Oct. 14, 2005 — People are fed up. Be they at school, work or home, they’re sick and tired of crowded cities, bad air, soulless food and being parked in front of computer screens all day. They want “well-being,” and they want it now.
The demand for health-oriented tours and retreats is being met in part by clinics of oriental medicine. A dozen agencies are now offering “health tours” across the country.
Chorakdang, in Ulju county, Ulsan, is one of the clinics. In 2001, it was designated an official “Health Tour of Korea” by the Korean Health Industry Development Institute, which is under the aegis of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
“Chorakdang,” roughly translated, means “body and soul are delightful after becoming one with nature.” A night’s stay at the clinic costs 100,000 won ($95).
Park Seung-hui, the herbal doctor who runs the Chorakdang clinic, had his own clinic in Ulsan city, but moved to Ulju four years ago to run a health tour and grow herbs. Before doing so, he traveled around the nation from 1995 until 2001 looking for good herbs. In the end, he collected not only herbs but also china, old pictures and works of calligraphy, which now adorn the walls of Chorakdang.
Dr. Park also moved Baengnyeonjeong, a 220-year-old facility that the scholar Dowa Choi Nam-bok built in 1784 and used as a school, to Chorakdang in 2001.
“My future goal is to build a museum that shows medicinal goods and to establish a health park that has several streets, like a ‘Liver Street’ or ‘Heart Street’,” Dr. Park said.
Chorakdang also has a mountain path named after Hur Jun, a renowned oriental doctor in the Joseon Dynasty. The path is behind the main building.
The facilities didn’t exactly provide immediate well-being, but it was just good to be out of Seoul, breathing phytoncides from plants, eating pesticide-free food and learning about historical treasures.
After a four-and-a-half-hour trip to Gyeongju, I met Lee Sang-hak, an employee at Chorakdang ― also a driver, tour guide and administrative official ― at Gyeongju Station.
On the way to Chorakdang, Mr. Lee briefly explained the key attractions in the historical city, like the astronomical observatory Cheomseongdae, Cheonmachong in Daereungwon tomb park, and Mount Namsan (not the mountain with the same name in Seoul).
It took only 20 minutes to Chorakdang. The clinic was near the Bonggye Bulgogi Village, but its entrance was isolated: on the middle of a hill above the village. As soon as I entered Chorakdang I could smell the pine trees and herbal scents, which prepared me for the check-up, acupuncture and rustic accommodation.
The tour officially starts with a preliminary check-up: blood pressure, blood circulation, body composition, blood sugar and ultrasonography to check internal organs, surprisingly using western medical equipment. Based on the check-up results, Dr. Park diagnoses one’s general health. He told me I was a yeolseong taiyin person, meaning that my liver is too strong while my lungs are too weak, and I needed to get more exercise that would make me build up a sweat, like running or hiking.
“Usually if you go to an oriental clinic, all they do is feel your pulse,” said Lee Jong-soon, 52, a housewife.
An herbal bath followed the short counseling session, but it cost an additional 20,000 won ($20) ― and required a reservation. Each bathtub was filled with steamy dark brown colored herbal water.
“Soak in the water for about 30 minutes. I’ll come and check after 20 minutes to see if you have a headache,” the nurse said. She added that the herbal bath would moisturize skin while eliminating waste matter from the system.
There’s no way to check whether the waste was eliminated from my system, but my skin was softer ― or maybe I just hoped it was.
After the herbal bath, I went into a mud-hut-like room in the middle of the dormitory, a kind of steam-room, but not so hot. The room’s temperature was 40 to 45 degrees Celsius (104 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit).
Dr. Park said that being in the room will result in your body being cauterized with moxa, activating the good things while pushing out the bad. The room was heated by oak logs smouldering 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) below the room at 700 degrees Celsius, he said.
Whatever the effect, it was good to lie down in a warm room smelling of herbs. Although at first it doesn’t seem to heat the body, after 10 to 20 minutes the sweat started oozing out.
After sweating it out in the mud hut, I moved on to acupuncture.
“I think acupuncture makes sense in terms of stimulating stifled parts of the body,” said Ha Tae-kyu, a chiropractic doctor. “But oriental medicine doesn’t have scientific results and the diagnosis for a person can be different depending on the doctor. Also, I don’t believe that we can devide the characteristics of people’s system into yin or yang. I just think that you can be healthy if you have good food and exercise enough.”
After that, we had a healthy dinner with vegetables that the clinic grows there. A staff member in the kitchen said even though foreigners visit there, they are given the same Korean food ― mainly doenjang jjigae or miso soup. She offered one more rice bowl, saying, “You’d better eat enough now, because no snacks or food are offered after this.”
She was right: there was nothing to eat or drink except water. Guests can bring fruit or snacks, but alcohol is completely prohibited. As the clinic is somewhat remote from the village, and both are poorly lit, you may not want to wander around the village at night. By the time the sun rose, you’d be completely lost.
As it gets dark earlier in the country than in the city, there’s not much to do at night, except for spending more time in the mud hut steam room ― it’s open all day ― or watch television. My advice is to bring reading material.
Waking up from a cozy room early in the morning, it felt good to walk around the clinic. The fog gave the atmosphere a certain kind of charm. After having kale juice and nut porridge for breakfast, we left for a trip to Daegok stream.
The first thing we visited was the Bangudae petroglyphs, or pictures on the rocks. The petroglyphs were found by field workers from Dongguk University in 1971. It is not yet known when the pictures were drawn, but it is estimated that they were drawn between the late Neolithic Age and the Bronze Age, the tour guide said. Not that there was much to see.
“The petroglyphs are underwater for about five to six months a year, and we can see them for only two to three months during the winter,” said the guide.
Mr. Lee said that the pictures could be preserved so well for thousands years for four reasons: a rock above the pictures blocks the rain; one beside them blocks the wind; the pictures face west, thus are exposed to the sun for only 30 minutes a day, and the water below the pictures offers regular humidity.
The pictures include human figures, a great number of animals including whales, tigers, wild pigs, deer and turtles, as well as a fence, indicating that the artist’s society had domesticated animals.
From the Bangudae entrance I walked about a kilometer (over half a mile) through a small mountain path. As Dr. Park said before I left for the tour, “Walking is also a part of curing.”
At the end of the path were fossils of dinosaur footprints and the Cheonjeonri petroglyphs. The 100-million-year-old footprint fossils are the cultural property of Ulsan city. Although there is a signpost that explains the fossils, if you don’t look at the rocks under your feet carefully, it’s hard to even notice that they’re there.
Across the stream are the Chonjeonri petroglyphs, prehistoric patterns drawn on the rocks, including triple circles, which could represent the sun, and creatures such as fish, deer, a tiger and a dragon. There is also writing in the form of Chinese characters about the Hwarang warriors who trained their bodies and souls there to serve the ancient Silla kingdom.
After the three-or-so hour tour is lunch and a final check-up, to see if your body has seen any improvement. The nurse said that my blood temperature was lower than that of the day before, but well, it was low yesterday as well.
Dr. Park told me that I should reduce my stress, adding that because my heartbeat is much faster than that of ordinary people, I tire easily.
For the final course, I was treated to a cup of herbal tea. Was it medically beneficial? Maybe. Did I love it? Of course.
(Note: I wrote this for the Korea JoongAng Daily.)