Tuesday, March 18, 2003

This past weekend was an interesting one for sure. Bright and early Saturday morning, Amy, Megan and myself and our friends Will, John, Leigh and Rick motored out of Ulsan northwards towards a little town outside of Daegu. Cheongdo, famous for little else, is home to an annual bullfighting festival that draws crowds from across Korea and competitors from around the world.

It was a grey and drizzly day and our spirits were a little dampened – the prospect of sitting around outside in the wet and cold was not very appealing, festival or not. Luckily, as we drew closer to our destination, the sky lightened and so did our moods. Navigating in Korea is always a bit of a challenge, but with our trusty phrasebooks, our pigeon Korean and by pantomiming horns on our heads, we were able to stop and ask for directions to the festival grounds.

Parking our cars in a field of identical Hyundais, we walked to the Festival entrance much to the delight and amusement of many of the Koreans that had gathered. I think the sight of seven foreigners must have been a bit of a novelty in this neck of the woods. As we headed onto the site, many new (and some familiar) sights and smells greeted us. This included large pigs roasting on open spits, monks chanting and the sound of drumming coming from the arena.

We headed into the stadium, which was circular and built up on a large mound of dirt. Much like a Roman coliseum, the seating ringed a downwards-sloping incline - down to a dirt arena about 75 yards in diameter. A large video display was off to one side. We found seating close to the entrance and settled in. The crowds filtered in steadily, as a growing line of buses unloaded their occupants.

As we sat waiting for the action to start, two security guards roped off a large section of the bleachers around us. I guess were we sat was then designated as a foreigners’ section and as Koreans tried to sit down, they were quickly shooed off. While the arrangement gave us clear sightlines of the arena, we all felt pretty uncomfortable by being singled out in such a way.

After a brief ceremony to bless the arena, the action got underway. Two large bulls were led out by the nose into the middle of the arena. The animals were huge, roughly 800 kg apiece. Their two handlers let them loose and for a moment they just glared at each other. Then, with heads down, they charged each other, locking horns in the process. And, that’s how they stayed... and stayed.

With the exception of a few brief flurries of activity, which drew great cries from the crowd, the bulls stayed pretty much still – each jostling for position. The handlers stood close by and screamed and yelled encouragement. I think initially we all were expecting a little more action. The match lasted for at least an hour, and unlike Spanish bullfights none are killed. The match is over when one bull breaks off and runs away and is then declared the loser.

We watched several more matches, this time Will and John and I left the safety of our roped off bleachers and headed down to the pits that surrounded the arena. From ground level, the action was much more intense. You could see the raw power in the bulls as they wrestled each other. Clouds of steam came off their bodies as they snorted and stamped the ground. Their foreheads became bloody as they gored each other with their horns. Despite this, the bulls rarely receive any permanent injuries from their bouts.

After several hours, we wandered back into the festival grounds to find some lunch. The activity we had seen in the morning had multiplied and the grounds were now swarming with people. The food stalls were all open and hawking their wares, which included parts of cows I would have never dreamed you could eat. Stalls had sprung up selling everything from creepy-looking dancing dolls to folk remedies for disgusting skin conditions. It was interesting just walking around and seeing what was on offer.

Later, we went back into the stadium and the fights were now in full swing. The stadium was packed and people had settled in to see the action. The wandering vendors were now offering soju and beer for sale. About mid-afternoon, the matches were halted. As this was the first day of the weeklong festival, local dignitaries were ushered on stage to say a few words. The arena filled with banner-carrying children and overhead, parachutists with fans on their backs buzzed the stadium. Thousands of coloured balloons were released into the air to officially kick off the event.

Wanting to avoid the crowds, we left the festival soon after. All in all, it was an interesting day and an experience I think I will remember for a long time.

For some pictures of the Cheongdo International Bullfighting Festival, check out www.burslem.ca/bullfight

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