Ice Fishing in Hwacheon: embracing Korea’s sub-zero temperatures
The stressful holidays have passed, and now it’s January and time to relax. In Korea, we are currently living in frigid, sub-zero temperatures. Everyday I bundle up in my thick winter coat and Uggs, which I refused to wear in the past because they are so hideous-looking, but now I wear them with pride. Sometimes I dread merely walking to the subway station, but I try not to get too comfy on my ondol-heated floors, because there are plenty of fun activities taking place this winter.
One such activity is the Ice Fishing Festival in Hwacheon, a small town in Korea’s eastern Gangwon province. Last weekend, along with Adventure Korea, a budget travel company catered to foreigners, I attended this festival and tried ice fishing for the first time. We fished for Sancheona, a type of mountain trout.
Thousands of people occupied the ice, gathering around systematic holes that had been drilled into the river. They brought chairs, snacks and warm clothing, but there was no need to bring fishing gear or barbecues. Fishing gear is available for rent, and for a few thousand won, you can choose to have your fish grilled or prepared as sashimi. Don’t worry about the fish in the river depleting–the festival lasts for a few weeks, and several times a day, the river is freshly stocked with fish that proper fishermen have caught for the festival.
Our group was herded to an area with a heated waiting room and cooking tents labeled FOR FOREIGNER. I was slightly offended that we were segregated from the Korean tents, but on the other hand, happy that we got our own spacious, heated room. Inside the tent, we grabbed our ice fishing poles.
After choosing the perfect hole, the guides showed us how to break the ice with a pick ax and remove ice chunks with a net. We then released our fishing line into the river, bobbing it up and down in hopes to catch a trout. I fished with Ashley, a South African girl on the trip, and a few guys. They bought a six pack and prepared to stay awhile, but we got restless after 10 minutes and decided to ditch our fishing poles and wander around the festival.
We walked past these cute cat and fish ice sculptures, located next to giant, snowy portraits of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
We wanted to go ice skating, but unfortunately a bunch of kids were in the middle of a speed skating competition, and the ice wouldn’t be available until the next day. Instead, we walked through a building made entirely of ice, stopping to take some photos in one room containing fish frozen in the walls.
For lunch, we devoured savory grilled trout, almost melting in our mouths, especially delicious when sprinkled with some sea salt. The photo above DOES NOT do the trout justice.
At two o’clock, the bare handed trout catching contest began. The thermometer dipped below zero degrees, and I shivered merely thinking about dipping my toes into the icy water. I decided not to participate, making the excuse that I had to stay and take photos for my blog. I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t being a wimp, because I had already caught a trout in the Beef Festival‘s bare handed fishing contest and tried to catch an eel at the Bokbunja Festival. This was clearly not a good excuse since those festivals took place in the fall and spring, respectively, and they could not compare to this polar dip-style contest.
So while everybody changed into their bright orange uniforms, and I continued to make myself feel guilty for not participating, we watched two ajusshi in overalls pour a garbage can full of trout into the icy pool. The contestants, barefoot and shivering in their shorts and T-shirts, formed a circle around the pool. I didn’t feel so bad anymore.
Before the contest began, an ajusshi threw a fish into the crowd. A mother leaped to catch it, and at the same time, her two-year old son, bundled in a snowsuit, almost fell into the pool. Ashley and I gasped with our arms outstretched, by luckily the mother noticed and grabbed him before he could fall in. This contest was INTENSE! Contrary to the pleasant snowfall, the contestants were trashing around in the freezing water, determined to grab a slippery trout or two, while the crowd cheered in unison.
After that madness, Ashley and I returned to the frozen river to fish for the second time, and she caught a fish within ten minutes. I failed to get anything but a quick nibble, even though the Korean woman next to me caught three fish within fifteen minutes, standing between two holes and frantically bobbing two fishing poles up and down while her boyfriend waited in their tent. Obviously my technique sucked, or I was just unlucky. (I’ve convinced myself it was the latter.)
Around four o’clock, we bought cups of hot wine before departing the festival. I gripped the warm cup with my frozen hands and inhaled its fruity aroma. Infused with orange slices, the wine was deliciously sweet and quite “hectic,” which, disregarding its proper meaning, is apparently slang for “strong” in South Africa. Hectic. I like it.
Before arriving at out pension, we stopped to buy alcohol for the evening. Luckily Ashley and I bought plastic bottles of beer and soju, since, on the way to our room, she slipped on the steps while holding the bag of booze. Although, she got a bruise on her leg, our alcohol was intact. Soon after, we indulged in an all-you-can-eat samgypsal (pork belly) barbecue dinner. The guy who caught the most fish won a giant bottle of soju, and he was conveniently sitting at our table.
After dinner, we grabbed our drinks and warmed up around a bonfire that our guides made. An American guy shopped at the foreigner mart prior to the trip and brought marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate to make s’mores.
Back inside the pension, we waited for a group of middle-aged Koreans to finish singing before taking over the noraebang. The bus driver, jamming to the tunes on the right, dragged us inside. Already slightly tipsy, we started dancing with the ajumma and ajusshi, who, judging by their dramatic dance moves, had already started their party long before we arrived.
The next day, we rolled off our sleeping mats, ate some bread and fried eggs for breakfast, and walked ten minutes down the road to the Ice Sculpture Festival. There were some interesting sculptures, like this hanok house with kimchi pots, but I didn’t stay long. Instead, I relaxed in a warm coffee shop with some others.
At the festival, some other people on the trip paid to go snow tubing on a small hill, while others grabbed some snacks and checked out the sculptures. I heard that kids played “catch the rabbit” with fifty rabbits hopping around on a frozen pond beyond the snow sculptures. I’m sure that would have been entertaining to watch.
Although I didn’t find the Ice Sculpture Festival too exciting, the Ice Fishing Festival is one of the best festivals I’ve attended in Korea. I didn’t last too long on the ice, but it was fun to try something new, and I certainly found ways to keep myself entertained. (Namely eating fish, red bean snacks and drinking wine.) Adventure Korea will lead this trip again on January 19-20, and there are still 11 spots remaining! If you’re interested in testing out your fishing skills, or just down for a fun party, click here for more details.
This trip is called “Ice Fishing Festival Trip.” Adventure Korea leads this trip twice a year, and it costs 93,000 won (approximately $88), including a round-trip chartered limousine bus, 2 meals (Saturday dinner and Sunday breakfast), accommodation (pension, Korean-style room), festival entrance fee and ice fishing activity fee, and English speaking guides. For more trip options, visit Adventure Korea’s homepage.
*Note: This is a sponsored post, but the opinions are, of course, my own.
-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.