at (9033)332-9941 or visit, www.happy700stay.com
1) Sulimdae Village
2) 700 Village
1) Gamagol Nongbak (Cauldron Makers Farm)
Specialty: Gondeure (from the chrysanthemum family) vegetable rice (5,000 won)
235-1 Daeha-ri, Pyeongchang town, Pyeongchang county
2) Mido Bunsik (Mido Snack)
Specialty: Buckwheat pancakes (2,000 won per plate)
Located at the entrance of the Pyeongchang town center’s market place
by Lee Min-a