Monday, June 29, 2015

Our Trip to BEIJING 2: GREAT WALL, SUMMER PALACE (Mar. 25, 2015)

March 31, 2015


We continue our tour of Beijing today with Sophie, care of Catherine Lu Tours.

The Great Wall of China runs east to west along the historic Northern boundary of China to protect the kingdom against attacks by nomadic Eurasian invaders. Presently, the wall built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) is the most often seen and best preserved, running over 500 kilometers. The wall at Badaling is said to be the most popular, tourist-friendly and commercial. The other parts of the wall open to visitors are Huanghuacheng, Mutianyu, Jiankou, Gubeikou, Jinshanling and Simatai.

During my last visit to Beijing in 2008, I visited the Mutianyu section of the wall. This part of the wall was lesser known, further out and had less tourists. Not really true on the last point the last time I was there. I did not mind that Sophie brought us to Mutianyu again this time. I knew my family will have a great time with the chair lift ride up and the toboggan slide down that I enjoyed the first time I was here. 

When we arrived, the whole place looked so different from how I remembered it. Back then there was a just a big parking lot where I was dropped off and the ticket booth was right there already. Now there are a huge buildings, underground parking and a shopping and restaurant complex. After walking through, we have to ride a bus (fare 10 CNY) to be brought to the wall proper. There it looked familiar already for me.

We rode the chair lift up to the wall, two people per chair. The cold morning air was very nippy on the way up. When we reached Station 6, we decided to trek the usual route from Station 6 to Station 14, where the cable car platforms were located. The cable cars are another way to go up and down from the wall, but this service is provided by another company from the chairlift/toboggan way. 

The hike on the wall was as difficult as I remembered it, but the view is nevertheless as awesome as ever. The hike on the way to Station 14 was mostly going upwards, and this was an exhausting cardio workout. We were peeling off our layers of coats one by one as we were hiking. When we reached that punishing final climb of 200 steps from Station 13 to 14, I was huffing and puffing. Haha! When we all reached the top, the feeling of accomplishment was amazing. The hike on the way back to Station 6 was more a challenge of keeping a sure footing and balance. We took about an hour hiking forth and back, including plenty of rest stops and picture taking. The toboggan ride downward was really fun way to end the whole experience. 


The landscape design of this Qing Dynasty palace reminded me very much of two beautiful cities near Shanghai which we have visited years back-- Hangchow and Suchow. Turns out, these two cities were also the favorites of the Emperor Qianlong, and they served as the inspiration of this Palace which he dedicated to his mother on her 60th birthday. This Summer Palace is also the favorite retreat of Empress Dowager Cixi. We see several trees of her favorite flower -- the magnolia.

Like Hangchow, there was an expansive lake that dominated the grounds. 2.2 sq. km Kunming Lake is entirely man-made. The soil from that excavation was built up into a 200-foot high man-made hill called Longevity Hill, with its impressive structures. Midway into the garden, we saw what is said to be the world's longest corridor alongside the lake. The Summer Palace has been UNESCO's World Heritage List since December 1998.


There was no more time to go back to the apartment. From the Summer Palace, we were taken directly to the train station where we will catch our overnight sleeper train to Xi'an which leaves at about 8 pm. That was such a busy busy place with huge crowds of people at all the waiting areas. We ate an early dinner at Yoshinoya. (Yoshinoya is really a favorite reasonable comfort food restaurant for my family. My wife and I have eaten in Yoshinoya not only in Manila, but also in Hong Kong and even New York City!) Then we proceeded to brave the sea of humanity waiting for the gates to open. I was already standing in line with my suitcase, but that did not stop an elderly couple to sneak in and stand in front of me, as if that was the most normal thing to do for them. 

With our tour guide Sophie

The gate opened about 30 minutes before the train's scheduled departure. We got in and located our train car and cabin. There were only four beds (two double-deckers) in one room, so I had to sleep in another cabin with complete strangers. I was surprised to see that there was already an old lady lying down on the left lower bunk. So, they did not separate men from women in these cabins. I took my place and lay down on the right lower bunk. Later on, a old British man took the upper bunk on my side, and a younger Chinese lady took the left upper bunk. I slept through the whole night with no incident as the train movement was quite smooth. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Our Trip to SAGADA: Nature-tripping at its Best

May 21, 2015

Sagada in the Mountain Province has long been a dream destination of mine. Over the years, people have been saying very good things about the beauty of that place. In just this past year, its popularity became even more because it had been used as a setting in a successful local movie. I think it has always been the long distance and the challenging mountainous drive that kept me from going there. You need to drive about 5-7 hours from Manila up to Baguio City, then another 5-7 hours further up to Sagada on non-stop precarious zigzag roads.

This year, since we have our Stateside cousin Marvin taking a vacation with us, I decided this is the best time we visit Sagada.  I decided to check out the services of E-Philippines Adventure Travel and Destinations, whose ads I had been seeing on social media. At first glance, the prices looked expensive. For 6 people, we have to pay P5,500 each per person. However, that price already includes the private van with driver, 2 nights at a lodging house, and all the tours. After much thought, I finally decided to hire their services. 

DAY 1: May 11-12, Monday-Tuesday

E-Philippines could pick up from most places in Metro Manila. I decided we will be picked up from my place of work in Quezon City, so I would have a secure parking space for my car during the three days of our trip. Pickup time is 10 pm, and our driver arrived at 9:30 pm. He introduced himself as James, and he had a new Hi-Ace van with him. We packed in all our luggage and supplies, and sat comfortably in our seats, and off we went.

By the time we reached the North Luzon Expressway, we all fell asleep already. I woke up at about 1 am, when James was parking the vehicle in a busy Shell gas station for a bathroom break. We were already in San Jose, Nueva Ecija province. We spent about 30-40 minutes there because the driver had to eat. We all also had a snack, then we were off again. There were a lot of trucks on the road that night, and I am glad we had an experienced driver to do the job. 

First pitstop at San Jose, Nueva Ecija

Next time we woke up, it was 3:30 am and the driver was parking the car at a Jollibee fast food restaurant in Solano, Nueva Vizcaya province. He said we were ahead of schedule and we had to wait a couple of hours there, because the gas station would still be opening at 6 am. So, we all had an early breakfast at Jollibee, and mind you were not the only customers at that unholy hour. We resumed the drive at about 5:30 am. The next Shell gas station is in Lamut, Ifugao province, and it was already open when we reached it at a little past 6 am. 

By about 7 am, the driver stopped the car for a photo-op under the arch welcoming us to Banaue. That Ifugao town, of course, is the home of the fabled Banaue Rice Terraces. We stopped over at a couple of viewpoints to see the Terraces much better. Photographs cannot really capture the majesty of the scenery adequately, nor can I describe them any better. It was a surreal experience standing in front of its magnificence. 

Then we resumed our drive along Halsema highway. There was a fork in the road at one point. The left fork goes to Baguio, while the right goes up to Sagada. According to the internet, the drive would take about four hours, but our driver was able to cut about an hour from that. When we reached Sagada proper, I was surprised to see how small the town proper is, with just a couple of forking streets with all the establishments along them. 

View of the street from our Penthouse Terrace

We were brought to George Guest House. My wife and daughter were given a room in the second floor called the Mars room. We four boys were brought further upstairs to the fourth floor in a room they call Penthouse 1. Room had cable tv (with HBO). There was supposed to be a wifi area on the second floor, but it was not working.

Our humble Sagada abode

Our first lunch destination

Pasta in bechamel sauce from Yoghurt House

After settling down for a while, we walked over to eat an early lunch at nearby Yoghurt House, which had good reviews on the net. Honestly, I was not too impressed with the food quality given their prices. The fruit yogurt lassi was good though, while the Honey Yogurt dessert my son and I shared was OK. 

Our first tour would be to the Ponggas Waterfalls. Our guide Ben arrived at the hotel right on time at 1:30 pm and we drove off to our destination. We were about to start our hike to the falls when it started to rain, and it was raining really hard. We stayed under a roofed area of an old public school for shelter and decided to resume the hike when the rain was more manageable. 

Banana leaf as umbrella

We were actually trekking along rice terraces!

Actually the rain was still pouring and we were soaking wet. Our guide hacked down some banana leaves for us to carry as umbrellas, which was interesting. We were walking amidst a settlement built along the mountainside with terraced farmlands. Then it became narrow muddy wild mountain paths. The hike was about 45 minutes before we reached the waterfall area. We should have been advised to wear water shoes or flipflops for this hike because there was a point there that we needed to wade through a mountain stream to get to the other side to see the falls proper. My wife and I decided to stay behind, while my kids went with their uncle Marvin and the guide to frolick in the falls. 

The hike back did not feel as difficult as the hike going. We got freshened up back at the hotel. It was still raining that night, so we opted to go to another nearby restaurant named for its specialty, Pinikpikan. This was native chicken soup flavored with smoked pork. It was good hot soup for a chilly drizzly night, but the taste needs getting used to. They had wifi inside (weak, but stronger than the wifi of George), so I was able to post a couple of first day pics on Instagram and FB.

Pinikpikan at Pinikpikan Haus

DAY 2:  May 13, Wednesday

We had breakfast at our hotel restaurant. I ordered the Sagada Longganisa, which I liked better than the more famous longganisa of Vigan or Lucban. We left the hotel at around 8:30 am to proceed with our busy itinerary for the day. In contrast with the day before, it was fine and sunny this morning.

Sagada Longganisa ala George Guest House

Town Center

Episcopalian Church of St. Mary's

The driver parked the van on the top of the hill near the church and hospital. The guide had us registered in the municipal tourist center. This registration (P35 per person, which is included in the tour price) is needed to be able to enter the Echo Valley area. To reach Echo Valley, we passed through the Episcopalian church of St. Mary's, and the Sagada public cemetery. One of the recent burials there was for one of the SAF44 recently killed in an encounter in Maguindanao. There was a tarpaulin over the grave of the local hero to pay tribute to his sacrifice. 

The hike along the mountain trails of Echo Valley downwards was manageable, not too difficult as it would seem at first. We liked it better than the hike to Ponggas Falls the day before. At the end of the hike, we saw the famous Hanging Coffins of Sagada along the cliff. I was surprised to learn that the last burial there was done in 2012. I thought this was an ancient burial site, when in fact some Sagada tribal families still do it to this day. We note crosses there among the coffins to signify the Christian influence. It was odd to see a chair hanging there, but we were told that the chair was where the dead body was "seated" during his wake.

Picturesque Echo Valley

Hanging coffins on the cliff

Note the chair and the cross

After the great hike, our next destination was the Sagada Pottery place. Too bad, no one was there when we arrived, which really disappointed the kids. Our next stop was Sagada Weaving. We bought some souvenirs at the gift shop, but again we failed to see actual weaving being done because the workers were on their coffee break time.

The creepy pottery center

Since it was still early, around 11 am, we decided to eat an early lunch in Lemon Pie House. They had a very limited menu there. We just ordered their fried chicken and their spicy chicken, which were OK. Of course, we tried their famous Lemon Pie, which was excellent. We ordered five pies to bring home as pasalubong.

The quaint Gaia Cafe

Gaia's bohemian decor and ambience

Delicious Kamote Fries (sprinkled with muscovado and drizzled with lime)

It was still early, about 12nn, so we decided to pass by another famous restaurant, Gaia. This was a vegetarian restaurant with a bohemian feel to it. It was made famous by being featured last year in the hit indie film, "That Thing Called Tadhana." We only ordered drinks (herbal tea and hot choco) and chips since we already ate lunch, yet the waiting time was so long. The customers who arrived after us even had their orders before ours. We spent our waiting time fooling around, copying the poses of the actors on the famous poster of "Tadhana" and the scene shot in Gaia, with my daughter as photographer and director. What do you think? Haha!

Our afternoon adventure started around 1:30pm. We were going spelunking in Sumaguing Cave, I have been cave exploring before in Albay and Palawan. However, when I saw the huge entrance of Sumaguing Cave, I knew those previous caves were small compared to this one. The hike in the cave was a strenuous and slippery crawl along huge wet rocks and cold water pools to wade through. It was pitch black inside if not for the gas lantern our guide carried and a couple of miner's headlamps given for us to wear. At a certain point, our breath was already condensing. Of course there are a multitude of bats in the ceiling, so we do not know if what we are touching on the moist rocks is mud or bat waste.

We were advised by our guide to only wear flip flops here and it was good advice. At one point in the middle of our hike, we were asked to proceed barefoot already. My wife has never walked barefoot outdoors before and was hesitant to proceed. However, that meant she would be left in pitch darkness, so she had no choice but to go on. My camera was already in the hands of our guide, who knew exactly where to position us for the best pictures. It was funny that they have named some of their rock formations with "green" connotations. 

There was a point where we had to rappel down a rock, and that felt great. My wife did not feel confident enough to do this, so she opted for another route along with some other ladies who climbed down the rock stepping on the thighs of guides. There were so many more wondrous sights to behold as we went deeper and deeper down into the cave depths. It was interesting to see seashells embedded on the cave walls! The finale was a huge pool of ice cold cave water, 8 feet deep. Only my cousin dared to take a dip, but he came right out.

The climb outwards was just as strenuous and slippery. My wife did climb the rappel rope upwards and did it just fine. There were many more people coming into the cave as we were making our way out. I was wondering how those young kids and senior citizens we saw will fare inside. When we came out, we freshened up at the Sagada Cave Man, a small snack bar across the street before we proceeded to the next stop, the Lumiang Burial Caves.

My wife climbs the rope!

With our able guide, Ben

There were two burial caves. There was one for women down a deep cliff on one side of the road. There was no access to that one. But we hiked down a cemented stairway path down the mountain on the other side of the road to visit the burial cave for the men. It was about a 15-20 minute hike downwards to another huge cave entrance. The coffins were right there at the mouth of the cave, accessible to those who dare go near to see them up close. The wear and tear of the elements on the wooden boxes already exposed some bones inside.

Climbing down to see Lumiang Cave.

You can enter this deep cave opening of Lumiang Cave and come out at Sumaguing Cave.

These brave girls were actually posing with the coffins.

It was interesting to know that more adventurous folk can actually enter this cave and spelunk for four hours inside, all the way to come out at the Sumaguing cave! This special trek is called the Cave Connection, and is worth P450 per person. 

My wife was tired so she begged off from this last hike. She hung around at the Rust n' Wood Cafe where our van parked. The staff of that family-run store are very friendly and accommodating, so she liked it there and bought a number of gifts and souvenirs, too. I liked it there too because they had a strong wifi signal so I was able to transfer my photos from my camera to my phone, and post one of our best cave photos online.

Rust n Wood Cafe

After a refreshing bath at the hotel, we had dinner at the nearby Salt and Pepper Diner. I was very surprised with the huge servings of the food. This place is very good in terms of the food being worth the price we paid. The deserts also tasted very good, especially the chocolate chip cookie yogurt which was yummy. 

DAY 3: May 14, Thursday 

The guide picked us up at 4:30am so we can get a good vantage point to witness the sunrise over the Kiltepan Rice Terraces. Again, this is one of the places made even more popular by the "Tadhana" film. There was a controversial photograph taken last Holy Week about the multitude of people who came to witness the sunrise. The way up to the viewpoint was a single lane rocky road. I can just imagine how bad the traffic situation was last Holy Week.

Just a fraction of the crowd on the viewpoint with us.

Today was a Thursday, yet there are still a lot of people at the viewpoint already when we got there. I guess they already camped there the night before. We all picked the best available position we can get in order to view the spectacle and waited patiently. More and more people came after us, so the viewing point was practically full. 

The sun finally showed itself about 5:30am. Then after a shy initial peek of a few seconds for those precious photographs to be taken, it exploded to full sunshine. We went back to the van right after to get ahead down the mountain. We reached our hotel and had our breakfast there again. We were ready to leave Sagada by 8:30 am. 

On the way down to Baguio via Halsema Highway, we stopped by particular site called Highest Point, which was the highest point of the national highway system in Atok, Benguet. From this vantage point, we can see Mt. Pulag, which I hope I can still hike in the near future.

That middle peak at the back is Mt. Pulag.

We decided to stop in La Trinidad, Benguet province, for lunch and final souvenir shopping. There were only small food shops in the area of the Strawberry Farms, so we just decided to eat at this place called Jennie's Cafe, in order to try their specialty of Strawberry Chicken. It turned out to be breaded chicken cooked/glazed in strawberry jam. It was not bad. We also ate some native strawberry ice cream from a roadside vendor. By about 2pm, we were already on our way back to Manila.

Jennie's Cafe is found on the second floor in this building.

This was the first time I went through the new TPLEx, the Tarlac-Pangasinan- La Union Expressway. Now, though, it has only reached Urdaneta, Pangasinan. The toll for the entire length of the TPLEx is P216.00. Then it was continuous to the SCTEx, the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway. The toll for the whole length is P104.00. Then it was on to the NLEX again all the way to Manila, for another toll of about P200. All these toll fees and all the gasoline used during the trip were also included in the package price we paid. 

We were home just a little past 6pm, just four hours on the road from Baguio. We were all very exhausted, but we all knew we just came home from one of the best nature-tripping vacations the Philippines has to offer. Our decision to take the tour package of E-Philippines turned out to be a very good decision indeed.

If you are interested to take the same adventure vacation we just had, you can check out the website of E-Philippines for their tour package by clicking HERE. You can also text Mr. Russell Ri (founder and lead adventurer of E-Philippines) at +63.920.952.5285.