Green tea and ginseng

 

You can’t go to Asia without having tea, especially not green tea. In Japan we came across the green tea powder matcha both in refined settings served by kimono-clad ladies and as a matcha latte sold for a few hundred yen at 7-Eleven. However, in Korea it feels like tea is pushed to the side by the nation’s number one obsession: Coffee. Trust me, you won’t walk 200 meters without passing a coffee sales point of some sort in a bigger town here and even the small villages we’ve visited have cafés. That said, you can still get yourself a green tea latte here as well.

While in the South Jeolla province in the southwest of Korea, we visited Daehan Dawon Tea Plantation where they grow green tea, nokcha. It’s popular among tourists, although less so on grey November days mid-week, so we had the place more or less to ourselves. Despite this being late autumn or early winter, the shrubs of Camellia sinensis still looked green and the hilly landscape was beautiful. You could even see the sea a few kilometres to the south.

The plantation has a restaurant (with surprisingly uninflated prices) and a café where they serve green-tea-inspired food and drinks.

It was one of those stops we did while on the way somewhere else. We took a one-hour train from Suncheon to Boseong, a small town with an unusually depressing bus station and unfriendly bus drivers. We picked up a local bus to the tea plantation and managed to annoy the driver when we asked about the bus, when we got on and when we got off. I should learn some Korean insults to hurl back. Once at the plantation, the friendly ladies at the café luckily let us store our backpacks there. It wouldn’t have been fun going up and down those hills with an extra 10-15 kilos.

We completed our walk just as it started raining, lucky again, and tried the on-site lunch options. On our way back, we waited for the local bus together with a quiet Chinese guy, who managed to enrage this driver more than we did. The next step was heading north to Gwangju, the provincial capital, by intercity bus. This was luxury! Three broad seats per row, perfect temperature and less of the hectic gassing and breaking we usually get on the highways. Too bad it only lasted a bit more than an hour, it was the perfect place for a nap.

A visit to Korea’s ginseng capital

Ginseng is a plant with a fleshy root that people here say look like a person. With a bit of imagination, I can understand why. It’s a famous medicinal plant supposed to help with a number of ailments and boost your energy, but I won’t evaluate whether it works. What’s certain is that it has been a sought-after ingredient in Korea and China for a long time and it remains important. I can’t count how many times we’ve passed the black plastic protection put up above ginseng plants when bussing around the country.

While staying in Daejeon, we checked out Geumsan, a relatively small town to the south, which holds 80% of the country’s ginseng trade. We went on December 12, a market day, and were first surprised at how quiet it was. We even struggled to find the market. I had expected something loud and lively and even if the pace picked up, it never seemed busy.

We wandered around silent streets and parking lots for a while before we found a door to a quiet but colourful ground-floor market in a multi-storey building, full of pickled ginseng, teas, capsules and candies. We talked to a few of the smiling saleswomen in our usual mix of English, Korean and hand gestures about prices and quantity and what deer antlers might be good foor (aching knees, one suggested) and found ginger candy similar to what some old women in Japan had made us taste (finally!). By the time we got out, the town looked more alive and we found a bigger outdoor market full of roots, the usual market staples, firewood as well as one place selling whole, dried frogs. They looked like grey ghosts, stretched out like in mid-leap. When I bent down to take a photo of them, the shop keeper rushed out laughing loudly, shaking his head. “No photo, no photo.” More laughing and head shaking, like someone would have told a great joke. Too bad.

One market led to another and we ended up seeing lots of salespeople, but fewer customers. One of the indoor markets looked serious, industrial even, with old women standing over crates of naked roots, haggling with potential customers. It reminded me of the fish markets we’ve seen here, except the merchandise was all dead. I suppose that was the place for real deals.

Before returning to Daejeon, we tried deep-fried ginseng in batter, which was on sale for 1,500 won apiece. The taste was quite flat, with a tinge of bitterness. We also got drinks. I went for the ginseng latte and Christophe for the ginseng smoothie. Our advice: Save your money for something else. Maybe a happy key-chain ginseng?

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