Roots Run Deep
Punggi Ginseng Festival and Sobaeksan Hiking
Yeongju, the gateway to Sobaek-san National Park, and a city characterized as both livable and noble, was the destination for this weekend's Adventure Korea excursion. Situated in the northwestern corner of north Gyeongsang province, a hometown of scholars and attractive landscapes, the area is home to the southern slope of the rugged Sobaek ("small white") Mountains as well as boasting the annual Punggi Ginseng Festival. Noted by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism as the "Best Health Festival in the World," the events that unfolded over the two-day adventure brought energy and vivacity to a group of multinationals all seeking refuge from the concrete jungle that is Seoul.
Departing early Saturday morning from the capital city, the Adventure Korea tour bus merrily rolled along the Jungang Expressway towards clearer skies and impressive vistas. Headed by two earnest guides, and a most honorable driver, the journey proved comfortable, lasting just under 4 hours with two moderate breaks. The latter break saw a quick meal enjoyed at Danyang rest area, with the option of a pleasurable stroll through the traditional Korean garden occupying the rear yard of the complex.
The initial destination, the small town of Punggi, on the plains below Sobaek Mountain, is well known for it's annual October Ginseng Festival. The cherished root of Ginseng is a local specialty here as vast fields encompassing the town are planted and harvested, then sold to provide for a sizable portion of the area's economy. Our first mission after making way along the riverside path lined with food vendors, vibrant music, and pure energy, was to learn the proper technique of ginseng peeling. Using a small rectangular tool, presumably made of bamboo, our team members got a chance to peel their own ginseng roots. The task was surprisingly easy and once the roots were cleaned, we bit into their bitterness, feeling a surge of stamina throughout out insides. Once the event commenced, all members had time to explore the numerous interesting booths and displays within the festival grounds. From pottery observation to soap making, sampling of ginseng cocktails and foods, there were attractions for everyone to enjoy. Free blood pressure and blood sugar tests were available, artwork and clothing were on display, and animated men dressed as women conducted music performances using traditional Korean drums and folk instruments. With the bright sun shining overhead, and mountain views clear in the horizon, the wellbeing festival rejuvenated our spirits and brought us anticipation of the schedule to follow.
A short bus ride brought us directly to the ginseng fields where farmers were hard at work harvesting the precious crops and sipping on alcohol made from their contents. We then had a most unique experience of performing the harvest ourselves. With gloved hands and a simple cultivation tool, we delicately reaped the handsome roots from the sandy soil beneath the sloping thatched support structures. After the harvest, our team moved to the compound of Seonbichon, a traditional Joseon Dynasty style village built in 1890. Four members shared the exquisitely maintained houses, constructed to reconsider the spirit of old scholars; sleeping cozily on mats atop a heated floor. There were plenty of traditional games and outdoor restaurants to enjoy. After a delicious meal of typical Korean dishes, including ginseng, and the inevitable bottles of soju, the sun descended over the mountains and the calm sky grew bright with stars. Only the faint bark of neighboring dog was heard throughout the village after midnight.
When morning broke, hikers consumed an early breakfast and departed promptly at 8am for the entrance to Sobaek-san National Park. For non-hikers, there was a delayed breakfast followed by a visit to an old Confucian school and Buddhist temple. Being an avid hiker, I chose the mountaineering option. Drawing a variety of outdoor enthusiasts, Sobaeksan National Park is home to one of Korea's most famous seven peaks. Our course revealed waterfalls and temples lying within the moderately elevated summits. The ridgeline was rather graceful, and the trail, while satisfyingly enduring, was traversable by individuals of all fitness levels. After reaching the peak of Yeonhwa (1394 meters), our twenty members and one guide smiled with fulfillment, the cool wind drying our sweat and chilling us pleasurably.
Following a quick lunch of bibimbap, the hikers and non-hikers reunited for one final ginseng celebration event. Returning to the festival grounds, we paired up to prepare our own bottles of ginseng wine. Using our knowledge of ginseng peeling acquired the previous day; we prepared the roots in the proper manner. Then, placing them gently into an attractive glass bottle, we poured soju to the brim and tightly sealed the cap. The bottles will provide for a fine aesthetic piece, as they must ferment for 3 months before becoming suitable to drink. With that, our schedule concluded and it was time to board the bus once again in route to Seoul.
The weekend's activities perpetuated vitality among all participants. Whether it was the potency of the legendary ginseng roots, the tranquility of the Buddhist temples, or the gentle yet broad slope of Sobaek Mountain, an exuberance encompassed the Adventure Korea bus as it made it's way back to Seoul.