S. Korea's 'best ski hill'
GOHAN-EUP, GANGWON PROVINCE
DRIVING into Gohan-eup, it's easy to mistake the isolated hamlet for just another ski town.
Gohan serves as gateway to High1 Resort, and skis and snowboard shops line the road through the narrow mountain valley. But attentive visitors will notice just as many pawnshops and loan agencies.
The pawnshops (labelled "jeondangsa" in Gohan) don't target ski bums, but gamblers. They signal the proximity of Kangwon Land, the only casino open to locals in South Korea.
Gohan has only recently become a retreat for thrill seekers. Until 1989, when operations wound down, it was a coal mining town.
According to a facetious adage, if the mountainous terrain of Korea was completely ironed out, the country would be as large as China.
Barring the existence of a cosmic steamroller, South Korea is likely to remain ideal for skiing and snowboarding in winter. Though the snow sometimes falls in moderation and melts early in spring, the winter-sports industry has crystallised over the past decade or so.
A high point for South Korea came in 2011 when it won its bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
For Mr Lee Dong Il, who works at Board Korea in Nonhyeon-dong in southern Seoul, the nation's retail hub for winter sports, the all-round best ski hill is High1.
"First of all, I like its clean facilities. Second, it has a lot of different slopes," he said, also praising the selection of jumps at the terrain park and the long half-pipe.
While most resorts feature runs on two or three sides of a single mountain, High1's runs feed down the adjoining slopes of a valley; they are steep and mostly of at least intermediate difficulty.
High1 opened in 2007 and is one of the highest local resorts, topping out at 1,340m (Yongpyong Resort's gondolas unload about 100m higher). The winding 4km run from Zeus 2 to Zeus 3 also competes with Yongpyong's Rainbow Paradise (5.6km).
But beginners and experts alike will probably want to avoid High1's Zeus route. The narrow course attracts a deadly mix of beginners and renegade advanced boarders who use it as a moving-obstacle course. Beginners can find a less nerve-racking practice slope in Athena. Experts can hit the slopes labelled orange and purple.
The lifts have automated turnstiles and electronic sensors. The gondola system, too, is ingenious. Each has a boarding station, with service straight to the top.
Down the hill from the High1 lodge is the Kangwon Land complex - the only casino, out of 17 in South Korea, that admits local gamblers.
Besides housing the only five-star hotel in Gangwon Province, the complex includes a wine shop, cafe, pool, gym and cinema.
Gohan Station can be reached in about 31/2 hours by train from Cheongnyangni Station, Seoul. A shuttle bus to the casino and mountain ski house leaves from Gohan Station every 15 minutes during peak hours. Buses depart from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal, eastern Seoul, to Shin Gohan, which is a short taxi ride from Gohan-eup.
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK