Sunday, September 7, 2014

Maligcong, Bontoc: A Black Hole Vacation, A Dog Named Kunig and a Mountain Named Kupapey

A breathtaking spectacle that even Kunig appreciates
"Wala namang magandang makikita dito sa Maligcong..."  

So said Aling Evelyn who mans the store cum guest registration post at the entryway to the rice terraces as we scanned the records and put our names in.  We have just crossed the terraces for Fang-orao and the end of the road, Favuyan, to get a view of the nearby fields and settlements, still green and waiting another 2-3 months before ripening to a golden hue.  Just this morning, we rose at 3am to hike Mount Kofafey for the sunrise and for lack of a more fitting adjective to describe what we saw, a most stunning cloud and fog show.  Hearing Aling Evelyn, I didn't know which stunned me more -- the sunrise spectacle we saw or this statement we just heard.  Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees.
A week-long break after over half a year of work, work, work.   Can you really get "terraced-out" (much like being templed out, say, in Bagan, Myanmar or Borobodur, Indonesia) after seeing rice terraces year in and year out?  I can only speak for myself but everytime I hie up to Mountain Province, I am always held in awe especially when traveling early in the morning when the fog lifts and unveil the majestic scenery, or during the late afternoon when the fog comes back to drape and hide the landscape.

A foggy spectacle hard to describe in words
Maligcong is just a 30-minute jeepney ride from the Bontoc poblacion but for me, the journey leading up to here was about 6-7 months long after an assignment in Bohol way back in February.  Working online most of the time, I really felt the need to pull the plug and maybe attempt a blackhole vacation even for just a week.  Read a book at leisure.  Eat.  Sip mug after mug of coffee.  Sleep. Escape the city.  Turn off the mobile phone.  Leave the tablet at home.  Talk to the locals and learn something new.  Walk on the terraces.  Reconnect to nature.

A warm welcome at Suzette's Maligcong Homestay.  My buddy, Ironwulf, has been here earlier in the year and found this inn in Makunig formerly known as Maligcong Homestay.  The welcoming party apart from Suzette herself was straight out of a farmstaycation dream: a horde of clucking chickens and a sleepy mongrel named Kunig.  At the moment, there are only two rooms to house guests but you'll never know that these used to be the chicken house.  Well, if I happened to be solo backpacking, I may have stayed cooped up here (pun intended) enjoying a book, munching on Suzette's oat bars (at P25 per piece, a steal) and drinking cups of good coffee or tanglad (lemongrass) tea.

By nightfall, we were already regretting not bringing thicker jackets (hmmm, why did I leave my fleece jacket at the last moment) as the temperature dipped to 20-21 degrees, the mercury pushed further down by the wind chill.  I was only too happy to have taken a bath before sundown.  To ward off the cold, Suzette brought out some rice wine though as a teetotaler, I just have to tough it out.  I played with Kunig who's unmindful of the chill and bewitched by the smell of our chicken and veggies dinner.  It was a cloudy evening and feeling no compulsion to shoot the night sky, we retired rather early, me under the weight of two rather thick blankets.
Simply awe-inspiring
A sunrise spectacle, a dog guide, and coffee break up on the clouds.  Our guide, Aling Tina escorted by her husband, Mang Clemens, promptly met us at 4am so we can get up Mount Kupapey (elevation: approximately 5100 ft) in Ang Tong Faw in time for the sunrise.  I didn't expect Kunig to come with us all the way to the top but he must have really taken to us, going out in front then falling back on the trail as if herding and keeping count (must be a shepherd gene mixed into his DNA).

Considering that it rained the previous day, it was hard to get our expectations high for a  picture-pretty sunrise.  But sometimes you just know when God gives you a clear break.  After an hour of hiking, we stood in awe of a spectacular cloud and fog show that went for over an hour.  The low-lying clouds and fog unveiled and covered the mountains, hills and distant settlements of barangays Fangarao, Favarey and Favuyan in an awe-inspiring, hypnotic morning dance.  We intended to stay for an hour but ended up lingering for close to three.

Mang Clemens started a small fire and Aling Tina prepared coffee for us, a really swell gesture as we watched the grand sunrise.  On our descent, he gave us pine branches for trekking poles, again, a nice gesture for aging knees.  There were wild strawberries and guava along the trail which were a great help to stave off my hunger pangs as I've given more than half of my oat bar stash to Kunig who wore his awww-shucks begging face all morning.  What a smart and cute dog.
Harvesting in the fading afternoon
Surveying the lay of the land in Favuyan.  Nothing like a good breakfast and lunch to recharge us as we traced the footpath leading to Favuyan where the elementary school and a basketball court is located, some 1.5 kilometers from our homestay.  According to the site, mountainprovince.net, the road was intentionally built short of Fang-orao as the locals prefer to hike the rest of the way to preserve the beautiful terraces.  Along the way, we encountered two friendly women who invited us to try our hands in harvesting.  We also bumped into a smiling farmer, a BatangueƱo transplanted here after marrying a local, and another farmer who showed us the green fields in these parts which won't be ready for harvesting until around December or January.

By nightfall, we were treated to a really delicious sweet and sour pork dish plus veggies and another round of cold weather.  I even brought out the blanket as we sat on the porch drinking some Coke and later, hot coffee.  For entertainment, we attempted to shoot the moonless night sky on the entryway to the terraces.  Looking up, we saw a sky blanketed by stars.

Another day, another spectacular sunrise.  We woke up to an amazing sight, the mountains and terraces wrapped in a glowing low-lying fog bank (or was it a cloud?).  This went on as we had breakfast on Suzette's veranda.  Incredible.  Just incredible.  By the time we had to bid Suzette a rather remorseful goodbye, Kunig looked forlorn.  I was already missing this dog as we walked away, promising to come back soon for a longer stay.
Morning view right from Suzette's veranda. One word: incredible
Epilogue: an ongoing road construction and some concerns for the future.  The 7 kilometer stretch from Bontoc poblacion to Makunig is still uncompleted, abbreviated by a short dirt road that is being cemented.  Passengers need to disembark and ride the jeepney on the other side of the concreted road.  It is poignant to point out that this maybe the only thing that stands in the way for more outsiders to come in.  Some will bring welcome development to this place with a population of just under a thousand; sadly, some will not.  It's a growing concern for some locals.  Coming back from the hike to Mount Kupapey, the morning stillness was broken by the whir of a chainsaw.  Seeing a glimpse of this beautiful place, I share the sentiment and say a little prayer.

Suzette's daughter, Jounin

Pertinent Info:    
Accommodations: As of this writing, there are two places to stay in Maligcong.  I highly recommend Suzette's Maligcong Homestay & Coffee Shop for a lot of reasons: the warm welcome, the sumptuous food (a pleasant surprise to find here, really), and the spectacular terraces view.  Oh, and a wonderful dog named Kunig.  Her inn is located just before the bend and circular waiting deck.  Two rooms are available; each can accommodate 2-4 pax; rate: P300/pax/day.  For info or reservations text/call mobile: 0915-5463557 or email: suzette_chees@yahoo.com

Getting to Maligcong:  Take the jeepney from Bontoc; 5x daily starting at 8am; fare: P25, travel time: 30-40 minutes.  Ongoing road construction means the fare is divided in P20 for the longer stretch and P5 for the remaining short trip.

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