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
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
“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
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
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.
By Keith E. Jones