Part 1: 

Silk Road Eclipse Video
chi me tarmackMy 15th Solar EclipseMy 10th successful Total Eclipse in a Row

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.

chi cool street

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.

chi needle towerDowntown Shanghai

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.

chi high city view chi high city street

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.

chi pagoda

chi pagoda detail

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.

chi urumqiUrumqi. The start of the ancient Silk Road.  I was expecting little villages!

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.

chi dolkun Our excellent Uyghur guide Dolkun!

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.

chi grape canopyA canopy of hanging grape vines in Turpan.
chi grape closeWhat it’s all about in Turpan!

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.

chi raisin stacksThe final product.
chi raisin ladyCheap and delicious!

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.

chi heav lakeHeavenly Lake.

chi heav boat

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.

chi temple stepsToaist Temple.

chi temple pot

chi alter

chi smokey roof

chi bread signGreat flat bread where ever you go!
chi bread makersTear off a piece with your hands and eat it while it’s still hot!

Part 4: Towards The Gobi

chi market stallsStuffed camel anyone?
chi turpan hotelThe Silk Road Turpan Hotel.

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.

chi jiaohe wideJiaohe.
chi zandsLynn & Louie Zand. We first met chasing an eclipse in Turkey in 1999. Now friends for life.
chi jiaohe dryersThey’re drying grapes in those huts.

chi jiaohe path

chi steps

chi jiaohe silhouetteThis is why I love archeological sites in remote locations. Drama!

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.

chi dm highwayCloser to the eclipse with every mile!
chi mustard fieldWorkers in the never-ending fields of mustard.
chi toiletSorry. Can’t get used to it.

Part 5: Towards Hami

chi mtn ridgeWe rest at The Flaming Mountains. Stunning.

chi mtn close

chi grotto wallFourth century Bezeklik caves and Astana tombs. Burial grounds for the nobles.

chi grotto close

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.

chi hami street1

chi hami sellerschi hami towerDowntown Hami.

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!

chi huddle beerEclipse chaser Jim Huddle relaxes in Hami.

chi hami post

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.

chi busIt’s still too small!
chi dm fieldHours from an eclipse on the China/Mongolia border!

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!

chi cop

chi copsGod knows what they were looking for.

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.

chi site flagsSite of the eclipse in Yiwu.

Still, a few thousand people had gathered here in anticipation of nature’s most spectacular event.

chi malickisMore great friends reunite in the Moon’s shadow! Chris & Liz Malicki.

Part 7: The Eclipse Site

chi eclipse bannerExploratorium from San Francisco always does a great live webcast.
chi eclipse sellersEclipse souvenirs! But not nearly the merchandise I was expecting for an eclipse in China!
chi pavillionSolar Calendar Chronometer Square. Built at Yiwu to honour the event.

chi pavillion close

chi sundial

chi metal detectMetal detectors at an eclipse site is just paranoia!
chi chasers1Chasers from every corner of the globe.
chi our tentsOur patch of shade. Worth more than gold out here.
chi our tents close40 degrees Celsius in the shade.

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.

chi lonely gearMy lonely set up.

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.

chi cloudy skyWhat you don’t want to see at an eclipse site!

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.

chi scottTrooper Scott Gainey!

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.

chi dm at siteHere to stay!
chi dm looksThe partial phases are underway. But in and out of clouds!
chi canright looksDavid Canright asseses our chances of seeing it.

Part 9: The Eclipse

Umbral Action Video

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!

chi anne totalityThe Total Eclipse appears magically in between two bands of clouds! Photo: Anne Canright.

chi eclipse thin

The crimson-coloured chromosphere is one of the most beautiful phenomenon you can witness during a TSE.

Tim Collins gets these great shots.

chi totality2

chi diamond1The second Diamond Ring signals the end of totality.

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!

chi site groupThe team that made it happen in China in 2008!

Part 10: On To Xi'an

chi dm tahleenEclipse chasers are the coolest folks! New friends.

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.

dm buddhaDunhuang. There is a massive Buddha carved into the mountain behind me!
chi xianCity of Xi’an
chi silhouette sunPagoda style.

chi silhouette sun cu

chi xian wall bikesThe wall that surrounds the old city in Xi’an.

chi xian street

chi bikes

Part 11: The Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warriors Video
chi warriors buildingSite of the Terracotta Warrors in Xi’an

chi warriors group

chi warriors wideThe installation is massive. Very impressive.

chi warriors rear

chi warriors faceEach warrior is the likeness of a real solider who served the emperor.
chi warriors brokenCreated circa 246 BC and discovered in 1974.
chi warriors lowMore than 8,000 warriors, horses and chariots have been uncovered.
chi warriors standAll the warriors face east – except the ones being repaired!
chi warriors face2Intensive restoration work continues.
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