China 2009

Total Solar Eclipse

The longest total solar eclipse for a century was to take place on the 22nd July 2009 on a path crossing China from west to east, with the centre line passing just south of Shanghai. After discounting cruises in the Pacific costing over £1400 each, we decided to go to mainland China, even though the chances of seeing the eclipse were only 50%.

The day beforeWanting to get close to the centre line, but away from the pollution of Shanghai, I chose for our viewing site the Leidisen Hotel just north of Huzhou, about 100 miles west of Shanghai, right on the edge of Lake Tai (Tai Hu). The hotel looked like it had plenty of viewing area around it, and the lake seemed ideal for watching the Moon's shadow speed on by.

I thought it was a fantastic location as the hotel was right by the lake and it would have been a great opportunity to see the Moon's shadow. Some Greek friends of ours were in Hangzhou - we had planned to view it together but Hangzhou was 30 seconds off the centre line, taking it down to 5mins 30secs, whereas we had 6mins. They said we should go to see them but I told them we were in paradise and I didn't want to move. Anyway the weather was perfect - the day before...

During the eclipseEclipse day came, along with hundreds of people in six coaches, and it was a bit cloudy but we saw first contact and then some of the partial phase through thin clouds. But after about halfway the clouds thickened until it was very dense. Totality came and it was indeed very dark. I kept hoping that the clouds would clear but in fact we all discovered what happens when you stand under a thunder cloud and switch the Sun off. It took four minutes to start raining, but it absolutely threw it down and I was left holding an umbrella over my cameras!! It went very dark indeed for a very long time. After totality it was still raining hard and everyone went back to the hotel soaked. The nearest door was that to the swimming pool so we all ended up around the pool with our tripods and cameras, all looking as if we'd just fallen in the pool! By the way, the white dots in the sky in the picture during the eclipse (which was actually just after totality) are not stars - they're dragonflies - there were thousands of them.

Tripods by the poolWhat made it worse was the fact that our friends in Hangzhou - only 30 miles to the south saw totality! Apparently the clouds cleared 5 minutes before totality and it clouded over again 5 minutes afterwards. So if we'd gone there we would have seen it...

Anyway, after the eclipse we went to Hangzhou, where we also met with John Seiradakis (with whom I worked on the Antikythera Mechanism) whose team was even closer to use, but up a mountain (I hadn't realised they was so close otherwise we would have gone there by taxi) and they saw the eclipse through thin clouds but they were doing spectroscopic imaging and that all worked. They are going to publish some very interesting findings about the heating of the solar corona by studying the ionisation states they saw.

After Hangzhou, we went to Xi'an, where we walked around the city walls and went to see the Terracotta Warriors - very impressive indeed; then on to Chengdu where we visited the panda breeding centre, saw a panda less than one month old, then went for a two-day trip to see the 71-metre high Buddha at Le Shan, went to the top of Emei Shan mountain, then went by train to Chongqing, bus to Wanzhou and hydrofoil down the Yangtsi River through the Three Gorges to Yichang from where we flew back to Shanghai. Natasha flew home then, and I was in Suzhou and then Beijing on business. So I think we really packed in a lot into two and a half weeks.

So after all that, I wasn't too disappointed about the eclipse. Mind you, the Greeks were talking about spending 4000 euros on a trip to Easter Island next year, which I was rather envious about...