Grazing away a leisurely dayThere is something irresistibly cliched about the natural scenery of Samyang Ranch.
Grassy plains extend across the steep highlands like a Persian carpet. Above, clouds pass between the mountains of Daegwallyeong as if right out of your kitchen calendar.
Sure, it’s blissfully serene. But there’s something here that could disrupt a traveler’s peaceful musings: A sign reading “Eunseo’s House.”
Samyang Ranch, a 4,800-acre countryside estate surrounded by the lush forests at Mount Hwangbyeong, is a popular location for movies and television dramas that are not particularly noted for their subtlety. Indeed, it’s distracting to come across the panels throughout the ranch that bear the names of soap operas that have been shot here, with certain cabins, trees and other sites frivolously named after movie heroines.
The “Eunseo’s House” sign indicates the fictional home of the romantic heroine ― who dies of leukemia as the story ends ― from the popular television melodrama “Tales of the Fall.” Near Cheongyeonwon, a garden within the ranch, two trees feature panels reading “Eunseo’s Tree” and “Junseo’s Tree” ― the star-crossed couple from the drama who were switched at birth, met by chance as adults and fell in love.
But what the heck. It’s still a beautiful place, where cows graze on the plain and rabbits, squirrels and raccoons frequently venture out from the woods. So forget the scenes from “Lover’s Concerto” and “Tales of the Fall,” and be prepared to explore for yourself when you arrive at the ranch.
Samyang Ranch is designed in the style of a grand park, divided into two spacious compounds. The first consists of cabins, boarding homes and ― an attraction in itself ― old-fashioned milking barns. The second compound is an open field.
When visitors arrive, they’re given a map of the mountain, a district map of Daegwallyeong ― a pass bordering Pyeongchang and Gangneung, about 1,470 meters (4,800 feet) above sea level ― and a small carton of the milk produced at the ranch. Roads (and sea levels) are marked throughout the ranch, but that’s about all the guidance a visitor should expect from the park authority.
The mountain road has not been paved yet, which makes for a rather adventurous driving experience on gravel. Driving around the ranch takes a good three hours. After all, Samyang is the nation’s biggest ranch. The entire ranch covers 4,760 acres (1,926 hectares), including all of Mount Hwangbyeong. It’s more than seven times the size of Yeouido.
On the northwestern side of the ranch is Donghae Observatory, a lookout point 1,140 meters above sea level that overlooks the East Sea. It’s a good place to watch a sunrise. A tall fence near the cliff hints that winter snowstorms, for which the area is notorious, might be enough to blow away an adult. But during the rest of the year, Donghae is a spot where families stop their cars to take snapshots of the view and slurp noodles on the rocks.
The second compound overlaps Odaesan National Park, which is abundant with exotic herbs and occasionally mountain ginseng. Besides hiking and paragliding, Odaesan is also known for two grand temples, Woljeongsa and Sangwonsa, each offering some of the nation’s oldest Buddha statues and historical treasures. Samjeongho, a lake halfway between the entrance and the observatory, is a habitat for Mandarin ducks; the park authority is building a windmill there.
A 12-kilometer ravine along the main road is often overlooked, but offers a particularly beautiful view. The water is clear and wooded with maple trees on both sides, as though inviting picnicking families to catch tadpoles or eat watermelons. Sinbawi, on the northeastern side of the ranch, is the mountain’s highest point at 1,470 meters above sea level. Visitors pull their cars here and stand on top of the rock to see the view of Pyeongchang.
Driving is the most common way to get through the ranch. But renting a mountain bike or motor scooter is a better way to discover the ranch’s hidden treasures. Walking, of course, is another possibility. Indeed, professional athletes, mostly runners, will sometimes spend a weekend training here.
Four botanists who work for the ranch travel across Korea’s mountains to bring back specimens of rare plants that grow at high altitudes. More than 500 species of those plants can be found at the ranch. Plants that grow at such altitudes are noted for bright colors and peculiar fragrances ― some of which, one of the botanists says, have been used for Chanel perfumes.
Currently the ranch has about 600 dairy cows, producing 244,000 kilograms (270 tons) of condensed milk for Samyang Foods Group a day. That’s less than half what the ranch used to produce 30 years ago, when milk was the main source of protein for post-war Koreans apart from tofu. Samyang raised about 3,000 milk cows when it opened in 1971.
Cows begin grazing at 9 a.m. and stay on the field until late afternoon. Milking takes place twice a day, in the early morning and afternoon. Visitors can watch ― or milk a cow for themselves ― if they arrive on time.
It’s difficult to believe that cows sustain their bodies mostly by eating grass, but they do. That’s why almost 2,000 hectares of the ranch’s land go for that purpose. Fodder and nutritional tonics are prepared for the cows in the barn, but the staple of their diet is still fresh grass and water. One perhaps surprising fact about cows is that they never overeat. Cows eat an average of 50 kilograms of fresh grass every day, but once their stomachs are filled, they don’t eat again until the next morning.
Most workers at the ranch spend their daily routine preparing fodder for the winter ― cutting grass, putting it in containers, adding water and putting the containers in storage. The grass then sits around for few months to ferment, like kimchi. The fodder is called sailliji. Another method of grass preservation is simply to dry it on an open field, a common sight at the ranch.
Curiously, you won’t find many restaurants selling marinated ribs in the Pyeongchang area, where several ranches are concentrated in one township. But most livestock here are dairy cows, which are generally thought to have tougher meat than hanwoo, the local brown cows whose meat is sold in department stores for 80,000 won ($68) per kilogram. Even the few barbecue eateries in the city aren’t doing well, because most Koreans believe that the local beef is from unhealthy dairy cows that are butchered once they are too old to produce milk.
As a result, gastronomists who come to this area expecting to devour quality meat tend to end up slurping buckwheat noodles or sanchae jeongsik, assorted mountain vegetables with rice, instead. These have become the two main regional specialties over the years.
Potatoes are also considered a delicacy in Pyeongchang, perhaps because of the nostalgia associated with it from when rice was scarce. Gangwon potatoes are smaller than a baby’s fist, and have a sweet taste. Locals steam rice with chunks of potatoes to make gamjabap, or crush them into powder to make potato pancakes.
Years before Samyang started the ranch, the place was a home to war refugees who burned the mountain to plant crops and settle as farmers. That didn’t last long; the military regime under Park Chung Hee took over the spot as a prison camp.
It’s odd that ranch on the scale of Samyang would have been built at such a high altitude. It isn’t uncommon to find highland ranches in Mongolia or Nepal, but it’s unusual for cows to be raised at high altitudes. The story has it that the chairman of Samyang Foods Group was inspired to build the ranch in the mid-1960s after a trip back from New Zealand, when he saw Mount Hwangbaek from the airplane.
Perhaps it was a good choice. With tourist-friendly Ganeung and Sokcho nearby, Samyang is more actively trying to promote the ranch as a tourist destination. The locals hope this will mean a renaissance for Gangwon tourism; at any rate, that is what the citizens of Pyeongchang would like to see after losing the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch...
Weather fluctuates at Daegwallyeong. Rains are frequent, and it gets cold at night. Bring a jacket and check the weather forecast before you leave if you are planning to visit.
There’s a chance of getting snowed in at the park during the winter, when snowfall averages 40 centimeters daily and storms are frequent. Yet there are several off roads throughout the ranch. It isn’t uncommon for visitors to call the park authority in sheer terror at night, asking for help or directions.
Almost all the animals at the ranch are generally harmless if visitors don't bother them.
Lodging could be disappointing. There are cabins and condominium-style suites. Some have gone through major renovations, but buildings are generally old. Prices vary, but a standard suite with three rooms costs 80,000 won (weekday price) or 120,000 won (Friday and Saturday).
For camping or workshops, the park also offers a boarding house, which allows for group accommodations. Visitors could also consider getting a room at Pyeongchang, which is only half-an-hour’s drive from the ranch.
There is a convenience store and a cafeteria-style restaurant within the boarding house. But bring your own food if you are planning to stay more than a day.
A shuttle bus leaving Anguk-dong Rotary every Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. takes you directly to the ranch during the summer. The return trip costs 30,000 won.
You can also take a bus to Hyeongye at East Seoul Bus Terminal, and catch a shuttle bus from the terminal to the ranch at 11 a.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. There is also going to be a marathon at the ranch on the Sept. 28th.
Mountain bikes can be rented at 10,000 won for half an hour. For more information, call Happy Green Co., a company that handles park tours, at 033-336-1234 or check out www.happygreen.net.
Admission to the ranch is 5,000 won for adults and 3,500 won for children.
by Park Soo-mee