China is one of the most ancient civilizations in the world. China’s countless inventions, medicines and its contributions to human knowledge have made it a force on this planet for thousands of years. And the Chinese have been great astronomers, too. Their prehistoric records of solar eclipses have provided critical information to historians. And with two TSEs in two years and the Olympics in 2008, it seems there has never been more focus on China.
In today’s world, China is still a force to be reckoned with. It is the most populous country in the world – has one of the fastest-growing economies and is central to world trade.
Across its nearly 10 million square kilometers of land, it seems to offer adventure travellers everything they could want from rugged mountain ranges to subtropical forests to unforgiving desert. And the ultra-modern cities like Beijing or Shanghai pulsate with commerce, culinary delights, and sights to astound even the most experienced traveller.
Part 2: To The Silk Road
But I never wanted to go to China.
Its ancient history and visual marvels notwithstanding, China has always been at the bottom of my list of places to go. The allure of this fascinating civilization never reached me, and if it wasn’t for the Total Eclipse of the Sun of 01 August 2008 – best observed from northwest China near the Mongolian border – it would still be at the bottom of my list.
But this is one of the great things about being an eclipse chaser. It takes me to places I would never go in a million years. And in as much as the eclipses force me to choose destinations I wouldn’t otherwise choose, they teach me about the world – broaden the boundaries of my life – by taking me outside of my comfort zone.
And now that I have been to China and come back, I can say that I am really glad I went, if for no other reason than to experience the worst eclipse day of my life.
My fifteen hour flight from Toronto ends in Shanghai. I join an eclipse expedition as the staff photographer. Taking pictures is something I love and it is great to have my photography pay my way on these trips!
Our journey to totality begins when we fly to Urumqi in the country’s far northwest.
We are now in Xinjiang, part of China’s Uyghur Autonomous Region. Here, the Uyghurs – an ethnic Muslim minority – make up most of the population, whereas it is the Han Chinese that make up over 90% of China’s 1.3 billion people.
Driving along the Silk Road, we arrive at Turpan – the hottest, driest place in China. And, at 500 feet below sea level, it is the second lowest place on Earth. A cute little town of a few hundred thousand, Turpan is mostly about grapes and raisins.
Part 3: Grapes! The Northwest
Some of the big boulevards and promenades and little shops are very quaint. Donkey carts, watermelon stands, scooters, open-air markets, animals – the kind of village character that reminds me of Turkey or even Libya. Must be the Muslim sensibility. I walk around for a few hours on my own taking these pictures.
Nestled beneath snow-capped peaks is Heavenly Lake – an easy day-trip from Urumqi. Mostly a vacation spot for locals, we saw one couple getting married here. The culture of the Uyghurs is very different from most Chinese.
Across the lake, we arrive at a Toaist Temple – hike up the mountain – and take a few hours to look around. I love temples and religious sites. They are always the most memorable and deeply-felt of the places I shoot.
Part 4: Towards The Gobi
I am traveling with a few dozen eclipse chasers, most of whom I have just met. But at the ancient citadel at Jiaohe, I spontaneously reunite with people from our chase to Libya in 2006. Eclipse chasing is one of the few hobbies where you can run into old friends halfway around the world.
On this expedition, we travel a great deal by bus. It can become tedious, but it is one of the best ways to see the landscape. In this case, the vast tundra on the outskirts of the great Gobi desert.
Part 5: Towards Hami
The eclipse is tomorrow. Our next stop on the Silk Road is Hami – about as remote a locale as you can imagine. But Hami was a gorgeous, bustling town! Not what I was expecting! Full of sights, sounds and smells.
The Hami Hotel was big and definitely ready for tourists albeit a bit dated in its decor – very old-style Soviet – dank and smoky. I felt like I was in a 1950s war film. Some stuff worked, some didn’t. We actually had to bail from one of our room assignments because of the stink. But no matter! We’re not here for that!
Part 6: Security Issues at Yiwu
After dinner, we have a pre-eclipse briefing from Jim Huddle – our eclipse specialist – then back to our rooms to prepare all our photo and observing gear for tomorrow’s TSE.
The night before an eclipse I am pretty tense. I don’t get much sleep. Especially when I discover one of my video cameras is broken! But such is the nature of eclipse travel. I will have to make do with two.
On eclipse morning, we drive up to Yiwu, the site of the eclipse. The journey was arduous because of the terrain and too many hours in a bus, and we were stopped three times by military police. This was one of my biggest problems with China. The ubiquitous presence of control & law enforcement. People who live in China are not free. And neither are we. The Chinese government controlled every aspect of our eclipse chase, dictating where, when, how and who could see the eclipse. Each of us were numbered, stamped, checked and re-checked. For the first time that wonderful, open feeling that comes with eclipse chasing was absent. Even in Libya the coming together of diverse peoples to share the eclipse had the power to erase national borders and political realities.
The photographing of officials and military police is strictly forbidden. I didn’t want to get entangled with these guys. But since they stopped our bus so frequently, I couldn’t help but steal a shot here and there. Risky business!
Finally! The eclipse site! The whole area was marked with banners and flags. Dozens of buses were parked and people were marching everywhere. Of course, as we arrived, an official had to board our bus and give us our ID badges which we had to wear around our necks all day. Out in the desert it was oppressively hot. The sun was beating down on the tundra from above and wafts of heat were welling up from the ground below. You couldn’t escape the heat.
Still, a few thousand people had gathered here in anticipation of nature’s most spectacular event.
Part 7: The Eclipse Site
Part 8: Negativity To Overcome
In the few hours before the eclipse, things start to look bad. Clouds are building in from the east and the clear sky is disappearing. And I am not happy with our assigned observing spot. I need a wide angle view of the approaching shadow but the foreground is obscured by buses and overhead wires. I have to move.
I carry all my gear across the desert floor to a spot nearby some eclipse chasers I know from Calgary, Canada. Within the hour I have my cameras all set up and am happy with the location.
Then Don, the leader of the Calgary expedition, comes over and informs me that I am not welcome to observe the eclipse with his group! What!?? What the hell?! So uncool! And from my own country even!
He was very lame at explaining himself, and I never knew why I was not welcome. But I pack up all my stuff and move across the desert again. So rare to encounter thoughtless and negative people at an eclipse!
By the time I find another suitable place to film from and set up my equipment again, I have a pounding headache. It’s forty degrees – the air is thick & hot – my head is pounding – and I haven’t eaten properly all day. And I can’t get over the Calgary negativity – which is a real bummer.
The clouds. They are getting worse and worse. As if the day isn’t already bad enough, now it is looking like we might be clouded out.
At T minus 90 minutes before the eclipse, the Calgary group leaves the site. They decide at the last minute that their chances of clear skies are better up the highway. They opt out of this site – pack all their gear – and literally chase the eclipse up the road.
Our group doesn’t have the option to re-locate and I have a strange sinking feeling watching 100 people pack up and leave before the eclipse.
I move again. I decide I don’t want to be out in the desert on my own for this eclipse, so I pack up all my stuff – again – and hump it all back across the desert floor.
Arriving back with my group, I explain my filming predicament to Cincinnati Observatory Director Scott Gainey and he offers to help. We move all the gear forward – into the clear – and finally set up for good.
Part 9: The Eclipse
The partial phase of the eclipse is nearing its end. Totality is only minutes away and the sun is still hidden behind clouds. For a few minutes, I thought it was over.
Looking up towards the partially eclipsed Sun in the sky, I notice it is moving slowly towards the bottom of a band of clouds. Below is clear patch. Then the Sun bursts out of the clouds rather unannounced and almost blinds me. Be careful when you look at the Sun dummy! For the next few seconds I am disoriented as I bat my eyes watching a green-coloured sunspot in front of my view. I have not quite got my vision back when I look up and see the Diamond Ring. Totality has begun. And I couldn’t be in worse shape! My pupils are totally shut! I can still barely see let alone make out any detail in the corona! Damn!
The crimson-coloured chromosphere is one of the most beautiful phenomenon you can witness during a TSE.
Tim Collins gets these great shots.
One minute and fifty-five seconds goes by in a flash – and only towards the end of it do I see any detail in the corona. Can we do this again?!, I thought. I had completely screwed up my 10th Total Eclipse. And In the drama of the moment I realize that I have taken zero pictures. But at least we saw it! We came really close to being clouded out on this one.
But when I review my HD video, I realize I have captured the most amazing sight. The sequence reveals the entire approach and retreat of the shadow across our location! It is just stunning! Never seen anything like it. Don’t miss this film in the Media Vault!
Part 10: On To Xi'an
With the eclipse behind us, we travel onward to Dunhuang then leave the bus behind as we fly to Xi’an, then on to Shanghai.
Part 11: The Terracotta Warriors