Thanks for All the Fish

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
Trip End Dec 02, 2012

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Flag of Korea Rep.  , Gangwon,
Saturday, January 5, 2013

This weekend we took yet another group tour out to Gangwondo. It was a different group from the one I keep complaining about, and the same group we did the temple stay with so hopefully you won't hear me whining. Anyway, we went to the Sancheoneo Ice Festival (산전어축제) in Hwacheon (화전). The bulk of the festival took place on the frozen river. Sancheoneo means trout and ice fishing was the focus of the festival.

Again we had good luck with the roads and arrived around 11am. The first item on our tour's itinerary was ice fishing. I skipped the fishing because I didn't want to deal with the aftermath of catching a fish, but I still watched. After maybe five minutes of fishing, one of my friends caught the first fish for our tour group. We took the requisite picture then a Korean guide came over and pulled the hook out of the fish's mouth. The guide then dropped the fish in the snow next to the ice and my friend went back to fishing.

The fish itself seemed pretty sad. I don't know what kind of nervous system trout have, but it was flopping around with it's mouth bleeding all over the snow. My vegetarian friend and I decided to try to put it out of its misery. There was a booth next to the river where they would cook your fish for you for a small fee. We took the fish over there assuming they would kill it then cook it. Unfortunately, all they did was dump our fish on top of a pile of other slowly dying fish and serve us one that had already been cooked. Later, I noticed the cook picking fish out of the pile and making four seasoning cuts on each side of the fish, still without killing them. So that part was a bit disheartening, but I have to admit the fish was delicious.

After all of that, I stuck by my decision to forgo fishing. I really wanted to try and see if I could do it, but I didn't want to resign another fish to a long and possibly painful demise. If they'd given us machetes or something so we could have immediately beheaded the fish we'd caught, I definitely would have gone fishing.

So with one fish caught and another fish eaten, we felt for the most part we'd conquered the ice fishing portion of the festival and headed for the skating rink. Unfortunately, the rink was off-limits today due to some sort of speed skating competition, so instead we ended-up ice tubing.

Actually, my friends went ice tubing, but the line was too long for me. Instead, I wandered around town taking pictures of various snow and ice sculptures while I waited for them. About a fifteen minute walk from the festival there was a large warehouse dug into the side of a mountain and filled with ice sculptures. Because Hwacheon was fairly close to the North, I assumed it was used as a bombing resistant hangar or storage area for other military equipment at some point, but today it was an ice palace.

Because the hangar was so huge, the sculptures were substantial with several scale recreations of famous buildings. At one point, I took off my glove to feel the ice. It felt almost exactly like plastic. I began to doubt whether or not the sculptures were truly ice. Then I sat down on an plastic/ice chair, or rather tried to and comically slid right off, so it did turn out to be ice after all.

I finished up my visit to the "Ice Illumination Plaza" just as one of my friends called me to tell me they were getting ready for the bare handed fishing. If ice fishing was too comfortable for you, the festival also offered the chance to strip down and wade into a frigid pool to try to grab a fish or two with your bare hands. I made it to the hand-fishing pool just as the participants were coming out to start.

Or so I thought, but it turned out I had some time to spare. Instead of allowing the would-be fishers to just jump right in and start grabbing fish there was a line-up and introduction that took a good five minutes. I'm sure it seemed a lot longer to the people lined up around the pond in shorts and t-shirts, standing on the snow without any shoes, in 14F (-10C) weather.

Once it started, everyone jumped into the water to grab at fish. Again I felt a little sorry for the fish, but this wasn't as bad since there were no hooks involved. Several people caught multiple fish each, dropping the fish down their shirts for safe-keeping before reaching back in for more. One guy had a fish, but it jumped out of his hand as he attempted to exit the pool.

My friend who tried the fishing didn't manage to catch any. He knew fish were hitting his hands, but he couldn't feel his hands to close his fingers. He said it was the worst thing he's ever done. I think the girl who left the pond with three fish stuffed down her t-shirt would disagree, but I'm not planning on trying it myself any time soon. At least the festival had a nice sauna area setup with steaming water for the participants to use when they were finished in order to stave off hypothermia.

After my friend warmed up, we didn't have much time left at the festival. We mainly just wandered around looking for a place to spend our Hwacheon Bucks. The festival funding was a little weird, but in a good way. When you bought tickets to things, you were given Hwacheon Bucks back. Not as change, but in exchange for the real money you gave them. The Hwacheon Bucks could then be spent at other festival vendors. Some of the business around town may have been accepting them too. I'm pretty sure I saw several families buying cakes with their Hwacheon Bucks at Paris Baguette. Why didn't I think of that?

So I'm not sure I'd call the festivals one of the "Seven Wonders of Winter" as CNN apparently did, I'm mean it wasn't exactly a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but we did all have a very good time. I would definitely recommend it if you were looking for something to do in the winter and like fresh fish.

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