[Old article moved to blog]
Solar Eclipse Round 3
After long planning and many considerations, whether Siberia or China would be the better destination, the journey towards the total solar eclipse of 2008 started. To China, into the border area to Mongolia – the Gobi desert – promising the best long-term weather forecast.
Departure is on Sunday, a family outing for the three of us, first to Düsseldorf and Helsinki, then onwards to Beijing. At Helsinki airport, we’re joining Frank and Michaela, I already got to know him from the trip to the solar eclipse of 2006 in Turkey.
We fly into the night and the following morning.
Early on Monday morning we arrive at Beijing airport. A few more eclipse chasers gather in a small group. After repeated seesaw movements in the brand-new terminal building T3 – nothing is big enough for the upcoming Olympics – we finally get on the bus to our hotel. At terminal T2 we collect some more fellow travelers, together with with the people joining us at the hotel we’re a amiable band, where astronomy freaks and normals mix well.
Misty and hazy is the first impression of Beijing, it’s barely possible to see from one high-riser to the other. The high-risers dominate the city, the facades of the architecturally spectacular office buildings and the mundane residential buildings. From a European viewpoint the high-risers seem bleak, but according to our travel guide, it’s hip for younger people from Beijing to live alone in a flat and not in the traditional bond of the family. And the realty prices are about 1000 EUR per square meter! The eye searches for more plain buildings, but these seem to be in short supply.
A quick check-in at the hotel, and then we’re already moving for the first excursion, eventually a good bit of China beside the solar eclipse should be taken along in eight days. After lunch in a tourist restaurant – quite tasty, but more or less the same as a China restaurant back home – on the fringe of the Forbidden City we’re going into the emperor’s palace.
Meanwhile the sun manages to somewhat conquer the haze and after the damp warm morning it’s getting quite hot. You understand why the Beijing people like to walk with a small parasol. Given the cataclysmal light, photography isn’t edifying, but some fascinating details and scenes are worth pointing the camera at.
Back in the hotel after what feels like a 42 hour day, with some food delivered by the room service, we go straight to bed.
Great Wall of China
Well rested and after a delicious breakfast – Chinese ingredients are quite an improvement for the cooked part of the buffet, which usually is dominated by ham, bacon and eggs – we’re heading for the next excursion tour.
Fitting the astronomical context, the first stop is at the Ancient Observatory of Beijing. In the middle of the high-riser buildings old astronomical instruments, and Chinese pupils portraying them, are well worth a visit.
If there has been hope, that the cooler morning would be used to scale more landmarks, this is immediately undone. First, there is a break at a pearl factory, where a friendly young guy in his best military-style shout introduces the curious visitors to the secrets of freshwater pearl production. Not without copious opportunities to give generous amounts of money and the exhibited goods a new home.
Whereupon we’re moving on to a lunch break, with the production and sales area of another manufacturer barring our way with all kind of touristy must-haves, from grade A Ming vase replicas to dragon ties. The food? Same procedure as above.
Then, finally, out of Beijing’s orbit and into the the mountains towards Badaling, we visit a part of the Great Wall of China, made available to tourists. Why are poor tourist groups always badgered in midday heat through all these landmarks?
Still, with all the buzz of visitors, the Great Wall is really impressing. Ultimately, this isn’t a straight, plain, maybe especially well-fortified wall, but a structure winding along the hilltops in breathtakingly steep turns. As a visitor, it is strenuous enough to schlep a few kilos of camera equipment up and down the steep ascents and staircases. Hard to imagine, under which exertion the builders put up the construction by handcraft. In a guidebook I read that the Great Wall had been more or less useless as a defensive fortification, but certainly is the longest cemetery of the world.
Back – down – from the wall and to Beijing, we make a quick detour on the expressway passing the new Olympic stadium. Regrettably, the bus can’t stop nearby, so we’re limited to a few views and photos from the bus.
After a small adventure, shopping for a few bottles of drinking water, we’re toast, no energy left. Images are in need of attendance and suitcases of packing. At the crack of dawn we’ll be heading for the airport and further into the country.
In the middle of the night, at 4:30 am the bus is leaving for the airport. There is only a minimum a chaos when checking-in with Air China. At airport security they do an exhaustive check, I have to unpack the cameras and get the cabin luggage again through the screening. Initially, we’re told by our travel guide, that on domestic flights liquids are entirely forbidden. Very cautiously we adhere to that, but in hindsight it would have been no problem to use the customary 1 liter Ziploc bag.
Even from further on, it’s obvious that gate C08 is serving the eclipse flight to Dunhuang. The eclipse freaks are quite easily to discern from normal people on the other domestic flights. An international community, distributed like our group across the plane, in my row I’m joined by two Japanese women.
After three hours flight time we arrive at Dunhuang. From the air a lonely runway together with a single terminal in the desert landscape clearly indicate that this is provincial China. Down the staircase onto the airfield and then walking to the terminal building is quite a different experience from the big central airports.
Again we’re going by bus, smaller and less comfortable than the “Beijing class”. The Mogao Grottoes with a seemingly infinite number of Buddhist temples, 492 to be precise, is our first stop. UNESCO World Heritage, but after seeing eight grottoes with an empty stomach we’re quickly approaching the limit of our attention span.
Finally the bus arrives at the hotel in Dunhuang, an accommodation with 4 stars whencesoever. Well, it’s only for one night.
In the afternoon there is the opportunity for a trip to the Echoing-Sand Mountain. These are impressively high sand dunes in Dunhuang, said to produce sound accordingly with strong winds. Arriving there, this turns out to be rather an amusement park, with camel riding and sand sledding. But it is interesting enough, to drudgingly climb up the dune ridges, to enjoy the landscape and watch other tourists doing the same.
In the evening, Jörg Schoppmeyer gives a short, very interesting talk about the upcoming eclipse in a freezing cold meeting room of our hotel. Air conditioning is very well, but in China seemingly and constantly at refrigerator level.
This time no departure during the night, moderately early we leave at 8 am and head north, in the direction of Jiayuguan, passing through a paltry landscape.
After all the congestions in Beijing the roads here in comparison are totally devoid of humans and vehicles. During a break it’s no problem at all to stand on the middle of the road and photograph the landscape.
There is a longer stop at Yulin Grottoes, again a number of Buddhist temples. I refrain from joining the tour because photography is strictly forbidden again. Understandably, because tourists don’t manage to turn off the flash on their camera. Inside the caves the light level is too low for anything without a tripod anyway.
Lunch is at a restaurant in the small village of Anxi along the route, the food gets more Chinese, less western, and better! Western tourists are looked at as astonished as we perceive the surroundings as exotic. Anyway, we can keep up with any Japanese horde if it comes to snapping.
And the weather is getting better. After all the hazy and cloudy days the sky is clearing up, the afternoon is downright sunny, a good omen for tomorrow.
Further along our route along the highway 312 we visit the ruins of Qiaowan Ancient City. Which puts up the question whether tourists should be allowed on the fragile, ruined walls, if this is really important cultural heritage?
Arriving at Jiayuguan, the hotel is our first destination. Mediocre standard, a spacious room which is mostly ok, but the bathroom is a calamity. At least there is a large deposit box, which requires new batteries and needs to be operated with a Chinese-only manual.
At night, there is a presentation by Eclipse City in the Jiayuguan International Hotel. Some displeasure comes up due to the schedule for Friday. After long discussions with Eclipse City, Eclipse-Reisen and the local travel guide, it is agreed that the sightseeing tomorrow morning may be skipped and that the second bus will leave the hotel at 11 am. And that departure from the desert camp will be after and not before the fourth contact.
The gala show for the solar eclipse is across the road from the Jiayuguan International Hotel, but we’re only having a glimpse in passing. Fireworks and martial arts show are certainly interesting, but getting some sleep for tomorrow is more important.
Jiuquan and the Black Sun
Finally the day has come! And eventually we’re really well rested! After an unswallowable breakfast we’re starting with best weather towards Jiuquan and heading for lunch at the hotel of the same name – very posh, very tasty. During the ride in a mixed late riser group we get to know, that the extend China round trip of another program became a real adventure with blocked road, flooded bridged, broken-down trucks, and enthralling overnight stays.
After lunch we get back into the bus, packed somewhat more densely, and after a policy check point for the access authorization onto the road towards the observation camp by Eclipse City. The ride turned out to be a very strenuous one across bumpy roads and tracks.
Well jounced we arrive in a lunar-like landscape with ample space for the more than 300 eclipse maniacs, who disperse over the plain and the surrounding hills. A determined group of people, not eschewing quite some cost and effort to travel around half of the world for less than 2 minutes of totality at more than 40 degrees Celsius desert heat.
But now time is running short. It’s already past 5 pm in the afternoon, so putting up the equipment has priority everywhere. Only when the tripod with telephoto lens have a firm stand, the sun filter is mounted, and the camera points into the right direction, there is some time to stroll through the camp.
After a last test exposure of the full sun, the long-expected event starts. First contact is at 18:16, the moon nibbles the sun from below right. The clockwork of the celestial mechanics is running its course, tension is rising with everybody. Some worries arise because of the many small cumulus clouds, there won’t be one at the decisive moment at the wrong place? With a altitude of only 15 degrees above horizon during totality this is a real problem.
But the clouds are behaving in a positive way, thinning out and even some smaller ones dissolving entirely.
A few exposures during the partial phase, then the light in the landscape is slowing changing. The light is getting sallow, and the temperature begins to drop, at least it feels that way.
7 pm and everything is accelerating, now it counts. At 19:12 I dismount the sun filter and start the exposure sequence for the diamond ring. At first the sun is still blazingly bright, but then the second contact, finally, no cloud obscuring the sight, the black sun is there, totality. The corona, seemingly large, when viewed with the naked eye, can be seen in its full glory in the sky at a few seconds before 19:13.
Continuing with the exposure sequence, I get muddled. Even the second time, the solar eclipse is too impressing to act entirely rational while pressing the cable release. And with Canon, exposure bracketing in M mode doesn’t allow changing exposure time in the middle of the sequence. I noticed that while adjusting the camera, but that is almost a bit late. Then I get back to bracketing around 1/250 for the third contact and continuing with the sequence.
During that totality I’m that fascinated by the corona in the sky, too, that except for the camera operation I can’t take my eyes of it. Mercury, bright in the sky a few degrees above left of the sun, the twilight horizon around the desert, and the umbra shadow flying over the landscape, is only opened up later by the photographs. This time, with our family trip, we’re at an advantage, because Susanne takes some atmospheric shots of the surroundings, while I concentrate on the black sun.
Suddenly, light is switched on again, third contact, half a minute past 19:14 totality is over. As always, totality feels like 20 seconds, even when it really lasted almost 2 minutes like this one. But also the much longer totality 2006 in Turkey with approximately 4 minutes felt almost as short.
But nevertheless, everybody, whether it’s their first, second, or n-th eclipse feels fortunate, because everything worked out. A total solar eclipse with some cost, but best conditions, clear skies and no obscuring clouds, what else could you wish for? Happy faces everywhere.
After that it’s routine work, the tension is gone, I take a few more exposure until the fourth contact at 20:07. During that second partial phase it shows, that the clouds could have been a major annoyance for all observers, as the partially eclipsed sun vanishes a few times behind one or the other cloud. Finally, the equipment is dismantled, trying to get no new dust on the equipment.
Onto the bus and back to a two and a half hour bumpy ride. Later in the evening the three of us missed the bus to the gala dinner, looks like we took to long for stowing away the equipment and getting at least a quick wash.
Packing the suitcases and securely saving images took some time during the night, regrettably Internet access via WLAN didn’t work at that time. After maybe an hour of sleep we’re getting back on the bus in the middle of the night again, on the 700 km long trip to Lanzhou for the flight back.
When everybody is somewhat awake, the viewing of available pictures and videos is the big thing during our ride.
A few stops in-between, especially interesting at the fueling stations, where locals and tourists regard each other curiously. A stretch of the Great Wall and a mountain pass at an altitude of 2900 m with a picturesque pagoda invite a few photographs.
Near the Lanzhou airport we stop over for lunch, gaining insight into the sanitary and other infrastructure on the backyards of rural China.
Check-in and continuation are unspectacular, in the evening we’re landing in Shanghai. Already in the plane shortly after landing, wafts of mist flow out of the ventilation, outside we’re struck by the humidity, must be more than 90 %. A ride with a bus over the imposing, multi-story expressways takes us to the hotel. After the experience of the provincial accommodation the comfort of the Holiday Inn is more than welcome. The same goes for the children, who ravenously devour the products of that American-based fast food cuisine, which can be found everywhere in Shanghai.
In the evening a quick upload puts my first solar eclipse images on the Internet, especially the diamond ring picture gains quite some views and an “explore” status the following days on flickr. Being behind the “Great Firewall” becomes obvious, when some images from the “censorship” discussion last year on flickr don’t even show up as a thumbnail.
One day is left for some impressions of the exceedingly lively, gargantuan, but also grubby metropolis. Modern and posh has always been hip here, sort of gateway for the modern spirit to China. And as it is, for real Shanghai natives, everybody from outside the city limits is a country bumpkin.
Of course, high-riser buildings and skyscrapers are very much en vogue here, one taller than the other. Seems like the Chinese are somewhat jealous that the currently tallest building, the Shanghai World Financial Center, has been built by a Japanese developer. So an even taller one is in construction for the upcoming Expo 2010, the Shanghai Center.
The weather in Shanghai is sticky and hot, very high humidity again, everything but comfortable, especially when moving between freezing cold air conditioned rooms and the outside.
At first, we’re visiting the “old town” of Shanghai and the Yuyuan Garden, which is the actually original here. All other buildings surrounding the garden are “old style”, but only erected recently. The Yuyuan Garden shows, that corruption already in ancient times was so profitable that an emperor’s high-ranking official was able to bequeath a real treasure to the ensuing ages.
In the precincts of the garden various official and unofficial merchants try to press their goods onto the tourists, more or less aggressively. In the stores, it’s quite astonishing, what price margin can be achieved with a little negotiation. Still, they will earn enough money of the tourists anyway. With the traveling hawkers, one has to be very careful, not only to get the expected faked goods, but also counterfeit money with the sleight of a hand.
Very aggressive and annoying are those following the tourists groups, and persistently promoting watches, t-shirts, and strange skating shoes.
After lunch, a visit to the Jin Mao building is on the schedule, one of the highest skyscrapers in Shanghai, offering an observation platform for visitor with a perfect view over the city. Well, almost perfect, because the weather was totally hazy again, so the nearby high-risers were shrouded in mist.
On our own account we spend the afternoon with a detour to the Pudong water front, but the skyline of Shanghai didn’t look too good in the hazy weather, so ride to the far side through the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel with psychedelic light effects seems like a good idea.
From there, the Nanjing Road, the major shopping area with the “high street” stores and a more western feeling to it, leads into the city. Of course, the annoying promotion of watches, bags, DVDs, “what brand do you want?” is ever present, hawkers trying to lure the tourists into dubious backyards. As bad as around Yuyuan Garden, just stop walking for a minute and someone will be upon you. So a small detour into some byroads, circling around one block, is refreshing. No hawkers and an interesting insight into the urban China behind the glittering facades.
Later on the weather gets really displeasing, a thunderstorm during the late afternoon with long lasting rain, pushing humidity from 90 to 100 %, takes the pleasure out of strolling through the city. At first, together with many locals caught in the rain, we try to stand out the rain below the canopy of a store. But then we gave up and took a taxi – air conditioned, freezing cold of course – back to the hotel.
For a last time, suitcases need to be packed and images of the day to be cared for. We conclude the evening in the hotel lobby, having a drink and bidding farewell with most of the group.
Relatively early we have to get up, an early breakfast in the neighboring wing of the Holiday Inn, then with the bus to the terminal station of the Shanghai Maglev Train, the Transrapid, and traveling at a speed of 301 km/h to the modern international airport of Shanghai.
The maglev ride falls short to the hype. Riding on the ICE3 from Cologne to Frankfurt on the new conventional railway track is much more impressing and offers the same level of comfort. Maybe it’s really a dead end technology?
After check-in onto the plane, joyfully expecting a 14 hour flight, with an in-between stop in Helsinki. The same type as on the flight to Beijing, I would expect Finnair using a more modern fleet for the Asia flights than the somewhat antiquated MD 11s.
And thus, above the clouds, the adventure total solar eclipse in China comes to an end.
From Helsinki the last, now sixth flight takes us to Düsseldorf, leaving only a short drive back to Cologne. In the evening we arrive dead tired at home, and need the time until Wednesday to feel somewhat awake again.
Quite a fierce tour, around more than half of the world in eight days, approximately 23.000 km. Despite all exertions it was a most interesting experience, a much too short impression of China, and a really successful observation of the total solar eclipse under best conditions. Round three for yours truly, but still a totally dazzling event.
And as always the longing: When can we see the next one? 2009 in Shanghai or 2012 in Australia?