Taiwan’s “first herb garden” has been reborn. Kunlun has never looked better to visitors in search of a break from the city’s stresses.
Photos by Kunlun Health Village and Jules Quartly
Far, far away from cubicle land is a magical place that brims with nature and has wide-angle views of both Hsinchu and Taoyuan counties. Kunlun Health Village (崑崙養生莊園) – the upgraded version of what used to be known as Kunlun Herb Plant Tourism Garden – provides the ideal counterpoint to a busy week on the phone, at the desk, and in the roaring traffic. Unlike much of Taiwan, it’s verdant and pristine, free of insecticides and chemical fertilizers.
Take a hike with one of the health village’s guides, and pluck at leaves and herbs to sample along the way as you take a well-deserved “forest bath,” full of oxygen and life-enhancing negative ions.
If you had visited Kunlun a couple of years back, you would likely have thought it had seen better days, and you would have been right. The facilities were aged and infirm, much like its loyal clientele. An unsustainable business model, for what should be a sustainable and environmentally friendly business. As such it was gently retired, new management moved in, and the site was reborn as Kunlun Health Village.
What’s in a name? Well, a great deal of much-needed investment. Bright, new, and suitably green signs have been erected, and a flashy new website has been uploaded. The faded and crumbling dining halls have been replaced with both Chinese and Western dining options (including a major-sized oven for pizzas on which you can specify your own toppings), plus a spanking new store selling supplements, age-defying ointments, and related health products.
Other additions are a gym, conference hall, entertainment area, health treatment center, massage rooms, aromatherapy, and a natural history museum of traditional Chinese medicine. Add new accommodations, ranging from relatively cheap and cheerful to VIP (with deep ceramic-tiled baths overlooking scenes of natural splendor), and you have quite the suite of upmarket facilities. Another new attraction worth mentioning is the roof garden over the VIP accommodations. A treetop view of the surroundings takes in the green oasis of Kunlun and the surrounding district of Longtan, before telescoping into the far distance and the conurbations of Taoyuan and Taipei. On a good day, it’s said you can spy Taipei 101 and even Tamsui’s Guanyin Mountain.
On the subject of names – as you might expect given Taiwan’s fondness for labeling its streets, counties, and mountains after China’s landmarks – Kunlun references the Taoist paradise of Chinese mythology. This is where the semi-mythical Yellow Emperor built his Jade Palace, it’s the place the totally mythical Queen Mother of the West calls home, and where, fittingly for our purposes, the fruit from her peach tree offered the promise of everlasting life. Of course, Taiwan’s botanical village is a petite version of China’s massive mountain range, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in charm.
Kunlun’s natural advantages spring from a variety of causes. One is Shihmen Dam, which is worth a visit in its own right. Built in 1968, with considerable assistance from the United States, it supplies water to nearly 3.5 million people. A ban in the area on farming with insecticides and fertilizers is intended to preserve the dam’s precarious water quality. The late president Chiang Kai-shek had a summer villa in the vicinity; it was inundated when the dam was finished. Meanwhile, the area is also serves as one of the nation’s main military centers, which has had the fortuitous effect of preventing overdevelopment and has helped save the area from environmental degradation.
“You could say Longtan has been untouched by progress,” says Kunlun Health Village public relations manager Jason Yan. “But actually it has been saved because of restrictions. No pesticides or artificial fertilizers to protect the dam’s water quality. No pig farms or other factory farms, just a few free-range chickens running about.”
“Essentially, government regulations have preserved the earth, so it is of a very good quality, which means strong plants and trees. We have fireflies at night and lots of cicadas in the summer. They wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t clean. We also have lots of birds, some of them quite rare, so we get a lot of birdwatchers.”
Often dubbed “Taiwan’s first herb garden,” Kunlun has a history stretching back to the Japanese colonial era (1895-1945), when it was a center for cultivation of the tung tree, an unusual but useful woody perennial. Deciduous, it grows up to 20 meters tall and produces snow-white flowers. While both its fruit and seeds are poisonous and its leaves can cause rashes similar to poison ivy, tung tree seeds produce oil that can be burned in lamps or used as a varnish. It’s so potent that it can even be used as a form of motor fuel, or as a lubricant for machines. The tree’s wood, meanwhile, is light and strong, a bit like balsa.
Kunlun’s history is also closely tied to that of the area’s Hakka farmers. In good times, tung trees were a cash crop. The oil and timber were sold to the colonizing Japanese, but when the farmers started making lower-quality “three-year oil” as opposed to the traditional “thousand-year oil,” the business in the area declined and many tung tree plantations were abandoned to nature.
Annual Tung Blossom Festival
Naturally, a good number of tung trees remain in the vicinity, which has been a stronghold of Hakka culture for hundreds of years. This fact is celebrated by the annual Tung Blossom Festival, in late spring and early summer, organized by the Hakka Affairs Council. Jason Yan says Kunlun plans to take a central role in future festivals. He notes that the seasonal cycle of the tung tree is like a metaphor for the Hakka people, reflecting their history of migration and making the most of hardship. After long winter months when it is bare of leaves, the tree blossoms in the spring and is clothed in luxuriant green leaves in the summer, which turn gold in autumn.
After the defeated Japanese left Taiwan at the end of World War II, the Lin family took over Kulun. During this time the grounds were planted with more than 2,000 varieties of medicinal plants in the terraced gardens and extensive groves. Small, white plaques helpfully indicate the names of the plants, shrubs, and trees, in both Chinese and Latin, along with some information about their restorative powers. The grounds are also dotted with powder-white busts of ancient Chinese authorities on herbal medicine, reminding visitors of the millennia in which plants have been used for medicinal effect – an area of academic and commercial inquiry that continues to this day.
A more recent addition to Kunlun Health Village is the flower garden, which was still being worked on during this writer’s visit in early June, but certainly appears to be a significant and beautiful new attraction.
Readers are recommended to take advantage of a guide who will accompany them on an approximately one-hour, four-kilometer hike of Kunlun’s grounds, up the hills and into the woods for a first-class view of Shihmen Dam, then down and around back to the car park. We were fortunate to stumble across general manager, Hsu Bi-hsiung, who has been at Kunlun since 1990. Walking in Hsu’s footsteps is an education. He explains that the environment is responsible for the profusion of vegetation, as the soil-to-sand ratio is ideal for forming roots. Every minute or so he spots a likely herb or berry for us to sample, explaining its function and effects. Very soon we are looking at our surroundings differently, finding fronds with creases that indicate how many typhoons have occurred so far this year, a leaf that clears acne, a berry used in Hakka cooking that is both zesty and hot, and so on.
Hsu is a walking advertisement for the benefits of medicinal compounds and an outdoor life, and clearly believes in the efficacy of beating a weekend retreat from the city, taking a walk in the countryside and immersing oneself in herbal baths. We talk about the benefits of negative ions, fresh air, and taking a break from the ever-present demands of our online lives. Fittingly, phone reception is patchy in Kunlun.
Recent research in Japan on what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” indicates that contact with nature positively affects our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. The science of it all runs a bit like this: Trees create negative ions that purify and cleanse the air and have a positive effect on mood. They also leak antimicrobial organic compounds called phytoncides (or essential oils) such as α-pinene and limonene that protect trees from rotting and insects, but also help reduce anxiety and sleeplessness while increasing vigor in people.
At the time we visited, Kunlun Health Village was in the throes of development. Bleached busts of healers were lying around on the ground, the restaurants and accommodations were waiting to be decorated, and the flower garden was being planted. Even so, having visited a number of times over the past decade or so, I can fairly say that it has never looked so appealing. The major makeover should effectively reboot the brand when it opens as scheduled at the end of June.
The entrance fee is expected to be set at NT$200, which would entitle visitors to a NT$150 food and drink voucher to be spent at the botanical garden’s facilities. It takes about an hour to reach Kunlun from Taipei by car. There are also buses to Longtan, from which point a taxi ride to the Village costs about NT$200 taxi.
If you have time, in addition to visiting Kunlun, also sign up for a ride on the Sankeng Biking Trail beside Shihmen Reservoir. It’s an eight-kilometer path through lush green vistas, with scenic pavilions dotted along the route. There’s also a tung tree blossom trail nearby that is best appreciated in late spring and early summer.
Kunlun is a magical place and now should be the perfect time to visit, enjoy a forest walk, a massage, and a soak in one of the newly appointed herbal baths. A weekend break would be ideal but a morning or an afternoon should be enough to recharge the batteries.
Kunlun Health Village, 8-2 Kaoping Village, Longtan Township, Taoyuan County