Pyeongchang: Olympic 2018 Host City snowboarding reviewAlison Karlene Hodgins

The Olympic Games have been a part of Canadian culture since 1900. Every four years, we cheer on our hockey, skating and snow-sport heroes as they compete for world-wide recognition. From the snowy landscapes of Whistler to the northern reaches of Europe, the Olympics bring us more than athletic excellence: it brings diverse cultures together under one roof.

The XXIII Winter Olympics will be hosted in an unprecedented location: South Korea. With only a smattering of mountains—the largest of which won’t even be included in the Olympics—sparse snowfall and a culture of conformity, my curiosity drew me out of Seoul and onto the slopes, to see what Yongpyong was really like.

 

Pyeongchang:

Olympic 2018 Host City

2013 PyeongChang The Special Olympics World Winter GamesJeon Han | Flickr/Republic of Korea (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The short, rolling hills in Pyeongchang county gather clumps of white snow in winter. Orange and red Buddhist temples speckle the hills, hidden by thick trees and glossy, modern buildings. This is the official host city of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Olympic venues include brand-new Alpensia ski resort and Yongpyong, the largest ski resort in South Korea. This past December, I had the opportunity to travel there and test the slopes myself.

Also known as Dragon Valley Ski Resort, Yongpyong was established in 1975 as a snowy retreat for city-dwellers and winter sport enthusiasts around the country.

Yongpyong has 28 runs with wonderful names like “Gold Fantastic” and “Rainbow Paradise.” Runs range from beginner to advanced; although to be honest, Yongpyong just doesn’t have the vertical to compete with the Canadian Rockies or the Swiss Alps. The top of the lift caps off at 1,400 metres above sea level.

 

Lodgings & Transportation

The bus from Seoul took about three and a half hours, which were pleasantly passed with soju, beer and bus karaoke.

We checked into the 20-some-bed dorm at Yongpyong hostel around 3 a.m. Each bunk is outfitted with a curtain and a private light, making it a comfortable and affordable place to sleep on the slopes.

Other accommodation options include Yongpyong Greenpia Condominium, which offers independent Western-style apartments, and Yongpyong Resort Dragon Valley Hotel, an elegant and centrally located 4-star hotel.

I travelled to Yongpyong with WinK, a tour group that caters to foreign English teachers and study abroad students.

The first morning, we wake up at 8 a.m. to stuff our throats with thick muffins and chalky hot chocolate in the hostel kitchen. Gathering our gear, we saunter over to the slopes.

I look up at the hill, and think…

Is this it?

 

Slippery Slopes

south korea snowboarding olympics 2018 snowboard pyeongchangAlison Karlene Hodgins

Dense forests of deep green trees line the hard-packed runs. A single chairlift floats above the grated snow. “The gondola isn’t open yet,” I’m told. “Not enough snow."

Our tour group gathers to purchase our lift tickets. Because we’re in a group, we receive a lofty discount. The day passes and equipment rental—which would normally be 102,000 won (about $115 CAD)—only costs us 51,000 (or $57 CAD).

We collect our gear from the rental shop, including ski pants and helmets. I didn’t bring any waterproof gloves, so my Canadian Olympic mittens will have to do.

My friend Adam and I line up for the chairlift. I notice other snowboarders, completely unbuckled, carrying their boards onto the lift beneath their arms. “What’s up with the snowboarders?” I ask him. He shrugs.

south korea snowboarding olympics 2018 snowboard pyeongchangAlison Karlene Hodgins

"Put the safety bar down!" the Korean liftie yells at us before we even sit down on the chair. When we get to the top, I watch the snowboarders run off the lift, grasping their snowboards at their side. More than once, they fall on their face and the chairlift has to stop.

Beginners dot the bottom of the slope like clumsy, colourful Skittles—some even roll down the hill in an impressive Skittle-like fashion. There are school groups and private lessons that play follow-the-leader in wide arches across the hill.

Adam and I head further up to the intermediate runs. We unload at the top of Gold Peak, 1,127 metres above sea level. Our choices vary from long, winding runs to short, steeper drops, none of which is too steep for me to carve. As an intermediate snowboarder, I feel thoroughly enthralled, but I can imagine advanced-expert riders growing bored within a few hours. 

south korea snowboarding olympics 2018 snowboard pyeongchangAlison Karlene Hodgins

Adam tackles smooth moguls on his skis, while I avoid them completely. The trees are too thick for me to dip between, so I stick to the groomed runs. I can't help but wish Dragon's Peak—which is accessed by the gondola—was open, so we could test out the highest elevation and be challenged by more advanced runs.

There's a basic board park, and later, we catch a glimpse of the massive metal ski jump that will be used for the Olympics. It glimmers in the sky, a snake-like roller coaster track, lightly dusted with a flouring of white snowflakes.

To make this hill work for the Winter Olympics, Korea is going to need a lot more snow.

Still, it's early in the season, and I'm optimistic. Korea has been planning this moment for years, and I don't doubt that they will execute it to the best of their ability.

Adam and I cruise over the hard-packed hill until our legs ache from turning and our cheeks ache from smiling. My favourite part about snowboarding Yongpyong? I didn’t even fall once.

 

"Après-ski" on Peak Island

apres skiAlison Karlene Hodgins

The Alps have their après-ski. The Canadian Rockies have their sulfur hot springs. Yongpyong has Peak Island.

This massive waterpark has indoor waterslides, a wave pool, gender-specific saunas, a food court, DVD room and jjimjilbang, but the highlight is the outdoor hot pools.

Steam evaporates into the frigid winter sky above the burbling tubs. The spring water is infused with antioxidants from fruits and herbs, such as blueberries and lemons. It smells fantastic. It's the perfect way to end our day: soaking and unwinding our sore skiing muscles while sipping an ice-cold Cass (available on site). We dip into each of the different infused tubs before returning to the hostel for Korean BBQ, and a few more cans of Cass at the local bar.

The next day, we embark on a hike through wind turbines and up rolling hills before returning to Seoul. Other activities around Pyeongchang include golf, karaoke, bowling, billiards, noraebang and arcade games.

Pyeongchang 2018

Alpensia, Pyeongchang-gun, Gangwon-doJeon Han | Flickr/Republic of Korea (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Unsurprisingly, the 2018 Winter Olympics will be a momentous occasion for South Korea. After losing two consecutive bids (first to Vancouver, second to Sochi) to host the Winter Olympics, South Korea’s moment to shine has finally arrived.

My experience at Yongpyong revealed a few things to me. One: Korea is exuberantly confident in its ability to complete construction in a very short time. Two: athletes and spectators risk being disappointed if they come to Pyeongchang expecting a massive mountain equipped with Western-style amenities. Three: the outdoor,infused hot tub pools, Cass beer, flavoured soju and karaoke are Korea's own unique - and totally enjoyable -brand of après-ski. 

While Korea’s natural features don’t scream “Winter Olympics” to me, I am confident in the country’s ability to build the necessary infrastructure in such a short time. While I was living Seoul, new restaurants would commence construction, suddenly pop up, and open, in less than a week. Korea only has so much vertical to work with, but they'll do what they can with it—and the rest, they'll build.

The opening ceremony is February 9th; events will run until the closing ceremony February 25th. If you want to catch an event in person, you need to get your tickets soon. Expect hectic crowds at Yongpyong at this time. Otherwise, you can prepare yourself to enjoy the beauty and culture of Yongpyong from the same place I’ll be viewing it: a comfy couch at home.

 


Have you skied or snowboarded Yongpyong? 
What did you think? Tweet us or comment below!

 

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