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Heading to a snow festival in deepest South Korea

In Korea ’s earliest mythology Taebaek Mountain , whose name literally translates as “great, grand, excessive white mountain,” was the location where the gods came down to the world below and started the human race. Coming to Taebaek City in midwinter on a bus that left from Seoul ’s East Bus Terminal, the snow was everywhere. A silence, the stillness of white and a mid-winter’s late afternoon under the low snow clouds, invaded the bus and filled it with an air of waiting and expectation.

Taebaek City itself has few apartment towers, in their repetitious march, that appear in most towns. The bus is surprisingly, unwittingly empty, belying the busy thoroughfare the next day, with buses filled with tourists arriving to peruse the wonders of the snow sculptures.

On this Friday evening, the first day of the festival, the field with snow sculptures, the several-meter-high carvings of dragons, cartoon characters, traditional buildings, mythological creatures, is relatively empty, as most travelers have not yet arrived. These sculptures are worth seeing, done by professional artists and university students.

A stage is set up on one end of the field of snow sculptures at the foot of snowy Mt. Taebaek.  Small flakes are falling and the sun has set, but bright floodlights illuminate the area.  Performances by popular singers and entertainers appear in the schedule for the week of the festival’s duration. Vendors selling traditional Korean cuisine from pachun pancakes to pulgogi barbeques, line the road from the bus stop to the foot of the mountain. 

On Friday the lodges and hostel in the park vicinity are all booked; later that night and the next day busloads of Korean travelers from Seoul arrive.  On Saturday the road is  packed, milling about in the mid-morning flurries that accumulate steadily with the passage of time. The domestic travelers wear the black pants and primary-colored nylon jackets favored by Korean hikers in winter.

Following a group of hikers from the beginning of the trail at one edge of the snow sculpture area, that there would not be a moment of solitude in the whole adventure soon became evident.  Yet the winding trail with its many switchbacks, up to the “peak” of Chunje-dan (1560m) afforded breathtaking views of “snow flowers,” as the Koreans call the phenomenon of wet snow adhering to the branches of trees.

At a stone “altar” on the top of Taebaeksan, a place termed Cheonjedan, where in Korean mythology the heavenly god, Hwanin sent his son Hwanung (along with 3000 followers) to establish the race of human beings on earth, tourists are in a line to take photos of themselves in front. As it is today, the top of Taebaeksan, like many mountains in Korea , has well-developed forests, a result of the aggressive re-forestation projects that accompanied the development programs following the Korean War.

As the myth goes, a bear and a tiger came to Hwanung and asked to become human too, and of them the bear accomplished this feat in 21 days, through a diet of mugwart and garlic. Hwanung, to his credit, helped the humans to organize their society: he divided up the political issues for the humans to manage into 360 different kinds from agriculture to punishment, devised allotted lifespans and illness, not to mention introducing good and evil.

Lodgings in the Taebaeksan area are plentiful and there are a wide range of options to fit any traveler’s desires from the budget backpacker to the business-person. The Hyosungjang where I stayed was a yogwan, a budget traveller’s hotel, near the bus and train stations in downtown Taebaek, a few minutes walk from its shopping district with shops selling Korean clothing, Western sports goods, groceries, and there is also a quaint park, which on this occasion had further snow sculptures.

The Hyosungjang is typical of Korean yogwans in most regards. This day snow covered its flagstoned parking area in front and the plants stood next to one side of its smooth granite stairs leading to a patio, bright illumination through windows set into a brick façade. The name Hyosungjang appears in vertical neon. A teashop and barbershop off to one side down an alley bespeaks the custom of using inexpensive travelers’ lodging as “romantic” escapes.

The proprietor of the Hyosungjang leads me to the room, commenting that it is unusual to take a look at this room before giving her the key money. The room is adequate, though, with an air filter, an unusual element in a yogwan. Other eccentricities in the room include the conceit of plastic bathroom slippers with a Snoopy picture above the word “cockers” and a Venetian-blind picture window set in the wall dividing the bathroom and the bedroom. Whoever had installed the floor covering had politics in mind, as two pieces met in a line in the exact center of the room.

Otherwise the room is typical, with its TV, small refrigerator, and yo, the Korean-style futon. Yet, on the glass of the picture window was a small sign listing “sukbak shisul munhwa shimin etiket” or “citizen’s lodging facility culture etiquette.”  Given the kinky weirdness of the window, the banality of the list is a relief, things like “do not disturb the guests in other rooms,” “keep things neat and clean,” “do not waste the water and electricity.”  Such a window harkens to Jane Goodall’s book Through a Window, about her work as a biological anthropologist researching primate behavior among gorillas in Africa.

The next day, after hiking down from Chunjae-dan, the local bus back to the Taebaek bus station, there is just enough time for a quick bowl of noodles at the restaurant in the station.  The old woman doing the cooking, in plastic slippers and permed hairdo, sits next to a boiler heater, snipping a pachun pancake into smaller and smaller pieces, that she shares with the only other patron, a middle-aged man, who, by the way they talked, seems like a local, or even a neighbor instead of a customer.

Satellite TV is the norm now on the express buses to and from Seoul, and it livens up the ride with nature and travel or news shows.  Yet, with some caution, lest he be distracted, I ask the driver what one should do if they want to read a book, as all of the individual seat lights is not working; it made sense that a master switch could regulate all the lights.  This there is, and the driver obliges the request and flips it.  To my chagrin, however, all of the individual lights in the interior of the bus came on.  Yet the other passengers, even the ones who looked as if they were trying to sleep or watch TV, do not seem to mind, and they do not turn them off.  Only the fellow in the seat directly behind the driver turns it off.  Talking to Koreans later about this, they say that there were several reasons that can explain it: 1.) the people on the bus were too shy to turn them off, 2.) they thought they could not turn the lights off, 3.) they thought the driver put them on for a reason, 4.) they really did not care about the lights being on.

In Taebaeksan the tourism office staff is helpful and offer translation and guide services.  For those seeking to plan a trip to Taebaeksan, there are no shortages of options all around the year, in addition to the winter snow festival.  For example, there are a coalmine museum, natural caves, and Buddhist sites. 

The Coalmine Museum, in particular, which is located across the road from the snow festival, has eight fascinating displays and is an interesting travel destination.  There is a geology exhibition hall with information about the formation of the earth, the composition of minerals and the fossils that appear in rocks of different periods.  In addition, another hall describes the formation of coal, through movements of the earth’s crust and processes of sedimentation and carbonization.  Other halls also present the development of coal mining methodology and mine safety, struggles for improved mine workers’ policy over time (especially with regards to lung ailments), daily life of mine workers and their families.  Final exhibits give information about the Taebaeksan region and nearby mountain as well as showing visitors what work was like in coal mine.

Taebaeksan is a wonderful travel destination with picturesque scenery not only in the winter, but throughout the year.  The municipality puts on several festivals in every season.  These include the Taebaeksan Mountains Royal Azalea Festival in early June, the Sunflower Festival in July to mid-August, the Taebaeksan Mountains Cool Cinema Festival with outdoor screenings from August 1-8, the Taebaekje Festival that promotes local traditions around the time of the Foundation Day in October, and the Han-gang River Grand Festival on the first Sunday of August, which involves a drinking water contest and free noodles.  The last two festivals are particularly interesting, because Foundation Day, on October 3rd commemorates the Dangun myth with special rites at the Dangun Shrine and the Cheonjedan Altar, and the Han-gang River Festival celebrates the source of the Han River that runs through Seoul, through a Yongsinje Rite.

Other charms of the region include sports facilities such as a 950m snow sledding hill, Ganwon Land, luxury hotel near a small amusement park, golf course and skiing, Motor Sports Circuit track, a Gadeoksan Mountain Highland Training Camp, Hwangji Pond (“pond of heaven”), and further commemorative sites for Korean history.

More information is available at the following Internet sites:

Taebaek Snow Festival Website:

Taebaek Caves:

Taebaek Mountain:

Taebaek Coal Museum:

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