Saturday, February 15, 2014

Banaue, Philippines

It was Rice Terrace Saturday for me as I bicycled forty miles through more of the rugged, demanding mountainous terrain of central Luzon.  The first sampling came as I approached Bontoc during a twelve mile descent from Sagada.  The first seven miles were perilously steep, descending the climb I had made two days before.  When I joined the main road the grade turned gentle for a relatively brake-free descent following the Chico River.  There was just one lone terracing at a wide point in the river.

When I reached  Bontac I fueled up with a couple of pancakes and then began a fifteen-mile climb heading back the direction I had come from Baguio but up another road that made a giant "V" through the mountains with Bontac at the tip.  This road was even more spectacular and equally leg-sapping  as it carved through a dramatic canyon.  The climb peaked at over 6,000 feet, gaining some 3,400 feet from Bontoc.  There was an additional several hundred feet of climbing thanks to a mile-and-a-half descent in the middle it.  The first few miles were relatively flat along the Guitron River lined with rice terraces of its own.  Some rose above the river.

Others lined its banks.

It was another unique cycling experience that had me reveling.  This continued a ride that would rank among the best anywhere if it were known at all.  Few touring cyclists venture to the Philippines and those that do are inclined to stick to the flat coastal areas and the beaches, especially on the smaller, less industrial islands south of Manila and Luzon.

As the road rose, the rice terraces disappeared, but the scenery remained sensational.  I had it all virtually to myself as there was hardly any traffic and the narrow roadsides were blissfully free of any habitations, unlike the road coming from Baguio.  With so little traffic I could safely ride in the left lane and take advantage of the shade of the cliff side.

After seeing no terraces for several miles I spotted in the distance the most jaw-dropping terrace yet sidled up against a small town below the road, both nestled upon a mini-plateau.  

It truly was in a superior class, as it had an official viewing spot withna sign recognizing it as affiliated with the World Heritage sites ahead.

When I reached the summit it was chilly enough to put on a vest and wind-breaker.  Then began a thirteen mile 2,700 foot descent to Banaue.  It was long and gradual.  My legs quickly forgot the strain of the climb and I felt I had achieved a state of grace.  I could see the road for miles ahead carved into the side of a ridge.  I was grinning all the way. And I would have been grinning even more if I knew the grandeur of what awaited me.

Nothing could have prepared me for the miraculous site of the terraces of Banaue, a vast network that goes on and on for a couple of miles utterly staggering the imagination.  I know any UNESCO site is something special.  They never fail to move me.  But this was truly extraordinary.  I never could have imagined the huge scale of these terraces, especially compared to all the others I had seen.  The others were impressive.  These were astounding. They made all the other terraces look like mere doodles.  No photograph or description can come close to capturing their majesty, just as can be said of the Grand Canyon and Machu Pichu.  They were utterly boggling, otherworldly and mystical.  I can offer some photos, but must apologize for how little they convey of their magnificence.  They truly deserve their designation as the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

Their beauty and their construction would make them as significant as any of the world's wonders, but their age makes the even more so.  It is estimated they go back 4,000 years.  Like the puramids and Angor Wat and Stonehenge the imagination is challenged as to how they could have been constructed.

I will be in no hurry to leave this place.  There are four other sites in the vicinity that have been granted UNESCO sainthood as well.  One has to be hiked to, but the others are bikeable.  Banaue will be a fine place to linger.  It has the flavor of a mini-Kathmandu, bustling with people aglow from the mystical aura. The town is just a single lane wide, the first half mile carved into the cliffside below the main highway and then on through the marshy valley.  Like early day Kathmandu it only has budget accommodations.

There is no hot water at the People's Lodge where I am staying and the communal bathroom is referred to as a "Comfort Room."  There are no sockets in the rooms.  They were all removed a few years ago by civic order when too much electricity was being used by the handful of lodges, more than than the local transformer could handle.

There is so little traffic even on the main road that basketball nets have been hung up against the cliff wall on one side of the road and boys play ball in the middle of the road.  The little children cheerfully greet visitors.  The jeepneys are so packed extra passengers cling to their roofs and sides.

None of this did I expect of the Philippines, especially after the first few days of congested cities and roadsides and traffic-clogged roads.  I have been in Nepal, or some other distinct, distant place, the last few days, not the Philippines.

That applied to Sagada as well.  The quiet mountain village attracts a handful of foreigners to see the boggling site of coffins stuck in cliffsides, but it is mostly a retreat for Filipinos to escape the heat of the lowlands and the mayhem of their cities.  When I saw a handful of Europeans when I arrived, I thought it might be teeming with them, but there weren't many more than my first glimpse.  When I undertook a hike in search of the coffins I thought I would encounter a few others on the trail. But I had the trail all to myself for the two hours of my leisurely hike.

I had been told by a Danish guy who had made the hike through Echo Valley the day before with two Germans and a guide, that it could be done in an hour.  He didn't warn me how easy it was to go astray without a guide and how steep and strenuous the terrain was. 

I chose to go in Tevas.  They were far from adequate for the rocky and treacherous path, but my cycling shoes with imbedded cleats wouldn't have been much better.  I was content to plod along, in deference to my fatigued legs and also in hopes that someone with a guide might happen along.  I even paused to read a few times.  But no one else was on the trail.

I did spot one trio of coffins wedged in the limestone canyon wall high above the valley floor, but my eyes didn't find any others.

But it alone was an extraordinary site making all the effort to get there worthwhile.  And it was pleasant to be immersed in such a wilderness for a couple of hours.

It was also nice to hang out a bit with a few fellow travelers who were likewise thrilled with their travels and happy to recount their experiences elsewhere in Asia getting here.  I was able to lighten my load by one book giving it to a Danish acupuncturist who had been on the road for two years.  I had finished off Richard Haliburton's "New World's to Conquer" several days before after reading half of it on my flight over and had been looking for some worthy soul to give it to. It was a delightful read about his self-dramatized travels in South America in the 1920s including swimming the Panama Canal, retracing the trek of Cortez from Vera Cruz to Mexico City and traveling a while with a monkey. 

It was the third of his seven travel books and spent two years on the best seller list. Halliburton paid one visit to the Philippines on an around the world flying trip that took over a year recounted in a later book.  If I had been able to get my hands on that, I would have brought that instead, but I was still glad to have read the one I had.  The Dane had not heard of Halliburton, but he was aware of someone swimming the Canal, so was especially happy for the book.  I do not know if Halliburton did any cycling in his travels, but I will be reading the rest of his books when I return to find out.  I do know that he crossed the Alps with an elephant to repeat the feat of Hannibal.  Next book up is Dervla Murphy's "Camerron With Egbert" about traveling in Africa with her 18-year old daughter and a horse.

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