Growing up, if I ever complained of not feeling well my mother’s response was simple: “Go outside for a breath of fresh air. It will do you the world of good.” It seems science is finally backing her up.
Last month the New York Times reported on recent research that showed how time in nature changes our brains for the better. “A walk in the park may soothe the mind and, in the process, change the workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental health,” reports Gretchen Reynolds.
Part of the magic, Reynolds explains, is that we don’t seem to dwell on the negative aspects of our lives while spending time in nature. Scientifically this is explained by less blood flowing to the prefrontal cortex — the part which controls our thoughts. In nature, we literally allow ourselves to let go.
Anyone who has spent time outdoors – and my mother, it seems — knows the nourishing combination of fresh, clean air and beautiful scenery. But more recently scientists have uncovered that “phytoncides” — the essential oils found in many types of woody plants, particularly conifers — which trees give off for natural pest control are responsible for the health benefits.
Psychologists have another theory: spending time in nature provides us with a single focus, otherwise known as “attention restoration therapy.” Modern living is draining because it forces our attention on specific tasks yet grabs our attention dynamically; our minds are constantly engaged in demands in all different directions.
Nature, on the other hand, demands very little; it restores our attention. In nature we have the space and the opportunity to replenish our exhausted mental resources.
So while going for a run, a hike, or a yoga class in nature is ideal, so is just grabbing five minutes (but preferably more) in a green space.
Here are my picks of my five favorite green spaces in Hong Kong to soak up these green benefits.
1. Peak secrets: The secret pagoda on the Morning Trail
The Morning Trail – that 2 kilometer stretch of steep ascent into the Peak – is the hiking equivalent of Queens Road Central: filled with busy hikers, ambling tourists, dog walkers and hardy old locals carrying out their daily health regimen.
Start by joining the crowd up Hatton Road, but after 500 meters where the trail forks (left to go up towards the Peak and right to drop into Lung Fu Shan Country Park), go right. When it forks again, go right. About 20 meters ahead of you is a staircase hidden in the greenery. Go up them. At the top awaits a little quiet pagoda. There’s even a spot where you can unfurl a yoga mat.
2. Center of the City bliss: Hong Kong Park, Victoria Park and Kowloon Park
Even in the thick of it you’re never far from some green in Hong Kong. Just behind Pacific Place Two is an entrance to the eastern end of Hong Kong Park. Although the park can get busy in peak periods, there are plenty of quiet enclaves where you can sit by yourself to zone out.
Just a stone’s throw from the chaos of Causeway Bay is Victoria Park. Go early in the morning to watch dedicated grandmas deep in their Tai Chi practice. On the Kowloon side there is also Kowloon Park, a 13.3 hectare oasis in the depths of Tsim Sha Tsui.
3. Climb a mountain: Mount Parker Road, Quarry Bay
Take the exit for Taikoo Place out of Quarry Bay MTR but instead of crossing the road, turn right. After a few hundred meters turn right off bustling Kings Road into Mount Parker Road and you’ll instantly be met with a thick curtain of green. Mount Parker Road is cut straight into the mountainside, twisting and turning its way to the base of Hong Kong Island’s highest peak, Mount Parker, at 532 meters.
The walk ambles, and so may you. There are plenty of diversions along the way: silent pagodas resting by the side of the road, stairs which shoot off the road and lead up to more quiet trails with sitting spots. Explore and find your own quiet place in this beautiful city sanctuary.
4. Pottering in Pok Fu Lam Country Park
Alongside humming Pok Fu Lam Road, tucked safely up in the trees, is the humble Pik Shan Path. It runs from Po Shan Road in Mid-Levels to the Queen Mary Hospital in the lofty heights above Pok Fu Lam Road. Halfway along the trail is an entrance to the Pok Fu Lam waterfall: a tranquil place to spend the afternoon sitting and soaking in the greenery. This serene little inner city trail is the perfect place for a quiet walk and a think.
5. Queen of the city: Lion’s Rock, Kowloon
Presiding over Kowloon is Lion’s Rock. On a clear day you can look back over the entire spread of Hong Kong. While many eager hikers make the pilgrimage to the top of the Peak on weekends, as enjoyable is soaking up the green hues in the surrounding Lion Rock Country Park. Here’s a mid-week secret: at the top of Sha Tin Pass Road is a delightful pagoda. Enjoy the challenging walk up the road until your final resting point. Your view will be framed by green, and from there you will be able to truly see the city, truly hear the city, and perhaps finally find the place to both see and hear yourself.
Where do you go to get you green vitamin in your city? Share your favorite green places in Hong Kong with us — or wherever you are in the world!
CC photo: Flickr