There's a certain sweet disorientation, experiencing someone else's holiday. It's like going to a friend's for Thanksgiving. All the broad strokes are familiar: turkey, stuffing, mountains of dishes, and crowds of in-laws. But then there are the details. Maybe the stuffing has grapes, or walnuts. Maybe everyone gives a speech saying what they're grateful for, or maybe no one does. Maybe after the meal, everyone settles in to play rummy instead of watching the NFL's latest Packer's/Lion's matchup. However it happens, it's a cherished tradition with a new perspective, one you didn't know existed before it was plopped onto the plate in front of you. I bring this up because a few weeks ago, Erin and I went to the Taebaeksan Snow Festival, and it had all the elements of a winter holiday. A lovely train called the Snow Flower Line ran from Seoul to remote Gangwon-do, winding through rugged mountains. It promised to be as scenic as anyone could ask for. Once there, we could enjoy sledding, ice and snow sculpting, traditional arts and crafts, and tons of little booths with steaming treats to battle the cold.
It sounded like something straight from a Colorado winter. Erin and I went to the Korail website. You can find it here, though the train only runs from December to February. Tickets were about $50.00 a person for the full one day tour. We bought ours, and then early one Thursday morning, well before sunrise, we blearily took our seats and set off across the country.
The trip was everything one could wish for, clicking along through rugged mountains, with snowy hills and shaggy trees rolling away to a blue horizon. We spent most of the time staring out the window, or just enjoying a good book. It was an old fashioned way to travel, leisurely, as if there wasn't anywhere particular we needed to be, and certainly not in any hurry.
After the train arrived at Taebaek station, our tour guide helped us onto a bus and we headed for the festival. The grounds were crowded, adults and children bundled like sausages.
The festival itself wound halfway up the side of a mountain, with clearings for snow sculptures and stands for food. We paused at a coffee shop for some lattes and a brief bathroom excursion before beginning our climb. It wasn't long before the image of a Colorado winter outing was a bit broken. Primarily because it's hard to mistake the smell of beondegi (aka silkworm larvae).
Great piles of the stuff steamed in metal vats, filling the air with a burning-tire smell. There were also ample fishcakes, or stands selling tteokbokki in spicy red sauce. These were all traditional Korean snacks, especially treasured on cold days. We hurried past, heading for the sculptures. And where the wintery snacks may have been unusual, these were absolutely fantastic. There were giant lions lounging with their cubs...
... cunning sculptures of the space shuttle and its launch gantry...
... tigers ready to dine on Korean children...
... even a perfect little snow Hobbiton that Erin stopped at for a picture.
Everything was completely out of scale to what I expected, and it was fantastic. Even the dragon boat.
In a different part of the grounds, we found traditional foods. No, not pumpkin spiced lattes, mince pies, and fruit cakes. This was the Korean version of same: roasted sweet potatoes and rice cakes. We passed a giant iron broiler, with circular metal shelves where patrons could slide in a foil wrapped sweet potatoes to bake in the heat. A crowd formed nearby, basking in the warmth.
Just beyond, a man was busy making traditional rice cakes dusted with soy powder.
He even had an old-school wooden bowl set out with a massive hammer, in case anyone wanted to try their hands at pounding the glutinous rice flour into a traditional snack.
Right next door, a swarm of giggling children and adults were busy sledding their hearts out, which in Korea meant sitting on a sled on an icy pond and paddling around with sticks... unless you were lucky enough to talk dad into pulling you.
It was about here that I got that sense that I had wandered into someone else's living room on the holidays. Everyone was having such a good time, enjoying traditions that were cherished and beloved. And I could only really watch and imagine what it must have been like growing up with pounded rice cake as the holiday treat. It was fun and oddly bittersweet.
We boarded the train for home and decided we would take advantage of the Snow Flower's dining car. We were hungry and thirsty after a long day, so we walked the narrow, rocking cars to the front. We were hoping for some candy or chips, maybe a nice pint. I personally had a hankering for some milk duds, or maybe M&M's.
There were boxed rice dinners, toughened fish jerky, and squid snacks. The beer was Cass, about as strong as Miller Light, next to a display of sugar-dusted potato chips. But then again, this was Korea, so what did we expect?