For three weeks every winter, thousands of people flock to a tiny town nestled on the Hwacheon River in South Korea. Just a few miles from the border of North Korea, this heavily militarized city is sleepy for most of the year.
Each January, it wakes up with a bang, coming alive with snow sculptures, igloos, fish lanterns and lots and lots of people.
The Hwacheon Sancheoneo Winter Festival is one of Korea’s most popular festivals, regarded as one of the seven wonders of winter by Lonely Planet and CNN. Almost one million Koreans and foreigners make it out to this cold river in the middle of winter.
It has been a pretty warm winter here so I was actually quite nervous that this whole festival, a festival that takes place…on ice, would not be happening. Luckily, despite the warm temperatures in Seoul, the mountain town was cold enough for the river to freeze! In fact, the Hwacheon River is one of the first rivers in Korea to freeze over each year.
We arrived early on a Sunday morning, and even at 10AM there were enough people to simply follow the crowds from the bus station to the event. The streets were lined with lights and paper fish lanterns celebrating the festival. We made our way through a huge ice igloo and emerged onto a bustling scene of warmly dressed people.
Not knowing where to start, we unknowingly made our way to the start of the Bare Handed Ice Fishing Event, one of many things to do at the Sancheoneo Winter Festival.
If you find yourself braving the cold at the Sancheoneo Winter Festival here are all of the things you can participate in!
Bare Handed Ice Fishing
Crazy participants submerge themselves in a pool of freezing water for five minutes to catch up to three fish with their bare hands. An exhilarating event to watch, the crowd goes wild each time a participant holds a fish above their head. Not for the faint of heart, you must be very brave or slightly insane to participate in this one.
Cost: 12,000 won
The major draw of the festival! Thousands of people park it on the Hwacheon River bobbing plastic fishing rods (that oddly resemble fly swatters) up and down in an attempt to catch a trout. Since there are so many people ice fishing, extra trout need to be brought in for this festival. Making it a bit less exciting is the dump truck filled with fish that drives back and forth dumping in fresh throuth through a pipe.
I learned that ice fishing is hard, and kind of boring! Though with beers to pass the time, and some serious determination, I managed to catch a fish! I, embarrassingly, let out a shriek and did a happy dance when I finally pulled a trout out of the hole I cut in the ice! All of the Koreans around me laughed and cheered, and then helped me pull the fish off the line and place it in a bag!
Cost: 10,000 won, which includes a bag for your fish and a 5,000 won food voucher
When all of your patience pays off and you catch a fish, take it to the designated trout eating area! There are two ways to have your trout prepared: grilled or sashimi. We opted for the grilled route.
Wait in line to have your fish prepared; it is rolled in salt, wrapped in tinfoil and placed into a massive grill that holds up to 300 fish at a time. Each trout takes about 15 minutes to fully cook and comes out tender and flaky. Something about eating fish you just caught makes it taste even better!
Cost: 2,000 won per fish
Ice Games and snow sledding
So many ice games to take part in at the Sancheoneo Ice Festival; Ice soccer, ice skating, ice biking, curling, ice hockey, and ice sleigh rides. If you come with a group of people, it would be fun to get a game going. Watching everyone run around on the ice reminded me of my broomball playing days in college!
There is also snow sledding, bobsledding and snow tubing. They were not your typical hike up a mountain and slide down in a tube. At this festival, you climb up some stairs, hop in a tube or sled and go down a snow lined slide onto a large section of the river. You slide across the icy river until hitting a sand barrier and coming to a stop. I didn’t participate, but it looked like fun!
Cost: Curling, soccer and hockey are free, most other ice games cost 5,000 won per person
Whatever snowy outdoor activity you fancy, there is a lot to do at the Sancheoneo Ice Festival. This winter festival is fun and unique and an exciting way to get outdoors and experience Korea!
When: Last three weeks in January
Where: Hwacheon, South Korea
How to get there:
From Seoul –> take a direct bus (2 hours and 45 minutes) to Hwacheon OR take the train to Chuncheon
From Chuncheon –> Take a bus (1 hour) to Hwacheon