We’re up before dawn has even thought about cracking. Slightly bleary eyed, we get ready to leave the hostel and make our way to Hongik station. KiwiKat has already left for the Express Bus Terminal which is second pick up site and the one where, as an AK staff member, she needs to help round up the foreigners and get them on the bus. NZ2 is impatient and leaves for the station slightly earlier than Catfish and I. As I’ve said before, someone always has to be last and I don’t mind volunteering for this position most of the time.
We arrive at Hongik station, cold and tired, to discover that we’re the first people there. Fortunately, the bus is already there and we’re told to get on where it’s nice and warm. As we wait for the bus to fill up, I realise that we never emailed Seokjin to let him know that we would be changing pick up sites: We’d originally planned to stay at the jimjilbang at the bus terminal before hearing that the Kiwis were also on the ski trip. Catfish texts KiwiKat to let her know that we’ve changed sites and there’s a slight confusion with her response which we understand to mean that she’s not impressed with us. We’re disappointed that we won’t be on the same bus as her for the four hour trip to Phoenix Park Ski Resort in Pyeongchang but we’re on the same bus as Seokjin and ByungMin who we first met on the DMZ trip a month ago.
The 'In' Crowd ^__^
Despite our best efforts, we fall asleep for the first half of the trip and wake up when we reach the rest stop. Since we’ve been asleep for most of the trip so far, we haven’t seen the text messages from KiwiKat and NZ2 about us sharing a room. We’d already assumed that the four of us would be sharing a room but we’re not sure of who the other three or four people in our room will be. Catfish and I already know that we’re exceptions to most of the stereotypes governing foreigners so we don’t find it unusual that while most of the foreigners congregate with other foreigners only, we head for the group of AK staff members and all of the Koreans on the trip. As we stand in the cold, warming our hands around hot drinks, we hear good news: We’re sharing a room with all of the AK staff! This really makes our day and, as we return to the buses, we know that this is going to be an amazing trip.
Traffic has been somewhat slow up to this point and we arrive at Phoenix Park after midday. Our first stop is the ski rental place where we try on our ski boots, jackets and pants. We’re not quite sure how to tell if the ski boots fit properly so we decide that if we can walk in them without too much pain, they must be the right size. Hiring ski gear for three days is inexpensive as everything, including goggles, costs only 35 000 won. Once we have our ski suits, goggles and boots, we’re told to check our skis/snowboards. Again, we’re not quite sure what we’re meant to be looking for so Catfish and I pick up our skis, flip them over, shrug our shoulders and get back on the bus.
From here, it’s a short bus ride to the actual resort where the rental shop will meet us with our skis and snowboards. We struggle to balance our skis as we walk the short distance back to the buses to collect our bags and do an even greater juggling act as we attempt to cross the parking lot to the hotel without scratching all of the cars along the way. By the time we make it into the lobby, we all but throw our things down as we wait for the room assignments. We already know who we’re rooming with but have to wait for all of the keys to be handed out since the ‘staff’ room is always allocated last.
Learning to Ski
Once in our rooms, we quickly change into our ski outfits and head out to the Baby slope to learn how to ski. I’ve only been skiing once and that was when I was an exchange student in France 15 years ago. The experience did not end well so I’m a bit dubious about this weekend. Part of me is hoping that, somewhere over the past 15 years, my body has magically learned to co-operate with skis and I will be flying down the slopes in no time. Before I can try flying down the slopes, however, I need to learn the one thing I never learned the first time: How to stop!
KiwiKat is our instructor and it’s interesting to see just how many adults are genuinely terrified of skiing when they first start. It’s also a bit intimidating to watch small children as young as three or four years of age flying down slopes fearlessly while adults (mostly foreigners) peer at even the Bunny slopes with trepidation. After two practise runs on the baby slope, Catfish disappears. When she returns much later, she looks a little more patient and tells me that she’s just attempted the slope next to where we are standing which is actually an intermediate grading. Although she fell down a lot on the slope, I admire her chutzpah for tackling such a slope within an hour of being on skis for the first time in her life.
Please Don't Run Over the Children!
Since I haven’t fallen down once yet, or run over any small children, I convince myself that I’m feeling confident enough to try out a proper Beginner’s slope. There are almost no queues for the chair lift so we’re soon on our way up the slope and having lots of fun. It’s only at the top of the slope that I suddenly realise that the only way to now get down the slope is to ski and I feel my confidence waiver for a moment. I remember KiwiKat saying that the wider the inverted ‘V’ shape that we make with our skis, the slower we’ll go so I clench my knees together, stick out my butt as I bend my back to lean forward, spread my heels, take a deep breath and push away from the slope.
As I slowly glide down the slope, I feel my confidence returning: I’m doing this! I’m coping well, I’m controlling my speed, I’m not falling over, I’m…picking up more speed than I’d like and, oh crap, I’m about to run over a child! It’s this last part that scares me the most; after all, I probably weigh at least double that of the average Korean adult women so my running over a child would be the equivalent of someone being trampled by an elephant charging at 45 km per hour or more. I attempt to swerve around the child and before I know it, I’m lying on my back with my arms above my head and knees still bent, sliding down the slope at the same speed. I don’t panic because I know that, at some point, I’m going to stop; it’s just a matter of time even I never quite understand inertia and all the science talk about movement and stopping.
It’s all good fun until I realise that my ski jacket has pulled halfway up my back and I’m actually sliding downhill bareback. In addition, there’s a long orange fence that runs down the side of the slope to stop skiers from falling off the edge but it has mysteriously moved and is now directly in front of me. The semi-conscious part of my brain registers that I need to stop myself so I lift my butt off the ground, pull my legs even further under me and turn my skis outward which has the same effect as a car using an emergency brake. I’ve narrowly escaped potential injuries and can’t believe my dumb luck; when faced with situations I can’t fully process at once, my immediate reaction is either to cry or laugh hysterically so I burst into crazed laughter as I contemplate my narrow escape. NZ2 appears behind me to ask if I’m okay and later tells me just how funny it was to watch me sliding and then do an emergency brake.
I take a moment to catch my breath as NZ2 continues down the slope. Suddenly, a Korean man appears before me and offers me a hand to get up. I tell him that he’ll end up sliding down the hill backwards if he pulls me up but he brushes this off with the assurance that he can ski backwards. Show-off! I’ve just slid halfway down the beginner’s slope on my back and here you are telling me that you can ski backwards. Back on my feet, I’m once again on my way and, once again, sliding on my back when I attempt to dodge another child. By the time I reach the bottom of the slope, I’m more than ready to call it a day and accept that I’ll never be a great athlete. I head back to the room to change back into my own clothes and we’re soon heading off in search of dinner.
There are several options for dinner and KiwiKat tells us that PopEye’s Chicken is the best so that’s where we devour our food in hunger. Once again, we realise that lunch was forgotten in our excitement for the day’s trip. After dinner, we explore the resort options and head to the Family Mart for some drinks which we end up drinking in the cafeteria while a resort employee stands near us and speaks randomly into his walkie-talkie. We obviously don’t understand what he is saying and I’m not convinced that we’re actually allowed to drink alcohol in the cafeteria so we start making up comments like There are four waegooks drinking in the cafeteria and How do I say, “Please don’t drink here”?. I’m constantly amazed at the things we do for self-entertainment. In all honesty, and just to set the record straight, we only had ONE drink in the cafeteria; we were not drinking excessively.
We consider going bowling but discover that there’s an hour’s wait for a lane so we head to the noryaebang instead. I’m excited by this as I haven’t yet been to a noryaebang in Korea. There’s nothing quite like singing songs at the top of your voice, amplified by a microphone, with the misguided belief that being in Korea has mysteriously made you a talented singer. Of course, this misguided belief and confidence only applies in Korea. We end the noryaebang session an hour later, with rather hoarse throats, and make our way back to our room where we watch the night skiers on the slopes before us. It’s inspiring and we go to bed dreaming of an entire day of gliding down the slopes gracefully.