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.

15 comments:

Fe Adamsonn said...

Your pictures show how fun it is. I can't believe you managed to go for skiing without a tour package and without knowing Korean language. I'll have that place for skiing though. Thank you for sharing.

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MsCaroline said...

Fe, you're welcome, but it really wasn't difficult at all - if we could do it, anyone could!

santamonicachick said...

I so enjoy all that you share.

Trish Burgess said...

This post is perfect for the next travel round-up for BritMums I'm doing this week. My theme is winter/cold holidays! You're in!

MsCaroline said...

SMC- Thank you!

Trish - Yay! I met several families from Dubai over the winter holidays who were skiing at Yongpyeong - very international crowd there. I am sure you have many readers in that neck of the woods who are close enough to visit. Hope it will be helpful to them!

nappy valley girl said...

Sounds interesting! Love the idea of a break before night skiing. And eating Asian food on the slopes...I'll bet that's healthier than a constant diet of hot chocolate, cheese and steak frites.

BavarianSojourn said...

That all sounds brilliant... If I could have a bowl of bibimbap for lunch too, it would be utterly perfect! :)

Elizabeth Musgrave said...

Sounds as though you had a great time! I am sure you get a different and deeper experience when you brave a holiday without the security blanket of a British/US package. Good for you for giving it a go. You certainly reaped the rewards!

MsCaroline said...

NVG - well, some of it is healthier, but plenty of it is not...especially if you drink beer along with it - which we do!

Emma- bipimbap abounds, as do all the hot soups and stews. We love galbitang and solentang (sp)!

Elizabeth - it was a little nerve-wracking initially, but I think our experience was probably more fun (and cheaper) without the 'crutch'!

Trish Burgess said...

Here's the link to today's travel round-up where your post is mentioned.

http://www.britmums.com/2014/02/travel-round-loving-cold-climate/

Stacy Rushton said...

What a thorough post! Hope you don't mind if I share this with friends in the region. I am sure more than a few of them might want to spend spring break skiing, if there's still snow.

MsCaroline said...

Trish - thank you so much! I so appreciate being an honorary BritMum!Hope someone will find it to be of use!

MsCaroline said...

Stacy - If by "thorough" you mean, "long and boring," then I completely agree! ; ) Actually, we were really intimidated to go alone without the previously-mentioned 'crutch,' so when it turned out to be so easy, I really wanted to pass on the information to people who might otherwise never have tried it. I still haven't figured out how to travel blog very well - too little/too much is always my issue!

Estelea said...

Thanks so much for all the precious infos! we are contemplating a week of sky late Jan, do you think it is a good time? Is it true that you can basically rent everything you need included ski jacket? Will check your fam resorts right now, thanks again!

MsCaroline said...

Estela - Glad that it was helpful to you! Yes, January is usually a good time for skiing here, and even if there isn't much snow on the ground, every resort has its own snow-making equipment. It goes without saying that weekends and holidays are most crowded. Early in the morning is usually very peaceful. And yes, you can rent clothing - ski pants, jackets are readily available for rental - I am pretty certain gloves and goggles, too, but I'm not sure. You'll need warm socks hats, neckwarmers, and underlayers, of course, but the actual ski stuff is there for rental in all sizes. Enjoy!