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High Wire on the Han River
Korean Jultagi is different from the tightrope walking generally seen in circuses today
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-10-08 14:45 (KST)   
Asleidy Coromoto from Venezuela
©2008 Hangang High Wire World Championship Org.
This past weekend, Seoul hosted the Han River High Wire World Championship 2008, an event that attracted 27 participants from 14 countries.

The object of the competition was to be the first to cross the Han River on a single-strand, one-kilometer-long wire using nothing but a balancing pole (seven meters long) and a lot of concentration.

It was heralded as an "extreme sport" by the organizers, but one newspaper, The Calgary Herald, noted that some questioned its classification. The Herald quoted one poster on its Internet site as saying, "If it was extreme, there'd be sharks in the water."

Pedro Carillo from the US
©2008 Hangang High Wire World Championship Org.
Korea drummers at the event
©2008 Hangang High Wire World Championship Org.
According to the organizers, the purpose of the event was to help globalize the Korean tradition of Jultagi and bring attention to the beauty of Seoul and the Han River. Jultagi, Korean tightrope walking, is different from the tightrope-walking generally seen in circuses today. Accompanied by music, the Jultagi performer often told stories, sang, acted like a clown and performed acrobatic tricks on a rope suspended a couple of meters off the ground. It was a popular form of entertainment for Korean nobles and commoners as well.

Tightrope-walkers at the Seoul Mining Company circa 1914
©2008 Terry Bennett Collection
In the late 1890s and early 1900s, tightrope-walkers and circuses were used by the American company that operated the Seoul streetcars in an effort to gain more business. Wandering performers also visited the various gold mines and performed for the miners, as evidenced by this picture from Terry Bennett's collection. When I was a soldier in Gangwon province, I remember seeing these circuses during the fall at the farmers' fairs. The Korean government has designated Jultagi as 'Important Intangible Cultural Properties 58.'

Kwon Won Tae crossing the Han River
©2008 Hangang High Wire World Championship Org.
Arguably, Korea's best and most well-known tightrope walker, Kwon Won Tae, was the first competitor to cross the rope this year. He is designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Asset, No. 3, and is well-known and appreciated for his role in "King and the Clown." While he may have been a home-wire favorite, he was not a top contender. Last year's winner, Shataer Wjuiabudula from China, crossed the wire in 11 minutes and 28 seconds, only six seconds slower than last year, and earned third place. First place this year went to his fellow countryman, Yakefujiang Maimitili unbelievably raced across the wire in 10 minutes and 59 seconds.

Aurelia Wallendra from the US
©2008 Hangang High Wire World Championship Org.
The male winners were: 1st place, Yakefujiang Maimitili with 10:59; 2nd place, Alan Martinez from Columbia with 11:23, and 3rd place was Shataer Wujiabudula with 11:28. The female winners were: 1st place, Yeisy Yolima Tabares Oquendo from Columbia with 16:41; 2nd place, Ekaterna Maksimova from Russia with 34:47, and 3rd place was Aurelia Wallenda from the United States with 43:52.

The winners
©2008 Hangang High Wire World Championship Org.
Tahir Tashkenbayex from Uzbekistan
©2008 Hangang High Wire World Championship Org.
According to the event's organizers, nearly 50,000 people of all ages and nationalities came to witness and take part in the three day event. Entire families with picnic lunches sat and played on the wide expanses of grass along the river or sat in the stands and chatted while watching the contestants on big-screen televisions.

A young boy tries his balance
©2008 Robert Neff
For those onlookers who wished to safely challenge themselves, a separate tightrope, much shorter and lower than the Han River tightrope, was set up near the stands. Most of the patrons were small children and young adults, often encouraged and heckled by their family and friends. Most managed to ease their way along the rope to the other side without falling or using the support cable. But the young were not the only participants: several elderly Korean men, including one very spry 70-year-old, displayed their expertise by crossing the rope faster than their much younger peers.

A spry 70-year-old wire walker
©2008 Robert Neff

©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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