Sunday, December 5, 2010

Punggi Ginseng Festival

Punggi Ginseng Festival in the Sobaeksan National Park of the Gyeongsangbuk-do Region As I was packing for my first ‘Korean Adventure’ tour I surveyed my available gear. I had a small day pack, a zinnia print ‘Le Sac” swim bag, a large carry-on bag. That’s typical for me - whenever I am going somewhere I often realize at the eleventh hour that I don’t have the right kind of bag that I want for my trip. I decided to take the carry-on bag and my day pack. I was traveling with a friend from work, Bridget, who teaches middle school science. We thought it would take an hour by subway to get to our meeting point at the Express Bus Terminal. As we passed station after station it didn’t take long to realize that we might miss our bus. We still had a transfer and more stops! Bridget had her cell phone with her but neither of us had thought to bring the tour company’s phone number. When we got to the bus terminal is was exactly 7:00, our departure time. We thought that at least we were at the right stop. Little did we know that we had to run up several flights of stairs and go to the other side of the large subway station to get to the right exit gate. We ran as fast as we could, but clearly we were in a deficit situation. As we made our final charge up the steep stairs we saw a woman peering down into the dark stairwell with an inquisitive look on her face. Yes, we were the two already errant travelers. We got checked off and all three of us ran to the bus. We flung ourselves into seats in the large, well-battered old bus and took naps. Later we pulled into a dusty, gritty town where we were on our own for lunch. A young Australian fellow who was a hagwon teacher came up to us and asked if we would like to go to lunch with him. He announced that his name was Simon Bean! “Like Mr. Bean,” he said. “Do you know who he is?” He had a one-man repertoire of anecdotes about his life. He chose a dingy looking restaurant and we went in. The windows were covered with a coating of dust, but reminded me of my apartment windows so it was a familiar sight in any case. Boxes were stacked at random intervals between tables and chairs. An old couple ran the restaurant. The woman brought us a tall water bottle full of cold water. As I unscrewed the lid I noticed that there was no familiar “click” from breaking the seal on the lid. Hmmm, that could easily explain the reason it listed to one side. Still, the water looked clear and was deliciously cold. There were no menus, at least not in English, so Simon ordered bibimbap for all of us. It arrived in little time on mismatched plastic dishes and bowls. It didn’t look great, but it did look OK, so we put lots of kimchi and other spicy vegetables on it and basically just ate a spicy, crunchy, rice-based dish. As Simon continued telling us about his various hijinks Bridget excused herself to go to the toilet. She unrolled some toilet paper by the door to take with her as is the norm. Her eyes were a bit big on her running water in the bathroom. After lunch we still had a few minutes so we walked around part of the town. There were a number of brighter, cleaner restaurants just a few feet further down the street. After we left town we drove through a heavily agricultural area. There were mostly apple trees, each individual apple shielded from direct sun by a bright pink synthetic tissue skirt at the stem of the apple. In some areas I noticed grape vines winding between the apple trees. The clumps of purple grapes with remarkably uniform size hung heavily on the vines. I also noted a number of a very large variety of taro plants. The leaves are quite attractive and almost seemed too exotic to grow in the region. Trucks were parked on the side of the road with boxes of delicious looking apples for sale. I longed to buy a box, but couldn’t picture running through the subway with my large carry-on, my backpack, AND a box of apples upon my return! A short time later we pulled up to a large area covered with rows and rows of white tents. The Punggi Ginseng Festival! There were some very interesting displays with historical artifacts, and drums which seem to be ever-present in Korea. All 35 of us were led to one area where people were peeling ginseng roots. We were seated and each of us received instruction in peeling ginseng roots. I was handed a bamboo knife and went to work on mine. Ginseng resembles a parsnip, except that it has a number of smaller roots branching off of the main root. After quite a bit of scraping to remove the darker exterior skin one is supposed to have a beautiful, smooth, off-white root remaining. Mine looked like it had been mauled by a bear. The instructor diplomatically smiled as he placed my questionable results in a jar and instructed me to pour white wine over it, then the contents were sealed. Next we were taken to a large outdoor stage where some local residents were entertaining us with traditional songs. Little did we suspect that we were to be the next act! A ginseng peeling contest had been arranged for us to participate in. We were each given a new ginseng root and a bamboo knife. We were each asked to tell a little bit about ourselves which I really enjoyed since I told everyone (through a translator) about my wonderful grandson, Jackson, who had just turned four years old. Many of the grandparents in the audience were interested so I started to wave my arms around to get them to cheer. It was so much fun to get the crowd behind me. I, who normally am not very competitive, wanted very much to win the contest. I quickly thought about my chances, remembering the results of my other ginseng peeling experience and thought quickly. I decided that if I just scraped the areas that would be visible from a distance I might have a chance. Meanwhile, on one side of me was my friend and co-worker Bridget who had done a stellar job of meticulously peeling her first root. I decided that my only chance was to work the crowd. I got them to cheer for me, and before I knew it they were cheering and clapping for me with much enthusiasm. The judge decided that we were the two finalists. I got the crowd cheering again. Bridget’s results far outshone mine, but I kept the crowd cheering for me. The judge diplomatically called a tie, to my delight. The prize was a huge carry bag full of foil pouches of ginseng extract! Next we were given time to walk around the festival. We bought deep fried ginseng which was yummy and greasy! We saw a chewy type of rice candy made in the traditional manner. A cauldron of sweetened hot rice was poured onto a length of heavy cheesecloth. The mass was folded into the cloth and then laid onto a board on the ground. Two people, each with an enormous wooden mallet stood on opposite sides of the wrapped rice mixture. Alternately they would hoist the mallet over their head and pound down onto the mass. When it was deemed “ready to eat” we crowded to the stand with many other people to buy some of the delicious, fresh confection. Another tent displayed traditional clothing and various fabric dying techniques. Several little boys were sitting at a table each with a hammer-sized rubber mallet in hand. We watched them for awhile to see what they were doing. A base cloth was laid down on the table. Cosmos petals were laid in a design on the fabric. Another cloth was laid over this and then the boys went to work, pounding joyfully with all of their might. The result was fabric that was beautifully patterned and colored by the flower petals. I wondered how this ancient art was developed and pictured a harried and tired mother of sons giving them each hammers while she was dying clothes. Well perhaps that isn’t how it started, but the zest with which the boys wielded the hammers seemed to say a lot. We continued, sampling candies and fruits on our way to the meeting place that we had been assigned. I noticed a bonsai exhibition and couldn’t resist taking a little time to look at it. It reminded me of the time I spent at the Japanese Gardens in Portland, doing Ikebana displays. The bonsai was beautiful and I enjoyed a little time to linger over the exhibits. On the way to the bus we passed an elderly woman that was so bent over that her back was perpendicular to her lower torso. To move forward she had to be guided on both side by her relatives. In the countryside I have seen elderly people who are severely bent over. I think it could be attributed to the starvation and lack of nutrition during the long Japanese occupation in Korea. Next stop - a ginseng farm! We were each paired with a woman who was a ginseng harvester. (This was women’s work...not for the men). We went out into the fields, covered by low, long lengths of plastic to shield the plants from the direct sun (ginseng grows naturally in the woods). We were given gloves and a metal claw and off we went. My mentor was quite impressed with my enthusiasm to get into the dirt and dig like a gopher. I unearthed two fine roots so we went back to the central area to show off our results. At about that time the mayor of the region arrived. He welcomed us, amidst a number of photographers commemorating the event for the local newspaper. He gave a very nice speech which luckily was translated for us. Then we got back on to the bus and went to Seonbichon Village, a recreated traditional village where we were to eat dinner and spend the night. It had been sprinkling as we drove over there, but the clouds ripped and we ran to our rooms hopping over puddles which were forming on the sandy wet soil. We were soaked though. I was glad that I had used poor taste and brought my little suitcase because I had an extra set of dry clothes inside including a down vest!). We got our rooms which we shared with a young French college student who was studying in Seoul. The doors were paper covered on the interior, and outside of those delicate doors were heavy wooden doors on the exterior. We got blankets and pillows from the closet and organized them on the floor. We had ondol heating (heating under the floor) and were curious to see what we thought of it. Then we slogged through the dark night in the rain to go to the dining room. The food was slow to come but tasted alright. We all hurried back to our rooms in the diminishing rain. When we got back to our courtyard a number of Korean university students had checked in. They shared the courtyard that our tour had been assigned to. They were friendly and humorous and very fun-loving as they drank and danced the night away. They invited those in our group who were still awake to join them in singing and doing traditional folk dances. I was however, sawing zzzzzzzzzzzz’s and only learned of the fun in the morning. The next morning the serious hikers left for a half day hike while I joined the less fit group to go to the Sosu Confucian School and Buseoksa Temple. The temple was up quite a hill! It is one of the oldest standing temples in Korea, built in 676. Beautiful heavy wooden beams were used in its construction. The view from the temple was lovely, and it was pleasant to walk around the temple buildings and look at the various plants and trees, both familiar and unfamiliar to me. There were some very interesting drawings on the back side of one of the prayer rooms. The painting showed several men in a boat with long thin wavy throats and distended stomachs. Later I learned that it was a painting of “death eaters.” The feeling was odd and erie. I wanted to photograph that panel, but my camera battery gave out on part way up the path to the temple. Then after buying produce and herbs from local women I headed to lunch. We were served bibimbap again, however this time it was delicious! The rice was hot and fluffy, the vegetables tasted as if they had just been picked, and the fish was fresh and had a mild flavor. Being well fed we wandered back to the bus and drove about 40 minutes to pick up the hikers. Then we returned home. When we got back to Bundang we could hardly believe that we had packed all of these adventures into just two days and one night! We couldn’t wait to look at the offerings on the ‘Adventure Korea’ website so that we could decide which trip to book next!