Ski Korea

PyeongChang

YongPyong Ski Resort, Dragon Valley Hotel

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As I was applying for study abroad programs last year, it was more or less in the back of my mind that the next Winter Olympic games were being held in South Korea. So when I found out that I was actually going to be spending time here, I did some serious recon on skiing. There are a few different places – Yongpyong, Alpensia, High1 – but Yongpyong is by far the most popular resort, and was even selected as the official venue for Alpine Skiing in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Needless to say, I was totally stoked about it. Although the selection is no longer breaking news, boy you’d better believe South Korea is pulling out all the stops on this one.

Before I get on with it though, truthfully…

I feel obligated to inform you the reader that the following post was brought to you by JP Morgan Chase. Thanks to my new Chase Freedom card – which I can earn 1% cash back on with all regular purchases and up to 5% cash back on all qualifying promotions – I was able to book my stay through Expedia at YongPyong’s Dragon Valley Hotel by simply downloading the mobile app for my iPhone, which allows me to earn three times as many more points than booking from my MacBook Pro. But on a serious note, talk to your local banker about getting your Chase Freedom card today or go to www.chase.com to find out in seconds if you’ve been pre-approved.

Ok joking aside now.

 

It’s 4:39 am and I’d like to thank the based god.

It’s pretty cold but I feel great.

As I’m leaving Graduate Student Dormitory Bldg. B (this is explained elsewhere) and walking through the ghost town of Ewha’s campus in the heart of Seoul (not to be confused with Heart and Soul), a mere line transfer away from the bustling Myeong-dong, I can’t help but notice the eerie calm of everything. Streets that aren’t maneuverable by day are completely vacant. All of the millennials?

Gone.

Let me rant very briefly.

I feel like it’s normal to notice things the second time around, but now that I’ll be living here, at least for a little while, I’m not quite as awestruck as I was when I traveled here with IPFW. For instance, the young people here are all very, very well dressed. Everyone that is peddling goods comes off as super abrasive and they expect you to get a move on if you don’t seem hell-bent on dropping a cool W35,000 on their seriously questionable Louis V backpack. I won’t say that the huge investment and growth that has occurred in the greater Seoul area isn’t impressive, because it is, but the people just seem more concerned with spending than stacking money. It just feels like a spend-it-if-you-got-it culture in most places. Not passing any judgment – just making a general observation. To be fair, I’m sure that without a booming economy none of this would even be possible. The abrasive street vendor wouldn’t be that way without many willing buyers.

They’re probably just ahead of the curve.

What can be expected when America has maintained a presence here since the 1950’s? Maybe we’re the abrasive ones.

Anyways at this hour there are more or less three types of people scuttling about. The first type, and definitely the most interesting, is the street sweeper. No really – actual street sweepers. A bunch of middle-aged guys in Reptar green hazmat suits bag garbage and sweep up filth with these peculiar little brushes that look more like mop heads without a handle than brooms. It’s frustrating, and I hate them (the broom handles, or lack thereof). But no lie these guys are getting it and I have to tip my hat to them because they’re worthy of a Mike Rowe “Dirty Jobs” appearance. Otherwise, aside from these characters there are the occasional Saturday night scenesters leaning over the gutter, probably regretting his and her decisions from the night before. That’s at least familiar.

And then there is me, the big goofy blond polka dot.

After teaching myself to use the subway this week (which as it turns out is quite easy) I decided to take it to Sinchon station about a kilometer away, where the bus was scheduled to pick me up promptly at 5:20am. Easy right? I had plenty of time to spare. Not so much. If I had payed any attention to subway times at any point this week I would have noticed that the green line doesn’t run to Sinchon station on Sundays until the afternoon. By 5:09am I figure this out and at a dead sprint, climb three flights of stairs and start flying down Yeodae (abbreviated street name), because the escalators weren’t turned on yet. “Of course they aren’t” I thought, “I didn’t want to use them anyways.” Thankfully, I made it to the rendezvous with time to spare. I love the low elevation here because I’m telling you, with the speed I was moving, I would have given Usain Bolt a run for his money. Or maybe an early Model T Ford.

In front of my stop there happened to be a “GB 25” (kind of like 7-11, which there are actually tons of here) so I stopped in for a paper and coffee. The Korea Times grabbed my eye, because oh god finally a newspaper in English! As I’m walking out the door my charter bus rolls up, and man oh man is this thing purple. Apparently Koreans have an affinity for the color purple. Maybe because it’s supposed to be the color of royalty or something, or perhaps even as a tribute to the movie, I don’t know. But this definitely isn’t the first time I’ve rode on a bright purple Korean bus. Most of my memories from ECON-E477 include the magic school bus where we spent most of our trip and the fantastically purple curtains on board. The language barrier here is almost a deal breaker for me, but fortunately I know just enough Korean to scrape by. You’re funny if you assume I can speak in complete sentences; thankfully when the shuttle bus driver looks at me and says, “Yongpyong?” all I have to do is smile and nod. And smile and nod I did indeed.

By around 6:00am we made it to the Olympic Stadium. Apparently this is a popular rendezvous for the charters before departure, because even though it was dark I could clearly make out an endless row of busses. We broke off with a couple other purple people eaters and hit the open road by about 6:15. Suffice it to say that the trip was pretty dull. Lots of hilly landscape, lots of Kia’s & Hyundai’s, and many tunnels. In just under two and a half hours we made it to PyeongChang.

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Parking lot of the Dragon Tower Condo.

At first I was confused with all of the similar names here. Chungjeongno, Yeungdongpo, Gwangheungchang, Myeongdong, Insadong, Yongpyong, PyeongChang, Daellywong,

what the hell gives? It’s all very confusing.

Anyways after doing some homework, apparently Yongpyong is just the name of a resort and PyeongChang is the municipality.

The Korean bali-bali (quick-quick) spirit is palpable as soon as you get off of the highway. A massive red “PyongChang” obelisk with the Olympic emblem rests upon the countryside. In this way, the drive to the resort is enormously under construction. Traffic cones, netting, rebar and concrete cover the otherwise vacant landscape and workers scurry about their business. To put this in perspective, it is late February two years before the Olympics and there is snow on the ground. Quite a bit of it. It’s a far cry from the weather in Seoul a few hours west, where it’s pretty cold still but definitely not -10 degrees Celsius. Yeah, you couldn’t pay me to be outside exerting myself in that kind of weather. Well, wait. Actually I am paying to be outside in that weather to exert myself, because I love it and I want to, damn it. It must be quasi-punishment for not making it up to Michigan this year. Well, nevermind then.

Like a movie, as the bus rolled up on Yongpyong it began to snow. It didn’t stop until the next morning; I’d guess six inches by the time Mother Nature was all tuckered out. Check-in didn’t start until noon so I went to the Dragon Tower (everything is affixed with the word Dragon) to grab a coffee and catch some sights. And I have to say, this is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. If I could liken it to a ski town in Colorado I would, but I can’t because unfortunately I’ve never been there and it would be slightly disingenuous to force a comparison (next stop Telluride).

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The resort is nestled deep in a magical little valley and looks more like Whoville than the town in Hot Tub Time Machine. Half of the place is shops and billboards whereas the rest is devoted to getting as far away from them as possible. The gondolas will take you from the mountain base where the resort is situated to the other side of the range. Accustomed to the bumps and hills in Southwestern Michigan, this was – for lack of a more eloquent way to put it – f*cking dope. I now sympathize with former classmates who became hippie people and powder junkies.

IMG_0989The afternoon was spent playing billiards and bowling in the Dragon Strike zone. It had a pretty cool restaurant that served overpriced food albeit decent beer so I got my priorities straight. Fortunately I didn’t waste away. I wouldn’t say it’s weird, but it’s funny to see how influential American culture is here. It reminds me of this “glocalization” concept I retained from a class at IPFW. Chicago style bulgogi pizza being served up by twenty somethings wearing Derrick Rose and Melo jerseys listening to Future? Definitely had to laugh to myself. Good thing I brought my PG-13 to Seoul – maybe there is time yet to spread the truth.

By around 5:00 I was ready to rock n’ roll so I got super laced up. It’s pretty convenient that most Koreans seem to speak English at least on a passable level. Getting my lift ticket would have been pretty asinine if I had to start flailing arms, pointing, and repeating the same words progressively louder. My level of Korean is nowhere near that good, so I feel #blessed.

I opted for the latter when day and night skiing were pitted against each other. Definitely no ragrets regrets. Now that the snow started to accumulate, a fresh layer of powder was officially mine for the taking. I had a very brief but very annoying problem getting my rental boots to latch because there was literally so much snow that my bindings were getting all jammed up. They had air hoses right next to the lift so I took care of that in short order. Getting onto the lift was hilarious because they had five or six female operators all bundled up in furry parkas who were waving at me with both hands. You know, the model palm wave? Half cupped, stiff wrist, palm out? Anyways halfway up the lift I started to get pretty touristy and busted out the cellphone camera. I couldn’t help myself even though the pictures I took could never do the actual view any justice.

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Bottom of Rainbow Paradise, halfway down.

Most of the lifts were ad-free but the first one that I took segregated two rows of bright colored billboards. Quite obnoxious, but I didn’t care. Once at the top I realized I had the choice between some really challenging off-piste and a course called Rainbow Paradise. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” I thought. I took the Rainbow Paradise and I’ve got to level with you, man was this thing tight. Netting with *very questionable* stability was the only thing between poor control and crashing dinnertime in a hanok after plummeting several hundred meters straight down. Naturally I took it pretty easy on the first of several passes. It was pretty dark and narrow until I shot back out onto the other side of the mountain about halfway down. As I rounded the corner, all that stood between me and the resort was a couple thousand meters of winding trails lined with snow topped coniferous trees. When you have a view like that you need to take a second and stop to appreciate the tranquility. I did.

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The next morning I got up early and hit it again feeling like this. This time I wanted to take the gondola to the other side of the range since it wasn’t operational during my night skiing escapade (6pm-2:30am). My interest in it stemmed primarily from a restaurant and some food carts (for the common folk) at the top of a mountain, only accessible via gondola, and also because it provided access to much longer runs – and c’mon – how could I pass up a prospect like that? I didn’t think there could be better view of the mountain range than what I had seen during night skiing.

I was wrong.

Now that it had finally stopped snowing the visibility was 100 and I could see for miles (kilometers?). The ride up was just as great as the view at the top. The whole way I could see skiers fluttering in and out of visibility as the courses wound diabolically between the trees. At the top, the view was breathtaking (look at the rest of the photos on the Explore Photos tab, seriously). The multi-level log cabin style restaurant perched atop the mountain was awesome. There were several vendors and probably a hundred people of all ages crammed into the lobby grabbing a bite and getting warm as soon as I stepped off the gondola. Before heading back to the base after getting in a couple runs, I nabbed my very own Chicago dog, some hot tea, and answered questions about where I was from.

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Yongpyong is truly a hidden treasure. Given a chance to make the trip back I would do so in a heartbeat. If not now, I might just have to pencil in a visit come time for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

 

More to come.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Ski Korea

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