The wind is cold, schools are out so find an icy hillFrom a distance the view of the sled slopes in Yeouido Park near the Han River induces nostalgia. It’s reminiscent of travelling circuses from the ’70s, with a large banner hanging across the entrance, inviting the public to enter from the main street across from the National Assembly.
The scene inside the park is even more unreal. The staff are dressed up as various animated characters and stoop down to shake children’s hands. Near the slopes people wait in line with swimming tubes on their arms that they use to slide down the artificial slopes. And when the temperature gets too cold they sneak into a tent to gather around a giant stove to eat snacks and warm up.
“It’s better than snow sleds, because you don’t get wet,” says a mother who brought her 7-year-old daughter to the park. “Besides, it’s cheap.” Oh Seung-taek is a 12-year old boy who came to the park with his mother. “You don’t expect to speed up,” he said. “Because the slide is short, you can feel your body float.”
Once Seoul was full of sled fields. During the winter, every stream was full of kids on sleds sliding among tents selling winter delicacies.
A classic photograph from Seoul in the winter of 1960 shows young boys with snotty noses sledding down the Han River on a rice sack with screw drivers in both hands to speed themselves along. Back then children would also play in frozen ponds using their swimming tubes as sleds. Some used ironing boards, electric blankets, or anything they could find in their parent’s storage cupboard that could combat winter boredom. There were even sleds made out of toilet lids in those good old days.
The urban definition of a sled has been moderated to fit the conditions found in a big city. Many sled hills in Seoul now use artificial lawns. But that’s enough to pull children away from their game rooms and their PSPs ― that’s if they are lucky enough to spare a few hours after running to their private schools for extra study.
In Seoul alone around 10 sled hills will be open by early next week, just in time for the start of the children’s winter vacation. Aside from artificial slopes, local governments across the country are opening up streams and leftover land in their districts to offer spaces for sleds. The cost is minimal. Many of them charge less than 5,000 won ($5.38) a person.
The tradition of winter sleds in Korea dates back to the 15th century. The earliest record of sleds is found in a book of essays written by Yi Ik (1681―1763), a prominent scholar from the late Joseon Dynasty, whose writings sought to combine ideas from western science with the traditional world view of his time. In his book he wrote that the tradition of sleds originated from a mountain region near Hamgyeong province. There the people hunted bears and tigers during the winter months, using sleds. Yi Ik explains that Koreans in olden times used to make sleds out of wood, and that “people rode on it to travel very fast on ice.”
Other reports support Yi Ik’s testimony. A book called “Korea Games,” published by the University of Pennsylvania in 1895, includes a reference to “hunters on sleds” in old Korea.
In the past all the sled slopes in Korea had to be longer than 120 meters in order to acquire a permit. Today there are smaller hills with shorter slopes.
Everland, a theme park in Yongin near the suburbs of Seoul, has one of the nation’s biggest facilities. It has five different slopes including a hill for bobsleighs; the longest slope extends 520 meters.
Aside from the slope in Yeouido (02-785-1093) the Han River has slopes in the park in Ddukseom (02- 452-5955) The procedure is the same as in Yeouido. Participants ride on a tube and slide down a slope. The tubes reach speeds between 20 and 30 kilometers per hour.
There are other winter services by the Han River. In Yeouido visitors can free-skate and there are skating classes for beginners from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. that will continue until Jan. 20 at an outdoor rink next to the sled slopes. The skates are rented out for free.
World Cup Park (02-300-5500) has also made a slope from artificial snow on a hill overlooking the Han River. The slope is open through Jan 28 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. It can rent out up to 200 sleds. There is no charge for admission, but the park charges 500 won for sled rental.
Municipal parks have also opened sled slopes across the city.
A sled field in Boramae Park (02- 833-5271) in northern Seoul, is relatively small compared to other parks in Seoul, but it has the benefit of offering other outdoor sports including a basketball field and a rock-climbing wall. Moreover profits from the park’s snack bar, which sells light meals, are donated to the homeless.
Those who get tired of artificial lawns can wait for the natural water to freeze, which is forecast to happen this weekend.
Dorimcheon, a stream in Gwanak District (02-880-3125), that opens on Thursday, offers a sled field that is free to children. The stream, which is 17 meters wide and 120 meters long, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday. In the interests of safety the district has assigned ten guards to site who will assist the children. South of the river, the Yangjae Stream (02-445-1416) is also opening a sled slope. In the north, Seongbuk district is opening a slope on its stream near Bomun market.
A slope within the Grand Children’s Park in Neungdong will rent out free sleds to its citizens. Starting next Friday a plaza within Banghwa Park, (02-2600-6562) in western Seoul is also being turned into a sled field from 9 a.m. through 5 p.m.
Seoul is not alone in reviving the sled as an urban winter phenomenon.
Incheon Grand Park (032-466-5882), that opens Friday, has three separate hills. The park’s slope for adults is 180 meters long; for children it’s 120 meters. The park contains two moving walkways that transport visitors with sleds. Suwon is also opening six separate sled slopes throughout the city including one in Suwon Stream. Herb Hillz (053-767-6300) in Daegu and Bexco (051-740-8091) offer snow sleds through February.
All in all sledding offers a cheap and classic means to give children an opportunity to breathe some crisp fresh air. And it’s always easy to find a sled slope. Just listen for screaming.
by Park Soo-mee