Just two months ago, leading travel guide Lonely Planet named ice fishing in Korea as one of its 7 wonders of winter, putting it right up there with the Northern lights in Canada and the hot springs in Yellowstone national park. Unlike these two natural phenomena though, ice fishing is relatively new to Korea. Held in Hwacheon city, Gangwon-do – just 20 mins from the North Korean border – the ice festival was originally set up by the farmer residents of the surrounding area who struggled to make money during the long winters. With hardly any visitors outside of the military passing through, they came up with the idea of an ice festival to pull in tourists. They stopped the flow of one of their large rivers, allowing it to ice over, and then filled it up with the moutain trout that are in abundance in this part of Korea, and so began the ice fishing. These days Hwacheon’s ice festival is not simply limited to the ice fishing itself, but also includes sledding, ice skating, ice bumper cars, ice football, an ice sculpture exhibition, and much more. It pulls in thousands of tourists a year who come from all over the world in flocks to enjoy this unique experience.
I was lucky enough to be sponsored by the budget travel and tours groupAdventure Korea to take part in a two-day trip down to Hwacheon to take part in the festival, so bright and early on Saturday morning I hopped above the tour bus and headed North to colder climes.
As our tour guide Seokjin filled us in on the itinerary for the day as well as a few details about the history of the festival, I watched as the landscape outside my window quickly changed from brown to white. The closer we got to the North, the more snow there was, and the dull city scape of Seoul was replaced with snow-tipped forests and lazy rivers sparkling in the morning sunlight. I took a few hazy shots out the window as we ambled up into the mountains….
We arrived at the festival just before lunch, were given ice fishing poles and were told to meet back together again in two hours for the bare hand fishing event. I went to explore the site with another English teacher I had met on the bus, and was surprised to see just how many tourists were there. There must have been over 5,000 people out on the lake, taking part in all kinds of weird and wacky ice events. We headed straight to the ice fishing area and after a while of searching for a hole in the ice, a kind Korean family helped us dig our own. The ice was extremely thick and it took at least five minutes to dig through it. When we had finished making our hole, the Korean family showed us how to dangle our rod in and pull gently on it in rhythmic movements to attract the fish.
Despite being on a lake of ice, the sky was actually beautifully clear and so it wasn’t too cold. This made it a lot easier to be a patient fisher, and as I waited for the fish to come, I looked around at all the other people eagerly stooping over their holes. Since the winter is the longest school holiday in Korea, there were plenty of Korean families out in full force, some well-equipped with camping chairs and hot drinks. Everyone seemed to have a full bag of freshly caught trout, and every now and then a cheer would break out as someone caught a fish. Perhaps not surprisingly from Korea, the whole thing had a very communal feel to it, with happy families chatting excitedly about their catch, and everyone gladly sharing their tips and stories about the best ways to fish.
After about ten minutes I felt a sharp pull on my rod and I shouted out in excitement as I pulled up an absolutely ginormous fish! A few families crowded around to take a look, and then they offered me a bag to put it in since I didn’t have one. I was so proud!
It was a pretty amazing experience to have caught my own fish, but I didn’t have much time to ponder on it, as we had to rush off to the bare hand fishing event, so I put my fish in a bag and decided I would worry about eating it later.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the bare hand fishing, but when I arrived I was handed an orange t-shirt and a pair of shorts and instructed to change into it and then wait to be called to the event. The event takes place three times during the day, and there was a large group of about 50 of us taking part, both foreign and Korean. Once dressed, we walked out into the freezing snow and climbed up onto a layer of ice that surrounded a pool of icy water brim-full of mountain trout. The water was only about knee high, but when I dipped my feet into the water I remember thinking that I had never felt anything so cold. We sat and waited on the ice whilst a commentator said a few words on a speakerphone, and the audience clambered closer to get a good view. Then finally a horn went off and everyone jumped in.
The shock of jumping in the water was a lot more than I was expecting. There was a lot of screaming and shouting from the fishers and my legs instantly turned numb, making it very difficult to walk. The fish were so slippery I couldn’t get a proper grip on them so eventually I gave up and stumbled out. Some people, however, were more skilled than me and one girl in our group managed to catch nine fish! The winning tactic, it seemed, was to push the fish to the edge, catch them, and then shove them down your top (tucked into the shorts) for safekeeping. Some people even carried them out in their mouth Bear Grylls style! Afterwards we stumbled over to the on-site foot spa to bring back the feeling in our feet and boast about our attempts to catch the fish.Then we got went back to the changing rooms to get back into warm clothes and try to dry our underwear on the heaters!
Once the bare hand fishing was done we had some free time to go and enjoy the festival so we headed off to eat our fish. There were stalls all along the sides of the river that cooked the fish, or if you wanted you could have them cut it into sashimi pieces to be eaten raw. We tried both and it was absolutely delicious, although I did feel a little guilty to be eating the fish I had caught, but a little soju (Korean vodka) was enough to wash away my fishers remorse.
In the afternoon we headed off on a perilous mountain drive to our hotel. The hotel had organised a delicious spread of samgyupsal (grilled pork belly) and side dishes for us which was the perfect way to unwind and warm up at the end of the day. After that we gathered around a campfire, had a few drinks, and grilled marshmellows on sticks before making use of the hotel’snoraebang (karaoke room).
The next day those of us who were not too hungover headed off on a mountain hike, led by our tour guide. The surrounding mountains were extremely beautiful, despite it being winter, and the air from the top was wonderfully fresh. We hiked for about an hour and a half until we reached an ice sculpture festival. This for me was the only disappointing part of the trip. It was the last day of the festival and a lot of the sculptures were on their way to melting, if not already fully melted. I did get a few cool pictures though.
After the sculpture festival we jumped back on the bus and headed back to Seoul, which seemed strangely warm after being up North. All in all it was a really great trip, very nicely organised and with lots of opportunities to make new friends. I’m definitely glad I got a chance to do the ice fishing, and even though the bare handed fishing was one of the most painful things I have ever done it was a really amazing experience and something I was so happy to have taken part in. It was easily one of my favourite trips that I have done this year in Korea.