…Winter Sports and Winter Sea…

Winter in Korea is a time for sports. After having itchy feet for much of the year, skiers and snowboarders can finally return to the slopes, with many opting for Gangwon-do Province, home to the country’s finest resorts. Surrounded by the towering mountains, Gangwon-do Province boasts a string of world-class leisure complexes. Even if you’re a veteran of ski resorts worldwide, you’ll find a unique charm in Gangwon-do Province and its picturesque resorts.

The wind is howling. As if about to devour every living creature in the vicinity, ferocious gusts rise like a giant wave toward the top of Mount Jijangsan, right next to Mount Baekunsan. It churns up snow on the mountain tops before swooping and whistling down the mountainside.

But the people there are anything but afraid. They laugh once the winds have passed and carry on what they’ve been doing all day: skiing and snowboarding. With only one shortish season available to them, Korea’s skiers and boarders know they can’t be put off by occasional weather tantrums. If anything, the occasional bursts of wind just add to the pleasure of these most devoted of sports fans.

The ski hills at the High 1 Resort in Jeongseon in Gangwon-do Province bustle with avid skiers and boarders. Colorful outfits and dazzling boards and skis dot the slope’s big white canvas. So named because it sits higher above sea level than any other Korean ski resort, High 1 has some of the best slope and lifts in the country as well.

High 1 Resort has three peaks: the “Mountain Top” on Mount Jijangsan and the two “Valley Tops” (1,367 meters above sea level) on either side. There are 18 slopes coming down from these three peaks, including one for beginners and a giant slalom slope that has been certified by the International Ski Federation. The 4.2-kilometer valley course, stretching from the Mountain Top to Mountain Hub (1,250 meters high) through the ski house and Valley Condo, is the highlight of High 1. Take the 20-minute gondola ride, and you can ski down a slope with a 645-meter drop in altitude.

High 1 was two authorized slopes for World Cup ski events, an indication of its future ambitions. It has all the necessary facilities to host the Disabled Alpine Skiing World Cup and the Freestyle Ski World Cup. In addition, some 900 guest rooms, a Korean restaurant and a fusion restaurant, plus an outdoor spa with a gorgeous view of the province ensure everyone has a comfortable stay.

If you wanted to know why most of Korea’s ski resorts are located in Gangwon-do Province, you’d first have to understand the country’s geographical quirks. Many Koreans believe their peninsula resembles a rabbit – but more like to see in it the shape of a gallant Korean tiger.

The highest mountain on the peninsula is Mount Baekdusan, stretching 2,744 meters into the sky. This magnificent mountain, up in the northern province of Hamgyeong-do, is the tiger’s face. Stretching down south along the east coast, there are Mount Duryusan (2,309 meters), Mount Keumgangsan (1,638 m), Mount Seoraksan (1,708 m), Mount Odaesan (1,563 m), Mount Dootasan (1,353 m), Mount Taebaeksan (1,567 m), Mount Sobaeksan (1,440 m), Mount Deokyusan (1,614 m) and Mount Jirisan (1,915 m). These mountains comprise the Baekdudaegan mountain range, which forms the backbone of Korea and the spine of the tiger.

Right in the middle of the peninsula is Gangwon-do Province, which has more high mountains and steep hills than any other. It snows often and winters are very cold, making it the perfect venue for winter sports.

The province is surrounded by big mountains, and it has a beautiful, wide river with plentiful trout and salmon. With four clear-cut seasons, Korean climates produce wondrous natural scenery, and Gangwon-do sees the best of it all. The province is also home to Pyeongchang, which is bidding to host Korea’s first Winter Olympics. Pyeongchang is blessed with a wide range of excellent ski resorts, including Hyundai Sungwoo Resort, Yongpyong Resort, Phoenix Park,  Daemyung Vivaldi Park and O2 Resort, to name just a few.

Alpensia Resort is perhaps the most exclusive of them all. Built to emulate an Alps-style resort, Alpensia is not very big, but aims squarely at top-end business. Its seven slopes cover the range beginners to expert, as well as slopes for the exclusive use of tobogganists and snowboarders.

Alpensia, too, has no shortage of places to stay, with about 900 guest rooms an a smattering of five-star standard hotels. There is also an indoor water park open year round, a 45-hole golf club,  a convention center for 2,500 people, a concert hall, a spa and a luxurious sauna.

Gangwon-do Province isn’t only about the skiing, however. Snow blankets the entire province, so if you get tired of roaring downhill, go and see some of Gangwon-do’s more serene winter beauty.

One way to do so is to visit temples up in the mountains. Most Korean temples are located on mountainsides, and when they’re deluged in snow, they assume an even greater air of peaceful beauty.

Woljeongsa is one of Pyeongchang’s most famous temples. Located on Mount Odaesan, Woljeongsa Temple was built in 643 during Korea’s ancient Silla Kingdom. Its famous path from the main entrance to the main temple stretches for about one kilometer along a valley, and is lined on either side by fir trees. This spectacular trail is named “Passage of a Thousand Years”. And if your visit to Woljeongsa whets your appetite to see more Korean temples, then try going a little farther up to Odaesan to Sangwonsa, home to oldest bronze bell (designated National Treasure No. 36) in Korea.

Gangwon-do Province is also well known for its proximity to the East Sea. Mother Nature has endowed Gangwon-do with some extraordinary coastal backdrops, which are best enjoyed on trains that run through stations at Jeongdongjin, Donghae, Chuam, Samcheok Beach, Samcheok and, at the end of the line, Gangneung.

Jeongdongjin Station, which is closer to the sea than any other train station on the country, gained fame after appearing in Sandglass, the most popular Korean TV series of all time. The name Jeongdongjin is derived from its geographic location, directly east (jeongdong) from Seoul. In the town, docked on a mountainside like Noah’s Ark, is what appears to be a ship, but is actually a hotel called Sun Cruise. Every New Year’s Day, the hotel is packed with visitors come to get the perfect view of the first sunrise of the New Year.

In Donghae, Mukho Port is well worth a visit. Markets and seafood restaurants overflow with fresh fish caught the night before. Pick the fish you want, and the restaurant owner will catch them and slice them into hoe (sushi) right before your eyes. Though it may seem a bit rough and ready for genteel city types, it is a snapshot of real Korean coastal life.

Time stands still in Chuam and Samcheok Beach stations. Take your time walking along the seafront there, and then take a taxi to visit Samcheok’s famous Daei-ri cave region. Hwanseongul and Gwaneumgul caves are among the most beautiful limestone caves in the country, their interiors a beguiling mix of eeriness and beauty.

It’s winter in Korea, so the mountains in Gangwon-do are submerged in snow. If you like skiing or snowboarding, Korea may be one of the best places you’ve never tried. Though not of the same scale, its resorts have a charm that distinguish them from those in the Alps or Nort America. And wherever you are, you’re never too far from the embrace of the sea.

Source : Korea People & Culture Magazine, January 2011


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