Monday, January 27, 2014

Winter in Seoul: Skiing in Korea

As much as I dislike the snow and ice, one of the best things to come out of our move to Korea has been the chance to rediscover skiing.  With its cold winters and plentiful mountains, Korea is a great place to learn (or remember how) to ski and snowboard.  Foreigners will find the resorts very efficient.  Even though we were initially intimidated at the idea of going by ourselves without the 'crutch' of a package tour, skiing in Korea turned out to be surprisingly easy  - even for foreigners who don't speak much Korean.  If you have wanted to try skiing in Korea and have been putting it off - don't wait a minute longer! The skiing's great!

Skiing and snowboarding in Korea are actually quite popular, and there are quite a few ski areas within an easy drive of Seoul.

Last year, MrL and the boys did some snowboarding during the winter holidays, but I decided to give it a miss.  It had been 17 years quite a while since I'd been on skis, and in the intervening years I'd experienced a ruptured disc in my lower back as well as intermittent knee problems - two conditions which struck me as quite incompatible with skiing.

However, as we planned our winter holidays this year, Son #1 (who would be in the country for only a short visit) expressed a desire to go skiing again, and I decided, in the interest of family time, that I wanted to at least give it a try. We planned a day trip on weekday at a resort near Seoul.  Assuming that all went well (and this was far from being a given) we would go ahead and book several nights near  Yongpyeong.  I would either plan on skiing or (if things went pear-shaped on my first go) spending my time in the hotel spa - both of which sounded reasonably attractive.

Although MrL and the boys had gone skiing last winter, they'd done so with a package tour for foreigners, so we were a bit anxious about trying to navigate the resort, lift tickets, and ski rental ourselves.  Our fears were entirely unfounded and we discovered that skiing in Korea is efficient, streamlined, and surprisingly foreigner-friendly. If you have a car and a GPS - or even if you don't - (directions for car, bus, and train are readily available on the resorts' websites) a day trip is entirely do-able, even if you don't speak a word of Korean.

For our first trip - a day trip - we left around 9 on a weekday and arrived at the Konjiam Ski Resort  (in Gyeongi-do in just over an easy hour's drive from Seoul) which had been recommended to us by a parent of one of my pupils.  Konjiam is the only ski resort in the Seoul vicinity that limits the number of skiiers on its slopes (no more than 7000) which, in a country as crowded as Korea, is a great bonus.

We used the GPS in our car but also found that the last few kilometers to the resort were well-marked with English signs, making it easy to find.  Parking was ample and well-marked (and, to our surprise at the end of the day, turned out to be free, as it was at every place we skiied.)  It was a short walk to the entrance of the resort, which, like the other 3 resorts we've visited, are built around an open, paved courtyard-type area.  Flanking the courtyard are restaurants and ski shops, condos and hotels (for those on a longer holiday) and, of course, the buildings where you pay for lift tickets and equipment, and clothing rental.  Everything is marked fairly well in English and we always found people who spoke enough English to explain things to us when needed.

At the ticket kiosk, we had the option of buying all-day, half-day, evening, or combination lift passes, and at one of the resorts, you even had the option of buying  2-hour passes.   You paid for both lift tickets and rentals at the same kiosk (prices are clearly marked on the signs), which was extremely quick and efficient.  . Everyone got lift tickets and equipment rental tickets.  We trooped over to the 'Ski House' (next door and clearly marked) where we found the clothing and equipment rental areas also well-marked in English, quick, and efficient.

Once we got our equipment, we stored our street shoes and backpacks in lockers and headed out to the piste.

Konjiam has 11 runs, ranging from beginner to expert, all marked in English.   All the resorts we visited had fenced-off areas for 'ski school' and - for people who don't ski or have small kids who don't ski - a sledding area (sled rental also available).  We saw many families with little ones enjoying themselves on the sledding slopes.  At the Alpensia resort, we also noticed many small kids carrying what looked like two-handled ice cream scoops:  they turned out to be snowball molds that looked as though they were given to all the children.

 Once we all got our feet under us, we headed for the lifts, which (like everything at most of the resorts) were set up and run very efficiently.  An extra bonus at Konjiam was the electronic lift ticket, which you slid into a pocket on your sleeve (or even inside your coat pocket) and which was read automatically as you moved through the entrance to the lift, opening the gate when it was your turn.  Love Korean technology!
#1 and #2 ready for another run.

Another resort about 1.5 hours' drive from Seoul is Elysian Gangchon ski resort.  The school where I teach has school-wide ski days here every winter and we have found it to be fantastic for a wide range of skill levels. As with all the resorts, lessons (in English) are available and Elysian actually boasts a conveyor-belt type walking sidewalk that takes skiers to the beginner's slope for their first lessons.
Skiers waiting to walk on to the moving sidewalk at Elysian.

Skiers on the moving sidewalk, moving to the beginner's slope.

As you've probably discerned by now, my first day back on skis went well enough that we went ahead and booked our family holiday in Pyeongchang, staying at the Holiday Inn Resort Alpensia.  During our stay, we skied at both Alpensia and the much larger Yongpyeong.

Alpensia and Yongpyeong are probably the two best-known ski resorts in Pyeongchang and will both be hosting events of the 2018 Winter Olympics.  Alpensia (where we stayed) is only a 1.6-km drive from Yongpyeong, and many families, like ourselves, skiied at both resorts.

Alpensia is smaller and has only 6 runs, but had a quieter, more 'family' feel to it.  Yongpyeong, with 31 runs (including 2 halfpipes for snowboarders) is enormous, although much more interesting, with longer runs and a wider variety of intermediate and advanced runs.

On the way up the 'Silver' lift at Yongpyeong.  Yes, we were intimidated!

The Yongpyeong resort also offered an enormous indoor water park on the premises, which we did not visit, but seemed like a fantastic option for families with small kids - or anyone who needed a change from the snow and cold.
View from the top of the silver lift at Yongpyeong.

All of the resorts we have visited so far have a 'break time' in the late afternoon (usually between 5-6pm) during which they groom the slopes in readiness for night skiing.  It's much less crowded at night, and Sons#1 and #2 enjoyed the chance to have the slopes nearly to themselves in the glow of the floodlights.

Son#1 with the piste to himself for a bit on New Year's Eve, taken by his brother.

General tips: 

Lift tickets:  All resorts we've been to accept credit cards as well as cash.  Prices vary depending on how long you want to ski (full day, half day, 2 hours, night, evening, etc.) but run roughly around KRW50,000 for a half-day adult ticket (morning/evening) and about KRW80,000 if you want to ski all day into the evening.  If you just want to ski in the evening, a ticket will cost about KRW25,000.  Signs are posted prominently with prices at the ticket kiosks.  Most places have a 'break time' between 4-6 pm.

Equipment Rental:    if you are renting your equipment, you will need to know your Korean shoe size and (especially for Americans) your height and weight in centimeters.  When it's your turn at the counter, you will fill in the back of your rental ticket (paid for previously at the lift ticket kiosk) with shoe size, height, and weight.  Be prepared to leave a form of ID (passport, military ID, international driver's license, hotel keycard) with your ticket at the counter and keep the receipt they give you:  you'll turn it in your receipt at the end of the day and have your ID returned to you.

Locker rental:  Many indoor lockers for shoes and other personal items are located right near the equipment and clothing rental area.  There are also numerous ski/snowboard lockers outdoors where you can lock up your equipment while you take a break, although we also saw many people carry their equipment in to some of the coffee shops at the YongPyeong resort and leave them piled up near the entrance.  (As with most places we have been in Korea, the danger of theft is low, and that includes ski resorts.)  All the lockers we saw in every resort took KRW500 coins.  There are bill-changing machines, but if you are an expat in Korea, you probably have thousands of KRW in KRW500 coins in a jar or box in your house somewhere.  Dig these out before you go and use them up.  Both the indoor lockers and the outdoor ski racks take KRW500 coins, so you can't have too many.  We came home from our first trip and filled a bag with KRW500 coins to take the next time.

Lessons - including lessons in English for foreigners(although the English ability of the instructors can vary quite widely, so be aware)  were available at all the resorts we visited, usually with kiosks near the ski rental, although I only took a refresher lesson at Alpensia in Pyeongchang (around KRW100,000 for a 2-hour private lesson.)  There were learners everywhere and many - like me - with private instructors working with them.  Brand-new beginners start in the ski school area, and after that, can be seen on the beginner and intermediate slopes with their instructors. Although we don't have small kids, it was clear that the lessons were very kid-friendly, and we observed numerous tiny kids zipping along, pole-free, in crocodiles behind their instructors.  From what we could see, if you could walk, they would teach you to ski!

Restaurants:  most of the restaurants at the resorts serve Korean, Chinese, or Japanese food, athough Yongpyeong had numerous coffee shops and Alpensia had a Lotteria, which serves Western-type fast food such as hamburgers, chicken tenders, etc. The ubiquitous GS25 can also be found everywhere for soft drinks, water, and snack foods.   If you aren't a fan of Asian food or convenience store food,  you might wish to pack your own.

When to go:  As with everything in Korea, weekends and holidays are packed, but if you get there early enough, even then it can be nice.  If you can't ski on a weekday, just plan to get there early on a weekend.  I skiied one Saturday at Elysian ski resort and found it almost empty at 9:30 in the morning.  It didn't start getting unpleasantly crowded until around noon.  Theoretically, you could spend a very pleasant weekend morning skiing in uncrowded conditions if you were ready to his the piste right when it opened (opening times vary by resort but most open at 8am.)

Beginners: Of the 4 resorts I've been to in Korea, the  Elysian seemed most beginner-friendly.  The resort is quite small, and beginners can take a conveyor-belt type device (sort of a moving sidewalk for skiiers) to the piste instead of having to navigate the lifts, which are often the most intimidating part of the entire skiing experience.

For more information, including hours, maps, and transportation information, click here.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Expat Life: The Terrible Vengeance of Merlot

But one day the solitude will weary you; one day your pride will yield, and your courage quail. You will one day cry: "I am alone!" 

One day you will no longer see your heights, and see too closely your depths; even your sublimity will frighten you like a phantom. You will one day cry: "All is false!" 

There are feelings which seek to kill the solitary one; if they do not succeed, then they themselves must die! But are you capable of this -- to be a murderer? -

                                                              Friedrich Nietzsche:  Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Leave me alone in a cage for three hours while you go out to dinner, will you?

You are weak and foolish, oh humans.  You have forgotten to secure all the doors of my crate.

I shall extract a terrible revenge upon you and your house.

I shall begin by knocking over your azalea - you know, the pink one that's blooming in January and that I have had my eye on?  The one that I've repeatedly tried to sample, only to be thwarted time after time? Yeah, that one.  I'll knock it over, and then I'll eat some of the flowers - you were right, though; they're not very tasty - I'll show my displeasure by scattering all the dirt from the pot in an enormous radius in the living room, leaving dirty footprints everywhere - including the couch.

I'll knock the remotes and cushions onto the floor while I'm at it, just for spite.

I'll make my presence known in your bedroom, romping across your bed with those selfsame soiled paws and I shall smite your glasses (both eye and water) off your nightstand unto the floor.  Knitting shall be unrolled; toilet paper shall be shredded.  Socks shall be strewn hither and yon.

I shall leap into the bathtub and skitter in a mad pattern across its gleaming white surface.  The few drops of water that are in the tub will combine with the azalea soil of my anger to create a vortex of pawprints and fury that can convey only a small portion of my wrath.

Ah, you love your earbuds, do you? So do I.  They're delicious.  One of them, I shall smite upon on the floor.  The other one, I'll ingest.  You will search for it in vain, wringing your hands as your hope of finding it fades into the shadow of my scorn.

But wait! My anger still burns brightly.  I shall poop on the floor in your study.  And eat it.  Then I'll poop on the floor again.  Then I'll eat it.  Again.  But I will leave traces so you can see and tremble at the full extent of my displeasure.

Rubbish and recycling? Please.  They will be the first place I go, watching with satisfaction as their flimsy plastic yields to my skittering paws.  I will chew everything within my reach into the tiniest possible pieces and distribute them evenly throughout the kitchen and dining room.

I shall dismember my squeaky sheep and leave her carcass, broken and torn, as a grisly harbinger of what is to come.

No corner shall escape my terrible wrath.

I will destroy all that you love.

When you return, late at night,somewhat fuddled by an evening of wine and conversation, ready for the comfort of your bed, I shall be waiting, in the dark, Sphinxlike. Standing in the middle of the dining room table, surrounded by chaos and destruction I have wrought upon you.

And you shall be without consolation.

Be afraid.

Be very afraid.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

MsCaroline: Lessons Learned in 2013

Cathay Pacific Chinese New Year Parade 2013.  Yes, that was last year.  Read on for lessons learned.

#2 in the ruins of Beng Mealea, the least known but best temple the Asia Vu family saw in Cambodia.  Which MsCaroline never got around to blogging about.  So sue her.

MsCaroline was going to start off 2014 with a deep and philosophical quote about bettering oneself or looking for the good in humankind, but most of her readers know that she is unlikely to do either during the coming year, so she feels that she has little credibility in this arena.

Rather, in keeping with her post from New Year's 2012, she has decided, instead, to pass on Life Lessons that she has learned in the last year in the hope that she may save someone else from the sorrow that can only come from hasty or poorly considered decisions.

Without further ado, here are the Top Lessons Learned by MsCaroline in 2013.  May none of you need to learn them in 2014!

1.  Keep it Simple, Stupid (or:  Finish what you start)  This first advice ('kiss') is given by writing instructors all the time, and with good reason.  MsCaroline (who is -shockingly- a certified teacher of the English language with a couple of degrees under her belt) knows this and has taught it for years to her writing students.  She tries - mostly unsuccessfully - to take her own advice, but this is almost always an abject failure when it comes to Travel Blogging, an area which which is destined to be her Waterloo. Caught up in post-vacation excitement, MsCaroline consistently overwrites, overdescribes, and overphotographs her travel experiences, leading to Blogger's Burnout and a strong desire to throw her laptop out the window after the first post or two. Observant readers need only to think back a few months to the Asia Vu family trip to Hong Kong and Macau  or to the more recent trip to Angkor Wat to realize that MsCaroline has never finished up her travel descriptions of either (and may never do so.)
More Beng Mealea.  A brilliant post that will never be written.

In the New Year, MsCaroline is planning to stick to a more conservative travel writing format, which will look like this:  "We went to ______________ for _____ days/weeks/months.  It was fun/not fun.  Here are some photographs.  MsCaroline recommends/does not recommend that you patronize the following establishments.  The end."  

Yes, it will be marginally less entertaining, but at least MsCaroline will not lie awake at 4am thinking about all that she has left undone and adding 'blog posts' to the Litany of the Unfinished.
Pre Rup - another worthy temple too long ignored.

Life Lesson for 2014:  Finish what you start.

2.  If You Go Shopping for a Cat, Do Not Buy a Dog.  Regular readers will have noticed a significant decrease in MsCaroline's blogging frequency, dating almost exactly to the day that the AsiaVu family went out to adopt a cat and impulsively bought a small and beguiling dog of questionable breeding and heritage (but with adorable bat ears.)  As it turns out, the dog in question is, at 5 months of age, turning out to be Something between a French Bulldog and Boston Terrier But Probably Mostly Boston Terrier.  She is a Highly Active Animal with Many Neuroses -most noticeably, a strong aversion to being alone,which she demonstrates in a variety of ways.

Despite her small size (she is still just under 5kg) she is remarkably nimble and can climb, jump, or otherwise scale nearly any barrier that is erected to contain her.  MsCaroline could go on at length about all of her charming idiosyncrasies, but it would just make her cry be pointless (in addition to violating the 'KISS' advice above.)  Suffice it to say that, when the AsiaVus returned last week from a brief ski holiday to collect their 20-week-old darling from the boarding kennel (attached to their veterinarian's office,) it was revealed that she had managed to escape from the boarding facility part of the building and was found roaming through the office, where she created a certain amount of damage chaos before being apprehended, including dismantling the office Christmas tree.  The words 'separation anxiety' and 'hyperactive' were used in the subsequent conversation, as MsCaroline hung her head in shame and wondered if Reform School For Dogs was a Thing, and, if so, where she could find one in Seoul.  MrLogical, on the other hand  (living up to his name once again) cheerfully paid the bill, tucked the dog under his arm, and did not concern himself one bit about the Incident at The Kennel. He pointed out that, while the dog was more than happy to walk 5 or 6 miles without appearing to tire and did have her 'whirling dervish' moments, she also  slept peacefully through the night (in fact, she will happily sleep until noon if left to her own devices,) was loving and friendly, sat and stayed on command, walked pleasantly on a leash, did not bark or bite, and was marginally housebroken - not to mention that this was the dog's first experience in a boarding kennel.  In his book, this was a fairly well-behaved 5- month old puppy, and the Incident at the Kennel was nothing to worry about.

While MsCaroline recognizes that MrL is probably correct, it is her nature to focus on the negative, and she has therefore been fantasizing about how much better her life would be right now if she only had come home with a cat. 

 Life Lesson for 2014:  Stick to the plan or be prepared to face the consequences, however adorable. 

3.  Sometimes, what you know is enough, or:  if you have not been skiing in over 15 years, it may or may not be a good idea to take a 'refresher' lesson. Corollary:  if you do take a refresher lesson, hold out for the right instructor.  After 11 years in the American Southwest and 1 ruptured disc, MsCaroline doubted that she would ever get on skis again, despite having learned in Austria as a youngish teenager and having enjoyed skiing on the East Coast throughout her young adulthood (eg, 'before children.')  For whatever (misguided) reason, after all this time, MsC booked a short ski holiday in Pyeongchang (location of the 2018 Winter Olympics) for the family, and gamely struggled into ski gear for the first time in nearly 2 decades.  The first day was a pleasant surprise, and by the end of the day, MsC was competently (if not gracefully) moving down the piste, and almost remembering how to do those parallel turns.  But alas! MsCaroline - was not satisfied with this (her tragic flaw.)  She decided to take a private lesson to get a few pointers on balance, weight distribution, and turning, which - she reasoned - would help her improve more quickly, and hasten her improvement to the point where she would soon be schussing gracefully down the piste.

Accordingly, she presented herself the next morning at the Ski School and requested a private lesson with an English-speaking instructor.  As it turned out, all the fluent instructors were already booked, but, if MsCaroline didn't mind, they could provide her with an instructor who spoke basic - but not fluent - English.  Would that do? Sure, MsCaroline (who is, after all, slightly impatient) said -after all, how much English did one need to communicate some simple instructions? - and gamely trundled out of the Ski House behind her 25-year-old instructor, who introduced himself by saying, "My English, only little" as they queued up for the chairlift.

My ever-perceptive readers have probably already followed these statements through to their logical outcome:  namely, the lesson was an exercise in frustration for both of us and deep embarrassment for one of us (MsCaroline would like to point out, though, that the lack of success in this lesson was entirely her fault, and not the instructor's, who had fairly represented himself as not speaking much English.)  In the first place, MsCaroline had learned to ski approximately 10 million years ago and therefore could not remember the last time she'd done a snowplow ('wedge') turn, much less how to do one, which is where the Instructor wanted to start.  In the second place, there was a lot of emphasis on weight shifting which the Instructor conveyed by shrieking, 'UP!'  "DOWN" and "PUCE!."  It took at least an hour before MsCaroline understood that 'PUCE" was, in fact, meant to be 'PUSH" and the Ski Instructor was trying to get her to put her weight on that foot.  What was even more frustrating was that MsCaroline was PUCE-ing - really, she was, which was borne out by the fact that she was turning - but had no way to convey this to the instructor, who simply shook his head and shrieked some more when she pointed out mildly that she was - and even louder when she would forget to ski in the 'A-position' and parallel ski instead (No 11! Only A-position!)  At the end of the lesson, the instructor gravely pronounced that she should 'A-position MASTER.  No 11s! Today! Tomorrow! Tomorrow! Always, A-position!'  

MrLogical pointed out helpfully (having been an intermittent onlooker during those 2 painful hours,) "You were doing a lot better before you took the lesson"  which, while annoying on both personal and financial levels, was probably the most useful thing MsCaroline had heard all day.

Life Lesson for 2014:  It's OK not be an Olympian.  Stick with what you know if it makes you happy:  but if you want to improve, hold out for the right instructor.  

Happy 2014, Lovely people!