GEUMSAN, September 28, 2008 - Hard training and dedication brought South Korean athletes a record 13 gold medals in this summer's Beijing Olympics, but some may have had a secret weapon -- Korean ginseng.
Archers and weightlifters received a regular supply of red ginseng, according to a spokesman for the state-run Korea Ginseng Corp.
The herb known as "the root of life" has been cultivated in Korea for 1,500 years and is steadily adding to its fan club overseas.
While it is especially popular among athletes, Koreans in general attribute a variety of powers including stress relief, anti-ageing and even better sexual performance to its light yellow-coloured fleshy roots.
Wild ginseng roots, which grow in deep valleys and on shaded hillsides, are especially prized for their purported health-giving properties in Korea, Japan and China.
One 50-gram (1.75-ounce) wild ginseng root which was on display at Korea's annual ginseng expo will easily fetch 350 million won (318,000 dollars), said a spokesman for the event.
But wild ginseng is so rare and expensive that most roots on the market are a farmed variety.
Geumsan County 130 km (81 miles) south of Seoul, which draws almost a million visitors every year to its expo, is the hub of the industry in Korea.
It trades 80 percent of the country's overall production and 20 percent of total national production is grown in the county.
Last year some 88 million dollars of ginseng roots and ginseng products including 12 million dollars in exports were sold at the 10-day expo, organisers said.
In 2007 South Korea produced 21,818 tons of ginseng roots and most was consumed domestically.
But ginseng is steadily adding to its international fame. Last year exports came to 1,937 tons worth 92 million dollars, up from 1,898 tons worth 89 million dollars the previous year.
Raisa A. Kulkova, a Russian literature professor at Sangmyung University in Cheonan city, said she has begun to appreciate the benefits.
"I'm sure ginseng is really good for health. My mother also says when she drinks ginseng extract, she feels better," she told AFP at the expo which ended earlier in September.
"It's difficult to find ginseng roots and other ginseng products like this in other countries," Kulkova said as she bought three varieties of steamed ginseng for herself and her 80-year-old mother who lives in Moscow.
Tranthi Khanh Van, a journalist from Vietnam, said she bought 700 grams of ginseng roots and some liquid steamed ginseng for her father.
"He says Korean ginseng helps reduce tiredness, especially when he has to travel far," she said.
Jang Ik-Hyun, a 57-year-old government employee, said he and his wife were ardent fans of ginseng which helped "ease tiredness and prevent flu".
"I bought 15 chae (one chae is 750 grams of ginseng)," he said, proudly displaying the large bundle of roots he and his wife picked from a nearby field after the purchase.
The root of life is even good for hangovers, according to his wife.
"For social reasons, he has to take part in drinking parties quite often, but he has no problem with his stomach or liver," she said of her husband.
"I think that's because of my ginseng therapy," she said with a smile.
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