Monday, December 10, 2018

The Mountain Trail Thrill

The distant mountain on the left is Mt. Pulag while the peak on the right is Mt. Timbac

The Queen's Curtain in Sumaguing Cave is one of the
tourist destinations in Sagada.
Cordillera has many beautiful places to visit like Sagada and Banaue. But the saying goes “it’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.”

So while we will surely enjoy our visits to these beautiful spots, we sometimes forget about the sceneries we pass along the road. If we are on a bus, we may even opt to sleep on the way.

That’s the beauty of riding a motorbike coz you can’t sleep and you will surely notice all of the beautiful spots on the road. So let’s talk about the main highway connecting the provinces of Cordillera, the Halsema Highway.

The Cordillera Mountains as seen along Halsema Highway.
This is a challenging highway with sharp curves, steep inclines and declines. But passing here, you will be rewarded with scenic picturesque views along the way.

The vegetable terraces of Buguias.
It’s an adventure from La Trinidad, Benguet  to Bontoc, Mountain, Province. It also connects to Sagada and to the rice terraces of Ifugao via Bontoc. This road is an engineering feat with continuously eroding mountains and solid rock formations. The half tunnel in Atok was carved from a steep ravine of solid rock.

Benguet offers views of terraced vegetable and flower gardens. The mountain ranges of Kibungan that can be seen after about 30 kilometers of travel (km. 38) are dubbed by some visitors as the Switzerland of the Philippines because of its grandeur.

Mount Pulag, the second highest mountain in the country can be viewed in Atok. Atok is where the highest point of the Philippine Highway system is situated at 2,300 meters above sea level (MASL) (7,000 feet).

Majestic Mount Pulag in the Background as seen in Atok.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can take a short detour to Mt. Timbac where you can see a burial cave of some of Kabayan’s mummies. Another short detour you can do is to Mount Usdong in barangay Madaymen, Kibungan where you will see some of the best views of beautiful vegetable terraces.   Mount Usdong is 2617 meters above sea level; there you can see the view of Atok, Kabayan, Kibungan and Buguias.

The first municipality of Mountain Province in Sinto also offers vegetable terraces but as you go deeper into the province, you will see it transforms into rice terraces.

Not only is the road scenic but historic as well. This mountain highway formerly known as the Mountain Trail was named after Eusebius J. Halsema in 1953 under Republic Act 933. Halsema was an American Engineer who became the Mayor of Baguio from 1921 to 1937. It was originally a horse trail called the Mountain Trail used by gold prospectors and traders during the Spanish and American time. Some of the remains of the old trail not converted into a road is still called Spanish Trail.

When Halsema became the Mayor for Baguio, he fought for the improvement of the road.  The national government complained of the enormous amount needed to finish the road but Halsema insisted that it will bring progress to the region and eventually to the country, making use of the mining industries in the nearby towns as one of the reasons.

To augment for the needed labor, the locals were utilized. Having no money to pay for their taxes, they contributed days of labor per year in the road construction. Some of them complained about this forced labor and they called Halsema “busol” or “buso”, a mean person who takes advantage of others. Halsema’s methods maybe mean but without that resolve, this road may not have been built during his time, or perhaps not at all.

Road construction started in La Trinidad and Bontoc. My grandmother told us that they would put the workers on suspended barrels and lowered over the mountain sides to dig holes for dynamites. So next time you pass by these rocky mountains, especially from Gueoeng to Balangabang (km. 40 to 48) or in Sabangan in Mountain Province, try to imagine how hard it was to build this highway back then with no heavy equipments.

Eventually, the road construction slowly crawled but it did crawl.  And in 1933, after eleven years of hard labor, the first car arrived for the first time in Bontoc.

Next time you pass by this road, you may want to reflect on the blood, sweat, tears and even people’s lives that were sacrificed during its creation and have better appreciation of this mountain highway.
See you on the road.

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