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September 12, 2009

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Digging for 'green gold' ginseng in fabled rugged mountains

GINSENG root is revered as the "king of traditional Chinese medicine," a precious tonic and source of energy and healing. Renshen (manroot) is considered "green gold," a treasure boosts and adjusts both yang and yin energy as needed, cures just about everything and acts as an aphrodisiac.

But it doesn't grow just anywhere, it needs a cool moist climate and considerable shade. Chinese ginseng (there is also distinct Korean and North American ginseng) grows only in rugged northeastern China, primarily Jilin Province.

Slow-growing wild ginseng is considered the most efficacious, more valuable than the same commercially cultivated herb.

The older the better. The fine hairlike roots are valuable, and ginseng must be removed whole from the soil, and very carefully, using wood or horn implements, never metal.

Thus, wild ginseng is rare and hard to find these days. People have been digging it up for a couple thousand years along the border with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

One old, large and complete piece of wild ginseng can sell for thousands of dollars.

Mountainous Tonghua County in southeast Jilin Province is the place where wild ginseng is said to grow best.

Tonghua itself is small, but the 2,700-square-kilometer county is 80 percent mountain, and that's where the ginseng grows.

Tonghua is also the home of legendary master Sun Liang, who first searched for the precious herb, suffered great hardship and finally was allowed by the ginseng god to find the herb.

In Tonghua many people speak of the "way of ginseng" and tell tales of Sun and his search for ginseng.

The prime ginseng area is famed Changbai Mountain, highest in the region and along the border with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The area is famous for the "three treasures" of Changbai Mountain -- ginseng, antlers (deer) and mink. Hunting is restricted, but genseng-hunting is popular among villagers.

On this trip to Tonghua, we accompanied a camera crew from International Channel Shanghai that was filming the area for a series on "China's Treasured Towns."

We accompanied real ginseng searchers. They can sell old wild ginseng for more than 1,000 yuan (US$146) a piece, a lot of money there -- then it really gets marked up. In big pharmacies you can see whole ginseng, just a thin piece with long trailing arms, cushioned in satin and preserved under glass.

Huang Funian, a 48-year-old villager from Shihu Town, served as our guide. He has been searching for ginseng since 1986. It is from his hometown that we set out. Get ready

The first thing a ginseng-seeker must do is not to climb the mountain but to pray in the Temple of the Mountain God. Locals believe digging ginseng from the mountain may displease the mountain god, so before they begin looking, they visit the temple to pray for success and a safe journey in rocky territory inhabited by bears.

All it takes is around 10 minutes, three kowtows, and burning some imitation money. Experienced ginseng seekers take mental comfort in the ritual.

Huang carries two wooden sticks, one large, one small.

"The small one is for digging ginseng and the big one is for driving snakes away," Huang says. "There are also bears in the mountain but they're not easy to spot."

The mountain we climbed is called Lao Ling, less than 100 kilometers from the North Korea border. There's no road to speak of, we used an off-road vehicle on the bumpy trail.

After 15 minutes of jolting along, we finally arrived at a small simple house, halfway up the mountain and hidden in the trees.

There's no electricity, no mobile signal; the water comes from wells, the heat and cooking from burning firewood.

It's a common house, a camping way station for ginseng seekers, Huang says.

"Every time we come to this area, we base ourselves here for a couple of days so we can collect more ginseng and save time," says Huang.

Of course, there's no ginseng near the house anymore. We had to walk far into the forest, well over a mile. Real hunters go much deeper into the woods.

We wondered if we would find ginseng at all.

"It's a game of luck," Huang says. "We come into these mountains every year and several times we return empty-handed.

"So we ginseng searchers can never consider this our livelihood. My main job is cultivating ginseng. Though it's not as potent or valuable as the wild ginseng, the work is steady."

Ginseng is a perennial that grows to 30-80 centimeters, bears red berries and has clusters of five leaves. The plant is easier to spot by the berries that appear from June through September, otherwise it takes a sharp eye and knowing exactly what the plant looks like and what other plants favor the same environment.

"In other seasons, we can only judge by leaves, but it's much more difficult as ginseng's leaves look like those of other plants."

"A game of luck," Huang repeats.

Got it

After a few hours we didn't think we would find any in this forest, but our day was blessed: Huang suddenly squatted down beside a tree and pointed to a little stem with a sprout of five green leaves, no berries.

"Maybe we've got something," says Huang as he began to tie the stem with a "lucky" red thread.

In Chinese legend, ginseng is said to be intelligent and can escape those who are trying to dig it out. So the first thing to do is tie a red thread on the stem to prevent it from fleeing. Red also means good luck and people wear a thread to ward off evil in certain years.

Then it was time to dig, but only with wood. Some hunters use a bone tool. Metal is never used as metal (one of the five elements) can undermine wood (another one of the five -- and ginseng is considered in the wood element).

"Ginseng is very delicate, so I have to dig very slowly. Otherwise it will be a great pity if any branch of the main root is hurt," says Huang.

He dug with the care of an archeologist. In five minutes, we could begin to see the main ginseng root, not too old or large, only having a few thin branches. Huang estimated it to be six or seven years old.

It wasn't too valuable, but for us it was precious.

"You're very lucky to find something in such a short time," Huang said. It was a game of luck and we won.

Going home

Our first find was also our last. The sun began to slip to the west. Huang says that was enough for one day.

"Since more and more people are digging, it's getting more and more difficult to find," Huang says.

Shihu Town has dozens of ginseng hunters and Huang usually goes with others. According to their rules, no matter who finds the ginseng, everyone shares the income.

"So we never go searching with just two people, because it could mean murder if they find something really valuable."

Huang and his son both search for ginseng. Huang has a five-year-old grandson who is also learning how to hunt.

"I love this work. For me, finding something valuable or finding nothing at all for one month, both make me happy."

Yalu River, ancient sites JI'AN County is situated on the Yalu River just across the border from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It features bountiful history and beautiful scenery.

Yalu River

The river is the border between China and North Korea. It originates in the south of the Changbai Mountain, flows southwest along the borderline and finally empties into the Yellow River.

The river is almost 800 kilometers long and 163 kilometers are in Ji'an.


Ji'an used to be the capital of the Gaogouli Empire from 37 BC to AD 668 and many traces of the Gaogouli people can be found.

Archeological sites include mass graves as well as graves of the imperial family and nobility. Graves of the wealthy were typically marked by pyramids.

Wandu City

The historical site was one of the two capitals of Gaogouli during the early years of the empire. It was built in AD 3 for military defense when the capital was Guonei.

In AD 197, Guonei was destroyed by war and the 10th king of Gaogouli had to shift the capital to Wandu City, after it was reconstructed in AD 209.

The city walls followed the terrain of the mountain and the builders made use of the natural cliffs as well as stone construction to defend against enemies. The walls cover a perimeter of 6,400 meters, an irregular triangle.

The layout of the city follows the concepts of fengshui, the practices or choosing and configuring spaces and structures to harmonize spiritual forces.

The mountain was used as natural shelter, the palace was built in the center of the city/valley and the entrance of the valley was also the entrance to the city.

Jiangjun's Grave

The monumental Tomb of the General is a massive stone pyramid thought to be the tomb of the 20th king of the Gaogouli Empire or his son.

It is sometimes called the Oriental Pyramid and suggests the power of the ancient kingdom and the ability to mobilize large number of people for building projects.

The vast site lies at the foot of Long Mountain, about 4.5 kilometers from Ji'an County.

The pyramid consists of 1,100 blocks of dressed stone and stands 13 meters high and 75 meters to a side. The tomb is braced by 10 huge rocks, each weighing at least 10 tons.

It is said to have been built for the longest-reigning king who ruled for 78 years and died when he was 98. A nearby smaller tomb is thought to belong to one of his wives.

Pyrmaid-shaped graves (far smaller than the emperor's) can be seen all over Ji'an.

Easy access to the burial site inside made it easy for grave robbers to plunder, so there were virtually no artifacts to be found in the tombs.


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