Ghost Pan Tao Mountain

The Ghost of Pan Tao Mountain
Story introduction
This story takes place in a city and in a village about 150 kilometers northeast of Beijing. I have been on some really difficult hikes in China, but this hike was not one of them. This is a simple story about one day when a group of long time friends and ex-coworkers get together for a Saturday of drinking and relaxation at a country inn 50 kilometers from the City of Qinghuangdao, where they all live and work.

The legend of the Pan Tao fruit and the fruit’s ability to give long life goes back in Chinese history more than 2,000 years. The ghost of Pan Tao Mountain, perhaps will prove to be a long lived legend too.
When Chinese friends gather outside their home to share a friendly meal together, rice liquor and beer are sure to be consumed by the liter and by the gallon. This day was no different. After the morning hike up the small hill, while my Chinese companions drank and gambled over a card game, I sat outside alone on a sunny patio overlooking the Pan Tao River and penned the first draft of this story.

China is a nation rich in history and culture. China is a modern, busy nation with more rich people every day. This group of friends was in many ways typical of those modern Chinese people. None of them are poor. Several are rich. Several work for the government. One is a famous dissident, whose rebellious nature can be traced all the way back to the Tiananmen Square incident. One is a rich foreign trader. Two are college professors. One is a police chief. One is unemployed. Only one spoke English well.

While the ghost may or may not be real, all of the people and all the descriptions of their activity that day, as told in this story are real. I hope you enjoy this tragic tale of true love.
Pan Tao Mountain
Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province, China,
200 km. northeast of Beijing
The early morning air was cool and the sky was still dark as I plodded down six flights of stairs, from the small walk up apartment where I’ve been staying with my friend Sarah. At the sidewalk our friend Fu waited. Fu owns an old battered French Citroen that has carried the three of us on several hiking adventures.

Fu doesn’t speak any English so ours is a quiet friendship. But together Fu and I have visited several sections of the Wild un-restored Great Wall. Our destination this time was not the Great Wall, but rather a small mountain peak near the town of Pan Tao Yu. (Yu is Mandarin for village)

When inviting me, Fu had told me this would be an easy hike and a fun day in the countryside. We would drink some pijiu (beer), eat some country dumplings (corn not flour), drink some Baijiu (rice liquor), eat some wild greens, drink some Great Wall red wine (ugh) and finally the farmer was roasting a whole sheep for our dinner.

I squeezed into the front passenger seat. Fu gave me a big smile, then without warning stepped on the gas pedal and accelerated away from the curb barreling into the stream of traffic with a few taps on the horn.

As Fu skillfully oozed his way through the central Qinhuangdao traffic, heading for the road out of town, I asked him the meaning of Pan Tao. He and Sarah talked for a bit and then she began to translate. “Pan Tao is a peach,” she said. “but it is flat and the size of a dinner plate. We believe if a person eats an entire pan tao, those that grow only in an orchard near to heaven, they will live another 500 years.”

I grinned at this and pondered the idea of a huge flat peach hanging from some tree in the forest high on a mountaintop close to heaven. Fu suddenly pushed hard on the brakes. I slid down off the car seat so my knees were pushed up close to my chin. Looking between my knees I saw we had almost ploughed into the rear of a huge rock hauling truck that had cut into our lane, to avoid stopping behind a bus.

I pulled myself upright and fastened the seat belt, while Sarah continued Fu’s story. “The legend says that the pan tao are delicious peaches grown in an orchard at the top of the mountain near Pan Tao Yu and to be eaten only by a god in heaven. We believe the god Yu Huang Da Di eats these peaches.” “Because Da Di valued the pan tao tremendously he caused the fruit to only ripen on one winter day each year.”

Sarah smiled as she said this. “The pan tao we see in Qinhuangdao ripen in July and only grow to the size of a small baseball. But Yu Huang Da Di gave the orchard at the top of Pan Tao Yu Mountain special characteristics. Because of the extra large size only one piece of fruit grows to become a ripe pan tao each year.”

“The fruit ripens on the coldest most stormy day in February. Da Di made the fruit ripen in the winter to protect his precious crop from the villagers of Pan Tao Yu.”

Sarah’s face was serious as she continued to translate Fu’s story. “Each year a fierce storm blows in from the north bringing icy rain, sleet and snow to the mountain. The trail becomes impossible to traverse. On that day the rivers in the area freeze over. A dense fog always accompanies this blizzard. That is the day that Yu Huang Da Di sends his demon to the orchard to pluck the ripe Pan Tao and then to bring the single fruit up to the temple of Da Di in highest heaven.”

Fu’s pounding on the car horn interrupted the tale as he changed lanes rapidly several times, throwing Sarah across the back seat from one side of the car to the other. She sat herself upright and then snapped her seatbelt tight. I was gripping the dashboard with both hands, pushing my feet hard against the floorboards as the Citroen veered from lane to lane like a downhill skier through a set of race gates.

The drive from town took us about two hours. Entering the main highway out of town, three cars moved off the shoulder of the road to fall in line behind us. Fu was to be the leader of this pack of 15 people and 4 cars because he was the only one of us who had ever been to Pan Tao Yu.

We passed quickly from urban China to rural agricultural China. This region is a major producer of coal. The tall corn growing in the fields was covered by a blackish gray dust, as was every building we passed.

Qinhuangdao is a seaside city and has relatively clean air. But here outside the city in the heart of the coal mining region the air was thick with a black haze. I could almost feel the black dust coating the inside of my lungs with every breath I took. Thankfully the village of Pan Tao Yu is away from this pollution and we drove the second hour in air that grew ever cleaner and fresher smelling.

The conversation between the three of us rambled, touching on such topics as the Jasmine Revolution and China’s political bosses. We talked about how the government blocked any mention of the word jasmine on the internet, then we got on the subject of traffic and how Beijing was limiting the number of license plates that would be issued each year in order to slow the increase of the number of cars on the roads.

I mentioned that a recent story I wrote called Ghosts in the Temple, about sleeping in a Thailand temple property overnight had been a surprisingly big hit with my readers. Ghosts got Fu excited, but Sarah became withdrawn and did not want to discuss ghosts.

Nearing the village, Fu began to tease Sarah about the Ghost of Pan Tao Yu. I didn’t understand what was being said, but Sarah’s look of concern told me something was going on between the two of them. Finally I asked, “Sarah, what’s Fu saying? You seem worried.”

Sarah looked at me in a very serious way and said, “Fu is just telling me about the Ghost of Pan Tao Mountain. I’m a little ‘scaried”

I smiled and asked “Are you afraid of ghosts?” She replied, “ I have felt them pass me by before this and every Chinese knows there are ghosts. I hope we don’t see this ghost.”

We arrived at the inn that was our destination along the river, as Sarah was answering me and so our conversation about ghosts came to an abrupt end. The inn would be our base for the short 10 kilometer hike up Pan Tao Mountain. Later following the hike we would sit, drink, talk, drink, relax, play cards or mahjong, drink, watch the river below and eat dinner before going back to the city.

Fu opened the trunk so Sarah could change into hiking shoes. I placed some valuables in the trunk out of sight.
The other members of our group of 15 pulled in to the gravel parking lot right behind us amidst a flurry of dust and laughter. At my urging, Sarah had brought along a pair of Nike sports shoes. But some of the women were wearing flip flops and one stylish woman even had a pair of heeled pumps on her feet. As always I was wearing mud colored Columbia Birke trail shoes.

The day was warm and sunny. By the time our group started walking the time was already 11:00 am. Some of the women opened umbrellas to shade their skin from the sun. Everyone wore a hat of one sort or another.
I was the only foreigner and as usual in this kind of situation I felt a little bit like a celebrity and a little bit out of place, somewhat like a gate crasher at a high society event. In our group were a doctor, a surgeon, a lawyer, a police station commander, two university professors, Sarah who is an English translator and a graduate accountant, plus a well known and nationally respected political activist who demonstrated in Qinhuangdao at the time of the Tiananmen Square incident and who is now a successful (rich) foreign trader. As a counterpoint to the activist we also had along a high level Qinhuangdao Communist Party boss and his wife.
Then there was me, the solitary American whose credentials as a dropout from junior college, recently fired construction manager and owner of an ever slimmer bank account left me feeling just a bit inadequate amongst this group of 14 over achieving Chinese.

But as hikers we were all there to enjoy the fresh air, stretch our legs and enjoy beer, wine, whiskey and food. I knew before the day was over some serious drinking would take place in the private rooms reserved for us.
With a lot of laughing and shouting our hike began.

The trail into the mountains was clearly marked. Our group was quickly spread out along half a kilometer of trail. Because of the many photos I stopped to take, I was in the rear. A couple of the younger men kept asking Sarah if I was okay. Since the trail started out almost flat, I did not understand their concern. I’m 63, but can still walk up a little hill without having a heart attack. Of course here in China the age of forced retirement is 55. People my age seldom leave their local neighborhoods. This group of Chinese were all in their prime with ages of 35 to 45 years. Many of them had worked together several years past in a local foreign trading company. That was the thread that tied the 14 together. I was there because of Sarah.

As we hiked, Sarah stayed back with me to finish the ghost story. For more than one thousand years the god Yu Huang Da Di lived happily knowing that each February his trusted demon would descend from heaven to once again bring him the single ripened Pan Tao fruit.

Then in December, 1923, a local Pan Tao Yu village woman named Dongwei became ill with consumption. Her husband Wolaw loved her more than he loved life. She was his life. January came and Wolaw was heartbroken by the diagnosis of the Qinhuangdao big city doctors who told him there was no hope left for Dongwei. They said she would be dead by the end of February.

On February 9, 1924 a dangerous freezing blizzard moved over the Pan Tao Yu region. Dongwei’s voice was weak that morning as she whispered to Wolaw. “My love, if you want us to share another year together you must steal the pan tao from Yu Huang Da Di. Today the fruit will ripen. If you leave now you will be back by my side before dark.”
Wolaw did not hesitate. He kissed Dongwei, hugged her close to him, then without hesitation began to dress for the 10 kilometer hike. Wolaw pulled on his sheepskin boots and the warm winter coat made of dense wolf fur.
With the icy wind howling down through the canyon, Wolaw began the hike up the trail. The wind was so strong Wolaw was repeatedly thrown to the ground as he climbed through snow and ice. By noontime Wolaw was exhausted. He had only hiked 5 kilometers, but his energy was almost gone.

Seated in a massive gold gilded throne high in Heaven above, Da Di watched Wolaw’s progress, his anger growing with every step Wolaw made up the hill. When a God laughs the mountains shake. But when a God is angered hills tumble and travelers die. Da Di’s anger fueled the intensity of the storm.

The wind grew colder. The trail disappeared beneath a thick layer of fresh snow. Drifting snow piled higher than Wolaw’s shoulders. But Wolaw could not be stopped. By 2:00 pm he was only one kilometer from the mountain top. By 3:00 pm he could no longer feel his toes or his fingers as he crawled the last 15 meters up the steepest section of the trail.
During the last 500 meters, a vision floated in front of Wolaw. He saw an image of a healthy and beautiful Dongwei. His mind kept the image there like a carrot dangled in front of a recalcitrant mule. That was the only thing that kept him moving forward. When Wolaw finally reached the orchard the sky magically cleared and the blizzard disappeared.
There in front of him was a single ripe orange and yellow pan tao peach. He didn’t hesitate, but plucked the fruit and immediately turned to head down the trail.

Sarah stopped the story telling again to point off the trail to the right. There in the pine forest were what appeared to me to be a half dozen camo clad soldiers creeping from tree to tree. They were carrying weapons and wearing helmets and goggles. These were not soldiers, but some youth playing a paintball war game. We watched them shoot at each other, then at the shouted calls from our group we turned back to the trail.

By now our group was deep inside a tall evergreen forest. These conifers had an exotic oriental style to them. They did not grow in the familiar tapered shape of the pine or cedar trees I’m familiar with, but had a layered appearance to them. This forest was familiar smelling, but exotic to see.

Sarah began the ghost story once again. This is where most love stories would tell of the hero’s valiant struggle and eventual success in saving his lover’s life. But Sarah said, “Wolaw perished on the trail that afternoon, never to be seen again. With him the pan tao life giving peach also disappeared. When Wolaw did not return, Dongwei lived only two more days before consumption and a broken heart ended her life.”

She ended the ghost story by saying, “The people of Pan Tao Yu village believe that the God Yu Huang Da Di was so angered that he sentenced Wolaw to forever walk the trail leading to the top of Pan Tao Mountain. His soul would never be re-united with Dongwei.”

By now we had reached the cliff side ridge that was the destination for this short hike. Our friends were sprawled all around the mountainside relaxing and enjoying the fresh air. Eventually one of the men mentioned he was hungry. Everyone stood and one by one the hikers began walking downhill.

I still sat, with my legs dangling over the side of the cliff. Sarah asked “are you ready to go. Everyone is leaving.” “Hmm,” I mumbled, “I would like to stay here alone for 5 or 10 minutes. I’ll follow soon, you go ahead and start back.” Her look of concern made me wonder and I continued, “Look I’ve hiked alone all over the world, I won’t get hurt or lost.”

“I’m not worried about you becoming lost. I’m scaried that the Ghost will come after we leave.” “I don’t want to leave you here alone.”

I took her hand for a moment and since nobody was around I kissed her quickly and said, “ I promise I will be okay. Go!”
Sarah left then, but kept looking back over her shoulder at me. I sat on the rocky ledge, brushed the big fuzzy black ants from my legs each time one would walk on me and thought about the Ghost of Pan Tao Yu. A man so brave. A man so much in love. I wondered if I would do the same thing. Do I have that same capacity for love within me?

The air was still and calm. For some unfathomable reason I felt tears coming to my eyes. I thought of Sarah, my friend, my lover who had just walked away.

An icy cold chill whispered down my back, but the leaves on the bushes around me did not move. A dove cooed in the branches of the tree above me saying “dongweee. dongweee” over and over. I could feel the Ghost of Pan Tao Yu standing behind me. The hair on my arms stood on end.

As the whispering breeze moved on up the trail, I stood and began to quickly pick my way downhill, racing to catch up with Sarah.

The Ghost of Pan Tao Yu touched my soul that day. I wrote this story as a way of saying thank you to my friends and to the inn keeper for another close encounter with a ghost.

Later while we enjoyed a feast back at the inn, a news photographer came by and took a dozen photos of me with the other hikers drinking rice wine and eating roast sheep. My photo appeared in the Qinhuangdao City newspaper along with an article memorializing my place in history as the first foreigner to hike up Pan Tao Mountain. But there was no mention of the Ghost of Pan Tao Yu.

The End
By Keith E. Jones
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