Tuesday, 6 March 2012


The bus on the way to the festival betrayed the usual mix of foreigners: most of us were English teachers with a splattering of US military personal, some international students and two Korean couples who decided to mix it up with us weiguks (weiguk means foreigner in Korean). This was one of the type of tours where you have to introduce yourself and where you are from to the rest of the bus and we were a surprisingly diverse bunch-a few, like myself from New Zealand, others from Kazakhstan, Germany, England, Canada, America, Korea, South Africa and one token Australian. Most of the Americans introduced themselves as being from a city rather than a country, as in "Hi, I'm Chad and I'm from Boulder", a common cause of discontent with my co-workers and a future source of agitation (that night we had a heated discussion about whether Americans should introduce themselves by city, state or country).

Ice fishing for dummies
We were going to the Hwacheon Mountain Trout festival held in the province of Gangwon-do, about two hours east from Seoul. The highlight of the festival was the chance to go ice-fishing. This was ice fishing for dummies, made so easy that anybody stood a fair chance of dragging up a trout. Every day of the festival, 32 tons of trout are released into the river. Hopeful anglers can stand safely on 16 inches of ice gathered around one of the nine thousand holes had been drilled into the ice, waiting for a bite from one of these unlucky fish.

Lure and fish: looking down the fishing hole.
The ice may be 16 inches thick but that didn't stop it from groaning as our group stood posing for the first of many obligatory photos (tours in Korea always seem to have a high proportion of group photos). A fair few members of our group felt for their safety but after some re-assuring words and after the photo opportunity had finished, we got down to business. Our fishing equipment consisted of a simple line with a colourful lure that we would dangle down the hole, hoping that a trout would be foolish enough to attach itself to it. As foreigners, we were afforded semi-VIP status and as such, we had a hole each that we could use to fish in in our section (our Korean neighbours in the next section weren't afforded such status and four or more people might be clustered around a hole).Some people in our group struck on their first cast, others like myself, preserved for three hours without luck. I would like to think of myself as a fair angler but maybe my dangling of the lure was faulty in some obscure way. The process was hypnotic, the only technique needed a systematic jerk of the line every five seconds or so. If you positioned yourself right, you could see your lure and also the trout that were circling (but in my case, not biting) below. We ended up with an oversupply of fish though. Befitting our semi-VIP status, festival organisers actually gave us trout that we could put on the end of our lines to pose with so that photojournalists could take our pictures.

After we bored of ice-fishing, the next activity was hand fishing.This took place in a small pond, filled with numbingly cold water fringed by ice and sand-bags. To enter the pool, you had to wear shorts and a festival t-shirt, which was a garish, festive orange. As the MC got the crowd whipped up with cries of "weiguk", we proceeded to walk quickly to the pool, cheered on by the large crowd that had gathered to watch us. The MC gave us generic English names as we walked by as way of introduction and then we stood, freezing on the side of the pool waiting for our invitation to enter it. 

Gathered around the ice-pool
After what seemed an eternity, the MC gave us the green light and we all jumped in. We had observed the technique and methods that the group before us had employed but catching fish with hands that felt and acted like concrete blocks was easier said than done. Thankfully, the fish also seemed numbed by the coldness and were lethargic, at least lethargic enough to give us a chance at catching one. Given my lack of success at ice-fishing earlier in the day, I was one of the last out of the pool determined that I would catch at least one fish that day, determined to not let my manhood take a non-fatal but debilitating blow .  My perseverance paid off and I had caught a trout that I managed to corner by the stairs that led down into the pool. My sense of accomplishment soon faded in the freezing conditions. I staggered unceremoniously to the sauna that had been thoughtfully provided close to the pool. After 10 minutes of shaking uncontrollably, I managed to get the feelings back into my extremities, but not after experiencing that excruciating pain that I had last experienced as a child, frozen hands forced back to a normal temperature under hot water.

Cool celebration

The catching of fish is obviously only a precursor to the eating of fish. Stalls and small cooking centres around the festival prepared your spoils for you, either by slicing it up for sushi or by grilling it over charcoal barbeques, with a little chili sauce if you wanted it. The flesh was delicious and tender, even for a piscinephobe such as myself. 

Trouty delights

It tasted even better with a cold beer and a swirl of mogkali, an unfiltered rice wine popular in KoreaThat night, we feasted at our motel on samgyapsal (basically barbecued bacon), beer and fish. We reminisced after dinner about our day ice-fishing, huddled around a bonfire (this really was a day for extreme changes in body temperature). We slept Korean-style on the floor of our motel room, happy in the knowledge that we had done something that none of us had done before. But with a million plus visitors to the festival a year, we wouldn’t have been the only ones to cross a few items off of a bucket list that day.