Fig. 1 A misty morning at Wangyedian, Inner Mongolia
Fall. Some say it’s the most beautiful season in northern China. As the leaves turn from green to hues of yellow, orange and red, one cannot help but desire to directly experience the explosion of colors about to engulf the region. And where better to go than to the forests in the countryside?
However, it can be argued that a forest can be a difficult “attraction” to sell. It doesn’t come with rollercoasters, arcades, shopping malls or often even mobile internet. A forest could rather be defined by its lack of facilities rather than the things it offers.
But think about it, aren’t there times when we don’t want “more”? In our fast-paced lives, slowing down and dealing with simpler or “less” things can be a blessing. A forest can re-balance a reeling mind, center it and restore its ability to think clearly. This, in fact, is not just the opinion of romantic nature lovers, it is supported by science. Researchers such as Hiruharu Kamioka1 or Margaret M. Hansen2 conclude that so called forest therapy or Shinrin-Yoku (森林浴or literally “forest bathing”) bring comprehensive health benefits to people.
While the concept of forest therapy, inspired by Germany and originated in Japan has been around for a number of decades, it has only recently gained relevance in Eastern Asia. Yet, it falls in line with the overall spirit of an area where doctors traditionally were responsible for the prevention of diseases, not the treatment of symptoms. Forests don’t heal the sick, but they can prevent depression, reduce the risk of heart and lung diseases, enhance energy levels and much more. Forests are like an antidote to the disease we call “modern life”.
But what does forest therapy include? What does it look like?
Forest therapy is not just a fancy word for hiking. It’s not about maximum physical exertion. Rather, it incorporates elements of mindfulness, a deepened communication with nature and the aim to experience one’s surroundings with all senses.
Barefoot walking, forest meditation and yoga, but also simple breathing exercises during walking are not uncommon. There is no strict set of actions one must do, rather as long as the activities allow the practitioner to slow down and reconnect with nature, it is deemed useful.
Recognizing the increasing importance of the forest for mental health, the Asia-Pacific Network for Sustainable Forest Management and Rehabilitation (APFNet) has in the past few years supported the development of forest therapy facilities in two sites in Northern China, namely Wangyedian, Inner Mongolia and in Long Mountain Valley, next to the Miyun Reservoir in Beijing Province. While indeed not many things are needed to experience the forest, there are ways to greatly enhance the experience.
Long Mountain Valley, Beijing Province
In Long Mountain Valley, together with the Beijing Forest Society, several hiking and forest therapy paths were created and platforms for yoga or meditation built. Additionally, surrounding a small local village, the valley is ideal to learn about rural life in China. Traditional farm houses and herb gardens, but also opportunities to connect to nature through simple means such as picking hawthorn3 give visitors a taste of what a day in a simpler past looked like.
While still at the very beginning of a promising future, Long Mountain Valley is envisioned to become a hub for nature education, forest therapy, traditional rural culture and exemplary forest management and will in the future feature accommodation and an information center4.
Fig. 2 Try forest yoga at Long Mountain Valley
Wangyedian, Inner Mongolia
Wangyedian boasts with a distinct northern charm. Located right at the border to Hebei and one of the few areas in Inner Mongolia with extensive forest landscapes, it is defined by a colder climate favoring larch and birch forests. These harsh conditions, often ruled by misty mornings and intermittent snow as early as October, create a mystical landscape that make the forest seem alive and breathing. In fact, when treading on the forest path and taking in deep breaths it doesn’t seem like you breath in air, rather you breathe in the forest. Similar to Long Mountain Valley, Wangyedian is only getting started as a forest experience center. APFNet, in the spirit of letting visitors experience the different cultures of its member economies, is currently building 24 huts in the styles of the 24 member economies, respectively. Thus, one will, for example, be able to experience a flair of Thailand,
Fig. 3 Soon visitors will be able to stay in ethnic huts in Wangyedian
Mongolia or China while when stepping out being immediately immersed into a breathtaking landscape. The forestsare managed to provide its visitors with whatever they may need: a calm atmosphere, mushrooms for a self-picked meal in the evening, and even, as long as within the sustainable limits of the forest, wood5.
The way people regard their lives and themselves is changing and along with that the role of forests is shifting as well. Forest’s immaterial values become more and more important. By demonstrating on two sites the immense positive impact forests can have on people’s health, we hope to inspire others to embrace these new functions. Forests, after all, should not just be “healed” by people – people should to be healed by forests as well.
1Kamioka, H; Tsutani, K; Mutoh, Y; Honda, T; Shiozawa, N; Okada, S; Park, SJ; Kitayuguchi, J; Kamada, M; Okuizumi, H; Handa, S (2012). "A systematic review of randomized controlled trials on curative and health enhancement effects of forest therapy". Psychology research and behavior management. 5: 85–95.
2Hansen MM, Jones R, Tocchini K (July 2017). "Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review". International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 14 (8): 851.
3 If you would like to pick hawthorn or adopt your own tree, please contact BFS project manager Ms. Shen Qianqian under firstname.lastname@example.org.
4 If you would like to know more about Long Mountain Valley or would like to visit, go to http://www.bjfs.org.cn/en or contact Ms. Shen Qianqian under email@example.com
Visit the BFS Project page here: http://www.apfnet.cn/en/show-model6-972.html
Visit the Wangyedian project pages here: http://www.apfnet.cn/en/show-model6-953.html