Korea and the Winter that Was

Written by on March 15, 2013 in Lifestyle
An ice tricycle built for three

An ice tricycle built for three

If you peruse this blog long enough, you’ll know that Koreans they’re very proud of their four distinct seasons. We’re moving into spring now, and while some of us enjoyed winter, some of use simply made due. Either way, it’s time to say good-bye to that most contentious of seasons. Let’s look back at the winter that was.

Korean winters are cold and this one was no exception. When I think of winter in Korea, I picture snow-capped mountains, and nowhere is there more snow than in the northern province of Gangwon-do. The image of Gangwon-do and its winter paradise will be known worldwide when the city of Pyeongchang hosts the Olympic Winter Games in 2018 and this season saw all eyes on Pyeongchang thanks to its successful stint hosting the 2013 Winter Special Olympics.

A boy plays on a traditional Korean ice sledge

A boy plays on a traditional Korean ice sledge

Skiing and snowboarding in Gangwon-do were optimal this season with plenty of snowfall. Fashionable snow bunnies cruised down the slopes in bright neon and patterned snow gear while hikers enjoyed the refreshing change of scenery on the rugged hills. It never occurred to me to hike in the winter when I lived in Canada (where the winters never seem to end), but in Korea it’s a common pastime. New Year’s hikes were as popular this year as ever since nothing welcomes the New Year as conquering a mountaintop (or so I’m told!).

Fun abounds at winter festivals

Fun at winter festivals

Thousands shook off the winter blues at Korea’s famed winter festivals this year. Two of my favourite festivals, the Pyeongchang Trout Festival and the Hwacheon Mountain Trout Ice Festival took place in Gangwon-do at the end of January. These fun-filled events offered up more than just ice-fishing; sledding, traditional ice sledges, tandem ice bicycles, and even ATVs-on-ice occupied the happy masses while the bare-handed fishing event attracted the truly adventurous. Other daring souls challenged themselves at the Haeundae Polar Bear Swim in Busan and the Deokpo International Penguin Swim Festival on Geojedo to revel in the thrill of a sub-zero temperature, full-body dip, and I’m happy to have done it myself. Nothing makes you feel more alive than a mid-winter ocean swim! While I’m lucky enough to have taken part in these four wonderful events, my hope is that next year I can attend the Taebaek Snow Festival. Every year Taebaek City takes advantage of their annual record snowfalls to render beautiful, large-scale snow sculptures that draw in tourists of all ages. I dream of sipping coffee in their giant igloo cafés, snapping photos of towering snow figures, and taking a husky sledge ride. Perhaps next year I may even get up the nerve to hike up Taebaek Mountain! As you can probably tell, winter festivals are among my favourite things in Korea.

A polar bear hat for the Polar Bear Swim

A polar bear hat for the Polar Bear Swim

Of all the things I’ll miss about winter though, street food may be the thing I’ll miss most. My winter favourites include hotteok, or fried dough filled with sugar or honey, and gyeranbbang, a kind of sweet egg tart bread. Both are so chewy and delicious and taste even better hot off the griddle! Roasted sweet potatoes and lemon-honey tea or yujacha are other tasty confections best served hot, and sadly I’ll have to make due without until next winter comes. Good-bye skiing, good-bye snowboarding. Good-bye winter festivals and delicious snacks.

Delicious hot hotteok, a perfect winter snack

Delicious hot hotteok, a perfect winter snack

Although I am so excited for spring, there are so many things about winter in Korea that I just don’t want to see go, like outdoor skating rinks at City Hall or sledding at the park. I’m sad that I never bought one of those cute knitted hats with little ears or horns that were en vogue this season and I’ll miss seeing cute families and couples sporting hats shaped like fuzzy wolves, pandas, or penguins. In the winter I often saw Koreans strolling together, two necks wrapped in one scarf or two friends each wearing one mitten. It didn’t look convenient but it did make me smile a little every time I saw it.

Winter makes big kids of us all!

Winter made big kids of us all!

And with that, I finally feel that I can bid winter a fond farewell. To the festivals, the ski hills, the snack vendors, and the sweet children bundled up in snowsuits, thank you. Every time I saw you, you made me smile, even with a scarf wrapped around my face. To my ondol floor, thank you for keeping me warm, but your services aren’t needed any longer. It’s warming up outside, and it’s time to explore! Spring has come and I can’t wait to see what the new season will bring.

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About the Author

Jessica Steele

Jessica Steele is a Canadian expat teaching, writing, and adventuring in Busan, South Korea. She has lived in Korea for nearly four years, but her travels aren’t finished yet. Her favourite things in Korea are the festivals, neon lights, and of course, kimchi.