PyeongChang: Your guide to South Korea’s ski culture

PyeongChang, South Korea CNN  — 

Korean hip-hop music blasts from the speakers as snowboarders, decked out in neon from head to toe, cruise by on a slope as busy and bustling as a street in downtown Seoul. It’s midnight. The slopes are still open and the music’s still blaring.

This is skiing South Korean-style: fast, furious and full of energy.

This month, PyeongChang, a little-known mountain region in eastern South Korea, is hosting to the world’s biggest winter sports stage: the Olympic Games.

But will the crowds come?

South Korea has never been as much of a tourist draw as neighboring China or Japan, and the precarious security situation – the Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war, with North Korea brandishing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles – hasn’t helped.

South Korea is mountainous but doesn’t have the stunning, jagged peaks of the Alps or volcanoes blanketed in 15 meters of snow like Hokkaido. But what South Korea lacks in tradition it makes up for in efficiency: small, modern resorts with fast lifts and good snowmaking.

And the region does have a ski culture all its own: soju, BBQ and plenty of time soaking in spas known as jjimjilbang.

Tourists from Southeast Asia know this, and make their way to South Korea’s Gangwon Province for a taste of winter and to follow in the footsteps of some of their favorite Korean stars. It’s Hokkaido-lite, with a splash of K-pop.

Ready to hit the slopes?

Here’s how to ski like a local in PyeongChang, South Korea (not to be confused with Pyongyang, North Korea, which has its own ski resort).

Carry a flask of soju for those frigid 2 a.m. chairlift rides

Yongpyong's lodge served as a key setting for South Korean TV drama "Winter Sonata."

If you’re planning to ski at night, consider arming yourself with a flask of soju – Korea’s answer to schnapps – to keep you warm.

Here’s why: the site of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in eastern Gangwon Province lies about 200 kilometers from the South Korean capital, Seoul.

Unless you ride the just-completed high-speed train line, you’ll be traveling by bus or car. Without traffic, it’s a two and half hour drive. But with weekend traffic, you could arrive well into the night.

Perhaps to accommodate Seoulites’ hours, resorts here stay open late. Very late.

Alpensia is open until 10 p.m. while chair lifts at Yongpyong, also known as Dragon Valley, operate for night skiing until 2:30 a.m.

That gives diehard skiers and snowboarders the chance to sneak a few hours in after their long drive – as long as they bundle up against midnight temperatures that dip perilously below freezing.

Dragon Peak at the top of the gondola is where you’ll get your pop cultural fix: The iconic lodge there served as a key setting for one of South Korea’s most famous TV dramas, “Winter Sonata.”

As you’re skiing down, you can pose for “Winter Sonata” selfies in the photo zones.

Blast off that snow and ice

Peak Island at Yongpyong.

South Koreans are meticulous about their gear. When you get off the mountain, you can stop outside the lodge to blast off all the snow and ice with the air guns lined up outside.

Down an overpriced latte, and then it’s off to the jjimjilbang for a soak.

South Korea’s version of apres-ski: Jjimjilbang

South Koreans have taken Asia’s love of mineral baths to another level by adding rooms where you can sit and, literally, “steam” yourself.

Nothing is more relaxing after a snowy day on the slopes than warming up and then stretching the muscles in a hot bath.

Saunas at Dragon Valley Hotel at Yongpyong and the Holiday Inn at Alpensia are open to the public.

The resorts’ water parks, Ocean 700 at Alpensia and Peak Island at Yongpyong, are like saunas on steroids, with swimming pools, towering waterslides, food courts and DVD rooms.

Peak Island even has an area where you can play golf, and Ocean 700 has a pool that simulates ocean waves.

A monk’s feast

Fresh produce features heavily in Gangwon cuisine.

By this point, you’re probably starving.

Despite the construction going up for the Olympics, PyeongChang remains a country town. Restaurants close early, and there’s no nightlife.But there are hidden culinary surprises in PyeongChang if you know where to look.

Gangwon Province is known for its mountain vegetables, or sanchae, and is dotted with rustic restaurants such as Odae Sanchae Nara, where the tables groan from the weight of dozens – yes, dozens – of small plates featuring roots and greens preserved and presented in different ways.

Platters of potato pancakes round out the meal, all paired with the local makgeolli, or rice wine. Mountain vegetables are a favorite of monks from nearby Woljeongsa Temple.

Originally built in 643, this Buddhist temple is breathtaking in winter and is a popular stop for meditative retreats.

Legend has it the temple has been rebuilt several times, most recently after South Korean troops torched it to smoke out North Korean rebels suspected of hiding inside during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Odae Sanchae Nara; 159 Jingogae-ro, Ganpyeong-ri, Jinbu-myeon, PyeongChang-gun, Gangwon Province; +82-33-334-9514; open daily, 8:30 a.m. - 8 p.m.

Where’s the beef?

If you eat meat, do like the locals: Pick up packets of Gangwon Province’s famous hanwoo beef, up there in tenderness with Wagyu beef from Japan.

There are several “hanwoo towns” in PyeongChang with self-service grills next door.

Buy your favorite cuts and for a few thousand won (a few extra dollars), you can grill it up right there, with all the kimchi and fixings your hungry heart desires.

Or bring the beef back to the condo and eat the way Koreans do: sitting cross-legged on the heated floor while playing drinking games with somaek, a mashup of the Korean words for beer and soju.

Convenience stores have everything you need for a Korean BBQ: disposable chopsticks, microwaveable rice and small containers of the spicy, earthy ssamjang sauce that gives barbecued beef the kick that makes it Korean. And of course, beer and soju.

The only way to finish this Korean night off properly – if you haven’t already keeled over from all the snow, steam and soju – is to sing.

Karaoke in private rooms called noraebang is a typical way to end any night out in South Korea. And without much nightlife at PyeongChang, this is where the private party happens.

After you’ve let out your inner K-pop star, you can stumble back to your condo, lay out your mattress and let the heated ondol floors lull you to sleep.

This is skiing, South Korean-style.

Originally published in January 2017, updated in February 2018.

Jean H. Lee is a Global Fellow for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the former chief of the AP’s bureaus in Seoul, South Korea, and Pyongyang, North Korea. An avid snowboarder, she can be found at @newsjean on Twitter and Instagram. Dasl Yoon also contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.