THE STORY BEHIND
This trip actually was totally unplanned. And unwanted. But the people around me made it happen.
At the beginning of this ski trip stands the invitation of Annette, the famous travel blogger (check out her blog https://bucketlistjourney.net/), which reaches us in late summer 2019. She turns 50 in February 2020 and invites us to celebrate her birthday with her in Ho Chi-Minh. This invitation is actually very nice. But me in the middle of winter in the tropics? No way. Important to say: Annette is the best friend of my wife from California and it is clear to both of us: Dalia will travel by herself, I will stay in the European winter. We are still convinced of this when we travel to Wine Country in California in autumn 2020 and meet our friends there. After a few glasses of wine, the friends ask me if I'll be traveling to Vietnam, and because the evening was that nice, I say yes. The first step is done. I can't go back now.
Back in Switzerland, I think about how I can still save the winter. Longer skiing holidays in the Alps are an option. Or is there anything to ski on the way to Vietnam or nearby? I've already been to Japan, Australia has summer – of course, the Winter Olympics 2018 was held in South Korea. But I also remember the difficulties they had there to find a mountain high enough for a downhill run. I start my research. - not easy on websites that are a bit outdated (I thought South Korea was the internet country par excellence), require Flash Player (really?) and are not always translated into English. Nevertheless, I can find some information about the areas (thanks to Skiresort.de!). The next difficulty is to plan a possible ski trip through the country. Google Maps does not work in South Korea (read here why), the road connections are not shown. While reading some travel blogs I learn that the app Maps.me offers the best planning basis. However, it still is pretty difficult, as the places are not recognized and the route suggestions are always made from my actual location. I try to estimate: South Korea is not that big, a trip to the areas is possible, besides a few days in Seoul it should be possible to visit 6 ski resorts. So I suggest to Dalia that we can go skiing in South Korea before we travel to Vietnam. And to my enthusiasm, she says "Of course!". The idea with South Korea was born and is spread everywhere so no there really is no turning back.
Skiing in South Korea - Aprés Ski in Ho Chi-Minh!
However, there are still a few doubts when it comes to concrete planning. At first, I am convinced that we will rent the skis, while we take the boots with us. But I simply cannot find any information about ski rental in Seoul on the internet. I don't like the idea that we have to rent new skis at every location, which costs a lot of time and is unpredictable anyway due to the language barrier. I can't find a solution for this and then there is also the question of how we can go by car when we first spend 3 days in the megacity of Seoul and the last thing I want to do are car stories in downtown Seoul. So the doubts start to pile up and together with the insight that this idea with skiing is very much sought after in South Korea and means a lot of effort for very few ski resorts, I start to get used to the idea of shooting down that part of the trip. But it comes better.
On one occasion, I met Nicolas Rochat, CEO and the owner of the ski clothing brand "MOVER" in Lausanne. Mover produces sustainable skiwear, which is largely achieved by using alpaca wool. Nicolas has heard about my ski trips and wants me to wear his ski clothes on my ski trips. And just at the time of my greatest doubts about the Korea-trip, he invites us to come to Lausanne to try on his ski clothes. On the way to Lausanne, I shyly ask Dalia what she would think of a refusal from the South Korea-trip. The answer is clear: nothing. That gives me confidence. When I see the ski suits on display at Mover's premises and try them on, I think I'm only here because I want to travel the world on skis. And in this euphoria, I tell myself that South Korea must simply be done. But the problem with ski rental remains unsolved. At least until Martin - a long-time companion on numerous ski trips - offers me a simple solution when I tell him my concerns: Just take the skis with you. Dalia has also suggested something like that and all of a sudden the doubts are gone. Of course! Everywhere you go, always take the skis with you! Isn't the whole story about that? And so we book the flight from Zurich to Seoul from there to Ho Chi-Minch City and then back to Zurich. Now there is really no return!
(Well, we will return, but this is another story.)
You can find our tour on the map below. If you are not in South Korea using maps.me there it is almost impossible to figure out the kilometers. So I wrote down the time it took us. South Korea is not big, but the roads besides the highways are much more winding than in other countries. So be prepared, that often you can drive only 40km/h even if you are allowed to drive faster and even if all the streets we drove were in a good condition. And then there are the speed cameras everywhere.
Nevertheless, like in all the mountains, the locals drive fast. So our strategy was to get passed by locals and then follow them, until we lost them, because they are really fast.
Welli Hilli Park
WELLI HILLI PARK
We reach our first area of the boucle: Welli Hilli Park - which is by no means the closest ski area near Seoul - after a 3-hour drive from Incheon Airport.
Welli Hilli Park is a half a dozen chairlifts lead to mostly easy runs, which all are well suited for beginners. There is also a handful of steeper slopes from the Summit Lounge - all on wide, wide and beautifully leveled slopes that glow beautifully white in the otherwise snow-free landscape thanks to artificial snow. A good start for this boucle!
Lifts 6 - 28/01/2020
We drive approx 30 minutes through hilly areas and over a pass over to reach Phoenix. On top of the pass, there is natural snow on the roadside, we get excited! When we are approaching, the peaks appear higher than in the neighboring town, the slopes are steeper. Maybe that's because of the dawn? We check-in at the hotel, which is located directly on the slopes and offers a great view of the area from our room on the 14th floor. We are a little bit nervous because not all of the slopes are illuminated at the first moment, but then we calm down because soon all slopes would be illuminated. What we learn here: In South Korea, the slopes are closed and groomed between 4:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. before the ski area opens again until midnight. Great!The area hast two hills: Bulsaemaru and Mont Blanc. Both are accessed by a couple of chair lifts, which offer fairly steep slopes at a good length, especially on Mont Blanc. The panorama descent is the longest and we think the most beautiful descent in the area. At the 2018 Olympics, the Freestyle competitions took place on the Bulsaemaru. We would have had the perfect view of the competitions from our hotel balcony!We ski until 10.20 p.m. and conclude our ski day very satisfied. Skiing in South Korea has been a lot of fun so far!
After a good night's sleep at the Hotel Phoenix and a French breakfast next door in the apartment house, we get into the car and set off for YongPyong. At the entrance to the highway the ticket machine is standing, but it has no more tickets. And so we learn why mobile phones from South Korea have such good cameras.
After a short drive through increasingly snowy terrain, we reach the one hotspot of the 2018 Winter Olympics where the snow competitions took place Pyeongchang-Gon is the name of the province, Daegwalnyeong-myeon is the name of the community where the Nordic disciplines, the bobsleigh track, and the Alpine technical competitions took place.
YongPyong is battling for the number 1 ski area with two other ski areas in the region and offers even better skiing than Phoenix. It has areas: In front of the Dragon Placa - the station - there is an area "Red Peak" with some very easy, but also moderately difficult slopes. From the Red Peak, we get to the easternmost sector Gold Peak, which offers three exciting descents with steeper passages. We also see other telemarkers there. Free your heel!
To the west of Red Peak is the Green sector with two lifts and easy runs. The steep Silver Peak is closed. And between Red and Green, the long gondola (3.2 km long) leads to Dragon Peak (Mount Balwangsan 1450m).
From there you get to the Olympic slopes in the Rainbow Bowl, three pretty steep slopes that can be a lot of fun. Back to Dragon Placa, we ski the slope Rainbow Paradise, a 5.6 km descent. I hope I managed to describe that YongPyong offers a great variety of ski slopes and it is super fun.
Before we go to our next area, we have to solve a missing smartphone drama, but after the cell phone shows up again, we drive off. Maps.me says the route takes 1 1/2 hours, the GPS says 2 3/4 hours. We'll let it surprise us.
It took us almost 3 hours. We reached the Hotel Palace, which is located in a side valley, at 7:54 pm. When we checked in, we were informed that the restaurant was going to close at 8:00 pm. So, the first contact with the hotel was a bit stressful...
This stressful situation was compensated the next morning because the valley station of the gondola lift departs right inside the hotel! The gondola lift goes to the HighOne ski area.
The area is located in a valley, most of the lifts are on the western side. On the east side, the Victoria lift opens up some steep slopes, on the west side there are slopes of all levels of difficulty and in the valley bottom, a wide green slope collects the skiers again. The sectors of the area are named after goddesses, Greek and Roman. Many slopes start at the Mountain Top in the Southwestern corner of the valley. There are two centers on the valley floor - Ski House at the bottom and Valley Hub in the middle, from which several lifts start. The slopes are all wide and perfectly leveled and feel like a carpet thanks to the fresh snow. Compared to the most recently visited areas in Europe, here all over in South Korea, and not just here in HighOne, skiing is predictable, with no surprises, no steep, narrow passages on blue slopes.
For me, the ski areas here offer to beginners and intermediates the best conditions I have ever experienced. We have a lot of fun on the slopes in HighOne, so it's hard to say goodbye. We take the gondola back to the hotel, get in the car, and make our way to Seoul (3 hours) and Incheon Airport (4 hours). We are postponing the aprés ski until tomorrow.
HOw we got there
Open-jaw flight Zurich-Seoul and Ho Chi Minh City-Zurich (Air France/KLM)
Single flight Seoul - Ho Chi Minh City (Korean Airlines)
Skis were carried as checked-in luggage by the participating airlines at no extra charge (with ski clothes and winter boots 23kg)
Ski boots in a duffel bag with other clothes and toilet bags (22 kg)
Two Carry-On Baggages with the summer dresses for Vietnam.
Two other small pieces of hand luggage are also included with the participating airlines.
Oversize Baggage in Incheon on a separate belt, in Ho Chi-Minh with the normal luggage.
Arrival at Incheon airport (7.30 am) - store luggage at the airport - hotel in Seoul (arrival by taxi) - in Seoul on foot and by metro - pick up luggage and car at the airport - two hotels in the ski resorts - check-in at hotel at the airport and unload luggage - return the car - take a taxi to Terminal 2 - flight to Ho Chi-Minh - with a pre-booked large capacity taxi (skis do not fit in the small cars in Vietnam) to accommodation (no storage at the airport possible) and the same back.
how we got the car and the luggage
We rented the car at the airport in Incheon, because I read that there were often problems when renting a car in Seoul and we had to return the car there anyway. Because I use 4X4 on ski trips abroad (also such a paranoia I could work on one day) and we were late with booking, we only had the most expensive SUV version available,. We booked via rentalcars.com, the rental company was Lotte, a big company that operates almost all business areas in South Korea (also our hotel in Seoul was Lotte). Car rental seems to be a very small business in South Korea, at the airport I only found 2 rental companies. (Terminal 2: Terminal 1:)
At the confirmation of rentalcars it was not indicated where the car has to be picked up: Terminal 1 or 2, which can be a problem, because the terminals are connected with a free and rather empty bus (at least 20 minutes driving time) or a full and paid metro, which can be sometimes tedious with as much luggage as we had, and it became so because ....
intermediate luggage storage
... after our arrival at Terminal 2 we had temporarily stored our ski luggage (ski bag and big bag with ski boots) in a Safex for the duration of our stay in Seoul, but had to pick up the car at Terminal 1. It would probably be easier to pick up the car first, and only then the luggage. Next time then.
About the driving
Our car was a KIA Sorento. with 4X4 and - trara - free chains in the trunk! The GPS had an English language mode and always indicated with the route calculation the costs of the motorway fees.
The maximum speed on the motorway is 100 km/h, on overland roads often 60 km/h or even 40 km/h. The navigation system quickly became our best friend, because it warned of the countless speed cameras and also helped with a special feature that I hadn't seen anywhere else: Sections of the road over several kilometers with a given average speed. The GPS gives is making sure that we were not above it before the allowed average speed at the end of the section. Some of the speed cameras were out of order, but without GPS we would have had tons of speeding tickets. Between the speed cameras, the South Koreans speed up like crazy, it's worth looking for the rear of a faster car. The toll booths usually work with the ticket system (except around Seoul, where there are also flat rates). In 3 out of 4 cases there were no tickets in the dispensers, so that we took a picture of the dispenser with our mobile phone, which we showed at the pay station. The ladies sometimes had to make a phone call to find out the price, but in the end we were always charged the price that the navigation system predicted. All in all it was much more relaxed than I thought. Oh yes, of course the South Koreans also have a system that works without tickets. This is called HiPass and it allows you to pass through the blue marked gates at the paying stations. At the paying offices the following applies (January 2020): Cash Only. We have paid about 40'000 won for fees.
When we took over the car, the tank was not full, so we had to return it filled up to "6.5/8". That meant some juggling, on our trip one tank load was enough. Very pleasant was the help of the gas station employee, who opened the tank cap (a hidden button under the armrest) before he filled up. And also pleasant: There is no tip, you pay what is written on the fuel pump.
About the ski resorts
The mountains in South Korea are moderately high and resemble rather large low mountain ranges (with slightly more altitude differences and steeper slopes than in Central Europe).
The characteristics of the ski resorts are reminiscent of Japan, but also on the east coast of the USA, Sweden, or Czech Republik and Poland, but in Korea, there are more mountains and narrower valleys than at all the other places.
As in Japan and the east coast of the US, deciduous trees are predominant, which gives a special picture in winter. Natural snow is rare, all areas have 100% artificial snow, the slopes were in perfect condition. We even had some fresh snow on the artificial snow on the 3rd day, it felt like driving on a carpet. We only saw gondola lifts and especially chair lifts (about 1/3 of them detachable. All areas offer night skiing (partly until 24.00 hrs), rumor has it that there is also a 24-hour area.
The ski resorts are resorts (or parks) consisting of a hotel and a ski area (golf in summer), accommodation directly on the slopes is therefore possible and also recommended if you want to ski comfortably at night. The prices for overnight stay without breakfast are also in good hotels below what we are used to in Central Europe (and we were there on Luna New Year). The hotels had a restaurant, a café, and a convenience store. One hotel had a sauna, all hotels had a gym.
There are full-day, half-day, evening, and night tickets. We haven't seen any hourly tickets. We had chip cards in all areas, so we certainly had a new infrastructure. The prices are consistently high (50-80k Won), so it is even more worthwhile to ask in the hotels for discount coupons. At the last resort, the cashier made me go back to the reception to get the coupons - 40% price reduction was the reward. At the cash desks, there was always at least 1 person who spoke English. On the cards are between 1000 and 4000 Won Depot on it, which you can get back at vending machines. At all cash desks, we paid by credit card.
There is a European culture of standing in line - people move forward as space permits. But at the point of entry, there are two employees who give further directives. We have not seen any single-line.
All the resorts had changing rooms and coin-lockers for the clothes and ski rental of course.
There were only chairlifts and gondolas, there are no ski lifts.
The roads to the resorts are mostly harmless, the valley stations are located on the valley floor. Only in High1, a road leads up because the resort is located in a side valley which is higher than the main valley. Our hotel High1 Palace was again further up and a little aside, during our arrival, there was a strong snow flurry. A snowplow drove the track constantly, there was no snow on the road. The parking lots were free. Actually, in South Korea, you travel to the resort by bus, therefore the roads are wide but winding.
Snow chains / 4WD
Chains were in the car, the 4WD was not necessary, but there was a track where I would have been happy for a 4WD if the road was snow-covered.
All the resorts had free parking near the lodge, the main building with all the facilities. Although we were traveling during Chinese New Year, we never had issues finding a parking lot.
Some last information
GPS in a section with average speed of 100 km/h
Highway ticket with no ticket. Take a picture.
The highways are empty. But only as long as you are away from cities.
More questions? Feedback?
Please send me an email, I would be happy to share my experience with you.