“Off-piste? What’s that?” asked the ski instructor, genuinely perplexed by the meaning of my question. When I explained, his quizzical expression turned to one of horror. “Oh no. No, no, you can’t do that here.”
We’re standing on the edge of a gentle blue run in YongPyong, South Korea’s largest ski resort. YongPyong, in Pyeongchang County, will host the slalom and giant slalom Alpine skiing events at this coming February’s Winter Olympic Games, yet this mountain, part of the Taebaek range, seems almost too innocuous for competition. The majority of YongPyong’s 20 miles of pistes — there are 27 runs in total — are blues, with scant steepness worthy of even a gentle red.
I’m still slightly perplexed as we’re ushered to the front of the queue for YongPyong’s 2.5-mile gondola. It whisks us to the top of Mount Balwang (4,785ft), a ride worth taking on a clear day just for the stunning views of the East Sea, not to mention the ice cream parlour at the top.
Now, though, we’re down the back of the mountain and, finally: some proper, gnarly steepness in the form of rainbow runs one, two, three and four, on which the Olympic races will be held. The terrain is so different from the runs back into YongPyong, you could be in a different country. They’re steep, icy, and on the day I ski them (tentatively, as my rental skis don’t have the sharpest edges), the wind is blowing strongly. The chairlift ride back up is hair-raisingly, precariously sideways.
Pistes are cut out of wooded hillsides, an area of outstanding natural beauty with a similar feel to New York State — very cold, dry and sunny with gentle slopes prone to ice because the snow is largely artificial. All of the ski resorts in Pyeongchang, in the heart of Gangwon Province, are at 2,300ft, so don’t travel to South Korea in search of the waist-deep powder you might find in nearby Japan; the two countries don’t share the same weather patterns.
But, even if they did, I get the impression South Korea is also too orderly to take such a risk as skiing off-piste. No one breaks the rules here. I was severely reprimanded for losing my plastic hotel key card one day, and convention dictates that you must remove your shoes before going into either a cafe or someone’s house. At the end of a day on the slopes, skiers and snowboarders queue to use air hoses to remove the snow from their equipment to avoid making a puddley mess in the base lodges.
Is it this sort of attention to detail that makes South Koreans such keen skiers? Korea made bids for the Winter Olympics in 2010 and 2014 before becoming successful for 2018, which gave the country time to develop ski schools and encourage youngsters across South East Asia to get involved in the sport. And, there’s no doubting the nation’s devotion. In most of its 17 or so ski resorts, the lifts stay open until midnight or later, and it’s not uncommon to eat dinner in ski wear then head back out onto the slopes again.
The experience of skiing here is quirky, fascinating and a complete joy, despite its artificial nature, and much of that’s down to the food. Base lodge restaurants in YongPyong, Alpensia and the nearby Phoenix Park — all of which will host events during the Games — remind me of those found in North American resorts, but while they might lack character, they don’t lack substance. Mountain lunches here range from myriad types of kimchi, grilled pork and fish, or huge, steaming bowls of noodle soup. And, if you’ve overdone it the night before on the local saki-esque tipple, soju (amusingly pronounced ‘sod-you’), then you can always try the regional hangover remedy, which is also another provincial delicacy: dried pollock soup.
Pyeongchang has, until now, been a four-hour drive from Seoul Incheon Airport, but for the 2018 Games, a brand-new high-speed rail connection has been constructed that will cut the journey time down to just 70 minutes — one of the major legacies from the Olympics and one Koreans hope will be used by the burgeoning winter sports market. A second highway has also been built from Seoul to Pyeongchang. With Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, the whole of Asia is gearing up for a boom in popularity of skiing, snowboarding and speed-skating, the latter already one of Korea’s best-loved sports.
Everything about these Olympics has been well thought out: there are 12 venues, all of which are within a 30-minute drive of each other. Six venues were pre-existing and six have been newly built, and an impressive 10 of these have already confirmed legacy plans. All the new venues are designed to use renewable energy generated from geothermal and solar power plants. And, for the first time in the history of the Winter Games, the organising committee has been awarded the ISO 20121, an international standard for the establishment of an event sustainability management system.
One of the big benefits is to local families who’ll be hosting accredited homestays to ticket holders for the Games. Around 900 families are currently being recruited to host visitors from all over the world. There will also be accommodation in 13 temples in the area and, closer to the Olympics, organisers will release an app on which accommodation options can be booked. Pyeongchang might not be big on natural snow, but it’ll be huge on culture.
The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics
What: More than 5,000 athletes from 100 nations will take part in 102 events in 15 disciplines over seven sports. The four new events for 2018 are snowboard big air, speed skating mass start, curling mixed doubles and a parallel slalom team skiing event.
Where: The main action will be in the Pyeongchang mountain cluster: Alpensia Sports Park hosts the ski jumping, Nordic combined, snowboard big air, biathlon, cross-country skiing, luge, bobsleigh and skeleton. YongPyong hosts the slalom and giant slalom. Jeongseon hosts the downhill, super-G and combined, and Bokwang Snow Park hosts the snowboard cross, half pipe, slalom, snowboard slopestyle and freestyle skiing. Gangneung Olympic Park hosts men’s ice hockey, skating and curling, while women’s ice hockey will be at Kwandong University.
Who’s the local favourite?: South Korean skier Kim Hyeon-tae finished in 42nd place in the super-G test event for Pyeongchang in early March, exceeding expectations.
Further info: olympic.org
How to do it
Published in the Winter Sports 2017 supplement, distributed with the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)