Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Great Total Solar Eclipse of 22 July 2009 from China


After viewing the incredible total solar eclipse of 16 February 1980 from the Tungabhadra dam in Karnataka (see my last blog entry), I thought anything that came subsequently would be rather anticlimactic and missed out on two others that happened in the same (twentieth) century, both visible over India.  The first one was on 24 October 1995 and visible from most parts of north India at a very good time of the year climate wise.  However, what deterred me from going to some place in Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh to view this was the very short duration of totality, about 50 seconds.  I now wish I had not been discouraged by it in view of the excellent visibility in a place like Neem Ka Thana where the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore had set up an observation camp.  The second one was on 11 August 1999 and visible from most parts of central India.  However, the monsoon season with a very high probability of cloudy skies, coupled with a low evening Sun, was a major discouraging factor.  The duration of totality was also low, just over one minute from a place like Vadodara.
When I realized that I would have another opportunity to see a total solar eclipse, on 22 July 2009 from north India, my yearning to see another fabulous spectacle of nature like the one on 16 February 1980, was greatly aroused.  I started looking up every possible bit of information about this eclipse which would be of an exceptionally long duration, the longest anywhere during the twenty first century.  However, the strong likelihood of cloudy skies almost everywhere along the path of totality, coupled with the fact that the eclipse would take place very early in the morning when the likelihood of cloud coverage would be further enhanced, again deterred me greatly.   I poured over the climatic profiles for several candidate locations and came to the conclusion that a place (see map) close to Patna, the capital city of Bihar state, would be one of the best in the country, but still with a probability of over 55% cloudiness at the time of totality.  I settled for this and even made railway reservations for the journey months in advance.  But, I was still not satisfied and started looking all over again along the totality belt.  It was then that I discovered that a location in eastern China, in the vicinity of Shanghai, would be a better place, albeit marginally, and started considering this idea seriously.  After a deep study of the technical as well as tourist information available on the Internet, I decided to take the plunge and started preparations for a trip to China.


When I mentioned to my family members and friends my intention to visit China just to see the eclipse, they all thought I was either crazy or idiotic or both.  I realized that the only way I could escape such a label was to club the eclipse visit with a 10-12 day sightseeing visit to some major tourist spots in China.  But, first I had to settle on a good location for viewing the eclipse. To see a total solar eclipse one has to be present not only at the right place at the right time but also be lucky enough to get the cooperation of the weather elements, especially the clouds.  I shortlisted several locations, but my final choice of a hilly tourist site called Anji Jiangnan Tianchi Dujiacun resort near Anji city, about 80 km north-west of the big city of Hangzhou, was the result of a fortuitous email contact with Prof Siraj Hasan, director of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIAP) in Bangalore and Prof Jagdev Singh of the same institute who was leading a study team to China.  IIAP had decided on this locale after very careful study from every possible angle.  My email request to Prof Hasan had brought a response within minutes, with detailed information about the place as well as IIAP’s plans.  A warm invitation followed from the two to join them at the resort on or before the day of the eclipse.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a reservation in the resort and therefore had to plan on joining them on the day of the eclipse by travelling from Hangzhou early in the morning.
From the time I landed in Beijing on 17th July I had been following the predictions of the Weather Channel on the Internet for the neighbourhood of Hangzhou and Shanghai.  It was depressing, gloomy and did not show any improvement as the day of the eclipse approached.  On the 20th, while in Shanghai, I seriously considered moving away to a more promising location such as Wuhan about a 1000 km westwards as many eclipse tour operators started doing.  But first I thought I should consult Prof Singh at Anji about the prospect of good weather there.  My email request brought an immediate and encouraging response from him.  He wrote; “Here at Anji sky conditions have been good with some high clouds some times. It has not rained for the last three days. Today also it is alright.  Only scattered high clouds till now…”  I decided to stick to my original plans and reached Hangzhou on 21st evening by train from Shanghai.  I had made reservation at a good ‘European style’ hotel in the heart of Hangzhou from where I could travel by road to my destination the next morning. 

The Journey

Very early on the morning of the day of the eclipse I was planning to have a quick continental breakfast and start my long journey to the viewing site and be there well before the totality began around 9.35 AM.  I learnt that I could get my ‘complimentary’ breakfast at the hotel only after 6.30 AM and it would not be a continental type either.  If I was near Patna in India as originally planned, I would not have been surprised at all even to hear that the restaurant would not be open because of the eclipse!  Anyway, I just couldn’t wait for the breakfast and took a taxi to the Hangzhou north bus station.  The taxi took about 40 minutes to reach there despite the light early morning traffic, but just in time for me to board a scheduled bus for Anji city.  I looked out from the taxi and saw a totally overcast sky, unable even to identify the direction in which the Sun ought to have been seen.  A sinking feeling began to take hold of me.   The bus journey lasted about 90 minutes and all through it I was looking out through the window for the Sun which continued to be firmly invisible behind a dense overcast sky.  My sinking feeling grew progressively heavier and I began to think that the eclipse too would be hidden behind the cloud cover and the whole trip would be a monumental waste.  I thought there would be no escape from my being branded back home as a crazy fool.
The Sun was still invisible when I reached Anji city bus station around 7.30 AM and immediately started looking for a taxi that would take me to the Jiangnan Tianchi resort.  I was carrying a clearly written set of instructions in both English and Chinese, but had no luck with the first two taxis I stopped.  Very fortunately for me, three young Chinese school girls (who could have been upper primary school students) were watching my plight and one of them, who could speak English pretty well, approached me and asked me if I needed any help.  When I told her about my predicament, she took charge of the situation, together the three girls set to work, identified my destination, talked to somebody there over the phone and got precise directions for the route to take, summoned a taxi, explained everything to the driver and arranged for me to be taken to the resort for what they thought was an unreasonably high price.  I thanked them profusely, told them that the price was not an issue and began my journey to the resort.  I still remember the three pretty innocent faces, their eagerness to help me and the simple pleasure they derived from doing so. The taxi travelled partly through the city and then up a beautiful hilly long-winding road.  As it drove up the road I began to notice that the Sun was peering through the clouds occasionally as if getting ready to greet me at the venue. I thought all was not lost after all and even began to look around and enjoy the scenery.  Little did I realize that a problem of a different kind was waiting to pounce on me?

Break of Journey

My taxi was stopped by a police vehicle half way and a police officer started scolding the driver angrily for what appeared to be a traffic violation.  Later I learnt that the driver was being pulled up for trying to take a passenger to the resort when all private cars and taxis had been banned that particular morning to avoid overcrowding at the resort.  Apparently tourist buses were exempt.  Though I could not understand a word of what was being spoken between the police office and the driver, I could infer that the officer was asking the driver to put me into a bus bound for the resort.   Luckily for me (and some others in a similar situation), a minibus was available nearby and the driver accommodated me in a make shift seat and collected a hefty amount.  The taxi driver was glad to be relieved of his responsibility and was planning to disappear even without collecting any fare from me.  I appreciated his action and voluntarily paid him half the agreed amount.  He looked not only relieved at the turn of events, but mighty pleased as well.

Journey Resumed

The minibus soon left for the resort with more than a full complement of passengers, all of them with the common intent of seeing the eclipse from the most favourable location in the region.    The partial phase of the eclipse had already set in and I could see the Sun through my solar goggles breaking through the cloud more frequently.  The overall cloud coverage was quite considerable and the threat of an invisible eclipse still loomed large.  The bus reached the destination by 9 AM, at least half an hour later than I would have liked. 
The Location

The resort is located in a hilly place at an altitude of about 1000 metres close to a reservoir in the Tianhuangping Scenic Area of Anji and is the only building (see picture) in the area.  The neighbourhood is marvellously beautiful.   About two hundred people had already gathered there and many had sophisticated cameras, small telescopes and tripods to photograph the event.  There were several cars, but these apparently belonged to the inmates of the resort.  On display were a large number of excellent posters and photographs relating to solar eclipses put up by some institution for the benefit of the visitors.  There was a hillock nearby from which I could have observed the eclipse but I chose a location just in front of the resort with a wooden pedestal (see photo) on which I could place my improvised equipment.  This appeared to be made to order just for my needs.  I had taken with me an improvised device – a binoculars with one objective lens covered with a solar filter, the other lens covered with an opaque cap, a thick rectangular piece of corrugated paper board fitted as a sun shield and the binoculars mounted on a small tripod.   This was a replica of the device I had used to observe the eclipse of 16 Feb 1980 from the Tungabhadra dam site in India (see my last blog entry).   If I had gone to Patna I would have certainly taken my sophisticated 5.25” Meade Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope with a Canon SLR camera to photograph various stages of the event, but the visit to China meant that I had to leave them all behind to avoid logistic problems.  In any case, eclipse photography was not my primary interest.  I wanted to capture everything in my mind and leave a permanent imprint there. 
I deliberately made no attempt to meet the IIAP team from Bangalore since they would obviously be busy with their last minute preparations for various experiments before, during and after the totality phase.  I intended to meet them only after the eclipse was over, but for reasons narrated later this was not possible at all.

The Eclipse

Though most of the sky was cloudy, the part of it where the partially eclipsed Sun could be seen was reasonably clear and the progression towards totality could be followed easily.  As second contact (onset of totality) approached, there was a noticeable drop in both the ambient light and the air temperature, but the Sun continued to play hide and seek with the viewers.  However, the second contact, the associated diamond ring and the sudden popping up of the corona could all be seen clearly, but not the shadow bands or Bailey’s beads.  I switched over to direct viewing through the binoculars and could see the brightly glowing corona fill a large portion of the field of view.  During the 5 minutes and 48 seconds of totality that followed, the sky was dark, but not as dark as expected.  It was more like the dusk that follows a regular sunset at high latitudes and altitudes, but darker.  This was mainly because of the scattering of light by the clouds which continued to envelope most parts of the sky.  Planet Venus could be clearly seen with the naked eye as was the star Sirius, but the other planets and bright stars were not so easy to spot.  Of course I had better luck with the binoculars.  Unlike the solar eclipse of 1980 in India, this eclipse lasted long enough to leave a lasting imprint, but it was certainly not as spectacular as the former which occurred on a totally cloudless and clear day.
The best sight was reserved for the very end.  Immediately after third contact (end of totality), a spectacular diamond ring effect could be seen, signalling the end of totality.  Of course I had to turn my gaze away immediately thereafter and switch over to viewing the emerging Sun through the solar goggles. 
In summary, this eclipse fell short of the thrill provided by the 1980 eclipse, but was far better than expected on the basis of weather predictions and actual viewing conditions.  In an email I sent to my family and friends later that day, I rated it as a 70% success in relation to the 1980 experience.  Considering the fact that the eclipse was a wash out in most parts of south eastern China, I had every reason to be happy.  I realized that I stuck to my original plan of viewing the eclipse from the resort at Anji only because of the positive and encouraging feedback about the weather provided by Prof Jagdev Singh of IIAP.   Without this I would have had to return utterly disappointed.  I duly conveyed my profound indebtedness to Prof Singh by email later that day and by phone more recently.    

Return Journey

As stated earlier, I intended to stay on till after the eclipse was over and meet Prof Hasan, Prof Singh and the rest of the IIAP team.  Unfortunately, I ran into a problem.  The conductor of the minibus which had brought me to the resort told me in no uncertain terms that he had to return within an hour and if I wanted to stay on I had to make arrangements for my return on my own.  I realized there was no public transport or taxi that could take me back to Anji bus station early that afternoon.  Moreover, I had planned to visit the famous West Lake and surroundings in Hangzhou later that day.  For these reasons I decided to return with the minibus and expressed my deep regret at not having been able to meet the IIAP team through an email to Prof Singh later that day.  Apparently he had anticipated this and was not at all surprised by my action.  He wrote to say that the IIAP team was able to get some useful experimental data about the solar corona despite the cloudy skies.
Little did I expect that I would run into a problem on my return journey as well.  The minibus halted at exactly the same spot that I had boarded it and the conductor told me he could not take me to Anji bus station as I desired.  When I was contemplating my next course of action, a young fellow in civilian dress sitting in a police car parked nearby got out and asked me, in very good and very polite English, if he could help me.  When I told him my problem he told me that he would be happy to escort me on foot to the nearest bus stop, about a km away, from where I could get a local bus to Anji bus station.  We became instant friends, and stuck up a conversation to know each other during our walk to the bus stand.  He told me that he was a police apprentice expecting to be inducted into service soon and was helping the regular police in traffic control and other errands.  When I told him who I was and why I was at that place in China, he treated me with utmost respect and said that it was his bounden duty to help an honoured guest like me.  We soon reached the bus stop and he said he would wait there until I actually boarded a bus.  While waiting for the bus, I realized that I was thirsty after walking in the hot Sun now burning brightly in a sparsely cloudy sky.  I also realized for the first time that I had not eaten or drank anything at all that day, not even a sip of water!  I saw a roadside vendor selling ice-cold soft drinks, picked up a bottle, invited my escort to do the same and had a thoroughly refreshing drink.  When I was about to pay for the drinks he stopped me saying that I was his honoured guest and it was unthinkable that he should let me pay for the drinks.  He duly paid the vendor.  When a bus arrived at the stop he put me into it, instructed the lady conductor to drop me at the Anji bus station and ensure that I got into the right bus bound for Hangzhou.  Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by this extraordinary courtesy shown by an unknown Chinese police apprentice.  I realized it was the second such experience of the day.  It was indeed one of the happiest and most memorable days in my life.
My return to Hangzhou and the afternoon visit to West Lake were relatively prosaic events and I returned to my hotel late in the evening for a thoroughly deserved rest, reminiscing about the extraordinary experiences of the day. 


Although my China trip was intended primarily for viewing the total solar eclipse of 22 July 2009 from a better site than in India, it also served a much larger purpose.  I was able to see some of the great tourist attractions in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Hong Kong, but more importantly, I was able to glimpse firsthand the tremendous economic miracle the country has achieved over the last two decades.  I hope to share these experiences and impressions through future blog entries.
As in India, superstitious beliefs are known to be associated with eclipses since ancient times in China.  A dragon is supposed to swallow the Sun during a solar eclipse.  However, modern China appears to have shed such beliefs to a large extent.  During my stay in China in the days building up to the eclipse I found no obvious evidence of any persisting mythical beliefs.  Strangely, media attention too was subdued and nowhere near the level such an important event, observable by the largest number of people in human history, deserved. In contrast, media attention was relatively much greater in India.  I have often wondered why.  Perhaps it is all for the wrong reasons.  Most media, especially regional language newspapers and TV channels, tend to project eclipses more as portents of evil to be protected from rather than the wonderful natural events that they actually are.  Fear, however much it is imaginary and irrational, draws popular attention a great deal more than wonder.     
Incidentally, it was fortunate that I gave up the idea of viewing the eclipse from Patna.  As it turned out, a large number of people who had gathered near Patna were greeted by rain that morning and the expected show was a washout.  People at Varanasi, which was not regarded as a promising location, were a lot luckier and managed to see a good sight.  
Having seen two total solar eclipses and missed two within a span of three decades, I have begun to yearn for more.  Though an annular solar eclipse does not provide the same level of excitement as a total eclipse does, I did not miss the one that happened on 15 January this year.  I went to Dhanushkodi in southern India to see it and I plan to share my experience of this in a future blog entry.  In the meantime, I have begun to turn my mind’s eye to a future total solar eclipse, the one visible in north-eastern Australia on 13 November 2012!

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