Saturday, January 9, 2016

Hwacheon Sancheonea (mountain trout) Ice Festival

The Hwacheon Sancheoneo (mountain trout) Ice Festival takes place in Gangwon-do, a remote area that sees few tourists through much of the year until they swarm in by the thousands during the January festival season. In fact, last year in the month of January the sleepy town saw nearly one million visitors, most attracted to the nearly one-month long festival. In 2012 the festival was named as one of the seven wonders of winter by CNN and Lonely Planet and in January 2015 a shot of the ice covered with people ice fishing around lines and lines of ice holes was captured by National Geographic. The festival is certainly a hit, especially as getting to Hwacheon and back can be a just a very full day-trip from Seoul, where arguably a third to a half of the population of South Korea lives.

The local festival has become a very popular national festival and is a salute to the mountain trout, known locally as “queen of the valley”. The most popular attraction to the festival is coming to catch trout with a fishing pole, and the second most popular attraction is catching trout with the bare hands, advertised as “bare-handed fishing”. I understand this is so popular that people are encouraged to register online to ensure getting the chance to participate although some on our tour bus said they were able to participate. One young eight- or nine-year-old on our bus was avidly plunging underwater and had trout stuffed in his shirt. Brrr and brave, but unfortunately he didn't find the tagged trout with the winning number.

Participation t-shirts and shorts are provided as well as shower shoes to the entrance to the pool. Then everyone steps out of the shower shoes, does some team-building exercises, and then the participants file around the pool of trout. They cheer collectively, sit down on the ice collectively, and maybe four volunteers are challenged to enter the pool first for some water fun and splashing, then all members plunge in to compete in finding the tagged trout.

The next two pictures contributed by Sandra Ortiz from our tour group. It was her son who was the biggest fish out there, swimming underwater and stuffing his shirt with trout. Other people had trout in their shirts, but the tiny kid looked twice as big with his extra load! Crazy fun!


While the rest of Korea might have snow or a little ice, Hwacheon county in Gangwon-do is known for its thick layer of ice, and typically the ice is 40 centimeters thick. Yet, not all of the river is that thick and just upstream and downstream of the designated festival area, the river water is open and lightly flowing. But the curve of the river and the breezes that blow keep one long stretch solid ice and very thick for many winter weeks.

And people sure do enjoy the ice. Many ice activities are available, not just ice fishing and bare-handed fishing. Snacks and local foods are sold in food stalls, organic food booths are set up, a couple of coffee canteens in vinyl tents to block the wind, and of course the ice activities: sledding, ice biking, traditional ice sledding using two short push sticks to propel one’s self, and the popular short zipline which spans the river.

Arrival and Participation

Because the traffic is horrendous in and out of Hwacheon during the festival season, I opted to take a tour bus. Paid my all-inclusive fee and then didn’t worry about a thing all day! Arrived at the festival site with about 44 other foreigners, and we were guided to the foreigner area. Wasn’t too excited about the segregation until I saw the Korean area absolutely dense with people and had to wonder if the ice with all the fishing holes could support that many. Evidently it could, but hmm.

Our tour guide purchased our tickets, gave us W10,000 worth of festival vouchers to spend on anything within the festival site, took us to a pavilion where we were each provided with a flimsy arm-length fishing rod (never saw such a tiny rod but it was efficient and suitable for trout) and a large plastic bag for holding our caught fish. Then with a participation tag clipped to our coats, we entered the lightly populated foreigner area.

I’ve been fishing before but never caught a fish in my life ... but that just might be because I had a book in one hand and a rod in the other, and the book got all my attention. Anyway, people were yanking fish out of the holes, making fishing look far easier than my dad's sit-in-the-boat-all-day method. I wasn’t doing so well so started watching others more closely. Ah, drop the hook to just above the bottom, give it some light pulls and … nothing. Watched a bit more and realized that the places in shadow, where I was, the fish weren’t biting. They also weren’t biting in places where there were a dense amount of people above them on the ice, probably affected by the shadows again. I moved out to the furthest holes and in rapid succession pulled three fish in. Nothing to it … except I believe the blocked off pond had been freshly stocked. Easily got my three fish limit so had to stop.

Next step, take the fish to the Sancheoneo Roasting Station. At a pavilion, give your fish to a cook’s assistant and W3,000 to cook each fish, or W5,000 to cook each fish, top it with salad and a rich peppery sauce. My two Russian friends and I could not possibly eat our 9 collective fish and they wanted to take some fish home, which worked out well. We paid with our vouchers to cook my three fish without the sauce (none of use are keeners for the heavy spices), and then asked the information desk to hold the remaining fish until the end of the day. No problem.

We turned in the three fish and got a receipt for them, moved to the next tent to submit it, and then within a couple of minutes three baked fish, individually wrapped in aluminum foil, were plunked in front of us … and wow were they good!

An amazingly well organized festival. There are cooking stations in several spots along the river, very efficient for feeding the thousands of people who swarm through on the weekends in January. Our bus represented people from the US, Canada, Russia, the Netherlands, France, Turkey, and some other places and everyone I heard was commenting on the efficiency of preparing massive amounts of food with the least amount of effort. Well done, Korea!
Between the Korean area (not pictured to the left) and the foreigner area (not pictured to the right) is a large space for ice activities like tobogganing, Korean traditional sledding, ice biking, and others. The space also provided designated walk areas so people could easily cross the river without inconveniencing the people and kiddies at play. 
The Korean area - swarming with people. They had to provide their own fishpoles I found out later, but many had coolers and thermal mats and were having quite the picnic time hovered around their ice hole or holes. Some were stretched out asleep on their thermal mats ... looked very summery to me except for the ice.

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