The Hwacheon Sancheoneo Winter Festival 2012

Hwacheon is a small rural town in close proximity to the southern side of the Korean De-Militarized Zone in central Korea. Usually, nothing exciting happens here except for this kind of thing;

We’re quite happy with that.

Having lived in Hwacheon for eighteen months we wouldn’t want to live in a Korean city. We’ve fallen in love with the peace, quiet and relative tranquility of rural(ish) Korea. The fresh air, mountains and lakes are also a bonus, obviously.

The downside to all of that is, most (young) people (especially single foreign teachers) would describe Hwacheon as ‘boring’. They probably have a point.

However, for three weeks in January – this sleepy, ‘remote’ town becomes a hub of activity.  Suddenly there are traffic jams (What? In Hwacheon? Never!),  Westerners (Who don’t actually live here, seriously), the Korean media is everywhere (Sticking their cameras in every foreigners face – STANDARD!), the motels are full, the restaurants are full, heck I’ve even seen people walk down the high street NOT dressed in military or school uniform (Surely not?! Yes, really).

It’s quite remarkable.

Now admittedly that was a ‘slight’ distortion of reality, but you get the idea.

What is happening in Hwacheon at the moment?

It’s the annual Sancheoneo Winter Festival (Sancheoneo means ‘mountain trout’).

What does that involve?

The festival celebrates the abundance of freshwater mountain trout that flood the waters of the area at this time of year. For most of you, it probably sounds boring.

So why is this festival so special?

Well, instead of tempting the fish with a line and fly, visitors must cut out a hole in the deep ice and plunge their hands into the freezing waters in order to grab their trout. Samples of the delicacy are then eaten raw or grilled.

Hwacheon is also one of the coldest areas in South Korea during winter, with daily lows dropping below -20°C. I can vouch for that, it’s not fun walking to town every morning in those temperatures.

The plus side? (If there is one)

Such temperatures provide ideal conditions for hosting an ice festival.

Set in a landscape of snow-capped mountains, ice sculptures and even an ice castle, the festival also offers such activities as ice sledding, ice tubing and a winter fireworks display on ice. (Excerpt – Daily Mail)

Local officials estimate over one million visitors descend upon the town of 22,000 during the annual event.

They also claimed that 150,000 people attended the opening day of festivities on January 7th, although I would personally dispute that figure.

Regardless of the numbers, Hwacheon (much like the rest of Korea) is suddenly crowded.

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Our favourite activity of the festival was the bare-hand fishing event. Now this deserves a special mention.

It involves jumping into almost freezing water in sub-zero temperatures and trying to catch as many fish as you can – with your bare hands in front of hundreds of (far more sensible) onlookers.

Yes, it’s slightly ridiculous. And cold.

My friend Jo and I did it, and it was awesome.

The initial shock of jumping in quickly subsided as the adrenaline got pumping, my lower half went numb pretty much instantly. Much the same as when you fall asleep on an arm, and you lose feeling. Surprisingly it wasn’t as painful as it looks, probably because of the numbness.

Anyway, without meaning to brag – this lad from Leicester was the last person out of the water (after seven minutes – although I’m not sure it was an endurance competition) AND I caught two fish (albeit one was a baby, the other in a comatose state) AND I dived in at the end, after relenting to crowd pressure.

Now that was cold…

Sadly Amelia got bored with filming, so you’ll have to make do with photographic evidence and video of another foreigner diving instead to get the idea.

Apologies for Amelias ghastly commentary / screaming / laughing.

And here’s proof of my dive…

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