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Solar Total Eclipse, 22 July 2009

The promise of the longest eclipse of this century, a full 6 minutes and 30 seconds of totality, was not to be missed! Unfortunately, to enjoy totality of this length, the observer would have to be on a boat in the South China Sea: land-based observers could expect around only six minutes at best. Team Whiting decided to catch a boat - undeterred by the fact that the eclipse occurred slap bang in the middle of the typhoon season.

Unfortunately, after various machinations, including money changing hands, boat changes and celebrity authors booking the last suite, we ended up instead heading inland to Haining near Hangzhou (a few hundred kilometres south of Shanghai) with Oriental Travel. This gave the opportunity to visit the jewels of China (as one brochure put it), including Beijing and the Great Wall, Xi'an and the terracotta warriors and Shanghai and its mammoth rebuilding project. (A romantic walk along the Bund in Shanghai now resembles a stumble through a building site! The residents of Shanghai are preparing to wow the world at Expo 2010, at the cost of annoying the world in 2009!)

The journey to China was blighted by the dreaded swine flu. Various official websites warned us beforehand that the Chinese authorities were treating the pandemic very seriously, and indeed they were. When we landed in Beijing we were treated to technicians dressed in hazmat suits, who walked along the plane with space-age infrared temperature guns, taking all our temperatures. Most on the plane had been hacking, coughing and sneezing throughout the flight, but no-one dared make any such sound while temperatures were being taken. At last the temperature squad left the plane and a stewardess smiled animatedly and put her thumbs up. We were to be allowed off the plane and not placed in quarantine. But that wasn't the end of the matter. There were at least two other occasions when arriving passengers were made to funnel through a gate to be surveyed by an infrared camera, with masked officials ready to isolate anyone who glowed more than they should. We were given a little note saying that we should monitor ourselves over the next seven days and if we came down with a runny nose, sore throat, headache or coughs and sneezes we should phone the number given and would be "taken away". Finally we were through the entry formalities, only to find that every hotel room had a thermometer provided for our use and we were even provided with official mouth masks that we were expected to wear during our internal flights - not that any of the westerners on board did!

And so to our first few days in Beijing. A nice five-star hotel with all the facilities you would expect. Buffet breakfasts, multi-course lunches and even bigger multi-course dinners were the order of the day, every day. I found the breakfasts particularly good as they offered the choice of western as well as eastern goodies. Dim sum, Japanese sushi, bacon and omelette became a favourite. Lunch and dinner always included the first drink, be it beer, coke or sprite. That was the choice every meal. Not a diet beverage anywhere, despite diabetic hospitals being on nearly every street corner. So beer it was. After the first freebie you had to pay - usually about a pound for a 600 ml bottle of quite nice beer, often Tsing Tao, the variety exported to the UK.

Our local guide was great. He took everything personally. Whenever anything went wrong (slow service, wrong orders etc.) he insisted on some form of recompense, usually in the form of free booze for the rest of the evening. Needless to say he received a good tip at the end of the tour.

Our tour party consisted of about 450 people, but we split into groups of about 20 or 30 until we finally met up at the eclipse site. At Beijing we also met up with the Sky & Telescope Travel Quest group, who virtually took over the hotel.

The first sites we visited were Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall; luckily we went to the less well known section, and not the more popular site that I had been to before. This gave us another sight, the official four-star toilet, proudly displaying a plaque probably telling us that the water had been passed by the management. The trip to the Wall involved a gondola ride up a mountain. The cicadas were deafening. After a morning of intense exercise, climbing along 45° angled slopes that were often scree, culminating in a gruelling final 455 steps to reach Utopian Turret 20, all in 45° heat and 90% humidity, we enjoyed a very nice picnic. I should point out at this stage that it was the other half of Team Whiting that undertook the exertion, I sat and looked after the bags and, as it turned out, the booze, for the picnic. It was the birthday of one of the members of our group and the guides had organised a big cream cake with candles and champagne (real French champagne the label read, but then again real Rolexes were being sold throughout our tour at an average price of half a dollar).

The next highlight was a trip to the ancient Beijing Observatory. One hundred steps up to the roof led us to a number of ancient instruments for measuring the positions and movements of stars. Each instrument had elaborate motifs of dragons and other mythical animals, which summarised the beliefs of the early astronomers. For example, some early Chinese observers believed that eclipses were caused by one or more dragons (or sometimes wolves) eating the sun, and that only by banging drums and gongs would they be scared away. This the observers did and it worked every time! Another explanation for the eclipse was a body-less beast that ate the sun, which then reappeared out of its open neck.

We then headed for a buffet lunch with about 1000 other western visitors. This was the confluence of at least four other tour groups, one of which was Wendy Wu Tours, which which two other members of OASI, Pete and Nicky Richards, were travelling. But despite checking each of the private dining areas in the restaurant, Pete and Nicky were nowhere to be found.

Onwards to Xi'an, and after a 2½ hour delay we boarded our plane. Unlike at a British airport during flight delays, when you are lucky to get even a clue as to how long you will have to wait, at Beijing we were told a new departure time and issued with a substantial hot meal and drink. The meal contained rice and some form of chicken (hopefully!) but there was an intriguing looking (and quite nice tasting) pile of pink spheres. No-one had any idea what it was so henceforth it was known simply as pink. Unfortunately we were not served with any pink again.

Xi'an is famous for its terracotta warriors and the new museum that has grown around it since I last visited ten years ago. What I didn't remember from the previous visit was the town wall, intact for the whole circumference of about 14 km. Here you can hire a bicycle to ride around. Again Team Whiting split at this point - the energetic one hired a bike and pedalled around the wall in the hour or so we had allowed to us. I chose to hire a rickshaw and be pedalled about an eighth of the way round and back. My driver looked about as old as the wall itself but was incredibly fit and gave a really good commentary in broken English.

Another strange event happened here. Whilst congregating at yet another pagoda, a strange little man with a walking stick came slowly tapping his way towards me. Inch by inch he approached; definitely on a mission. When he got close enough he rubbed my stomach and then my man boobs and then toddled off. When questioned later, our guide muttered something about it being lucky to rub the Buddha's stomach…

We also witnessed a really good acrobatic show in Xi'an, culminating in a nail-biting motorbike display - five bikes zooming around (literally) inside a sphere.

Time to fly down to Shanghai. It was on this flight that we heard the tannoy call: Is there a doctor on board? As luck would have it, there were two doctors on board, one with our group. Someone had gone down with what looked like heatstroke, but when we landed the "flu squad" came on board ready to quarantine the lot of us. If it wasn't for our two doctors insisting that it wasn't flu and not contagious we would all still be in an isolation sanatorium.

Shanghai: another temple, another pagoda, another factory where we could spend money in the huge associated megamart. This time it was a silk factory. Last time I visited one I was brow-beaten into buying a silk rug; this time I purchased a silk duvet and shirt. Several members of the group were quietly fermenting rebellion against yet another morning of pagodas, temples and shops, so some of us broke away to explore Shanghai, including travelling on the fastest train in the world - the seven minute maglev journey from the city to the airport, reaching 431 kph for about a minute. We also tried to go up the (currently) tallest building and walk over the glass floor a zillion metres above the ground. Unfortunately (or was that fortunately?) crowds and time defeated us as we had to rejoin our group for lunch prior to travel to the eclipse site. Despite being caught in Shanghai traffic for 45 minutes we made it just in time to grab a bite before departure to Hangzhou.

A three hour coach ride through the Cantonese countryside brought us to the Aigrette Resort, a wonderful get-away-from-it-all location for the people of Shanghai. Again, it had all the facilities you could ask for - it was a shame we were only there for about 12 hours. Here we met our resident experts: Dr Alastair Gunn of Jodrell Bank and Robin Scagell. The resort was large enough for our entire eclipse contingent to merge for the first time prior to travelling the few miles to the eclipse site at a public dam and waterworks on the banks of the Yangtze River (30° 24.17'N, 120° 32.99'E). To get there through the morning traffic we travelled in a convoy of around 12 coaches with a police escort (this seemed familiar somehow - flashbacks to Libya). Roads and motorways were closed off for us to travel unaffected by the rush hour traffic.

We arrived at the most luxurious eclipse viewing site you could imagine. Formal landscaped gardens with gazebos and chairs ready for the casual viewers, a vast assortment of sites appropriate for the more serious viewer and even a mains socket in case of battery failure! More importantly there was a continuous buffet of crisps, snacks, biscuits, fruit and later sandwiches (who could forget the luminous spam they called ham) and a never-ending supply of cold drinks, juices and beer. Everything was free. There were still no diet drinks so again I had to drink the beer. Five bottles of champagne also appeared, but as it was self-service, these soon disappeared, one going our way.

So we were all set for the eclipse. Unfortunately the weather had contrary ideas. First we were entertained with a thunderstorm around an hour before first contact, then total cloud cover. I didn't even get the camera out. Then a cheer went up as the cloud thinned to reveal a partially eclipsed Sun. I managed to get some excellent shots of the partial phase with the cloud acting as a filter. However as we were counted down to totality the clouds thickened. At totality, everything went dark, really dark, quite the darkest totality I've ever experienced. This is not surprising given the large apparent size of the Moon and the length of eclipse. Unfortunately, due to the clouds I was unable to take any photos of totality. Six minutes later a thin sliver of sun reappeared behind the clouds, and again I managed to capture this quite effectively.

So much for spotting the umbral shadow approaching, shadow bands and identifying the stars and planets that would become visible during totality! Instead, we had to study the terrestrial effects caused by the eclipse. Street lights came on, cicadas stopped chirping, birds started to roost, insect life (mainly huge dragon flies) disappeared and the temperature dropped noticeably. I didn't notice any variation in the wind. Locals started a firework display - luckily it was a long way away from us, although it did give us something to look at! They were obviously trying to scare the dragon away - it was a shame they didn't scare the clouds away.

The cloudy weather pattern was repeated across much of the Asian eclipse track - although high mountain sites appeared to be more fortunate. Rumour has it that ship-based observation would have been best. I'll never forgive that famous author...

The final disappointment was the tidal bore up the Yangtze - due about an hour after the eclipse ended. Already billed as the largest bore in the world - further enhanced by the eclipse alignment of Sun and Moon, we were told to expect a three metre high tide front. Police were employed to keep us from the edge in case we were engulfed to our doom. After an hour waiting for the bore with bated breath, a ripple no more than one metre in elevation its highest slowly flowed past us.

Finally on to Hong Kong - on our own now, so no more temples or pagodas - except for the ones in the included city tour! Here we visited the Space Museum - quite good, obviously aimed at kids with lots of interactive displays. Unfortunately the most interesting exhibits weren't working. Finally to the highlight of the trip - given the eclipse failure - watching the new Harry Potter movie in Kowloon, in English with Cantonese subtitles!

The flight home was marred by a two hour delay in the leg from Hong Kong to Helsinki. Not a lot you may think, but enough for us to miss the connecting flight to London. So we were re-routed via Frankfurt. We were given 17 euro vouchers each for a meal; but this was the last thing we wanted having spent the best part of a fortnight being force-fed Chinese food and then multiple meals on board the flight. Luckily the bar in Helsinki airport accepted the vouchers. Two more flights and two more meals later we arrived at Heathrow, just too late for our respective trains home.

Eclipse chasing - it's not for the faint hearted!

Sign on toilet Sign on official four-star toilet in Tiananmen Square.

Just before 2nd contact Just before 2nd contact.

Just after 3rd contact Just after 3rd contact.

More Information on Eclipses

See Fred Espenak's eclipse web site eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html.

Paul Whiting, FRAS