Journey to the Total Solar Eclipse of 1 August 2008

It worked! The "eclipse sky" around the middle of totality as seen from Weizixia (near Yiwu, East of Hami), Xinjiang, China, photographed (as all pictures on these many pages) with a Panasonic DMC-TZ2 compact camera - handheld and with unlimited 'intelligent ISO', thus the grain. But it's sharp!

Go directly to the eclipse (after 2nd contact) or to the dawn of E day to let the tension grow - as it did on us -
over 3 pages or to the day before when we hit the road 800 km farther west.

>From the same location the Exploratorium's uplink originated, we have other reports (more) and many pictures (more and more) as well as videos: from some who ran away from the clouds and those who stayed put like us and experienced an unimpeded totality, too. Tons of links about observations of this (not so) remote eclipse from all kinds of places can be found here (first three days), here (the following week) and here (a month later)!

After almost 2 years of preparations and countless replannings due to changing circumstances we made it! On 1 August 2008 five intrepid German amateur astronomers were close to the central line of a total solar eclipse cutting through a remote part of NW China. Several thousand observers - including many 'celebrities' and/or friends from the past two eclipse cruises in 2005 and 2006 and/or the SEC in LA 2007 - had gathered here in Western Xinjiang where local authorites had put something quite surprising into the desert sands: a full-scale astronomy museum with several huge sundials and other walk-on exhibits in the open and a building with three domes (two for telescopes, one for a mini-planetarium; not open yet) plus a lecture hall plus two exhibition halls. All this a kilometer or so from the tiny village of Weizixia which happened to sit right next to the central line.

Around noon on E-day this installation - which already had made frontpage news in Xinjiang papers and is hoped to increase tourism in this remote part of a remote province - was inaugurated with a fancy show and lots of celebrities of the other kind (majors, dancers and such). Who all then disappeared in a flash, taking the PA system, salute cannons(!) and helium ballons with them. The camp was now in the hands of the eclipse observers. (Also the scores of Chinese amateur astronomy groups from around the country who had used the backdrop of the festivities for carefully staged groups shots had apparently left for other locations.)

2nd contact would be only at 19:07 Beijing time, around 17:30 local - and during the day which had begun perfectly clear clouds started to build up. Not only over the Karlik Shan mountain range (up to 5500 m!) as expected but also over the desert or steppe itself. Towards the North it was always clear, but ominous clouds gathered low and not so low in the West where the eclipsed Sun would be, at 19 deg. elevation and azimuth 277 deg. Until half an hour or so before totality the Sun was practically always in the clear, but then things started to get "interesting" - and with 15 minutes to go or so, it got truly exciting.

There was one really dark cloud in particular that was heading towards a meeting with the Sun and indeed swallowed it 10 minutes or so before totality. Having seen 13 TSEs to that point and being clouded out only once (during the saros predecessor of this one in fact, in Finland in 1990), I truly enjoyed the thrill, no kidding! The slender crescent of the sun was at times visible through that dense cloud, making for photo opportunities I never had had before (and the pics came out well). Two minutes before totality the relative motions of Sun and Cloud also made it increasingly likely that at least part of the total phase would be visible.

There was a lot of shouting from the crowd widely dispersed in the desert - and it 'helped': A few seconds before totality, the Sun was free again and stayed that way well beyond 3rd contact (though the 4th was lost again). The eclipsed Sun, surrounded by a bizarre pattern of dark clouds, with a backdrop of the most intense eclipse sky colors I had seen in years, made for the most beautiful naked eye panorama of any TSE since perhaps another similarly low one in Siberia in 1997. The rapid changes in the sky color and brightness pattern was simply breathtaking and beautiful beyond words. Take it from me: Low-elevation eclipses with some clouds around them (which magically part at the last moment :-) beat any high-elevation eclipse in cloudless skies hands down for both drama and visual impact.

Mo, 21 July 19:30 CEDT leaving Frankfurt, Germany, on CA 936 towards Shanghai, China. The trajectory goes farth North, so it never gets dark - but bright noctilucent clouds are seen as this page shows! (Among this year's NLCs they seem to have been rather strong tonight, imaged even from space a day later.) What a weird coincidence: Yours truly had seen distinct NLCs only once before (which were also among the year's brightest ones) - from the Finnjet ferry in the Baltic Sea on the way back from the 1990 TSE. Which was the Saros predecessor of this one. And my only one clouded out ...
Tu, 22 July 6:15 Beijing Time (=CEDT + 6 hrs): Extremely bright sunrise with weird atmospheric deformations. Apart from some desert China is mostly cloudy. 12:23 arrival (after 10:53) in extremely hot, humid and muggy Shanghai where met by a tourist guide; after lunch (in a Burger King at the airport) the first of two scouting trips for the 2009 TSE (exactly one year from now) immediately begins. We go South to Jinshan and beyond to where the central line intersects the coast.
We, 23 July Strolling around the Shanghai hotel neighborhood at dawn (with interesting encounters in a beautiful park, in back roads and underground in a huge market hall); then a 2nd scouting trip takes us to Shanghai's old/new observatory, Tongxiang (where we have lunch in a fancy restaurant, serving rice eel) and Wuzhen which seems to make the best spot. Back in Shanghai visit to a huge bookstore to buy maps and some books (got a big one on the history of Chinese astronomy - in Chinese). Then dinner with the guide and a walk to the Bund to view the - already pretty dark - Pudong skyline. Impressions from both days are here.
Th, 24 July With the Transrapid - doing only 301 km/h - to the airport; 9:50 to 11:29 (1:39) on CA 933 to Beijing where almost simultaneously the other four participants of the tour arrive from Frankfurt. Despite lots of effort the air quality does not really convince ... Visit to the Old Observatory from the 15th century (but most instruments are younger), followed by Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Amazing size - and a fantastic collection of timepieces, including several astronomical ones.
After enough walking transfer to our hotel, situated just next to some typical hutongs. In the evening visit by Bob Yen with whom - on a different trajectory - near-permanent contact is held via e-mail and esp. SMS.
Fr, 25 July Trip to the Great Wall at Badaling - full of people indeed but still impressive (despite the mist). On to the Ming tombs & Spirit Way. As in the Forbidden City yesterday another eclipse traveller shows up once more - whom I'll run into several more times during this trip ... In the evening a first chance to send e-mails to the world in the hotel business center, followed by a fanciful Peking Duck dinner in a famous restaurant, hosted by a relative of one of us living in Beijing. Little fried scorpions served as well - yummy!
Sa, 26 July After seeing on the web that the weather on E day should be fine (it was bad for some time now in the critical zone), most of the day is spent at the Beijing Planetarium, the Zoo with a dozen or so Giant Pandas and including a giant aquarium which is more like SeaLife meets SeaWorld (and claims to be "the world's largest inland aquarium").
The planetarium had just reopened in time for our visit and is actually an astronomy city with several buildings and half a dozens things going on in parallel. Much more impressive than the "old" low-res ADLIB is the new 35-megapixel fulldome system with outstanding sharpness. It shows the imported "Infinity Express" while the laser dome shows "InterStellar" - a less flashy but equally well done local production.
After some hutong walking next to the hotel and cheap dinner (nasi goreng-like rice for 8 yuan) on to the railway station; right on time at 21:23 the "Z 19" leaves for Xi'an. Is pretty luxurious indeed, even 220 V outlets in each compartment - good for recharging batteries ...
Su, 27 July At dawn I give some English lessons to a nice lady in my compartment: She desparately needed someone to test her pronounciation skills. At 8:22, somewhat ahead of time, after 1200 km and 10:59 arrival in Xi'an: Visit to the Terracotta Army (pits 1, 3 and 2 and the chariot in a dark museum hall), the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Great Mosque (which looks like a Chinese temple all the way up to the prayer hall!) in the muslim quarter. There it gets livelier by the hour; dinner in (accidentally, but who cares) a fish eatery where all five of us get full for 68 yuan, drinks included. At 22:52, again on time, train 1067 leaves the station.
Mo, 28 July Full day on the train which moves with 116 km/h (GPS measurement) through Gansu: The rail line follows one main artery of the Silk Road along the Hexi Corridor. This leads to a surprising view of Jiayuguan's fort which marks the western limit of the Great Wall - and the trip follows the zone of totality of the upcoming eclipse the whole day long! Had we jumped off anywhere along the track, we would have gotten about 1 minute of totality. The altitude climbs to 2200 m at times, the weather is slowly improving, and in Jiquan (not that far from an important rocket launch site!) there's even sunshine. And for the first time during the trip something like a sunset is visible over the deserts.
Tu, 29 July 6:22 already arrival in Turfan, after another 2425 km and 31:30 (or in total 3600 km and 42½ hours on trains), a famous oasis city. It's rather cool(!) and early; first the Emin minaret can be visited, with a reconstructed - in 2006 - palace nearby. As the first visitors we get a Hami melon, fresh from a field, as present. On to the Jiaohe ruin city (full with various eclipse tour groups!) and back to the city and a fancy museum about the Karez water system (which is world heritage) - the highlight of which, though, is freshly pressed juice from the World-famous Turfan grapes.
While on the road to Urumqi we encounter the bright orange vehicles of the rallye Amsterdam - Beijing who also want to deviate to Yiwu for the eclipse (where we'll indeed see them again and in time). Lots of wind power plants ahead of the city (also known as Wulumuqi). Weather bad but visibility much better than in any other place we've been. Walking around the downtown hotel shows countless mobile phone and notebook(!) stores; dinner at a "Best Food" burger restaurant that mixes the usual with Asian delights.
We, 30 July Trip to Tianchi, the Heaven Lake at 2000 meters - totally different landscape, like in the Alps. And totally developped, with cable cars, electromobiles, stage for ethnic shows (some Tadjiks dance impressively). Fresh kebap and nan (bread). Visibility now excellent - and the clouds part, making way for dark blue sky.
In Urumqi's fine archaeology museum impressive mummies and lots of artifacts, presented in a modern style. (Does the stone statue have a link to Europe's "Dolmengöttinnen" such as the one from Langeneichstädt?) From Hongshan Park nice views of the full city skyline.
At sunset walk to the famed Fubar - where mostly Chinese come to drink, it seems. But I get a Köstritzer Schwarzbier - slightly expensive; for the same price a kiosk next to the hotel sells you 10 bottles of the excellent local Wusu beer at 3 yuan each. Fine evening views of the city with now super-clear skies.
At 23:00 an online chat (we have a huge internet cafe right in our hotel) brings together eclipse chasers from several parts of China and Europe - where Kelly Beatty waits for the polar eclipse flight from Düsseldorf! Lots of weather speculations, everyone upbeat.
Th, 31 July 12½-hour "sleeper bus" trip from Urumqi to Yiwu (an experience much better than what these poor folks had in a similar vehicle :-), with lots of interesting desert effects - as explained in the special page. What it does not show are the countless checkpoints we have to pass through, set up just for the eclipse - at that time it feels like overkill, but see 4 August ... On arrival in a school yard quite some confusion about which room we'll sleep in, but eventually we get settled and are also fed a truly local dinner.
Fr, 1 August E Day! Cloudless sunrise, transfer to the central line (as shown here and in the following two pages), clouds get more, lots of fellow umbraphiles - known from previous encounters with the shadow - turn up, clouds swallow Sun, Sun clears clouds just before 2nd contact as told here. Chemical pics come out, too. Fantastic sight, everyone happy, transfer back to Yiwu (where the eclipse had also been seen well by one of our group), dinner, some more kebap and Wusu at the market, good night.
Sa, 2 August Another 12:03 on the same bus back to Urumqi, less action now (but see here for more impressions), and nearly all the checkpoints have disappeared - this remote part of China is back to normal. Spectacular sunset on arrival back in Urumqi - by the way: Does anyone know what this page by our hosts on their eclipse observation tells us? During the two bus rides I managed to read the 3rd ed. of the book "Totality" cover to cover (and wonder how much is actually missing despite its 300+ pages - eclipses are truly a rich field). Back at the hotel we send some "victory" mails to various lists and learn about successes elsewhere. Then it's out to an open-air food court near the hotel where we have lots of tasty things on sticks and Wusu until it's, oops, 3 a.m. already.
So, 3 August To the airport (where a Wusu bottle in the to-be-checked luggage is confiscated with a grin ...); 12:33 to 15:44 on HU (that's Hainan Airlines) 7246 a mere hop to Beijing (3:11) where the air is a bit better now and hints of the Great Wall could actually be spotted from the plane. First by taxi to the almost finished CCTV tower; one can walk around the block and see the amazing building from many angles. Dinner in Beijing's main shopping district (with a menue in English and with pictures - wow!), then a walk to the Tiananmen to see it at night - but what one sees is mainly people who want to see whether there's something to see. :-) Attempt of a group picture (see below), then - after recognizing a guy who was in Weizixia in a shop - it's back to the airport. There a team from EurAstro is sighted.
Mo, 4 August 2:33 to 6:38 (clock back 6 hrs; total time thus 12:15) on CA 965 to Frankfurt, this time eventless. In the basement of the airport one car rental company is mocking world history in a long series of billboards, including China's (Marco Polo could have used a GPS; instead of the Great Wall they should have built parking lots). And on the way back home we hear on the radio about the first incident in Xinjiang which wouldn't be the last. (See also here, here, here and here - and here for a 'preview' ...) The many checkpoints in the eclipse zone, the enhanced airport security, the many measures in Beijing - did all that make sense after all ...?

This journey was a hybrid of a self-organized trip and a commercial one: Because of the need for local guidance and tougher visa rules that required the submission of a complete itinerary with certified accomodation for each night, we (namely Tobias Kampschulte, Kong LingBo and myself) shopped around for many months for German, Kazakh and Chinese operators that would execute the itinerary we had in mind for a reasonable price - alas, none of the offers was really convincing. Only a few weeks before the journey began, everything suddenly 'clicked' into place: Interfacing with the bus ride to the central line organized by Urumqi Observatory, a German operator - working with a Chinese contractor who again had several subcontractors - got together a fine plan in record time which included a lot of the highlights of China along the way (Forbidden City, Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors, Turfan, Heavenly Lake), adventurous travel on trains and busses (together at least 5500 km), good accomodation and three local gui des. For substantially less than what similar journeys had been offered for by other operators - and it all worked out as planned in the end, though the local guides often were a bit puzzled about the unusual demands of their customers. :-) There had been other Chinese tourism people who had told us that we were simply "crazy" to come to their place just weeks before certain sports activities - now we know better ...

More image pages (in addition to those linked from the box at the top) from this trip:

There is also an article in German on this trip (with more pictures) - and another participant has many more pictures ftom it, too.

That was that! Minutes before returning to Germany, attempts of a group picture in front of Tiananmen ...

Prepared by Daniel Fischer - the one with the water bottle - on 11/12 and 29 Aug and 7 Sep 2008
(here is the original front page published on 4 Aug. 2008)