Mt Ugo (The Philippines, part 1)

A four-hour flight from Osaka to Manila followed by en a six and a half hour overnight bus ride to Baguio City and a mildly terrifying taxi ride brought us to Tinongdan Barangay Hall. Hall was a generous word for the colorful but tired wooden building surrounded by thick forest. The entrance was flanked by a couple of tired-looking dogs, the kind of half-tame half-stray we had seen many of since landing in Manila. Having left most of our baggage in storage at the Manila airport, Audun and I were carrying backpacks with camping equipment and food for several days. We were, we hoped, prepared for anything. Except what we met.


A barangay is the smallest adminstrative unit in the Philippines, and an important institution in the countryside.

We planned to hike from Tinongdan over Mt Ugo to Boundary, and then continue trekking to Mt Pulag, the highest mountain in Luzon. I had found reasonably good information online, and we had topographic maps (which virutally don’t exist in paper format in the Philippines) via the OsmAnd app on our phones. But the Barangay captain was not about to allow us to go traipsing off into the jungle alone. He was surprised that we hadn’t called in advanced and requested a guide, and immediately set about calling one, muttering something about an emergency as he offered us coffee. Audun and I soon resigned ourselves to our fate and waited patiently, signing the first of what turned out to be many log books along the way. We chatted with some curious visitors from another barangay. Everyone spoke English, although the level and accent varied greatly. They were going to visit a large nearby dam which I was given to understand was built by Norwegian engineers. Small world.


Me, the barangay captain on my left and his visitors surrounding us.

Soon enough, our guide arrived, clad in hiking pants, boots and a small day pack. At my relatively average height of 5’6” I dwarfed him, something I would soon get used to. The native tribes of the Cordilleras region, collectively called Igorots, are short and ethnically distinct from other Philppinos, even speaking their own languages. The steep, densely forested slopes of these mountains were a stronghold that Spanish Catholicism couldn’t conquer; the Igorots have maintained their culture despite many assimilation attempts. It was precisely into the midst of this culture that we hoped to get.

Our guide took one look at us, and asked if we were runners. Since I dislike being coddled by guides, I answered with a resounding “Yes, we’re both quite fit." He started to look kind of nervous, like he hoped he could keep up. Oops.


Goats don’t care. Along the road near the beginning of the trek up Mt Ugo.

When we finally set off for Mt Ugo, our guide set a hard pace. We descended from the hall, crossed the valley bottom and began climbing steeply uphill on a narrow concrete trail that passed through numerous carefully tended rice terraces. We stopped for a break at a table in front of a house, our guide chatting with the owners. These were clearly poor people. The house was constructed of a hodge-podge of greying wood and tin, and the owners had a small shop and a homemade pool table out front. A gathering place. 


Rice terraces on the slopes of Mt Ugo.

“This is the last house with electricity,” our guide explained, “They are a building a power line up the hill to the others, but it won’t be switched on until 2017.” I remembered a figure I recently read, that around 1 billion people worldwide live without electricity, and realized I was about to meet some of them.

I chatted a little with our guide, and learned that this was only a part-time job for him. There were a whole slew of local guides, and they rotated who was ‘on call’ from week to week. On their off weeks, they were sustenance farmers, just like the people whose houses we were passing in our ascent. 

It was a hot day, and I soon regretted telling the guide I was in great shape as he set the pace uphill. My backpack was much larger than his, and I was probably working harder than I should have to keep up, but I wasn’t about to let him go. Luckily he seemed to be working pretty hard too, and took numerous breaks. Despite the lack of electricity, I saw at least one smart phone in the hand of a woman we passed.


A narrow trail along a sprouting rice terrace.

We passed through another settlement, where another group of hikers was taking a break from their descent of Mt Ugo. One of the hikers had a brought a card game and some candy for the local children. Audun and I sat awkwardly out of the way and ate our lunches. I felt like we should be entertaining these children, too, but I didn’t really have anything to offer.

As our trek continued, we met a bunch of other groups of hikers, mostly Philippinos, all with their own guides. They had ostensibly summited Mt Ugo the previous day, so it seemed odd that they were so high up on the mountain still. Maybe they started late? 

The weather did an abrupt 180 and it began to rain heavily. I was grateful for the coolness first, but soon had to resign myself to getting wet. 


The guide and I on the Mt Ugo climb.

When it seemed like we must have exhausted the supply of descending tourists to greet, a couple with a guide in rain boots and jeans stopped to chat with our guide. Our guide turned to us, explaining that we would swap guides here. He lived on this side of the mountain, while this new guide, Rico, lived on the other, so it only made sense really. 

Rico was older, more taciturn and didn’t take nearly so many breaks as the first. It was still raining, and as we neared the summit we also entered thick layer of fog. Needless to say, there were no views from the summit, and so it felt a little anticlimatic. We could only hope for better weather on the next summit.

The descent was extremely steep and muddy, and I used my trekking poles to keep my balance. I marvelled at Rico who seemingly didn’t slip at all. I guess his rubber boots were the best footwear choice!


Descending Mt Ugo in the fog.

It was only an hour before dark when we reached the village of Domolpos, still fairly high up on the mountain. Rico told us we could spend the night in a school house there. Given the state of the ground, soaked, inside sounded good.

There were some dark thatched houses at the outskirts of the village, thick window shutters tightly closed. Rico to pointed one, and said point-blank, “There are five mummies in there.” I shuddered. I had read about Igorot mummification in our a guide book, a relatively gruesome process that took close to one year and involved collecting bodily juices in a jar and blow smoke through the nostrils of the unfortunate victim. Luckily the mummy house wasn’t next to the school house.


Rico and the mummy house

In the school house, we hung up our things in a futile attempt to dry them and ate freezed-dried food, watching the last of the light disappear. The village’s stray dogs sniffed at our door, hoping for some scraps. After dark, the bad nights sleep on the bus caught up with me and we went to sleep relatively quickly.


Ready to go outside the Domolpos schoolhouse.

Rico reappeared the next morning at 7 am sharp. The descent to Boundary usually took around 5 hours, he informed us, but he thought we could do it in 4. (We did it in 3). In Boundary, we would have to switch guides yet again. The trails past Boundary were out of the territory of the Mt Ugo guides.


Rico had swapped his rubber boots of the previous day with white and red Nikes.

The descent passed quickly. It wasn’t raining but the trails were still slick from the day before. We walked in the fog for a while, with occasional glimpses of the valley below appearing. I pondered our current problem. Being rather sleep-deprived from the bus ride when we arrived in Baguio, we had failed to really think before we withdrew cash, and I was fairly certain we didn’t have enough on us for the rest of our hike.

I’m used to never having to carry cash, and so I don’t really think too much about how much I will actually need. Here in the high Cordilleras, we could be hours from the nearest ATM. This mistake could easily cost us half a day of hiking.


A break in the fog affords a glimpse of the Cordilleras.

We arrived at Kayapa town hall, a few kilometers down the road from Boundary (“This trail has fewer leeches,” Rico said.) and began the process of waiting for a guide all over again. There was another log book to sign inside the town hall. The insides of the town hall looked like a parody of bureaucracy. There were many people, hard at work, all scribbling on papers. There were no computers.

We explained our cash plight to the town treasurer, who sat writing his signature on a tall stack of papers. With characteristic Philippino helpfulness, he offered to drive us to the nearest ATM in the hilariously named Bambang, one hour away. Although we had hoped to continue hiking that day, we reasoned that there was still plenty of time and that we needed the cash, so we climbed in to the van with the treasurer and set off.


Taking a break outside of Kayapa Town Hall.

One hour later, we jumped off in the noisy town of Bambang, withdrew cash, and were put on a jeepney back to Kayapa. The jeepney was full of people and their purchases from their trip to town, and I rode the whole way with my backpack awkwardly placed on my laps. There were a couple of guys sitting on the roof of the jeepney. The ride back to Kayapa was mostly uphill, and the jeepney had to stop twice to cool down the motor with water from hoses along the road. 

Back in Kayapa, we stopped at the covered market to buy some more food. The locals at the market were very interested in what we were up to. They thought we were crazy to want to hike all the way to Mt Pulag. “It’s raining!” they exclaimed, pointing outside. And so it was. One girl seemed particularly enamoured by our travels.

“You came from Norway to the Philippines to have an adventure!” she exclaimed. Right you are. 

As I paid for our food, a diminutive man in a leather jacket and crocks began to talk with Audun. “He’s says he’s our guide,” said Audun in Norwegian. I wasn’t so sure about this. He certainly didn’t look much like a guide; maybe he was just trying to scam us? 

We soon ascertained that Tony was, in fact, the guide that Rico had called, and that he was intent on taking us to Mt Purgatory, which was not what we had planned, but in the right direction at least. Tony produced a full-color brochure with a description of the hike, which looked nice, and so we agreed to go with him to Mt Purgatory.

The rain persisted as we waited for a passing van to pick us up. Public transportation is strange in the Philippines. There are very few buses that actually run on any kind of schedule, but most of the vehicles on the road are for-hire and will pick up passengers for a small fee. Basically you just stand around, flagging vans until one going in the right direction and with enough space arrives.

By the time the van dropped us at the trailhead, Audun and I were pretty stoked to finally get hiking. But Tony took one look at the dismal rain and suggested we spend the night at his friend’s house near the trailhead. We were hardly in a position to argue, and he promised we would start at 4 am the next morning to get in a long hike.


Puppies keeping warm on the doormat.

Soon we were installed in a simple, but dry guest hut, and then drinking coffee and eating cinnamon rolls in the main house. Half-tame dogs lay just outside the house, trying to gather some warmth, while kittens almost crawled into the heat of the fireplace.


The couple who owned the house chatted a little with us in English before switching to their native language to crack jokes with Tony. Their three children came home from school and said a quick hello before scurrying away from us, the intimidating foreigners. We were served a simple dinner of red rice, stewed squash and mushroom, and a sauce of ground chilis. Then it was early to bed, again, with a 3:30am alarm set. The next day was my 26th birthday, and it was time to go big.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

(All the pictures in this post are taken by Audun, who recently bought a new camera and became my official blog photographer.)


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