Cancer survivor testifies to organic diet, remote lifestyle that saved her life Story by By Kang Hyun-kyung , Photo by Shim Hyun-chul

INJE COUNTY, Gangwon Province -- The ride in Park So-hee’s pickup truck on the 2.2-kilometer off-road trail in Mount Jeombong, stretching from the Seolphi Village parking lot to Park’s bed and breakfast, located in Gangwon Province’s scenic Gombaeryeong pass, was quite an adventure.

The narrow one-way trail in the old-growth forest is bumpy and wild with plenty of natural obstacles.

Park, 58, is a tough driver. She didn't slow down even when her truck, inside which three people, including this reporter, were seated, approached a sharp bend to the right in the road.

The 10 minutes of off-road driving was nerve-racking. Driving deep into the lush forest ―home to some 856 native species ― was a thrilling experience. But, for first-time travelers like this reporter, it was a rollercoaster ride. The trail was so narrow that there was no extra space when the small pickup truck hit it. Down below was a rocky creek. Any minor mistake by the driver or a brief distraction could result in grave consequences for the safety of all those in the car.

Yet, contrary to her nervous passengers, Park was carefree

"This trail is a lot better, compared to what it was some two decades ago when I first traveled here," Park said last Tuesday in a strong South Gyeongsang Province accent. "The trail became wider and easier to drive. Twenty years ago, driving a car here was unthinkable. This area was just forest, covered with trees and wild plants. Ten households were (and still are) living in Gangseon Village, where I now live, and people there had to travel back and forth for grocery shopping in the nearest city or to run errands there."

Park said that every day, she drives along that trail back and forth five or six times, in order to pick up her guests at the parking lot.

When her pickup truck arrived at her guesthouse, sitting snugly under the hillside, a wooden sign was spotted. "Gombaeryeong End House," the purple letters on the worn-out sign read.

Park's rustic, time-honored lodge near the end of the mountain pass is far from a fancy bed and breakfast. It's a typical old countryside house.

But it's the place where Park's new, healthy life began.

When she first visited Gangseon Village back in 1998, she was a cancer patient.

After she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, she underwent surgery three times to remove the cancer in her large intestine at a hospital in her hometown, the southeastern coastal city of Ulsan. Then she underwent chemotherapy.

Like other cancer patients, she was shocked, depressed and so scared that she couldn't even ask her doctor if she would recover from the ailment and if she couldn't, how many days were left for her to live.

Concerned about the possible negative impacts on their already sick daughter, her parents were uneasy too. They didn't share any further details about her health condition with her, other than the fact that she had cancer.

It was only after she fully recovered from cancer that she was able to hear the full story about her health condition back then. According to her parents, her doctor was pessimistic about her recovery, telling them that her days were numbered, and that they had better prepare for their daughter's last day on Earth.

"Hearing this, my parents were desperate. They did everything to save my life. I took almost all sorts of medications, including herbal remedies, but few of them were effective,"
"While undergoing chemotherapy, I could barely eat one or two spoons of food each day. I was so drained that I couldn't walk. I would fall when I tried to walk a few steps forward."

Knowing that she was fighting for her life, the head monk of a Busan-based Buddhist temple encouraged Park to go to Gangseon Village in the Gombaeryeong pass region to take a rest for a few days or weeks.

"He knew the head monk of the small temple in the village where I now live and thought that staying here might help me recover from my illness,"

Following his advice, Park visited Gombaeryeong, along with four others who were attending the same temple in Busan. Back in the late 1990s, the landscape of Gombaeryeong was quite different, according to Park.

"This area was wilder than it is now. We had to walk into the mountain to arrive here…. During our five-day stay here, we were served vegetarian food made with wild plants that the monk had harvested near the temple. Three days later, my appetite came back and I was able to eat something,"

After returning to Ulsan, she regularly travelled back and forth to Gombaeryeong and eventually settled down in the Gangseon Village in 2004.

Gombaeryeong is a scenic mountain pass connecting the coast with the interior, attracting tourists and climbers during summertime. Derived from three words, "gom (bear)," "bae (belly)" and "ryong (a mountain pass)," the term depicts the shape of the region surrounding the mountain pass, which is like a bear lying down with its belly up in the air.

In the past, it was a trade route, for traders passing with donkeys laden with salt on their backs. Herbalists also used the path to sell their products at the inland market.

Park's early days in the old-growth forest were full of laughable mistakes.

As a city girl, she had to adjust to a whole new life in the rustic village. She had to learn everything from scratch. Cooking, washing dishes and how to do laundry ― these were all things she had not done before.

Born in the southeastern industrial city of Ulsan, Park said that she used to be a "spoiled brat."

She is the youngest of her parents' four children: two sons and two daughters. When she was born, her father was 50. He was a typical Gyeongsang Province man ― as a father he was quiet, stubborn and blunt, and he rarely expressed his emotions. He was this way at least to Park's other siblings. But for her, he was a sweet dad who would do anything for his dearest little girl. Her other siblings were jealous of her.

"My sister, who is now in her 70s, used to complain a lot about our father. She used to say that she and our two brothers had no fond childhood memories with our father, and that, in her memories, he was always so distant. She said that he used to carry me on his back, which was treatment my other siblings had never been able to enjoy while they growing up,"

Her over-protective parents didn't allow their youngest daughter to do any family chores, such as washing dishes or cleaning the house.

Park studied the flute in university. After graduation, she gave private lessons to high school students preparing to study music in college.

After growing up, she was ill from time to time. She was diagnosed with leukemia at the Busan National University Hospital years before the cancer in her large intestine was found. She survived leukemia after years of treatment. Then colorectal cancer was detected as well, which eventually led her to relocate to the rustic village in Gangwon Province.

In Gangseon Village, she has lived a self-sufficient lifestyle.

Having no nearby grocery stores, she has had to improvise in the isolated, rustic village when preparing meals. She harvests various edible herbs and wild plants near her place and makes food with them.

After three years of an organic vegetarian diet, she felt one day that she had fully recovered from cancer. Miraculously, her medical checkup results confirmed that her gut feeling was correct.

"My doctor in Ulsan was surprised at the results. He asked me where I had been and how I came to recover from the cancer,"

She said that she believes her rustic lifestyle, fresh air and organic diet of local, wild plants helped her recover from cancer.

"In retrospect, I think I had no other option. Grocery stores were far away from my place and it was difficult to access them. But there were lots of healthy, edible plants here, so I used them in my food,"

After her health improved, she purchased an old house near the temple and opened it as a bed and breakfast.

Despite its inconvenient location, her bed and breakfast is popular among travelers and climbers. During my hours-long interview with her last Tuesday, her cell phone was constantly ringing. Most of the calls were from potential guesthouse seekers, checking to see if her bed and breakfast has the specific facilities they were looking for.

Park said that the organic food served at her lodge is one of the things most talked about by her past clients.

Her recipes for food are simple. She never uses any artificial additives or preservatives. Green onions and garlic are not used in her food, either.

Soybean paste, red pepper paste and soy sauce are the three most frequently used ingredients. Although she doesn't use spices, her food is still pleasantly delicious.

Fermentation and locally-sourced fresh, organic ingredients seem to be two key things that have enabled her food to satisfy the taste buds of many travelers.

"The proportions also matter,"
"Over the past years, I have tried hard to find the ideal proportions of ingredients that make my food taste good."

Asked to name her clients' favorite dish, she said it is vegetable jeon (fritter) made with naturally-grown, wild, edible plants that she harvested from her garden. It's the brainchild of her years of endeavoring to find her own kind of light, healthy food.

Park showed us how to make the jeon in her kitchen. She mixed together wild vegetables, flour, another white powder and water in a large bowl and. Then she poured vegetable oil into a heated pan, along with the batter.

She served the vegetable jeon with fermented iced white radish.

She said that there is one more ingredient that she put in the mixing bowl before it was fried in the heated pan, but that she won't share it with others because it's her "secret of the trade."

Asked if there's anything particular she'd like to do during the rest of her life, she said that she plans to quit her bed and breakfast when she turns 60 and at that point, would like to live a life without any restraints, a life for herself.