Happy New Year! 2013 has arrived with all the promise of a newborn babe and while my South African friends and family bring in the new year with beach parties and flip-flops, I have done so with mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.
2012 was an epic year for me; I completed my Master’s, saw five countries and performed in Phantom of the Opera. I continue on with the Phantom Asia Tour in Seoul, South Korea; a non-stop city that has the intrigue of the East with the comforts of the West.
We arrived at the end of the Fall, when the streets were still free from ice and a few trees clung on stoically to their last remaining
leaves of flaming red and burnt orange. But the cold came fast. Within the first week of December it snowed; giant snowflakes that blanketed the entire city, sending it into a quiet slumber. The same could not be said for the Phantom cast. One week of rehearsals and then straight into performances and two 9-show weeks over Christmas and New Year. Phew!
Despite the crazy schedule and freezing weather we did manage to get out and about. Travelling in Winter has never been a favourite of mine. One must plan for multiple café stops to defrost, wear the appropriate footwear and get used to the idea of being intermittently boiling hot (on the subway) and freezing cold (everywhere else).
Normally I enjoy being outdoors and seeing a country’s natural attractions such as one of Seoul’s many national parks where you can hike up mountains, kayak down rivers and indulge in the simple pleasures of sprawling vistas and fresh air. But, being Winter and well below freezing, it becomes difficult to motivate a trip to any place that does not have central heating. However, I did make an exception for the world’s fourth largest Ice festival.
The Hwacheon Sancheoneo (Mount Trout) Ice Festival takes over the Hwacheon area from 5-27 January 2013 and turns this natural mountain trout habitat into a tourist mecca. Ice fishing, frozen waterfalls, traditional Korean food and general Winter madness are all on offer for a rather reasonable fee. My husband was over visiting from South Africa so went together and all-in-all the whole experience cost us no more than KW200 000. The journey was rather long and arduous but well worth it. We caught the tube to Yongsan Station just in time to catch the 10am ITX to Chuncheon. These trains leave every hour on the hour so if you miss it you’re in trouble. Unfortunately we got on the wrong train. In our anxiety not to miss the 10am we got on a 9:55am train – not the ITX Chuncheon. Thankfully Koreans are extremely helpful and after a 10 minute game of charades to explain ourselves (nobody speaks English in Korea) a nice old lady took us under her wing and helped us change trains and eventually got us all the way to Chuncheon (an hour later than expected but better late than never). From Chuncheon we walked to the nearby bus terminal to catch the bus to Hwacheon. This takes another hour so in the end it took us about 3.5 hours to get there.
The bus stops directly in front of the tourist office, which is quite useful as you can pick up a map of the area. The first stop on the map was the Ice Illumination Plaza inside the Hope Lights Plaza. We paid KW5000 each to enter but got a KW5000 voucher to spend anywhere in the area so entrance was actually free. We entered a darkened hall filled with huge ice sculptures, lit in multi-colours. Each sculpture was iconic; the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, Buddha and many famous Korean, Chinese and Japanese temples. One even had a double-slide for the kiddies to enjoy.
Next we went to the Snow and Ice Fun Park where we were treated to a figure-skating performance by a troupe of Russian figure skaters. I was thoroughly impressed with their version of Gangnam Style-on ice!
At this point I shall remind you that it was roughly -10 degrees celsius and so after an hour outside we were ready to defrost. We headed to the snack bar for a nice cup of coco and some waffles and met a professor who came to the festival every year and was there with his family. He recommended the Ice Fishing and since I live in a country that does not experience snow, we thought we would give it a go.
Ice fishing may sound like an adrenaline filled activity but in reality its more of a waiting game, unless of course, you are me. We
bought our rod – a short pole with a winder and a fake sardine at the end – found a ready-made hole in the ice and within 2 minutes of plopping my sardine into the water I felt a strong tug. I started yelling and jumping about and then pulled the string up with my hands because the winder thingy was taking too long and behold, a fish! All eyes were on me as most people had been trying in vain to catch something for more than an hour. I looked at the poor fish slopping and flopping on the ice and felt so bad for him (or her) that I grabbed him/her with my bare hands (well I had gloves on) and threw him/her back into the water. It was all over in 40 seconds. When I looked up I was met with stares of disbelief, “what’s this silly girl doing throwing a perfectly good fish back in the water”. Even my husband was upset as we learnt we could have taken our fish to the sushi bar for grilling. What can I say, I guess when it comes to eating animals I would rather not get my hands dirty, maybe it is time to go vegan?
All that activity called for another pit stop. This time we tried the food court which consisted of stall after stall of Korean food. Fresh trout was obviously in abundance along with other seafood and strange-looking bean soup that may have been beetle soup, but it was hard to tell. In the end we settled for grilled Sancheoneo (trout) and deep fried sardines with rice and veggies which, thankfully, I did not have to kill myself.
Another highlight was the Snow White igloo. The outside was a series of sculptures carved to resemble the fairytale characters while inside ice walls trapped frozen fish, suspended motionless in the blocks of ice (although I don’t think the fish were real).
The amazing thing about the Festival is that most of the fun and games take place right on the Hwacheoncheon river which freezes over early in Winter. Koreans swear this is entirely owing to Eolgomi, the Ice Festival’s Bear mascot whose job it is to fan the river so it ices over. When approaching the entrance one sees hundreds of people ice fishing on the left while those on the right are sledding, sliding, skating, biking (yes, biking) and go-carting over the ice. Over-head screaming children (and some parents) whiz past on the zip-line and there are even games of ice soccer in the distance. If all this isn’t enough one can always catch bus number 7 to Mt. Ddansan to see the frozen waterfall and the Hwacheon dam.
The Ice festival was loads of fun with so much to do. I would definitely recommend staying over night to take it all in. Below are some pics of all the awesome activities on offer, great for the whole family and even if, like me, you are a summer person, you can always try ice fishing to up your temperature and your spirits.