Saturday, August 2, 2008

Aug 1 - Eclipse Day (Rev)

Got going at 8:30 am. Sky absolutely clear - not a cloud in the sky. Dropped off at the , where the Tomb of Gess (mausoleum), one of the earliest Islamic missionaries in China, where we saw the tombs of the 10+ former rulers of the Hami Kingdom (apx 1600 - 1905, when the Chinese took over). Very nice wood roofed mosque.

On the bus and off to the eclipse site, apx 200 km away. We go off north into the desert. About 50 km north of Hami, parallel to the road is the Karlik Tagh (Karlik Shan), a mountain range, part of the larger Tian Shan mountain range. The highest peak in the Karlik Tagh is 4885 m, or 15000 +. We get to the pass at about 7000 feet, (Hami is about 3000 feet in elevation) and go right another 90 km to Yiwu, a town of 20,000, then north to a special site called Eclipse City, built by the Chinese and one of the eclipse chasing groups somewhere in the world. There is a building and museum here that supposedly tourists will go 200 km out of their way to see forever and after.

In order to get on this road (303, then 302) , you had to buy a special 300 RMB ticket ($45 US) in advance. Your driver had to buy such a ticket. Your bus had to be registered, etc. This is called (by Ralph Chou, he of 17 prior eclipses) MCE, or Maximum Currency Extraction.

The first checkpoint was right out of town (Hami) . It took 20 min or so to get through this checkpoint. Finally cleared, we drove up into the mountains, along a clear stream, through beautiful cuts in the rock, with occasional clusters of small homes. Lots of buildings for drying fruit, and lots of police standing on the road, to make sure one did not leave the road.

At the pass, we stopped for an early lunch. It was 10:40 am (8:40 am XT), so it was much more like late breakfast. We were early and finally got served about 11:30. Huge platters of "finger pulling" lamb, along with the rest of the food we had been eating, but this time, like last night, it was uighur cooking, not Han Chinese. Mike and Carol, for some reason, got special trays containing a selection of foods along with a marvelous stir fry of big chunks of spicy green pepper, long dried hot red peppers, lamb slivers, star anise, and other spices. In another party of 4 Indians, there was an older woman, dressed in an elaborate sari, who went to the latrines, and instead of straddling the opening, leaned over one side and fell in. Amy, of our party, had to rescue her, and thus was late getting back to the bus. Amy reported that the woman would probably have to be towed behind their vehicle for the olifactory comfort of the group.

There were clouds in the sky to the south. The sky was no longer absolutely clear.

On the bus on to Yiwu (or Yeeee-Whooo, as everyone kept shouting). The second checkpoint was halfway to Yiwu. There we saw a 12 car/bus convoy of Dutch who had DRIVEN from Holland to that point, passing through, among other roads, the Pamir highway, that we had had to scratch from the trip because of visa and time constraints. Lots of long hair and provocative slogans on their vehicles.

Everyone on the bus had to surrender both tickets and passports, for checking. Without proper documentation, you could not proceed past this checkpoint. The whole spectacle was a source of amazement for the local Uighurs, who gathered to watch.

By the time we got to Yiwu, the clouds were building up pretty substantially, but it was clearer to the north, the direction we were supposed to go. Some on the bus wanted to go to the Eclipse City site, and continue north along the road perhaps another 40 km north of the center line to a town shown on the map as Nom.

However, when we got to Eclipse City, before 3 pm, the driver turned into the site, and there was nothing we could do about it. That was what we were permitted to do, and that is what we did. When the Chinese say, "This is the best place to see the eclipse," they really mean: "This is the ONLY place to see the eclipse."

Our tour company had set up a tent for some shade, and some of us wandered over to the freshly-minted museum itself and the surrounding booths to (1) buy Hami melons, to (2) get a commemorative t-shirt, to (3) get an eclipse postmark in their passports, to (4) see the museum, and (5) to use free bathrooms within, since they were charging 2 RMB (30 c) to use the port a potties at the tent. We did 1, 3, 4, and 5.

The clouds were building up, and some wanted to go at least a couple hundred meters north. so 15 minutes before first contact (apx 6:10 pm), the bus moved and most of the group got on. Ralph Chou and about 6 others stayed at the original site. The ones who moved had made great effort to set up their cameras and they had to pick them up and reset them up.

Anyway we moved north. At least we were looking at the eclipse across an empty desert, instead of across a long line of parked tour buses. Several Uighur women with young stood in our area. They had gotten floppy disks, that they were using, so we gave them some extra glasses. They ran back to their village to tell them that the floppy disks were insufficient.

As eclipse totality approached (apx 7:09 or 7:10 pm), the sun was being blocked by a large cloud at the original site, and the cloud was approaching the northerly group. Some immediately started running north as fast as they could, leaving behind the cameras. We walked north quickly. Everybody ended up seeing the eclipse, although I think we saw it through it through thin clouds. Nice diamond at the end, and great colors in the corona. After the eclipse, we broke out a melon and 3 bottles of champagne. The Irish couple (Mary and Dan) who had brought their huge lens (called "Trouble") never got to use it, but filmed themselves running and cursing with their video camera.

Back on to the buses at about 8:20. Stopped at sunset for a group picture. No more road police. Stopped in Yiwu for beer and fresh water. Stopped in the mountains for a group piss stop - the skies were the clearest we had seen in many dozens of years.

Back at the hotel just after midnight. To sleep.


lancealot said...

Ah, the luck of the Yiddish to paraphrase an old saying, but you were there and saw a rare and wonderful sight. Have fun the rest of your trip and don't eat too many melons.

Timothy said...

Well done! Your entire trip is impressive!