Travel: Long haul - Down the mountain on giant chopsticks

The slopes are tiny, the peaks resound with sugar-coated pop music - but for Henry Druce skiing in Korea was a magical if surreal experience
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DESPITE THE economic downturn in South Korea, a sizeable chunk of the population remains as enthusiastic about skiing as they are about consuming their national drink, soju. While favouring an alcoholic beverage that gives meths credibility is as hard to understand as their impenetrable language, the Korean love of skiing makes more sense. Over 70 per cent of the country is covered by mountains - albeit stunty little ones.

I had already been warned by English and Canadian friends that Korean affection for the sport wasn't reflected in the quality of the slopes, even though one of the country's 12 resorts, Yongpyeong, was used during the 1998 World Cup Ski tournament and will be used for the 1999 Winter Asian games. As a keen skier, working in Seoul last winter, I was in need of a fix - even if it was just for one day.

A Korean student friend of mine, Jang-eun (pronounced Chong) and I decided on Bears Town resort, an hour's drive from Seoul and one of four resorts within striking distance of the city. I say an hour, but that is so long as you avoid the crushing rush-hour traffic which involved us leaving the megalopolis by 5am to guarantee a full day's skiing.

Jang-eun was particularly keen to leave early, reflecting a Korean obsession with maximising holiday time - hardly surprising when most of them are only entitled to one week a year.

I had hardly any suitable ski gear. Neither did Jang-eun. So when we arrived at the resort, a collection of grey buildings in the East European mode, we went to the main hire shop where the only available equipment was "Wellington ski" boots and skis with edges as sharp as a wooden chopstick.

What the shop lacked in quality technical gear, it made up for with glitzy ski wear. From the vast selection, Jang-eun plumped for a chic, sky-blue Degre 7 number with matching gloves and headband, and blended in perfectly with all the other spangly Korean skiers.

I, on the other hand, did not. I let frugality overcome sartorial considerations and wore the clothes I'd brought out with me from England - my old green and black ski jacket, ill-matched with tatty grey Rohan walking trousers and topped off with a Davy Crockett-style trapper hat. I was the only non-Korean on the slopes and stood out like a battered Morris Minor in a Daewoo car showroom.

"Annyonghaseyo," (hello) said the attendant while bowing courteously as he helped me on to the chairlift, his face successfully masking any alarm my appearance might have given him.

When we reached the top of our tiny slope I was relieved that the Koreans already standing there didn't look as if they were about to start screaming "yahoo", a traditional Korean custom once you've hiked to the top of a summit.

At the top of our tiny slope, I took in the view of the gentle rounded mini-mountains - reminiscent of modest skiing areas in eastern Canada and the US. We both set off down the slope, slowly and tentatively but relatively in control as we narrowly avoided others who were clearly not. The slopes were alive with very inexperienced skiers but no snowboarders - they aren't allowed at Bears Town.

The even split of men and women weaved, wobbled and fell over with all the finesse of ducks on ice. It was a revelation. For the first time in my life I was one of the most skilful on the mountain (and I'm no great shakes) bar the few piste patrollers and ski instructors.

It didn't take long for us both to find the confidence to go up the nine lifts - a mixture of chairs and drags - and ski down the 12 well-manicured slopes. There are five runs classified for beginners, three for intermediates and four for advanced, although the latter category is clearly aimed at flattery. The one modest area of moguls was as threatening as a Buddhist monk at prayer.

Apparently there is also off-piste skiing but it's only open at certain times of the year and unfortunately not when we were there. We were skiing on natural snow but should there be any lack of the real stuff, there were snow machines to make up for any shortfall.

From Monday to Saturday the resort opens at 9am while on Sunday it caters for the keen with a 6am start. Meanwhile, floodlights keep the slopes open to 9.30pm in the evening.

You don't need a full day to cover the area, though, and the sugar-coated Korean pop music became irritating - especially as it accompanies you up all the lifts, blasted from speakers on the pylons, to every square metre of piste.

There was only one thing for it: food, especially as the hot, spicy Korean cuisine is superb. What we chose and how we spent the afternoon is all a bit blurry as Jang-eun insisted on ordering the dreaded soju, filling my glass and all too regularly exclaiming "gunbae" (down in one).

It didn't take long for the mountains to look epic, the music to sound like Mozart and even the drink to taste like champagne. Camshamida (thank you very much) Jang-eun - although not for the hangover.

Our skiing correspondent, Stephen Wood, appears this week on page 23