2014 Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival
After hearing lots of good things (and seeing lots of nice pictures) about the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival, Alex and I decided, at the last minute, to catch the final day of the festival. We reserved bus tickets on Saturday afternoon for our trip on Sunday (direct buses from Seoul, available to foreigners for 10,000 won round trip). We woke up early on Sunday and donned our heat tech undergarments and bundled up for a full day outside in the cold. We took a 30+ minute subway ride to the bus stop and boarded the bus. I fully expected to get some disapproving looks from the tour guide or the bus driver, because the bus was for “foreigners” only, but our bus was full of Chinese, Malaysians, and Filipinos. The heat on the bus was turned extremely high, making us very uncomfortable since we were wearing two of everything! I’ve noticed that people LOVE to blast the heat in restaurants, on buses/subways, and even at the gym!
We arrived at Hwacheon after a two hour bus ride. This area in Gangwon-do province gets very cold in the winter, and is close to North Korea. (Don’t worry, being in a big city is probably more dangerous than going to a small fishing village in Northern South Korea!!) We immediately got in line to purchase our tickets for ice fishing. We got passes, fishing lures, and plastic baggies for the “foreigner” only section of the river. There were at least 10X as many people in the Korean section as there were in the foreigner section! And there were volunteers at the foreigner section to help you unhook your fish and place them in plastic bags. We’ve noticed that there’s a lot of reverse racism in Korea – foreigners get special treatment from companies as well as the government.
We first walked around the festival grounds. There were a dozen activities from sledding down hills, to being pulled around in a plastic raft on the ice, to ice skating and zip-lining. At certain times of the day, you could even try to catch trout with your hands, in a big pool! We saw girls catching fish and stuffing them down each others’ shirts, and a man who ended up with a wriggling fish in his mouth (whether he caught the fish with his mouth… we don’t know). Unfortunately, it was kind of warm outside so some of the ice and snow was melting…
In the “foreigner only” section, Alex and I gingerly walked (more like shuffled) along the ice. I swear, as soon as Alex dropped his fishing lure (no bait) into a hole in the ice, he caught a fish! It took us a while to unhook the lure and put the fish into a plastic bag. We thought, wow, this is EASY. We’ll catch three fish each (that’s the allowance) and have an early lunch of three grilled fish and three raw fish (sashimi). Perfect! Unfortunately, that first fish used up all of our luck. For the next hour and half, we caught NOTHING! And not for lack of trying! We shuffled around from fishing hole to fishing hole. We moved the lures around so much that our arms got tired. Still nothing. During this time, Alex was “chosen” to be interviewed for a cable news channel! (The reporter took one look around the “foreigner” section and picked the first non-Asian person he saw. I didn’t get a second glance!) The reporter asked Alex how he liked the festival so far, and how he had heard of it, and where he was from. It turns out, the “where are you from” question was very difficult for Alex to answer. “Um…. The United States?” “Er… Um… New York?” 🙂 Unlike the U.S., there is no need for a release form. Anyone can use a picture or video of you, without your consent.
Towards the last half hour that we were on the ice, I finally caught two fish! Other people were hauling away big trout, and out of our three fish, the one Alex caught was biggest. And the second and third fish were progressively smaller. It was already one o’clock and we were hungry! We ended up taking all three fish to the BBQ grill tent. It should have cost 2,000 won per fish to cook, but when the guy saw our pitiful fish, he only charged us 4,000 won for the three! We paid, were given a ticket, and watched the cook slather each whole fish in sea salt and wrap them up in tin foil. They were then stuck in cylindrical slots in a huge oven. We were told to come back in 20 minutes. We ate a few steamed buns (red bean and pumpkin filled) before picking up our fish. Alex and I had our doubts about how good a fish with just sea salt could be, but it was DELICIOUS! Some of the best fish I’ve ever had. The skin stuck to the foil so that when the foil was unwrapped, all that was left was fish meat. After we removed the spine, there was nothing left but chunks of fish. We’ve never eaten a fish so completely before! We finished off our meal with a bowl of instant ramen noodles and two cups of (weak) coffee.
We then walked through the small town (they did have a Popeye’s Chicken, which I’ve only seen on the army base) to the Ice Illumination Plaza to see the ice sculptures. The tickets were 5,000 won for locals and only 3,000 won for foreigners (again, reverse discrimination) AND we each received 3,000 won vouchers to be used anywhere in town (so the tickets were essentially free). The ice sculptures are housed inside a gigantic, temperature controlled room. Most of them took months to carve. They had a miniature Korean palace, the Colosseum, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, a palace from Moscow, etc. The Korean palace had an ice slide… that was fun even though it wasn’t very long. After the ice sculptures, we shared a latte, and walked back to the bus.
Even though Alex didn’t initially want to go to the Ice Festival, he conceded that it was fun and that he’d go back again next year!