Author’s note: a version of this article appears in the January 2011 issue of the Groove.
I never thought I’d get to drive an ATV on ice, or take a dip in freezing-cold water to try catching a slippery fish by hand. I also never thought I’d see a frozen water wheel with icicles at an angle, and yet there it was.
This month in Gangwon-do is the annual Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival (화천산천어축제), one of several ice and winter festivals in the area. Since each one goes for at least a week, there’s ample time to catch up with them all if you’re so inclined. The five villages of Hwacheon-gun make the area – and main street – come alive with plenty of lit-up plastic fish. It’s surprisingly pristine, even as the thousands of Koreans take to the 40cm thick ice. It’s also one of the first areas to freeze in the winter, thanks to its clean water and frigid weather.
Once arriving at Hwacheon, you might wish to buy your return ticket back to Seoul, or store your stuff in a locker at the bus terminal. Because the area isn’t highly visited by tourists outside the winter season, you may have to look around for a place that still has hotel rooms. Chuncheon is less than an hour away and has ample hotel rooms. The last bus back to Seoul leaves around 7:30-8pm, and the last bus to Chuncheon leaves around 9pm, so it can be a day trip from Seoul if you like.
After that errand, walk down the main street towards Hwacheon stream, about a 300 meter walk. Sections of the stream are separated from each other, partially for grouping and partially for safety – that ATV-on-ice has enough barriers around it to protect the ice fishers.
For the record, the ice fishing is the biggest draw. The process is simple enough – purchase a small plastic pole that looks vaguely like that DNA model from high school, pay your way in, find a hole and start bobbing the pole up and down. If looking to actually catch something, try some bait and perhaps a slightly different motion than the thousand other ice fishers. Some friendly Koreans with grills will cook your catch, or a bottle of soju can be obtained to drown your sorrows.
The other major highlight is watching otherwise sane people pay money to dunk themselves in ice-cold water and catch a fish. Imagine the Polar Bear Plunge with an added twist – it’s harder than you think. That happens several times a day, and a crowd inevitably gathers.
You’ll find at least one traditional winter Korean activity on the ice – be sure to try the 나무 썰매 (na-mu sseol-mae), or wooden sled. Imagine taking the blades from a pair of ice skates and attaching them to a wooden platform about two feet square. Next, sit down cross-legged and use a couple sticks with nails poking out the bottom to navigate on the ice. While the sticks-with-nails can get you moving, use your body weight to turn. Rent these at the edge of the ice.
While there isn’t a nightlife to write home about, the lights around the town – and the World Winter City Plaza – make it worth sticking around once the sun goes down. Last year’s snow and ice sculptures featured enough lights to make the area visible from space. Also worth checking out is the Asia Ice Lights Square – an indoor ice sculpture museum featuring another wonderful display of lights.
If you go, remember your winter jacket and gloves – Korean winters get cold very quickly, and it’s no fun walking around if you can’t feel your toes. Bundle up, and be ready for some slippery surfaces – the ice seemed less slick than some of the walkways.
The Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival is from January 8-30, 2011. Take an express bus to Hwacheon from the Dong Seoul Bus Terminal (Gangbyeon station, line 2; 12,600 won, normally 15 buses a day) among other bus terminals around the country. You may find it easier to get a bus to the Chuncheon Bus Terminal (every 15 minutes, 7,800 won), although there are extra buses running to the area thanks to the festival. Admission is free, but expect to pay for almost anything worth doing or seeing. For more information, check out http://www.narafestival.com.
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