The ice wind howled from the north, biting into soft rosy cheeks that hid behind scarves and hoods. Snowflakes flickered by in the crisp air as the frozen lake stood resolute under the weight of thousands of feet. The atmosphere was alive with the screams of children and moans of despair from men defeated by the harsh and fickle rejection of nature. Bodies lay strewn across the icy, frigid ground, their eyes popped wide in hope, staring into the underworld, longing for a chance. A chance to be a hero, if only for a moment.
Jon Snow may not have made it to Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival (화천산천어축제) , but if the Game of Thrones star did go, I’m sure he would retell the experience something like that.
But what of the reality? Is it really that good?
South Korea has no shortage of festivals and despite my efforts to save money by keeping a low profile, I’ve somehow managed to make it to quite a few. My favorites thus far were Holi Hai in that amazing city of Busan and the famous Andong Mask Dance Festival.
On gearing up for this one, I had high expectations that it would blow all others out of the water – well, if the water wasn’t frozen, that is!
I mean, c’mon, it’s an ice-fishing festival in wintertime near the border with North Korea!
I felt like we were going to war (with fish). We’d brave harsh, unforgiving conditions and put our pride and honor on the line, slaying the enemy (mountain trout) with our deadly weapons (tiny $7 rod).
Hwacheon is a small city in Gangwon, the most northern province in South Korea. Running parallel to the De-Militarized Zone, as close as 9 km at some points, Hwacheon is one of Korea’s coldest regions. As the first area to freeze over during winter, it’s the perfect location for the ice-fishing festival.
Normally, the festival runs throughout January every year but an unusually mild winter meant our original plan of attack was vetoed until Jack Frost showed up in February and turned the city’s wide river into a huge ice rink.
Having crashed at Tyler’s pad in Gangnam the night before, we made for Dong Seoul bus terminal shortly after 0700 hours. With enough time to spare for a bathroom break and a coffee, I was ready for battle.
Roughly 14,000₩ and 2.5 hours later we were there. Well, almost. A short taxi ride saved us the walk from the bus station to the centre of the festival area.
We weren’t for walking after catching wind of whispered horrors that spoke of a brutal trek. Rumour has it that it stretches almost ten whole minutes.
In a squadron of eight, it soon dawned on me and Mike that we were the odd pair alongside three couples. I feared the other guys would not be focused on the mission ahead. We would surely flounder in the face of wave after wave of relentless attacks from the mighty Sancheoneo fish.
But we were there. The hour was nigh and it was too late to turn back now.
Assembling the ranks, we reported to headquarters for our briefing. The ground of the festival are pretty huge and to say there was a lot of people doesn’t quite sum it up. Some other friends arrived at another point further down the river and we never saw them once.
After buying our entrance tickets for the ice-fishing for about 8,000₩, we received a voucher for food and faced the choice of going further downstream to the less-crowded area set-up especially for foreigners. With some natives among our party, we decided to stick together and join the masses in the main battle arena.
First things first though! No man can go to war without a weapon!
The armory was rich with options ranging from the cheap and cheerful to the instruments that looked designed to not only kill the fish, but de-bone them and roll them up in a tasty sushi roll right there on the spot.
The popular and cheapest choice is the plastic, fly-swatter-like tool. Although I was happy with my $7 machine, I soon learnt that the technique required is much the same as that of the fly/fish-swatter.
Taking the ice, we found a sparse area and commandeered several entry points to the underworld.
I had the misfortune of losing my good ski gloves on a bus recently, a familiar curse striking once again.
For anybody going to the Hwacheon ice fishing festival, I would definitely recommend you go prepared for a day in the coldest region in Korea. Lucky for me, Tyler was able to spare a pair of gloves. With frostbite at bay, I breathed easy, my lungs chilling with every breath.
Hwacheon is famous for its samgyeopsal (삼겹살 – fatty strips of pork belly meat). Admittedly, I wasn’t aware of that at the time but certainly wasn’t complaining as I exchanged the voucher to get some in the Korean BBQ tent at 1100 hours. Washed down with a beer, it was a warrior’s breakfast and I returned to our unit raring to go.
Settling in, noon approached and passed by just as fast as members of our squadron vanished in search of sustenance and supplies. One by one, they went, some returned quickly, others were lost to the wilderness for some time.
As the clutches of winter closed in around me, I found myself alone.
Manning three heavy artillery units, I alternated positions, deterring the movements of rival Korean soldiers who threatened to move in on our territory. Wondering where my unit had gone, I felt the frost nip at my face and watched the ice turned to slush beneath my boots. The call of nature came to me and yet I could not abandon my post.
Finally, some familiar faces returned as the first hail of a blizzard threatened to engulf me. My hunger had returned and once again Tyler was at hand to bring me some tasty chicken skewers.
One thing is for sure, you won’t go hungry at the festival!
The afternoon passed quick and all around us the fish fell victim to the mass attacks from above the ice. It was the women in our group that had the greatest success as their excited cheers filled the air time after time. The method of standing patiently while bobbing the hook up and down until they felt a tug proved to be a winner.
Convinced my rod required some high-level technique, I experimented with all sorts. I even dared to bait my hook with some chicken. A hopeful move that only succeeding in freezing a perfectly good piece of chicken.
Taking my lead from many Koreans around me, I got close to the ice and stared through the hole into the water, peering into the dark abyss and moving my hook into the face of any oncoming target.
As the joyous cries of success erupted all around me, I knew my time would come soon. It was a waiting game. Just a matter of time…
So I waited.
Then I left and got some more food.
On my return, I tried once more.
Waiting, waiting, waiting…
The women in the group had truly proved to be quite the hunter-gatherers. With a simple flick of the wrist, I watched them hook one after another. The same trick just didn’t seem to have the same success for myself and the guys.
It seemed that the mighty Sancheoneo fish were terrified of the men and would not come near our huge weapons. With our presence, we subtly ushered the fish away, giving them a false sense of security before they were plucked from the water by the girls. It was a truly ingenious strategy.
With that the battle was won. The quota had been set at three fish per person.
With my hands and toes curled in the face of the plummeting temperatures, I realized that it was time to go and enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labor.
Walking out, we saw children bobsledding and riding little quad bikes, other people playing on slides and scores of others enjoying food from the ubiquitous market stalls and pop-up eateries.
The town centre was brightly decorated and a band was on stage in the high street, getting ready to kick off a show as the sun fell on streets flooded with tourists and soldiers. The Hwacheon ice fishing festival attracts over a million visitors each year to a small little city that is home to some 30,000 military personnel.
And so, with the bags of bloodied bodies slung o’er our shoulders, we marched triumphantly towards the sunset on the mountainside.
There, we feasted and drank into the night, devouring the flesh of our nemesis after slow-roasting on the fiery coal-pits in the open mountain air.
Hwacheon ice fishing festival is certainly a memorable experience and although I had no joy in catching a fish of my own, there’s always plenty to go around.
Well, so long as you have some Koreans with you who happen to know what they’re doing!
If all else fails, you can just order some late-night chicken and beer to be delivered.
In fact, the best idea is to do both. Why miss out on anything?
The festival has plenty of other activities including bare-hand fishing in the icy water, bobsledding and zip-lining. Good food and cheap beer is abundant in this chilly city and you’re sure to have enough fun that makes the trek to the border worth it. Wrap up warm and choose your weapon! Best of luck soldier!