can’t claim to be an expert astronomer, but I do like space and things in the sky in general. So I was excited that another total eclipse would be visible from China. I might even have planned to travel to the zone of totality, which was in the southern half of the country, were it not for new travel restrictions imposed by a new local outbreak of Covid-19 in a Beijing wholesale food market.
I’d just started to think that a trip out of the stifling heat of Beijing in summer, my least favorite time of year, might be possible, but then reality bit back with a vengeance. Instead of getting into nature, I became obsessed with watching hiker videos on YouTube - a corner of the internet I’d never discovered before. I watched as people filmed their progress through mountains and deserts from the Mexican to the Canadian border, or followed pilgrimage routes through Europe. The lack of venomous rattlesnakes, grizzly bears or mountain lions makes the latter more appealing, although still more exciting than learning how to make sourdough.
On the day of the eclipse, it was remarkably sunny with a clear blue sky. I think many of us may recall when a certain political leader tried squinting at an eclipse with no eye covering, but I dug out my eclipse glasses and went outside. Some fellow skywatchers were outside, mostly with much better equipment than me that was able to take quite stunning photos. I lent my eclipse glasses to a few people and they let me use their camera filters, although it didn’t make a difference. My smartphone pics are just a blur. The eclipse was only about 50 percent in Beijing, so it didn’t get really dark. Still, it was a nice communal experience that cost nothing.
In ancient times, eclipses were viewed as bad omens. In China, it was thought that dogs were eating the sun - a book on eclipses says the early words for an eclipse were to eat or devour. People shoot arrows at the sun to make it start again. In other cultures, a monster was thought to be the culprit, with people banging pots and pans to make it flee. An eclipse is supposedly responsible for halting a war in ancient Greece. Some eclipses occurred around the same time as an important person died, which may have fueled the harbinger of doom theory.
Personally, I find watching an eclipse an extremely uplifting experience. And let’s face it, 2020 could not get much worse (we hope). Disease, floods, murder hornets - everything being made out of cake on the internet. The natural world apparently has it in for us, although I don’t blame it. The cake thing is unnatural though.
I’ve been lucky enough to see a total eclipse twice in China. Just before the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, western China experienced a total eclipse, the path of which covered Russia and western Mongolia before entering China just before sunset. Some friends and I decided to go. It wasn’t easy getting there - it turned out that the zone of maximum totality in China - about 2 minutes, 10 seconds, was in the Gobi Desert near the Mongolian border, a zone that was normally hard for foreigners to enter.
I secured passes and tickets for a special bus which would take eclipse watchers to the specially appointed - by the Chinese Academy of Science - eclipse-watching spot. First, we flew to Urumqi, in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, then took a train back east for six hours to a city called Hami, home of the melon. Melons are everywhere in Hami. Sculptures, statues, parks. Some light up at night. Keeping our gourds intact, we showed up for the special bus in the early morning. One friend had a connection through his boss with someone in the area, who arranged two cars for us to go to the eclipse zone, some 200 kilometers away. My other friend thought this might cause trouble, so we rode the bus, which then deposited us hours early in the middle of the rocky desert in the heat of the day. The empty car, since it was booked, came anyway.
At the designated spot, there was a special square with artificial grass and a new building with an exhibition. Unfortunately, the new toilets had no water. Around 10,000 eclipse watchers had made it out to this remote spot, which was incredibly beautiful - a high plateau surrounded by glaciated peaks. As totality approached, excitement built. We had walked into the desert to get away from the crowds. Just at that moment, I dropped my actual glasses on the desert floor. There is a video of me on YouTube trying to find them as the moon finally covered the sun. It was spectacular - a speeded up dusk and dawn. It was also very emotional, and I understood why people chased them. As the sun reappeared, there was an audible moan from the eclipse building. We did take the free car back to town though.
Now, I’m trying to see Comet Neowise in the night sky. I hope it doesn’t augur anything.