The shortest longest eclipse

I haven’t really posted much about China. Yeah, I know. Between the Great Firewall, slooooowwww connection in Shanghai, and a lack of a computer, it’s been painful even to check email.

There’s much to say, but I shant say it now. Because I know what you’re wondering: How was the eclipse? So I’ll postpone more general China posts and tell ya.

This eclipse was unlike the other two I’ve seen. Of course, the other two (Hungary in ’99 and Ghana in ’06) were also different from each other. As I told a TV reporter from a local Wuhan news network (!), eclipses are like children (I suppose): You love them all equally, but as individuals.

In the days leading up to July 22, the SEML (solar eclipse mailing list) was manic with worries about a storm (’tis the season) and extraordinarily detailed weather reports from Jay Anderson, the eclipse-chasers’ Al Roker (sans annoying cheeriness and yoyo weight loss).

As it turns out, people’s fears were justified: Shanghai got rained out. As you read before (in my NYT article), I was joining Rick Brown, a native NYer who runs eclipse tours on the side. He had arranged a private viewing area at the Wuhan Bioengineering University. (A big huge THANK YOU to Rick for inviting me to join them. Fun times!)

Though we didn’t get rained out, we did get cloud cover that seemed to thicken right at totality. In other words, we saw the early stages (where the moon slowly moves across the sun) fine, because the sun’s rays were strong enough to pierce the thin clouds. But when the eclipse went total, we couldn’t see my favorite part: the firey black hole in the sky.

However, about a minute before totality ended, the clouds thinned and – gasps, cheers and roar of the crowd – we saw it. I grinned like an idiot and stared. Al Drew, a decorated officer and ex-Special Ops in the US Air Force, ex-test pilot, and current NASA astronaut who flew STS-118 and spent 13 days in space (including 10 on the International Space Station), was flabbergasted. “There it is!” he chirped, like a wide-eyed child who’s meeting a real live astronaut. “That’s it! Is that it?” (He was much more eloquent when interviewed later by the swarms of local media, which was thrilled to have a real live astronaut (and a black man to boot!) in their midst.)

So yes, even if you’ve been in space, and spent your down time on the flight deck of the space shuttle, with all the lights turned off, watching the stars and the earth – even then, a total solar eclipse blows your mind.

I was disappointed, of course. But we still saw all the key moments: the odd underwater light, a 360-degree sunset, the edge of the moon’s shadow hurtling towards us as totality neared its end, the diamond ring, and then the truly remarkable speed at which late dusk returns to mid-day as the moon moves away from the sun.

I do not regret traveling all this way to see it. Neither did Al, who flew from Moscow (actually Star City, where we met via Esther) via Beijing on a 36-hour turnaround for the occasion. It’s funny – any “New York Times writer” fame I might had had with Rick’s crowd was quite easily trumped by “real live NASA astronaut!” So while Al patiently dealt the the swarm of tour-groupees and local media I got to take in the whole scene.

Of course, spending 36 hours with Al was fascinating in its own right. We drank Tsingtao by the Yangtze, discussed everything from US foreign policy to farting in a space suit, and ate a lovely meal at a table for 10 in a local restaurant that was roughly the size of hangar.

So yes, I’d say that the eclipse was a success.
Now I’m back in Beijing and leaving for Mongolia early Monday morning, having cut short this leg of my China time. I’m still getting too frustrated here to have a good time on my own. I’m hoping that a month of cheering up in Mongolia will provide me with a good reset with China. I’ll try again when it’s cooler and when I haven’t been ripped off as I cross the border. Reset my Chinese karma, if you will.


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