A 40-minute drive outside of Sam-Chok, South Korea, Choi Moo Yeol is searching for hidden treasure. It's not gold or silver, rubies or emeralds, but rather a small leafy plant -- extremely rare wild ginseng.
Choi is the leader of a group of wild ginseng diggers -- the "Shimmani" in Korean -- headed into the country's thickly forested mountains in hopes of finding this coveted prize.
Traditionally in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia, the wild ginseng root has been credited with possessing supernatural healing powers -- properties believed to be absent in the farmed variety.
Because of their extreme rarity and supposed medicinal powers, wild ginseng plants yield prices ranging into the tens of thousands of dollars, boosting these roots' desirability and fueling the imaginations of Shimmani across the region.
Just a few days before their latest journey, which can last anywhere from a few days to several months depending on the weather, these hunters were reminded of just how lucrative these tiny plants can be when a fellow Shimmani found a family of wild ginseng roots, worth at least $33,000 on an online auction and at least double that when resold at shops in the city.
Channeling Mountain Spirits in the Search
The Chinese call it "root of heaven." Koreans see it as a blessing from the mountain gods. Lots of cancer patients come looking for ginseng roots, Choi said, searching for the balancing power of wild ginseng which supposedly infuses the human system with unparalleled energy.
Hunting for wild ginseng involves immense patience, a vast knowledge of the plant and its habitat, but also a good healthy dose of superstition. In the mountains north of Sam-Chok, Choi and his team believe their success depends on the whims of the mountain spirits, both good and evil.
To appease the gods for entering their forest home, many Shimmani only hunt in odd numbers, and, according to myth, women are "impure" and, thus, banned from going along on the journey. Other restrictions include no sex and regular baths to keep the Shimmani's mind and soul as pure as possible.
These men also refrain from meat in the days leading up to their search. Their belief is that wild animals will smell the meat in their stomachs and the men could become prey.
"Whether I find wild ginseng today or not," said Choi in an interview with ABC News, "this is how I always prepare myself."
Before the actual hunt into the woods, the Shimmani also perform a ritual sacrifice, consisting of offerings to the spirits, asking the mountain gods for protection and a successful expedition. Others, who do not believe in the rituals, participate in a separate Christian prayer.
But a successful ginseng hunt requires more than just help from the gods; Shimmani must also know where to look. A precise mix of air, sunlight and humidity is needed to produce these powerful plants.
The ideal find grows in steep places with only 30 to 40 percent natural right. But even then, not all wild ginseng plants are created equal.
The price of a particular plant varies depending on a whole host of factors, such as age, size, color, soil and the angle of the terrain where it was dug out.
In fact, the market for wild ginseng has increased so rapidly that even amateur seekers are getting in on the action, whether for leisure or profit, in hopes of stumbling upon a fresh cache of wild ginseng.
But, for the professional Shimmanis, the hunt is on every day. They say they hit the jackpot only a couple of times a year. But the dream of that one great dig is what feeds their spirits and keeps them coming back to the solace of the mountains.