Totality in China



Hi all
You will have seen loads of photos of the total solar eclipse already
from the main Chinese observing site NE of Hami. Our group of 15 (with
Explore Worldwide) comprised veterans who were on their 5th eclipse,
and newbies like me whose previous experience of totality was Penzance
in the rain in 1999.
The site chosen by the Chinese authorities was between the stony
deserts of the Mongolia border, and the fabulous Karlik Shan mountain
range, snow-capped at about 16000ft high. This gave the most
stupendous 360 degree view of the sky, augmented by the superb land
scenery. There was a huge amount of room, and few restrictions in
where you could go, so the hundreds of observers were well spread
out.
It was 42 degrees C at first contact a little after 6pm local time,
but there was a pleasant breeze and in the dry desert heat, it was
surprisingly bearable. I don't think the temp fell much below 36 or so
during totality. The slow progress of the lunar limb over the solar
disc was exciting to watch, because of the anticipation of 2 minutes
of totality.
A line of fairly heavy clouds sailed slowly up from the mountains in
the west, and at times threatened to block the event, but it was
destined to be clear for totality, probably not affected one way or
the other by a Chinese mobile missile launcher that loosed a couple of
cloud seeding rockets when the event seemed to be threatened! As for
the Olympics, the Chinese put their best efforts into this show!!
The sun was down to a thin crescent about 10 minutes before totality
when a rather small but obscuring cloud seemed to get stuck over it,
and even appeared to change direction - but this was actually to our
advantage, because there was a big clear area looming up, and about 2
minutes before totality, the sun appeared in the clear, to the
accompaniment of cheers drifting across the vast amphitheatre from the
anticipating crowds.

By now, the "metallic" light of the thin crescent sun was casting
sharp shadows, No trees were around to give the well described pinhole
camera effect of multiple crescents on the ground. The anticipation
was fantastic, the light was fading by the second, and across the
desert peaks, the diffuse shadow of the moon could be seen
approaching. All eyes were on the crescent sun though, and quite
suddenly, a fantastic diamond ring heralded totality. It seemed to
hang there for several seconds, and then the dimmer switch was turned,
the sky changed in seconds to a deep midnight blue, with mercury and
venus very clear to the west of the sun. It was a competition for
attention then between the beauty of the silvery solar corona, with
its horizontal solar minimum structure, and the awesome colours around
the horizon. The snow caps of the Karlik Shan in the west were still
sunlit, until about mid totality.

As expected, my own excitement and emotion in this incredible time
almost prevented me from doing the photography I had so carefully
practiced. About mid way through, though, I suddenly realised that I
DID want to take pictures, and fired off the required bracketed
sequence of 6 exposures which I had allowed myself in order to leave
time for the enjoyment of the event. As I recall, it was during this
sequence that the second diamond ring appeared, if possible even more
beautiful than the first, and of course brought the light back to the
awesome landscape around us. The shadow could still be seen to the
west, and it was a couple of minutes before the sun shone again on the
snows of the Karlik Shan, and the excitement of totality was really
over.

The time between third and fourth contact, expected to be
anticlimactic, was filled with excited discussion of the event, many
smiles, congratulations, and comparing notes on our personal
reactions. At about 25% eclipse, the sun sank behind a sizeable cloud
bank and the very last stage to 4th contact was missed. It was SO
fortunate that totality was not 45 minutes later! By then, a glorious
evening light, with a halo of crepuscular rays from the sun, was
bathing the area.

It is hard to imagine a more beautiful setting from which to view an
eclipse. The experience was augmented by the lovely friendliness of
the Uighur villagers of Weizixia who had never had a foreigner before
in their village, and suddenly found about 2000 on their doorstep! The
bonus on both the night before and on the night of eclipse day, was a
most fabulous star-studded desert sky, where you thought you were
seeing a thick cloud band, which turned out to be the Milky Way, and
familiar constellations were all but lost in a vast mass of glorious
stars nromally hidden from our view. Sweeping the Milky Way with
binoculars, and the late view of M31 were memorable highlights.

In the end, the only equipment I took was my Nikon D80 with 300mm
zoom, a pair of 10x50 binoculars, and home made Baader filters for
both those devices. I didn't spend the time wishing I had taken a
telescope. My pictures have turned out OK for a beginner - even
recorded the prominence that was hardly visible visually during
totality. Very pleasing to come away with something, but I guess it
has been said before - NO photo, however photoshopped, could ever
reproduce the beauty of the entire 360 degree experience of totality.

Paul
Leigh
Lancs


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