Winter wonderland deep in the valley of dragons

WHEN Dragon Valley was built in 1975 it was denounced as a white elephant. But when the ski boom took off in Korea in the mid-1980s, it became a favoured location for wealthy skiing enthusiasts.

Korea's first and largest ski resort, it was the brainchild of Mr Kim Suk-won, head of Ssangyong, South Korea's sixth largest company, who cultivated a love of skiing while being educated in the US.

With its 16 ski slopes built at an altitude of 1,500 metres, Dragon Valley or Yongp'yeong (by its Korean name) does not match the height or size of European or North American resorts.

But its size is ideal for beginners - it is virtually impossible to get lost and the lower slopes provide easy learning grounds.

At the other end of the scale, die-hards will find a weekend's skiing in Korea much cheaper than skiing in Japan and probably as challenging.

The 215-kilometre trip from Seoul to Dragon Valley can take between three and five hours depending on the notorious traffic.

Dragon Valley consists of two condominiums, a hostel and a hotel, built at the base of Mount Balwang with ski lifts taking off right outside the door.

At the Dragon Valley Hotel, warmly heated, double-glazed rooms are a welcome retreat from the bitter temperatures outside.

The 14-week season begins in mid-December and by early spring the weather is bright and sunny, and snowfalls are still heavy. The runs are about as well-groomed as the skiers, and snow-making machines guarantee a day's skiing even if there is an unexpected thaw.

The slopes tend to be fairly short, however, which, if you are a competent skier means spending rather more time on lifts than on piste, which in sub-zero temperatures can be pretty cold.

But a mug of hot sake at one of the log cabin-style canteens on the mountain can cure that, although do not expect your turns to be as well executed afterwards.

In mid-week there are few lift queues. At the weekends Koreans flock to the resort, resulting in queueing becoming time-consuming and ski equipment for renting scarce. It is worth booking weekend breaks well in advance.

When it comes to equipment, renting ski-wear and buying a pass can be a frustratingly bureaucratic experience.

Few people speak English, apart from the hotel's front desk staff so it is worth asking them what to do - and where. Do not be surprised either by the taxes - almost everything in Korea is subject to some kind of tax.

If you have the time, ski-wear can be bought remarkably cheaply in the Itaewon district of Seoul. It is well worth the investment if you want to compete in the fashion stakes.

Korean and Japanese skiers do not skimp on presentation - pretty Asian girls make themselves up for a day's skiing as if it were a night's apres-ski.

Lipstick and the latest in garishly patterned and fluorescent ski-wear is a kind of uniform here.

The skiing, too, was immaculate, with skiers executing perfectly synchronised turns, one behind the other down the slopes.

Again, weekends are apparently a different matter altogether with locals performing kamikaze stunts, in order to dodge the seething mass of skiers.

There is not much to speak of in the way of apres-ski, in the Western sense of all-night discotheques and bars. Instead there are the gentler pursuits of bowling, mini-golf or the amusement arcade.

Evenings are more likely to be spent at one of the many restaurants in nearby Hwang Ke, seated cross-legged on the floor round a sizzling pulgogi - a Korean beef barbecue - with the ubiquitous kimchi, the pickled cabbage dish for which Korea is famous.

The second largest resort after Dragon Valley is Muju, which has 14 runs and is 206 km south of Seoul.

Muju has only been open for three years and is competing with Yongp'yeong as the centre for the Asian Winter Games in 1995.

Whichever resort you choose, you are sure to get in some good skiing. And if you have already skied in the West, skiing in Korea will be an experience. - CHARLOTTE BEVAN