This winter was full of cold and confusion. My hunt for a new job has been incredibly time consuming, and the uncertainty about my future led me to forgo an out of country winter holiday. Instead I decided to head north (not across the border or anything) to visit the Hwacheon Ice Festival and other snow filled winter activities in case it was my last chance to play in the snow in Korea. It looks like things are working out, and I will be staying in Korea next year after all, but I’ll tell that story after all the details are wrapped up. For now, walk with me into a winter wonderland weekend.
I like going on tour trips with the group Enjoy Korea. They’re by far my favorite organized tour group in Korea: polite, well-organized, helpful, responsive, and fun (without being a total party bus). I highly recommend traveling with them if you’re looking for more things to see in Korea while you’re here. No, they aren’t paying me to say that, or even giving me a discount, I just think they’re cool and deserve more business.
When I realized I wasn’t leaving Korea for the winter holidays, I turned to the upcoming events page of their website and looked for something fun that didn’t involve skiing. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to learn how to ski, but stress and health concerns over the fall just made it seem like this winter was not going to be the one. Instead, I found the Winter Wonderland Weekender.
While we were on the multi-hour drive up from Busan, our guide handed out pamphlets about our 3 weekend destinations, and being me, I actually read them. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the tiny river island of Nami was it’s own country! Nami is a small island within the North Han River. Not that long ago, it was only an island for part of the year when the waters ran high. However, when the Cheongpyeong Dam was built in the 1940s, the river level became higher permanently, and Nami was cut off from the mainland year round.
It was said to be the grave-site of General Nami, and the grave was gradually built up and around, turning the island into a nature reserve and kind of amusement park/garden. In 2006 they declared their independence from Korea to become a “fairy-tale nation”. I’m not making that up, it’s in their declaration of independence. They have an immigration office. I didn’t bring my passport because I didn’t know this ahead of time, but apparently they will stamp your passport if you like. Because of their friendly relations with Korea, it’s not required for visitors to do so.
I cannot help but look at this and think of Nami as a precocious 5 year old who really wants to be a grown up. Nami: “We’re independent and we’re gonna have our own country made of fairy tales!” Korea: “Ok, honey, you have fun and make sure to be home in time for dinner.”
There are 2 ways onto the island of Nami: the ferry and the zipline. I wanted to try the zipline since our guide said it was actually rather slow and more of a scenic experience than an adrenaline rush, but the wait time was over an hour and we only had a few hours to explore that afternoon.
The ferry is not disappointing. It’s small, and mostly standing room, but it’s only about 6 minutes from shore to shore and gives beautiful views of the river on the way over. The water wasn’t frozen solid, but there were floating chunks of ice like green glass floating along the shore where the water was shallower. As we approached the island, we were first greeted with a giant ice formation overshadowing the maid of Nami.
The maid of Nami is a famous statue of a woman standing in the water, but she was nearly obscured and entirely overshadowed by the mountain of ice that had formed from the freezing spray of the nearby fountain. Instead of turning the fountains off for the winter, the Naminarians decided to let their fountains run and turn into fairy-tale castles of long white and blue ice stalactites. Although at first the beautiful structure was overrun with ferry passengers queuing up to take photos, it didn’t take long before they all moved on and I had a chance to get a few of my own.
The island has a multitude of walking trails as well as a “train” (think kiddie ride). I spotted the post office on my way in where a telephone allowed visitors to make international calls or send post cards from the micronation.
At first, I was feeling a little disappointed by the lack of snow. After all, it had snowed in Busan just a few days before, a place that sees snow every 2-3 years, surely Nami which is famous for it’s snow clad beauty would be white from edge to edge. The main entrance and pathways were simply brown, perhaps from lack of snowfall but more likely from an excess of foot traffic. I determined to seek out more frozen fountains and whatever patches of snow I could nonetheless, and soon found a frozen pond which remained snowcovered and I began to feel more in the mood.
My spirits were lifted completely when I encountered the sledding hill. Snow from all over had been piled together in a large hill that was decorated with ice-men (like snowmen, but made of ice). There was a line to borrow a sled but it wasn’t long and within a few moments I was lugging my luge up the snowy slope. I think it hadn’t snowed in a few days at least because the snow was quite packed and hard. Many sledders fell over sideways the first time their sled hit a bump. I watched as the line grew shorter, determining my best strategy for not suffering a wipe out and when it was my turn, I tried to center myself as much as possible and took a firm hold of the rope that formed the handle at the front of the sled.
When the countdown ended and the whistle blew, 3 of us took off at once. The slope wasn’t too high, but I soon picked up speed and when I hit the first bump my sled and I were launched into the air. I managed to land without falling over and kept my seat all the way down, whooping in a very American way at the thrill of speed and snow and winter wind whipping my skin.
Next to the snow hill was an ice village. There were sculptures of animals and fish, but also houses and castles built from carved ice blocks where visitors could climb around and take silly photos. I was impressed by the size and scope of these ice constructions, but oh wait until tomorrow.
While I was finishing up my photos of the ice sculptures at a particularly large ice shark, I looked up and noticed there were ostriches running around in a field across the road. Nami island is very proud of it’s animal population, but apparently the ostriches are the stars of the show. It was a bit surprising to me how curious of visitors the birds were, spending most of their time right up at the fences despite having plenty of roaming room. I bet there’s food involved somewhere. Still it was odd to see these African savanna birds in the snow.
After the arctic ostrich experience, I meandered to the far bank of the island where the river was completely frozen over and dusted white with snow. It was quiet and serene. The emptiness was a stark contrast to the crowds I had left behind only 5 minutes before. It is a function of Korea that will never cease to amaze me, but no matter how crowded it is at an event, all you have to do is walk away for 5-10 minutes to be totally alone.
Next I headed back towards the center of the island to the arts and crafts village where handmade goods can be viewed, created, and purchased. My favorite was a metal tree dripping glass globes that caught the winter afternoon sunlight. There were also plenty of places to grab a hot drink, a snack or a meal.
I went on a search for the glass blowing studio because I’d read in the pamphlet that there was an activity where visitors could make a small ornament, but alas it was only for groups of 8 or more who had booked in advance. My foray into molten glass will have to wait for another time.
While I was meandering around the statues and shops, I found a pottery shop with two peacocks perched on the rooftop, and I found a lone snow bunny hopping around on one of the frozen ponds. Great place for him since humans were kept back by the fear of falling in the ice. Great spot for me since I got to take photos of him against the snow. He was pretty fearless though and didn’t seem to mind when even more visitors noticed him and rushed over to take photos.
The weather was so cold that my phone battery was struggling more than normal and my phone actually shut down right in the middle of this bunny photo shoot, but it was still special. I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for bunnies after having one of my own as a furbaby.
I found that while many of the restaurants were quite expensive (surprise, we’re on an island) there was a place called the Asian Family Restaurant that had decent prices and a wide range of foods. I ended up with a giant bowl of hot and spicy soup in a Chinese style, and by the time I was full, I was warm enough to head back into the snow.
I decided to walk around the other side of the island on my way back toward the ferries to see what I hadn’t seen, I found more frozen ponds, sculptures, trees covered in a light snow, and the further I went, the fewer people I had to share it with. Coming out of a small birch grove, I spotted the oddest piece of art adorning an unused picnic area. Alone with this, the sounds of distant tourists muffled to silence by the blanket of snow around me, it felt more than a little creepy.
Heading back to the riverside path, I found some other members of the Enjoy Korea group who were skipping stones on the frozen water to hear the odd laser blaster sound that it makes. I tried it myself, there’s literally no technique involved, just toss a rock on a frozen body of water and pew pew pew! Lot’s of people saw that guy on YouTube be very dude-bro about it, but here’s another guy who actually explains it.
Finally, the short winter day began to wind down and my last bit of trail gave the ice, river and sky some beautiful twilight colors. I got back to the bus just a few minutes early and discovered that someone had participated in the ice carving craft. She made a hefty stein from ice, and since it couldn’t possibly last in the heat of the bus, she was offering to let anyone who liked have a shot of Korean soju from the frozen chalice. I think it was probably the best soju I’ve ever had, even though it was the same stuff that’s in every convenience store. Bonus, I can safely say in retrospect that either I got in on it early enough or the combo of ice and alcohol did the trick, but I didn’t get anyone else’s cold!
Go check out the rest of the photos on Facebook.
Garden of the Morning Calm
After dark, we headed over to view a special winter lights show at a nearby botanical garden. The Koreans are, as always, just spectacular at light displays. This large garden usually makes it’s living showing off plants and flowers, but in the dead of winter when everything is brown and brittle, it opens up at night for a whole other color spectacle.
My first few months in Korea, I saw the biggest and most amazing light show when I went to the Taean Tulip Festival, and while I enjoyed every other light show I’ve been to since then, none have been able to take the title from Tulips until now. I did not realize what I was getting myself into. The entry way had trees and bushes wrapped in lights and the almost obligatory tunnel of lights (still not tired of those). I expected it to be similar to the one at Boseong, and I was happy with that idea.
I especially liked the lights glowing on the snow and ice, creating fun reflections and pastel color splashes. I dawdled far more than I should have, but the maps in Korean parks are notoriously bad for scale, and I just did not understand how BIG this place really is. I got to the (also obligatory) suspension bridge and noticed it led back to the entrance, so I turned to head down another path, even though it appeared to lead into darkness. Just to check.
I found another tunnel of light. I found a frozen pond that had been covered entirely in blue lights with a glowing sailboat and dolphins frolicking in the blue. I found a path covered in umbrellas made of tiny lights. I found giant vines and leaves of light that made me feel like Alice when she shrank small and talked to the flowers.
Then I turned a corner and saw the stars.
Not really the stars, but huge balls made from clusters of tiny lights high in the tall trees looking like the night stars in the blackness. Fiber-optic cables flowed down from the branches like willow trees and waterfalls. Giant leaves wrapped around the trunks of trees climbing to meet the falling fronds of light above. Silhouettes of animals were picked out in life size golden glowing sculptures: reindeer which made sense, and a giraffe I suppose because why not? At the far end of this wonderland was a neon pink church that the King would have been pleased to see in his Vegas days, fronted by two pure white glowing angels. I could have probably done without the extra religion, but as I headed down the hill toward the next display, the church shrank into the background and I was left with a final stunning view of the immersive forest of light.
The theme of over sized plants continued a bit with giant mushrooms and trees wrapped in lights to an almost fractal level of detail. Faced with another fork in the road to go on into darkness or return to the glow of lights at the entrance, I checked the time and decided to forge ahead. I pondered what could be left after that wonderful wood. I took some photos of creative path lanterns and more trees draped in shifting colors, casting a glow on the snow beneath them, content and not expecting very much more when…
A viewing platform is always a good sign. Korean tourism departments everywhere have thoughtfully created a viewing platform at the optimum viewing place. They are hardly ever wrong, and everyone knows the etiquette, so you might have to wait a few moments, but you will get your turn. And when I did…
Usually, I like to describe things I see and experience, but in this instance, it might just be better to shut up and show you. You can see the whole roll on the Facebook album.
Stay tuned for part 2 when I get to spend Sunday at the Hwacheon Seoncheoneo Ice Fishing Festival… I know, a festival for ice fishing? but it turns out the city of Hwacheon, and really Korea in general, knows how to turn anything into a great time. They can even do up an anchovy festival right, so something as exotic as ice fishing should be no problem! And if for some reason the prospect of catching trout through a hole in the ice isn’t your cup of soju, it’s also the home to the world’s largest indoor ice sculpture, so there’s more photos of beautiful lights to come as well. Thanks for reading!