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Travel & Holiday

Korea's ginseng central

Geumsan is where most of the ginseng in Korea is produced and it hosts an annual festival for the herb.
The Sunday Times - October 14, 2012
By: Kevin Pilley
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Korea's ginseng central Harvest season is a happy time for a ginseng farmer in Geumsan, a small town where the prized herb is farmed extensively. -- PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, KOREAN TOURISM ORGANISATION

Feet splayed and legs akimbo, I twisted and yanked, trying to pull the monster from the deep.

My biceps bulged. My neck muscles bulged. Anything that could bulge, bulged. With one last heave, I dragged it up.

A hand patted my sore shoulders and a voice congratulated me. I had landed my first ginseng root.

My initiation into the harvesting of ginseng - a herbal root whose shape resembles a human figure - took place in a field about five minutes from Geumsan city centre in the Chungcheongnam-do province, about three hours south of Seoul. It is the largest producer of ginseng, or insam as it is called in South Korea. The crop from the small town of Geumsan makes up more than 80 per cent of the country's annual US$240- million (S$295-million) ginseng business.

Every September, Geumsan, which has a population of 53,000, celebrates its famous anthropomorphic roots with a 10-day ginseng fair and market in the second week of September. This year, it was held from Sept 14 to 23. On sale at the Geumsan Ginseng Festival held in the town are hundreds of tonnes of red and white ginseng (red being a boiled version of the root) and every conceivable by-product - shampoo, soap, jam, chocolates, sports energy bars and even chips.

It comes in every possible form - raw, peeled, shaved, sliced, honeyed, wind- dried, sun-dried, skewered, fried, steamed and bottled. Local restaurants known as Samgyejang sell chicken ginseng soup, which my guide, Mr Kim, described as being "traditionally considered a delicacy".

The World Ginseng Expo, which is part of the festival, is where the majority of ginseng is bought and sold in South Korea. It is the country's biggest ginseng trade fair. Eighty per cent of all South Korea's baeksam (dried processed ginseng) and saengsam (unprocessed ginseng) are traded in Geumsan.

During my visit to the festival, to celebrate harvesting my first ginseng, my guide Chun Yeon poured me some Kumsan ginseng tonic juice. And gave me the hard sell.

"Very high quality. Top quality. Low price!" he laughed. "Make you very happy. Hundred per cent organic. Very healthy. You feel new man!" He gave me a knowing wink. "Very good for brain and body."

He opened his eyes wide and meaningfully. Man to man. Many men take ginseng in the belief that it will improve their sexual prowess.

Of the ginseng produced around the world, South Korean is considered the best. American ginseng is like a column in appearance and Chinese or Siberian ginseng is carrot-shaped, while Korean ginseng resembles the human body - although, some might say, a chronically arthritic one due to its knots and bent shape. Insam means "man" in Korean.

A ginseng connoisseur knows the differences among the various types of ginseng - bangoksam (dried into a half-folded form), goksam (circular) and taeguksam (pre-soaked in hot water). Hwagi-sam is American ginseng. Bamboo-sam is from Japan and sanchii-sam, from China and Siberia.

The Geumsan festival is not just a ginseng symposium. It is also a celebration of ginseng. It even stages a contest for the most interesting ginseng root. "Evaluating ginseng is very subjective," explained one of the judges. "The ideal shape should look like two slim ladies with shapely legs dancing together in the wind."

Mr Chun Yeon's family has been making ginseng tonic juice and ginseng wine for a century. Sul is the alcoholic version. This straw-coloured wine, with an alcoholic content of 13 per cent, is made from natural mountain water and fermented rice. Most other ginseng wine is distilled liquor, usually potato or rice vodka, flavoured with ginseng. One make even contains gold shavings.

Most South Koreans drink ice-cold brown ginseng tea. Two grams of ginseng a day taken before meals, in any form but mainly in tea, is meant to keep the doctor away. Traditionally, ginseng must be taken regularly over a long period if the benefits are to be felt.

Although undoubtedly high in saponin, the jury is still out among the scientific community about the veracity of its serious medicinal claims. Saponin is a plant- derived compound which protects plants from fungus and microbes. In humans, it is believed to aid digestion and have therapeutic values.

The benefits of ginseng range from supposedly being a cancer cure to an anti- coagulant. Few of its reputed medicinal properties have been universally proven true.

At the festival, a troupe of young dancers were skipping around on the stage in the middle of the town as a warm-up act for some traditional ginseng field harvest songs and a Miss Ginseng beauty pageant. There were stalls offering shave-your-own ginseng masterclasses, cookery demonstrations and in a small tent, an old man was making dolls out of ginseng roots.

The festival at Geumsan, which began in 1980, was started to honour the Jinaken mountain god who, according to legend - and a local public relations company - gave the miraculous perennial herb to the town.

The area around Geumsan is ideal for growing ginseng because of its highly acidic soil, steep-sloped mountains which provide good rain drainage and exposure to sunlight, and higher than average rainfall. The plant grows to about 0.6m and produces red berries.

Most ginseng gardens are 0.4ha big. Labour is by hand and intensive. It takes five to seven years for ginseng to be grown from seed. The harvest of the 6 to 7cm root is from August to November. A field which has grown one crop of ginseng cannot be re-cultivated for 15 years. The ginseng patches are always covered, as the plants favour shade.

Ginseng enthusiasts were giving out flyers everywhere in Geumsan, making extravagant claims. "Stabilises unstable mental state." "Most shocking effects of night's drinking aren't existed." "Eases stress." "Reduces gas."

Some sounded almost Confucian: "Attracts what is salubrious and repels what is pernicious."

There is nothing, it seems, the South Koreans believe ginseng cannot cure. Except perhaps ginseng addiction.

But ginseng's main fame is as an aphrodisiac. "Appeases thirst of women," read one leaflet. "Promotes happy marriage. Activates manly functions."

Which is no good at all, if you have just hurt your back, pulling out a ginseng root from the soil.

GETTING THERE

Take an express inter-city bus from the Seoul Express Bus Terminal to Geumsan Intercity Bus Terminal. The journey takes about two hours and 40 minutes. The Geumsan Ginseng Festival takes place mainly at the Geumsan Ginseng Museum and the Ginseng And Herb Street. The museum is about a 10- to 15-minute walk from the bus terminal. A return bus ticket costs about 13,000 won (S$14.30).

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