Photo: Raymond Patrick
CHIC KOREA. On my first morning at the YongPyong ski resort, I meet another journalist over the breakfast buffet. He is a newspaper writer from Frankfurt, Germany, on assignment in Korea to see the place that beat out Munich in its bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. His goal is to answer the question that is currently echoing through the Bavarian Alps, a question he asks loudly and nonacronymically: “WTF?”
“This is not skiing!” he fairly spits at me. “This is an amusement park!”
It is easy to agree with him. There is no equivalent to Garmisch’s legendary Kandahar downhill course here in YongPyong, the main venue for Korea’s ski-racing competitions. There is no glacier, unless one counts the plastic iceberg at Peak Island, the penguin-themed water park that abuts the base lodge. And the culture of skiing? Well, let’s just say it’s a new — though admittedly vibrant — phenomenon.
Still, if “amusement” is the crime, Korea is guilty as charged.
Pyeongchang — the host city (actually, more of a county) of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games — sits in Korea’s mountainous Gangwon province in the northeast quadrant of the country, just below the demilitarized zone with North Korea, and on the Sea of Japan (which is, for reasons provincial and post-colonial, known here simply as the East Sea). The craggy terrain isn’t hypothetically bad for downhill, though with mountains topping out at just over 5,600 vertical feet, these are no Andes. The climate is not ideal for a ski industry, since the long, cold winters tend to be very dry.
This is the part of Korea where locals go to get back to nature, especially during spring and fall. There is plenty of hiking through the mountains and around lakes, and the place is just generally rural — there are farms everywhere, growing the greens and vegetables that become thousands of varieties of kimchi, and raising the richly marbled beef that becomes the internationally famous delicacies hanu and kalbi. Industry here is tucked out of sight, in stark contrast to Seoul and surrounds just to the west, and is most visible in the wind turbines that line the ridges of the mountains. Quaint villages pop up wherever river meets road.
In winter, only two industries are in evidence. One is pollack, a relative of the cod fished from the East Sea and brought up to the cold and dry slopes of Gangwon to dry. Some 80 million are dehydrating in Gangwon any given winter, all strung on massive trellises that might at first be mistaken for grape arbors. It’s an odd sight in the mountains but a constant reminder of how close this area is to the sea.
The other industry, apparently, is ski shops. Village retail areas here seem to consist of a few small markets, traditional restaurants, a tractor sales center, a coffee shop, and half a dozen snowboard shops, each lit up like a roadside casino. Rows of hundreds of tiny lights flick on and off, and bright LED screens flash rental rates and specials between jerky pixel animations. Through the front window, rolling racks of boards barely obscure walls crowded with brightly colored jackets, pants, helmets, and fleece tops.
They are there because skiing is good business. In 2001, Korean ski resorts logged 3,482,075 skier days. Ten years later, the number was 6,479,493. That makes Korea a shining beacon of hope in the snowsports industry, and the hope is that the rest of Asia will follow.