Geumsan is a small, rather unremarkable town around 30 miles south of the nearest big city, Daejeon. Aside from being of general interest as an example of a typical South Korean town, the main pull of Geumsan is its status as the country's ginseng capital. Around 75% of South Korea's ginseng business is conducted here and it is the best place to see and sample the root which is said to act as a stimulant, aphrodisiac and as a cure for various afflictions.
Every September for one week, the town holds the Geumsan Insam (Ginseng) Festival to celebrate the root on which its livelihood depends. During the event, there galleries where visitors can see all the possible varieties and forms ginseng can take while they can also try some of the health therapies which use ginseng as a base. Song and dance performances are also part of the proceedings as are cooking contests, a marathon, a quiz and tea painting.
There are two main ginseng trading places in Geumsan. The first is the Geumsan Ginseng & Herbal Medicine Market where visitors can stroll around freely and purchase Korean medicinal herbs. The International Ginseng Market has almost 200 stores selling ginseng and apparently they shift about six tons of the root on market days:! But throughout the town there are hundreds of other sellers selling all varieties of ginseng as well as other ginseng-flavoured products.
There will always be some sort of ginseng activity going on in the town, however if you head there on a day whose date ends with a 2 or a 7 then you will catch dealers from all over the country descending upon Geumsan to wheel and deal in the root. Getting to Geumsan from Daejeon, the nearest big city, involves a bus ride lasting just under an hour, while the frequent buses from the Gangnam district in Seoul take around two and half hours to reach the town.
South Korea is a very safe place to travel and Geumsan is no exception to this rule. Wondering through the huge ginseng markets there is absolutely no pressure put on you to buy from the individual stalls. Make sure not to take advantage of this however and if you commit to buy from one stall in particular, do not change your mind at the last minute. Just like in the rest of the country, there is a social etiquette that must be adhered to or else you risk offending the locals. You should always bow or nod slightly when greeting somone and always take your shoes off before entering somebody's home or a restaurant (making sure you have socks on). If you are invited to a private home, always take a gift and make sure you offer it with both hands. The receiver may refuse to take it at first, but you should insist. There is no tipping whatsoever in South Korea.
Being the centre of the South Korean ginseng indsutry, you will not be surprised to learn that the specialities of the town all contain the root. The most well-known dish in Geumsan is samgyetang, a ginseng chicken soup where a whole chicken is stuffed with rice, ginseng, garlic and more and slow cooked. If you fancy something a little lighter then go to one of the many stands that sell ginseng tempura, deep-fried ginseng, and purchase a small basket for just a few pounds. It is quite bitter, but dipped in the special sauce it is not a bad snack. And finally, pop into one of the restaurant/bars in the town and sample some ginseng-flavoured makgeolli, the typical fermented rice wine found all over the country.
Again, there is really only one thing to bring back from Geumsan and that is ginseng! This can either be in its purest from as a root (there is a 2kg limit for bringing back this type of food to the UK), or in the form of sweets, chocolate, tea, extract and more.