Bullfighting at Cheongdo, Saturday 21st April 2012

It’s only a couple of months since I was at a proper bullfight in Spain. The Korean version is a little different though. In Spain, the bull and matador will go through a pre-determined series of moves designed to test the strength and courage of the bull and the skills of the matador. It’s not a contest though and the only uncertainty will be how long it will take the matador to dispatch the bull when the time comes.

In Korea, it’s a real contest with two bulls going ‘horn to horn’ until one runs away and the only thing injured is the pride of the losing bull’s owner. You can even bet on the outcome. Try doing that in Madrid.

I’d been to Cheongdo to watch the bullfighting a couple of years ago and I thought that it was an interesting spectacle. Jen hadn’t ever got around to visiting a Korean bullfight and so we thought we’d go along. We caught the KTX from Seoul to Daegu and then the Mugungwha from Daegu to Cheongdo. The Mugungwha trains are the slowest ones and are similar to the trains that we called Boggies in the seventies, but they often travel the length of the country rather than just between nearby towns. Fortunately we only had a half hour journey or so.

On the Mugungwha to Cheongdo.

Five minutes before we arrived at Cheongdo station we passed the arena where the bullfighting would take place. It didn’t look much different from how it had been on my previous visit, but it has been massively improved from the venue that hosted the event a few years before that. If you have ever seen pictures of one of those big boxing fights from the late nineteen century, well it used to look just like that. A ring in the middle of nowhere with blokes stood on grassy slopes craning their necks for a better view. Slightly fewer top hats and twirly moustaches than at the nineteen century boxing, but otherwise very similar.

That’s it, over there.

We took a taxi from the station to the arena. It didn’t seem as busy as last time when people had been abandoning their cars by the side of the road rather than wait in the traffic jam. Perhaps the rain had been putting people off. It was free to get in, another change from last time when I think four thousand won was the price of a ticket. Four thousand won for everyone not born in the Year of the Ox, that is. I’m a Dragon apparently, so the concession hadn’t been of any benefit to me. I’ll have to keep an eye out for the dragon fighting festival I suppose.

We went straight up to the arena and caught the end of one of the fights. It’s really just a case of getting the bulls to engage and then watching as they try to push each other backwards until one of them turns around and runs away. Sometimes it’s over in a few seconds, other times it could go on for half an hour or more if you have two bulls that don’t realise what it takes to go home early and get back to doing whatever it is that bulls do during the week.

I’d expected a bigger crowd.

That first fight concluded a few moments after we got there. Last time I’d been here it had been a one hundred and twenty eight bull knock-out tournament, with the bulls who advanced to the latter stages no doubt increasing their stud value. The losers in the early round went home with a trophy, but with a greater prospect of ending up as corned beef. This time though, the bouts were staged as ‘one-off’ contests.

Coaching was permitted.

We watched some more bouts after lunch with the main interest coming from the betting. We eventually worked out that there were a few options, including a combination bet where you selected the winner and the duration of the contest. There was a free form guide from which we learned that the fights are no longer limited to the once a year festival, but take place each weekend. I suppose you have to make your own entertainment in the countryside.

The simplest bet was a straight ‘to win’ selection in each fight, although it was complicated by a third option that we couldn’t quite understand. Both bulls were usually odds-on, with the third option generally around thirty to one. A draw seemed unlikely, so perhaps the value bet was on them refusing to fight and choosing to dance a Paso Doble instead.

The last moment dash to place a bet.

We didn’t stay for too long in the afternoon. I picked two winners from the two contests that I gambled on and both bulls, despite not being the favoured option in the betting, were heavily odds on. The small stakes meant that it just about covered the taxi fare back to Cheongdo station.

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