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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Ulsan Whale Festival

They are amongst the largest animals in the world. The Blue is THE largest, and the Sperm has the largest brain of any mammal. While the Killer may be deadly, the Humpback is known for its singing voice. Perhaps the most famous of these was Moby Dick, hunted by Captain Ahab and brought to life in Herman Melville’s critically acclaimed nineteenth-century novel.

Since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, whales have roamed the waters of the East Sea. In time Ulsan’s Jangsaengpo Port would become a central point for whaling activities  in Korea.

To remember the importance of Ulsan’s whaling heritage, people take part in an annual Whale Festival every April. This year was the 17th festival.

Activities in the festival included a re-creation of the fishing of whales (Madangnori) by professionally trained historians in traditional clothing. There was also a whale singing competition, whale watching and a whale market where customers could take a stroll through the warren of stalls and buy whale-related products.

Perhaps the main attraction was the dragon boat race, which I oversaw on Saturday April 28.

The race was hosted by T-HOPE (Teachers Helping Other People Everywhere) KOREA and supported by the Ulsan Dragon Boat Association.

There were a total of fifteen foreigner teams competing in the race. Each boat accommodated 16 rowers, a steerer and a drummer, whose job was to beat a steady rhythm to help the rowers co-ordinate their movements so that they could maintain a consistent pace, as they dipped their oars into the Taehwa River and heaved with all their might, driving their boats onward to the finishing line.

Shortly before the race a man piloting a motorised paraglider flew over the Taehwa River, much to everybody’s surprise, and a Canadian Mountie/American Cowboy hybrid rode on horseback through the park to welcome the races.

In the first round of the race each team had to compete twice. The winning teams were then placed into the quarter-finals for the third race and the semi-finals for the fourth race. The winning team and runners up had to race a total of five times.

In some of the races it was difficult to call the winner at first – there were many close calls. The winners were judged by the fastest time to reach the finishing line from the starting position. All participants in the race received a medal for their efforts.

There were some very inventive titles for the team names, including my personal favourite, Cool Rowings. The three ranked teams were: Southern Right (1st Place – receiving the Gold Award), Orca (2nd place – receiving the Silver Award) and Sei (3rd place – receiving the Bronze Award). Congratulations to all three teams for their achievements.

At 1pm the end of the races was marked by a ceremony in which several talented young Korean men took to the stage to perform a dazzling breakdancing routine. It was followed by an equally spectacular belly dancing performance.

It was a hot day and I’m sure most of us enjoyed the opportunity to do a little sunbathing between events, much to the alarm of some Koreans walking through the park with their sun visors and umbrellas.

Although the dragon boat race was arguably the highlight of the day, there were many other areas of the festival to explore. The traditional green and white striped tents set up around the park were full of interesting exhibits.

The food court provided a mix of cuisine to cater for all tastes, the signature dish of course being whale meat, which I sampled for the very first time. It’s not cheap – one large plate of meat will set you back around 60000 won, so the smart move is to share one portion between a large group of people.

Although it was interesting to try whale meat, let’s not forget that whale hunting is illegal and that we should be sensitive about this. Whales are beautiful creatures that should be treated with respect and dignity.

The meat had a faint smell. There were three different types – a raw cut, red in colour, which at first glance looks no different from the raw flesh of a cow,  a cooked cut, grey in colour, with a rubbery texture and a taste somewhere between chicken and fish, and the white blubbery outer layer of the whale.

There were many other attractions too. An archery corner for children was set up at the opposite side of the Taehwa Bridge, and Korean men and women dressed as cavemen were there to simulate a prehistoric-era Ulsan. Children could also get their faces painted. Korean women dressed as warriors jokingly attacked couples.

There was a great sense of unity between the local Korean event organisers and stall owners and the visitors.