SOLAR ECLIPSE TRIP TO CHINA
2008 August 1


     This is the story of my sixth total solar eclipse, a travel-adventure to the Gobi Desert in China, not too far from the Mongolian border, the heart of the dragon. I expected to come home with lots of pictures and lots of adventure stories.

     I have stories of previous eclipse trips to (1) Aruba, (2) Hungary, (3) Zambia, and (4) Australia, and (5) Libya. The third was on my own with a side trip to Victoria Falls and the last combined Africa with the middle east, plenty of stories to tell. Just think how much there will be to tell about a trip to the heart of the dragon. It's going to be like another chapter of Holidays in Hell by P. J. O'Rourke.

I sometimes wonder why I write these web pages. They're not widely read (my Libya page is still under 1000 hits). I like to think my friends enjoy them, but that's not my main reason. I think the real reason I write them is I get to re-live the entire trip all over again.
     Realistically, I don't think I would travel all this way just for a total solar eclipse. It's the places, people, sights, and adventures along the way. There's always a bit of travel one-upmanship, going places that friends haven't been to, more exotic places, tougher journeys, greater effort, more triumphant adventures. Two people I know have hiked up Mount Kilimanjaro, one ran a marathon in Antarctica, and one went on an AIDS-orphanage volunteer trip to Kenya. (The last may fit in the out-caring category, but she did some good for people who need some good to happen.) I choose the eclipses because they get me to cool places with sufficient bragging rights, I get to go places other people haven't gone, and I get to enjoy their trips without yawning. I remember seeing the same photos from Yosemite National Park from five different people. "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded."

     What can I say about a trip where everything goes right? Going with Explorers is like shooting fish in a barrel. Everything went right, so I have some fantastic sights to show but a dearth of adventure stories to tell. It was a wonderful way to spend twelve-plus days with fantastic sights, terrific guides, good company, and a total solar eclipse. So this is more of a travelogue than an adventure story.

     I feel like Andy Rooney is going to make fun of me. He did a bit on "Sixty Minutes" where he said people always complain about bad news on television and did a brief "news show" with nothing but good news. He showed a flight where nothing went wrong, a hotel safe where nothing was stolen, and a small town on the Mississippi River that did not get flooded. Well, maybe my trip went smoothly (thanks to Explorers) but I still saw some wonderful and amazing things in China, the land of the dragon.

     If you're planning a trip to China, then there should be some good tips in here. If not, then you can share the trip and enjoy my pictures without any harrowing stories of near death experiences. Here's the outline of my story:


Planning the Trip
    Documents and Stuff
    Medical Stuff
    Bugs and Stuff
    Internet Stuff
    Running every morning
Shanghai
    2008 July 26 - PHX to SFO to PVG
    2008 July 27 - Dinner
    2008 July 28 - Bund
    2008 July 28 - Jade Buddha Temple
    2008 July 28 - Pearl Factory
    2008 July 28 - Nanjing Road shopping
    2008 July 28 - Night Boat Ride in Shanghai Harbor
    2008 July 29 - Zhu Jia Jiao Fishing Village
    2008 July 29 - Silk Factory
    2008 July 29 - Yuyuan Garden
    2008 July 29 - Maglev Train
    2008 July 29 - Acrobats
Jiayuguan and Jiaquan
    2008 July 30 - PVG to XIY to JGN
    2008 July 31 - Local Park Tour in Jiuquan
    2008 July 31 - Luminous (Jade) Cup factory
    2008 July 31 - Great Wall
Eclipse in the Gobi Desert
    2008 August 1 - eclipse
Xi'an
    2008 August 2 - JGN to XIY (Mandlish)
    2008 August 3 - Jade Factory
    2008 August 3 - Terra-Cotta Warriors
    2008 August 3 - HuaQingChi Hot Springs - Chiang Kai Shek residence
Hong Kong
    2008 August 4 - Wild Goose Pagoda
    2008 August 4 - XIY to HKG
    2008 August 4 - Symphony of Lights
    2008 August 5 - Victoria Peak
    2008 August 5 - Stanley Market and the Wind Surfers
    2008 August 5 - Boat Ride in Hong Kong Harbor
    2008 August 5 - Jewelry Factory
    2008 August 6 - The Journey Home
Impressions of the Dragon
    Capitalism versus Communism
    Good Hosts versus Xenophobes
    What I Took Home from China
    Plans for 2009 July 22
                                                            

    

    


Planning the Trip

     Explorers Eclipse Tours

     Explorers is a London-based tour firm specializing in diving tours and solar-eclipse trips. After braving my own way through Zambia for the 2001 June 21 eclipse, I decided to use a tour group to get to the Australian Outback for the 2002 December 4 eclipse. Even though they're English and I'm American, Explorers sounded right. They came east and I came west and we met in Adelaide. My experience was good enough that I met them in London for their tour to Libya for the 2006 March 29 eclipse and they did really well there. So I figured the third time's a charm and I would let them deal with China.

     To appeal to a variety of solar eclipse watchers, Explorers offered a variety of tours. I chose the Shanghai, Xi'an, and Hong Kong tour. Other tours included Beijing, which I avoided because of the Olympics, a cruise along the Li River near Guilin where those beautiful (and phallic) mountains emerge from the water, a Yangtze River Cruise, and an extension to Tibet. Somehow all these journeys merged at eclipse time and then we all diverged our separate ways again. I can only imagine the rat's nest of itineraries they had to keep track of and just how much work would be involved when transportation was late or if anything went wrong.

     Explorers did another great job, three for three.

     I heard that Explorers has been purchased by a larger travel company, maybe Thomas Cook, maybe somebody else. Any change is worrisome when an outfit is as well run as Explorers, In addition, I have my own experience when our little company Khimetrics was bought out by the large software enterprise of SAP. It wasn't just that SAP didn't understand what Khimetrics was all about, it wasn't within their scope of attention to try to find out. I hope whoever buys Explorers leaves them alone the way China seems to have left Hong Kong alone.

     Documents and Stuff

     United States citizens can visit China but a pre-trip
visa is required. One can do this directly with the Chinese embassy, but I used a company called CIBT to do the paperwork for me. They did a good job for me on my India trip, so I was comfortable counting on them for China, too.

     Rules are different for mainland China and Hong Kong. I don't think U.S. visitors need a pre-trip visa for Hong Kong, but I would suggest checking with someone more official than me before showing up at the airline departure gate.

     Medical Stuff

     Before any long trip, I recommend a visit to a travel doctor. I know I've achieved some sort of frequent-traveler status when the doctor looked at my itinerary and my "yellow card" and said I have all the shots and pills I need. I got the usual warnings about using DEET bug repellent and not drinking tap water. The latter includes keeping my mouth closed in the shower and brushing my teeth in bottled water.

     Bugs and Stuff

     I'm not too picky about hotel rooms. If they're 15°-30°C (60-85°F), clean, and dry with no bugs, no rodents, no other crawly things, and working western plumbing, then I'm happy. The last was the topic of several warnings and I was happy that all conditions were met everywhere we stayed. In fact, I found western toilets available most places we visited. A few even had choice of toilets to keep everybody happy.

     One of the things to get used to in Asia, especially Japan I'm told, is that people smoke anywhere and everywhere. As annoying as it is for someone like me who doesn't like cigarette smoke, I can't get too mad. The United States was like that when I grew up. (As I see all this tobacco, probably American grown and exported, I have to wonder whether my country is the net importer or the net exporter of a drug problem.)

     Internet Stuff

     I got a cute little sub-laptop computer. It came with Linux (no Windows, fewer headaches, no MacIntosh, less cost) but it was some way-out version called Ubuntu where even the "official" releases don't work well and the graphical configuration menus were flaky. (I was hoping Linux would be a role model for Windows and not the other way around. Too bad.) The idea was that I could send my pictures home to my own computer over the Internet rather than count on memory cards with a zillion pictures.

     The computer and the Internet were a big headache. In Shanghai I got a fake "Password:" prompt, so the link was hacked by some man-in-the-middle login thief with only a brief window of communication success for me. In Jiuquan all Internet stuff didn't work for a couple of days and I'm told cell phones had trouble during the same interval. In Xi'an my room cable connection didn't work, but my computer worked in their business center, so they had enough diagnostic information to fix my room's computer link. In San Francisco the hotel front desk confirmed Internet connections were out of service, but it started working in the morning. Wireless connections with my cute little computer didn't work well anywhere.

     Running Every Morning

     One of my eccentricities, home and away, is my morning run. I've been running in the mornings for thirty-plus years and I find ways to run when I travel. Besides serving my reputation as "that fit American," it gives me a view of places that other visitors don't see. The view is doubly different, both time and place. I get to see the sunrise when other people are sleeping in and I get to see the countryside and cityscapes a few miles from other travelers. It was great running along the Bund in Shanghai along the city streets under the ancient wall in Xi'an, and around the Hong Kong skyline views in Kowloon.

     It was especially great seeing the irrigation-supported farmland around Jiuquan at sunrise and returning through the small city where groups were practicing Tai-Chi in the town-center square. It was fun dodging around the bicycles, motorcycles, and three-wheelers while I was honked at by full-size cars and buses.

     It was also kind-of fun being the center of attention. Anybody with my bright-red hair (even with a cap over ever-widening pattern baldness) is going to be noticed, but I definitely was stared at more running in India and China than on the roads at home where freckled legs are less of a novelty. People smiled and waved and I was happy smiling and waving back.

     Hong Kong is my seventh country running where they drive on the left side of the road. (There are four left-driving countries I've visited and not run in.) Looking the other way takes some serious getting used to, but it's part of the rhythm of a place.

    

    


Shanghai

     2008 July 26-27 — Phoenix (PHX) to San Francisco (SFO) to Shanghai (PVG)

     Explorers brought their people east from London and I came the other way, west from Phoenix (PHX) through San Francisco (SFO). I decided to use my frequent-flier miles for the trip. By the time Explorers had their dates firm, all the allocated first-class and business-class seats were taken, so all I could get was a coach reservation. I've been across three oceans in coach, the long way across the two largest, but I was still relieved when I was able to get a first-class seat to China the day before my trip started.

     When I got to the new Shanghai Airport in Pudong (PVG), there was little fuss at customs and a huge mob of sign-waving people coming out into the public area. The other travelers, who were coming from England, we coming the next morning, so this was a one-person pickup. The infamous Shanghai traffic made my guide a bit late, I got a bit worried, but we connected and I had the warm feeling of being in the Explorers rocking chair.

     2008 July 27 — Dinner

     My guide, Jacky, took me into Shanghai and asked me how courageous I was about dining. I don't remember exactly how he asked and I've heard the same rumors about Chinese dining we all hear, but I figured that things would be much tamer once the British crowd arrived. So I sat up and said, "Sure, I'm willing to try some new stuff."

     A friend of mine was taken to a Chinese feast in Beijing a few years back and it was straight out of Indiana Jones except with spiders instead of bugs. Apparently one company executive was trying to impress other company executives and this was not the usual upper-crust Chinese dining fare.

     My result was a nice meal with some interesting stuff. The duck tongues were quite tasty with a salty zing and the webbed feet were bland and needed sauce dip for flavor. Jacky's company was wonderful and I recommend checking out his services to anybody planning a first visit to Shanghai. (I can't speak about his fees since they were paid by Explorers.)

     Once the other seventeen people arrived in my group, our meals were generally two tables of nine each for our group of eighteen people. We would be served a mix of dishes, the sort that we think of as Chinese in the United States, along with rice. Soup was usually served about halfway through the meal and the last dish, the fat lady singing in American proverb, was always watermelon. When the sliced watermelon was on the table, we knew there were no more dishes coming.

     2008 July 28 — My Traveling Fellows

     When I travel five to seven time zones east overnight, I generally feel lousy. I remember getting through the first feeling-lousy day in Europe when I came from the American midwest and east coast. Now I was fresh and happy from traveling west, much easier, while the Europeans felt like I do when I visit them.

     I was delighted with the company of my fellow travelers. They were well traveled, no surprise, well read, and well spoken. These were people whose conversation I enjoyed, when they could get past my American accent.

     2008 July 28 — The Bund

     I got to see the Bund area three times. First, Jacky suggested I do my morning run there. It's a not-expensive taxi ride there and my hotel key-card packet has a map in Chinese for my return. Think of the boardwalk in Atlantic City, at least in the old days before the casinos, but with a new harbor skyline instead of the ocean horizon. The last two decades have seen tremendous growth in Shanghai including this spectacular harbor view.

     Even daybreak was a busy time at the bund with walkers and even a few joggers amidst the kite fliers and those enjoying the view. I was surprised how many had cameras. (Were they all tourists? At that hour?) The entire stretch is about 1500 meters (not quite a mile) so I wouldn't plan a long run here and even a shorter distance run involved repeating the route.

    
Funny story (there had to be one or two): After I got done my out-back-out-and-back run, I tried to catch a taxi back to the Best Western LongMen Hotel using the Chinese map and hotel description on my key-card. The first taxi driver wouldn't take me, and the second taxi driver hailed a third who, after an animated conversation in Chinese, looked at my key-card map and took me to a hotel. It wasn't my hotel, it wasn't even in the same direction, but I figured my best plan was paying, getting out, and asking the concierge at this new hotel to get me a taxi back to the Best Western Longmen Hotel. I am curious what was going on in the minds of the two cabdrivers: "This foreigner wants to go to a hotel, I don't know where his hotel is, we can't talk to him to ask him where it is, I know where there's a hotel, and he's not going to know one hotel from another, right?" I was amused rather than annoyed: The total extra cost was RMB 20, about three U.S. dollars, and a few minutes of my morning while I was waiting for my tour-mates to arrive. I got to see some more of Shanghai, too.

     Second, our group had a viewing and shopping stop at the Bund. The viewing and shopping at the Bund was brief. Shanghai's skyline is impressive and deserves a good look, but there wasn't a lot else to do here.

     Third, we took an evening boat ride in the harbor. This was a very nice way to experience Shanghai's skyline. Some of us sat down in the drinks-required section to find ourselves charged RMB 15 (two dollars) for a can of Sprite soda pop, not too bad a deal for being able to sit comfortably for the entire boat ride.

     2008 July 28 — Jade Buddha Temple

     A trip to a major Chinese city is made more complete by exposure to China's most popular religion. This temple has two large Buddha statues make of white jade. Within its city block, the temple hides a serene atmosphere and classical Chinese architectural style.

     In addition to beauty and serenity, we were also served several delicious teas, each claimed to have some health benefit. I can't speak for their medicinal value, but I can say that these teas were delightful. Having gone through the motions of Chinese tea preparation slowly and step-by-step, it was a joy to see the job done quickly and expertly and a greater joy to taste the results.

     2008 July 28 — Pearl Factory

     Our next stop was a pearl factory. Actually, the oysters make the pearls and the people cultivate the oysters. In addition to some lovely displays of oysters, clams, and coral, they also had a gigantic jade boat several meters long.

     2008 July 28 — Nanjing Road Shopping District

     The Nanjing Road shopping area has lots of shops selling lots of stuff. Shopping in China is about negotiating price, haggling. We don't want to admit paying too much for things, the merchants want to make money, and they try to make us feel we're getting a good deal.

     There were fake-Rolex-watch salesmen who followed me the entire time I was shopping on Nanjing Road. I ducked into three stores to escape them and they wouldn't let me alone, trying to guide me into allays to buy watches. They were very annoying.

     2008 July 28 — Night Boat Ride in Shanghai Harbor

     As I said earlier our guide Jacky took us to the Bund again for an evening boat ride in the harbor. The buildings were well lit and several of them had full-size animation in their lighting.

     2008 July 29 — Zhu Jia Jiao Fishing Village

     Jacky took us on a wonderful outing into a more relaxed area about an hour outside Shanghai through pleasant countryside. The village with its network of canals was built centuries ago (they say). When we got there, Jacky had us do some simple Tai Chi where we were joined by a group of young, blue-shirted girls whose smiles were bright enough to make up for the cloudy skies.

     We had a human-powered boat ride through the canals under old bridges past houses and Chinese pagoda-shaped buildings. There were lots of wooden boats in the canals and smiling local people.

     After the boat ride, we were given some time to walk around and, of course, to shop. There were all kinds of things to buy from t-shirts and souvenirs to local fruits and animals. I got a nice fake-silk shirt with a dragon on it.

     2008 July 29 — Silk Factory

     Silk comes from silkworms. We were shown silkworms and moths and then a fashion show with beautiful women wearing lovely silk outfits. Then we were shown how they stretch the single and double cocoons into silk sheets that become bedding and clothing. We were given ample opportunity to buy real silk things that were quite a bit more expensive than my fake-silk dragon shirt.

     2008 July 29 — Yuyuan Garden

     In the back of an outdoor shopping center is a delightful oriental garden of manmade streams and rocks and pagoda-shaped buildings. We enjoyed the quiet and tranquility.

     2008 July 29 — Maglev Train

     Jacky had a treat for us after the Yuyuan Garden. He took us to the Maglev train where we took a round trip to and from the international airport in Pudong. The train is fast, seven minutes for 30 Km (eighteen miles) with a top speed of 300 Km/hour (180 miles per hour). The world outside the train went by very quickly and there was a brief shudder each way as the opposite-direction train came wailing by. The Maglev was expensive to build and it consumes a lot of energy, so a fleet of high-speed, magnetic-levitation trains isn't likely.

     2008 July 29 — Acrobats

     Our final adventure in Shanghai was an acrobatic show, perhaps in the tradition of the Peking Acrobats I have seen twice in the United States. It was a spectacular show with serious acrobatics mixed with dance and fun.

     There was one difference between the Peking Acrobats and this group that touched my generation-gap sensitivity. The older group I saw twice in the United States performed with live, acoustic music (amplified to fill the hall) on a plain, wooden stage with theatrical lighting. All the fun came from the performers performing their dizzying and amazing stunts. Here in Shanghai, the music was electronic, the stage had trapdoors and screens, there were flashing lights and strobes, and the acrobatics were shadowed by the "multi-media" presentation. The final segment had guys riding motorcycles inside a sphere, first three, then four, then five, finally I don't remember how many. It was really cool, but I yearned for the hold-my-breath of all the spinning plates, stacked chairs, and nose-balanced glasses of colored liquid that looked like wine.

     I felt the same way when I saw the Blue Man Group in Las Vegas. There were television screens and strobe-lit animations so the blue men themselves were almost a minor part of the show. Maybe a younger audience is more touched by this kind of spectacle, but it seems to cater to a short attention span and a need for a bigger, brighter, louder experience than skilled actors or acrobats can provide.

     Shanghai traffic is awful, sometimes bad, sometimes worse, so dinner had to be after the show. They have brightly illuminated traffic maps over the highways showing roads in green, yellow, and red to indicate congestion. As we sat in an endless line of red tail lights, I remember a line from the movie "Anna and the King of Siam" where one fellow says of a chain of elephants ahead of him, "Unless you're the lead elephant, the view is always the same." There is no lead elephant in heavy traffic.

    

    


Jiayuguan and Jiuquan

     2008 July 30 — Shanghai (PVG) to Xi'an (XIY) to Jiayuguan (JGN)

     Travel within China went smoothly, perhaps because our guides were efficient. We were amply warned that China still allows no liquids in carry-on luggage, so any gels, tonics, shampoo, toothpaste et cetera had to be in checked luggage. We changed in Xi'an (XIY) on our way to Jiayuguan (JGN), two flights a little more than two hours each.

     The safety announcements were in Chinese with English subtitles and sign language in the corner. There were first-class seats in the front of our narrow-body jets and our flights had full meal service and drinks even in coach class.

     The whole eclipse gang was gathering here, all the various tour strands converging for the main event. I bumped into two friends whom I met on earlier eclipse trips.

     Our guide for these three days was Jenny whose English was good enough to guide us for three days. The people at the Jiu Quan Hotel were wonderful, ushered us in with a VIP welcome, and spoke little English, so I was happy to have Jenny to ask questions. It seemed strange to have a first-class-resort hotel in the middle of nowhere. I guess this facility was used for corporate retreats from the eastern-seacoast cities.

     Running in Jiuquan

     Jiuquan, a town of 200 thousand, was far-and-away the nicest running environment I had in China. 2 Km (1.2 miles) took me through the sleeping town, the next 2 Km took me through a commercial and residential area, and I was in green farmland after that.

     The road was lined with willow trees behind which were fields of crops and some livestock. I saw cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs. Jiuquan is a flat area between mountain ranges, so I saw the sunflowers in the foreground with snowy peaks in the distance.

     The town awakened during my return amid bicycles, motorcycles, powered and pedaled three-wheelers, cars, trucks, and buses. By the time I came through the center of town there were groups practicing Tai Chi together and enough foot and motor traffic to feel like a city.

     As a western "big-nose," as a white-skinned person with freckled arms and legs, and as a lone runner, I was clearly a novelty in this part of the world. People openly stared at me, then smiled and waved as we went by each other.

     There was a van playing music and spreading paper "petals" with several cars following. Jenny told me funerals take place before sunrise and it's considered lucky to encounter one. I guess it's lucky if you're not lying in the front van.

     2008 July 31 — Local Park Tour in Jiuquan

     We went to a local park with sculpture and pools and some of their own warrior statues, metal rather than terra-cotta. One family asked if they could pose with me for pictures which I was happy to do.

     There was a small group performing live, local, acoustic music. There was a singer accompanied by a few small instruments, a nice combination. It was fun to hear tones and tunes strange to my western ear.

     2008 July 31 — Luminous Jade Cup Factory

     Our guide Jenny told us we would be visiting a factory that makes "luminous cups." Figure in any translation issues and accent understanding and you can imagine that none of us were confident of what she was saying. If I told you I bought some luminous cups in China, then wouldn't you look at me funny while you tried to figure out what I really said? (I remember a presentation about a human-talk decoder that was designed "to wreck a nice beach" (recognize speech).)

     These were thin-wall cups carved from jade. We got to see how they were hand made and we were given ample opportunity to purchase some of these cups along with some much-more-exquisite (and much-more-expensive) jade craftsmanship.

     2008 July 31 — Great Wall

     A trip to China has to include the Great Wall just as a trip to India has to include the Taj Mahal. Avoiding Beijing for the Olympic Games means missing the usual tourist attractions there including the dramatic east end of the Great Wall. However, one of the greatest things about the Great Wall is its great length, so we visited the west end of the Great Wall instead, 1560 Km (975 miles) from Beijing. The Wall is not just a straight line from Beijing to Jiayuguan, but this end in the Hexi corridor is the westernmost part.

     Seeing this place crowded with tourists as I did reminds me of my trip to The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. In our modern age, The Alamo is a few buildings with a lot of tourists surrounded by medium height commercial buildings, maybe eight stories tall. It doesn't really give the visitor the alone feeling the remote, last soldiers had in the naked desert in the days before Santa Anna's attack. Similarly, I don't think my battles getting past all the souvenir stands quite compares with the solitary desolation amidst the distant, bare mountains.

     The farmland I ran in this morning was green fields with willow-tree-lined roadway, a product of irrigation. The brown desert out here is nearly lifeless, flat with mountains in the distance.

    

    


Eclipse in the Gobi Desert

     So 2008 August 1, Friday, is the big day, the eclipse we all came for. My morning run was spectacular, 13 Km (eight miles) with perfect weather, lovely sunrise, and vista views with sunflowers and mountain backdrops.

     John Mason gave his usual terrific Explorers pre-eclipse talk, enough introduction for first timers to get a feel for what is about to happen and enough depth for veterans to get an idea of what specifically to expect this time. The topic of conversations at lunch was predictable, was the good, sunny weather going to continue for a few more hours.

     We got in our caravan of coaches. Ours was Number Eight, lucky number in China, and maybe our good luck would extend into the skies for us and everybody else. There were puffy clouds in the sky, especially the west, and their silver linings would be small consolation if they blocked our view of the diminished sun.

     Jiuquan had a high probability of sunshine and promise of a minute of totality. I have to imagine that Jiuquan had lots of enthusiastic watchers as it's China's Space City, kind of like our Cape Canaveral in the United States. Our destination promised slightly higher sunshine odds and an extra fifty seconds of darkness. Was it worth two and a half hours of bus ride each way? Was it worth it even if the last hour was bumpy dirt roads? To an eclipse follower, the answer is, "Of course!"

     The most noticeable aspect of our drive was the change from irrigated-farmland green to desert grey-brown. The Gobi Desert is a really dry place, that's why we chose it, drier than our Sonoran Desert here in Arizona and almost as dry as the Sahara Desert we experienced in Libya.

     We were given special eclipse identification cards, stopped a few times by friendly police along the way, and given notice that we were not to use GPS to locate ourselves. The Chinese government was friendly about it with the police smiling and waving at us as we drove by.

     At our designated viewing spot, we unloaded into the empty desert, some 90 Km (56 miles) from the Chinese launch site. Clouds in the west obscured the sun for a while, not our favorite sight, and we waited and hoped for unobstructed sunshine.

     An total solar eclipse has four designated moments.

First contact is when the moon takes its first bite of sun.
Second contact is when the moon completely covers the sun.
Third contact is when the first bit of sun reappears.
Fourth contact is when the last bit of moon obstruction ends.

The period of totality is between second and third contacts. Our hotel gave us an information sheet, more like a mis-information sheet, that outlined a fifth contact which might have been sunset, about twenty minutes after the end of this eclipse. I have more about eclipses, mostly serious but some tongue in cheek. Wikipedia has a page on solar eclipses in general and another page on this particular eclipse.

     By first contact the sun was clear of clouds and it stayed that way the rest of the day. The clouds below and west of the sun got lower and smaller so they never bothered us again. First contact was the beginning of the excitement and we all kept peeking at the sun through our filtered glasses. One must rely on filtered viewing any time there is actual sunlight from the photosphere. Only during totality is naked-eye viewing safe. As second contact neared we looked for shadow bands on the ground, an atmospheric effect of having a tiny-slit sun in the sky, but did not see any because of the low angle of the sun in the sky. One fellow got a video of the ground where shadow bands were visible that were too subtle to be seen by people actually there. Cameras can pick up light changes not directly visible.

     The moment came, the sun went out. I decided that thirty seconds of my minute-plus-fifty would be spent with my teeny-weeny, digital camera taking pictures. I gazed at the sun's corona around the dark hole in the sky and looked up at Venus and Mercury as I snapped pictures and adjusted my camera zoom. My little camera didn't catch the bright red prominence (not even as a little reddish pixel on the right side of the sun) but it did catch Mercury and Venus in my widest-angle picture along with some of the surrounding clouds. "Time's up," I said to myself, and out came the binoculars.

     Many creations of man and nature just don't come out as dramatic in photographs. "You have to be there" at the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal because a photograph doesn't capture the immensity and intricacy. The same is true at a total solar eclipse because a photograph doesn't capture the range of lighting. (These figures are my estimates, not authorized by any experts.) The outer corona is about 1000 times (ten F-stops) less bright than the inner corona. Prominences are about the same intensity as the inner corona but they're red instead of white. That means a decent photograph of mid-totality has to have decent color resolution (at least red and white) over a ten-stop range, a lot to ask of a camera. Some digital photo phreaks use "bracketing" to take several shots at different exposures and use software photo editors to blend them into wider-brightness-range image files.

     The ruby-red chromosphere is about 100 times (seven stops) brighter than the inner corona and the photosphere itself is yet another 100 times (seven more stops) brighter than that. So here comes this tiny pinpoint of brilliant light, the photosphere diamond in the corona ring, and we're trying to capture a range of at least 100 000 (seventeen stops). Nothing around today can capture or display that kind of range, so the usual diamond ring photograph represents the diamond as a blob of maximum-white against the ring of the corona.

     Malcolm is my hero. He is a bird watcher (the feathered kind, not the kind in the London clubs) and he showed me how I could keep my spectacles on while I used my binoculars, so I wouldn't have to fight with taking them off and putting them on. I was able to put my binocs over my glasses to enjoy the view for the last minute and change.

     The corona was lovely with streamers going out on both sides, three and four o'clock on the right, nine and ten o'clock on the left. In addition, there was a particularly large, dramatic prominence (solar flare) at three o'clock on the sun's perimeter.

     At the end of the totality period, just before third contact, the ruby-red chromosphere became visible on the lower right. It's brighter than the corona but still view-able with naked eyes, even with binoculars. I made a tactical error in keeping my binoculars on through the diamond ring as it was much more dramatic in Australia when I just viewed the eclipse without them. The first bit of real photosphere sun, was bright in the binoculars and I didn't really get a chance to see the entirely of the diamond ring in the larger image.

     Some were seeing their first total solar eclipse, others have seen several to many, but all seemed pleased with the afternoon's astronomy. We ambled into our coaches for the long drive back to the hotel. The sunset was a nice way to end the day after our viewing adventure. A group of people shouted greetings to us as we drove by, another nice way to end our day. We got back to the paved roads just as the last daylight waned.

     They were counting people on the coaches. Leaving somebody out there in the desert would have been more than a tranquil night outdoors and a long walk. It looked like a long way from anywhere. "It wasn't the end of the world, but you could see it from there." The original plan was to put people on coaches back to Jiuquan whenever they wanted to leave, but there was a change of plans. We were told to return in our original coaches, lucky Number Eight for my group of eclipse watchers.

     We were awakened in the middle of the night asking if anybody we knew was missing. Apparently the count was off by one somewhere. Nobody knew anybody was missing, the single people were all accounted for and none of the coupled people admitted to a missing partner. Say this mimicking Alfred Hitchcock: Maybe some husband or wife was trying to save the cost of a divorce.

     After being awakened, I checked the computer again, "Why not?" I asked myself, and Lo and Behold the Internet worked. I let my computer spend the rest of the night sending my pictures to my home computer. I even checked my e-mail before going back to sleep.

    

    


Xi'an

     2008 August 2 — Jiayuguan (JGN) to Xi'an (XIY)

     After awakening to a wonderful morning in China and completing my run through the countryside, I joined my hundred-plus eclipse friends for breakfast. We all wanted to tell our stories, but there really wasn't much to tell since each of our stories was the same as everybody else's stories. We all saw the same things, pretty much, so the conversations soon fell to other eclipses, other trips, other adventures, and a few stories about absent friends.

     When we got to the airport for our flight, we noticed quite a few signs with English under the Chinese. The English was "Mand-lish," the kind of English you get when Asians write it without exposure to actual English speakers.

     There's a chuckle at instructions like "Button on Left is Press," but the real insight is how different Manderin and English really are. Imagine trying to write a language you don't know from a dictionary. There are few commonalities between our talk and theirs and the results can be entertaining. I'm sure they're equally entertained when English people try to speak (or, heaven-forbid, to write) Chinese languages.

     We met our Xi'an guide, Lu I (pronounced "Louie") who taught us to say "nee-how" for "hello" in Manderin. "Just remember, `How is your knee?'" I already knew "sheh-sheh" for "thank you."

     Morning running in Xi'an, a city of eight million people, was a contrast from the farmland of the morning before. I went along the wide sidewalks and the sort-of bicycle lanes under the centuries-old Xi'an city wall. Again, the secret of urban running is to get out early before the local traffic wakes up.

    

     2008 August 3 — Jade Factory

     The day started off with a visit to a jade factory. We saw people making various things out of jade and then were taken to the usual factory store. As pretty as the factory and merchandise were, there was clearly a ventilation problem which made it less pleasant than it should have been.

     Among the large, fancy sculptures were the balls within balls withing balls where the inner balls (apparently) were sculpted through the holes in the outer balls. I got one of the cheap ones with three balls and left the expensive ones with five and six balls on the shelves.

     We had a drive, about half an hour, into the countryside with mountains alongside the highway.

     2008 August 3 — Terra-Cotta Warriors

     The Eighth Wonder of the World. That's what it said on the movie we saw before we saw the thousands of statues buried twenty-two centuries ago. The movie showed a battle where the losers were taken prisoner. Imagine what thoughts go through a prisoner-of-war, especially in ancient times where they weren't appealing to folks in The Hague for relief according to Geneva or Warsaw Conventions. Whatever is going to happen next, however long it is, the rest of your life is going to be awful. These many thousands of prisoners spent their remaining decades building thousands of clay warrior statues (with different faces, not cast from the same mold) for the tomb of a king who lived twenty more years.

     There were thousands of these full-size, full-color statues. They didn't know anything was under the ground except dirt until 1974 when some lucky farmer dug a hole and hit one of them in the ground. An elderly Chinese gentleman claiming to be that farmer was signing autographs in the souvenir book and they wouldn't let us take pictures of him. I was happy to buy the book and I decided it sounds even better to tell people it was autographed by Emperor Qin Shi Huang himself.

     Pit 1 was a huge room, over a hectare, several acres worth, full of hundreds, even thousands, of grey-brown soldiers. Having somebody tell me there are 8000 life-size soldiers in a pit and seeing 3.5 acres of them are different experiences. The faces are, well, they're faces with human expressions and human features.

     Pit 2 and Pit 3 are less dramatic and the museum was too crowded to see much, but the whole place was magic.

     Twenty-two centuries really is a long time ago. It may be half of China's recorded history, but the ink was still wet on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the Parthenon in Athens was still shiny and new, and Rome's Colosseum was still in the future when China was united under Emporer Qin. If he could bring together all of China, build a national road system, and start work on the Great Wall, then maybe he deserved 8000 clay soldiers to play with for eternity.

     Lunch was impressive with a live chef making noodles. It's a noisy process, louder than pizza preparation, but worth it for the taste of fresh noodles. Some things are best fresh, pineapples and corn come to mind, and now I can add noodles to the list.

     2008 August 3 — HuaQingChi Hot Springs

     What could possibly follow The Eighth Wonder of the World (as the movie called the Terra-Cotta Warriors)? Another factory with another souvenir shop just doesn't hack it. Lu I and her employers must have thought about it, because what they picked was delightful. We went to the HuaQingChi hot springs where emperors and leaders went to relax.

     On a hilltop near the hot springs was the residence of Chiang Kai Shek where he was arrested. It was a startling contrast from stories of 2200 years past to stories in our own lifetimes. (Okay, some of us weren't born on 1936 December 12, but it's a whole lot closer to our own lives than ancient times.)

     The hot springs were lovely with pools and baths with marble walkways and green mountain backdrop in the warm sunshine. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

     Judith and I satiated our chocolate "jones" with ice-cream popsicles, a whole lot cheaper outside the hot springs than inside the park.

     2008 August 4 - Wild Goose Pagoda

     The second morning run in Xi'an was more relaxing now that I knew there was someplace to run. One more thing Explorers did right on my tour was having at least two nights in each place. Unpacking and packing on the same night's stay at a hotel gives me a hurried sense that can spoil a trip. We had three nights in Shanghai, three in Jiuquan, two in Xi'an, and two in Hong Kong. I enjoyed watching Xi'an wake up on Monday morning as I ran along the streets. A few people tried their English with "hello" or "good morning" as I went by. I practiced the international sign of a glance and a smile which were usually returned with the same. A morning run is a really nice way to start the day.

     The ancient city wall of Xi'an no longer separated anything from anything with city on both sides. I remember running around the wall in Kraków, Poland, where the inner city remained a quaint tourist attraction while the real, living, bustling city had grown around it. Of course, Kraków with population 750 000 isn't a city of eight million people like Xi'an.

     On our way to the airport we stopped at the Wild Goose Pagoda. They told me the pagoda was leaning like the tower in Pisa, Italy, but I didn't notice. There were the usual Chinese Buddha and lion statues and a few gargoyles like the ones we had on building corners at Princeton University.

    

    


Hong Kong

     2008 August 4 — Xi'an (XIY) to Hong Kong (HKG)

     We had lunch at the Xi'an airport (XIY). While it was the same Chinese food fare we had been eating for a week, it was the best airport food I can remember.

     The flight to Hong Kong was short and pleasant, again with full meal and drink service. Funny thing, if Hong Kong is part of China, the so-called People's Republic of China, then howcum they took my Chinese exit card at the airport? Also, the visa requirements are different for mainland China and Hong Kong. Whether out of wisdom or indifference, the dragon seems to have left an island of capitalism and British influence (what a combination!) undevoured.

     The switch from the other parts of China to this area means switching from melodic Manderin to caustic Cantonese. For me it meant learning one new word, "dtordtay" instead of "sheh-sheh" for "thank you."

     Like other island metropoleis, Hong Kong's shape is decidedly vertical, more than Shanghai, more than Manhattan Island in New York; City. Our hotel was the Empire Kowloon Hotel, not to be confused, we were told, with the Empire Hotel in Hong Kong itself or the Kowloon Hotel.

     In deference to the bad-luck associated with the number four, I noticed the elevators had no fourth floor, or fourteenth floor either.

     2008 August 4 — Symphony of Lights

     Some of us ambled down to the harbor view of the Hong Kong skyline just in time for "A Symphony of Lights," a laser show at 20:00 (eight o'clock in the evening). I've seen better light shows but I doubt I've ever seen bigger light shows. Seeing an entire city skyline in synchronized laser display is worth some effort.

     In general I found Shanghai and Hong Kong night lights more interesting than those I've seen in the west. They put animations on the sides of buildings, eighty-story, moving-light images to catch the eyes of viewers.

     I went to bed after that and didn't get up until the next morning when I went for a run in the cloudy Kowloon dawn. The skyline was pretty with the tallest buildings challenging the low clouds. I ran early enough that there was little traffic, so the left-side driving was a minimal issue.

     The typhoon threat was still level 1. We were told it goes on a partial-count scale, 1-3-8-9-10. 1 and 3 are okay, 8 is pretty bad, and 9 and 10 are "Watch out!" territory.

     2008 August 5 — Victoria Peak

     Our half-day tour began with a drive up Victoria Peak with Maggie, our tour guide for the morning. Our coach climbed and climbed the cloudy roadway and we got to the top where we saw a few boats in a bay. Then we walked around to the other side where we looked down on the magnificent Hong Kong skyscrapers.

     2008 August 5 — Stanley Market and the Wind Surfers

     We were then taken to Stanley Market. We had an hour to buy all sorts of stuff. After all the chances we had to buy all sorts of stuff at pearl, silk, cup, and jade factories (not counting the jewelry factory we were going to visit), my tour-mate Alison and I strolled across the street to watch the wind-surfers in the breezy harbor. They looked like they were having fun going back and forth in the wet wind.

     2008 August 5 — Boat Ride in Hong Kong Harbor

     After over a week of tour stops, we were getting a little jaded. At least I was getting prepared for my trip home, thinking more about that than a visit to a jewelry factory. Then Maggie took us to a dock on the harbor and loaded us onto boats. A boat ride in Hong Kong Harbor was just the ticket to get us back into Hong Kong's rhythm.

     We were motored around other boats, some big and some small, and near some buildings, some big and some bigger. The mix of old-fashioned boats and new-modern buildings made the ride a joy.

     2008 August 5 — Jewelry Factory

     Our last tour stop on our entire journey was a jewelry factory. It turned out the founder of the factory was a wild and crazy guy who was in love with space travel, especially the American space program. There were signed photos of American astronauts including the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins, and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin. One of my traveling mates wrote two books on space programs (not America's, but I already lived through our space adventures), so he was also intrigued by these photographs on the wall.

     The display wall also had a framed version of a quotation from my younger days. "Press On. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent." It was a full-page advertisement in the local newspapers sometime around 1973 and I lost track of it. This was in the same print style (we didn't have "fonts" in those days) as the original newspaper ad. The only thing on the newspaper page other than the quotation displayed here was the advertiser's logo: the arches of McDonalds.

     Seeing space-travel and advertising memorabilia was a really nice way to wrap up the tour.

     When I got done checking my e-mail on the hotel's computer in the bar, I noticed I had left my souvenir t-shirt in the lobby. When I asked the front-desk people, they said Maggie had my bag and she had just left. A cell-phone call connected us a few blocks from the hotel, we were both hungry, so I ended my China tour with a one-on-one meal with a terrific guide, the same way I started it. Maggie brought me to a Vietnamese restaurant where I ate a wonderful, giant bowl of Vietnamese noodle stuff.

     After an afternoon of sitting around chatting our goodbyes, I bumped into my Irish-couple friends from the tour and we went to a Mongolian barbeque.

     2008 August 6 — The Journey Home

     Sleep, my morning run, and breakfast later, I was on my way to the airport. My flight was scheduled for 11:45, quarter to noon, and the typhoon threat was up to Level 8. Things around Hong Kong were going to be closed for the bad weather anyway, so I figured I might as well wait at the airport.

     United Airlines got this one absolutely right. Rather than diddle us around with an hour delay and then another hour and another two hours, they said the flight was leaving at 22:00, ten hours late. We could leave, we could stay in the airport, but it was going to be ten hours and that was it. Sure enough, come 21:15 they began boarding people and the flight left right on time, on its new time.

     There were no evening Star Alliance flights back to Phoenix, so I stayed overnight at the LaQuinta Motel near San Francisco. Just to complete my computer frustration, the Internet didn't work from the hotel room, but the front desk people told me there was an outage, so it wasn't worth hassling with my computer. Again, when I woke up in the middle of the night, jet lag and all that, the Internet was working fine and I transfered the last of my digital photographs to my home computer.

     There was one more flight, two hours, a Super-Shuttle ride home, and I was home with my two cats. The biggest travel-adventure story I have to tell is a typhoon delaying my flight a few hours. I didn't eat bugs or scorpions, I didn't have to use foreign-style toilets in awkward positions, I didn't find myself in crazy circumstances, I didn't have any run-ins with foreign government officials, and I didn't get sick. Thanks to superb planning by Explorers, I have no Holidays in Hell stories on this trip.

    

    


Impressions of the Dragon

     Capitalism versus Communism

     China's government is big and scary. Americans may criticize their elected officials in public fora, but I knew better than to ask Chinese locals what they thought of Chinese politics. Government officials were friendly and their rules were clear and consistent, at least by the standards of big bureaucracies. Still, according to our own governments and media, China's government has a lousy human-rights record.

     On the other hand, there's something free about China that we don't have in America, Russia, or Europe. The Chinese government is kind-of like the weather, it just happens to zap people from time to time, sometimes it zaps a lot of people very hard. But maybe it lacks the anti-success jealousy that culminated in America's flower-power generation and today's self-righteous liberalism. Maybe it lacks Russian government's mob-like mentality that anyone successful is a take-over candidate. Maybe it lacks Europe's desire to suck the life out of any productivity to feed those who exercise their right to choose an idle lifestyle.

     I don't know how to measure such things, but China is a large economy with about 1500 million people. (It's a big number that varies from 1300 million to 1600 million depending on which source the number comes from.) Never mind who are red-blooded, free-enterprise enthusiasts and who are the self-proclaimed commie pinkos, is the Chinese government really a larger part of their economy than our governments in the west? Through luck or design, they even knew enough to leave Hong Kong alone to chart its own economic, political, and social path.

     From my brief time in the world's two most-populous nations, China's underclass seems less poor and smaller than India's. This could be because China has its own oil and coal resources while India does not. It could be because China insisted on finding something useful for everyone to do. Or it could be that China is an easier place than India for entrepreneurs starting and running small businesses.

     Isn't it funny that the country with the meanest official line might be economically the most free place on the planet?

     Good Hosts versus Xenophobes

     Everywhere we went the Chinese were terrific hosts. Our tour guides were great and we stayed in wonderful hotels, but it went further than that. People working at tour sites were friendly and competent, but it went further than that. There was a niceness, a welcoming spirit, all around us.

     When we stood around doing our tourist-quality Tai Chi in the Zhu Jia Jiao fishing village, we were joined by a group of people who just wanted to be around us. Local folks wanted to have pictures taken with us. I got more smiles and waves on my morning runs than I get back home where I look like everybody else.

     I don't think this graciousness is a universal trait. I certainly didn't feel welcome as a tourist in Rome, for example. I'm told the Chinese refer to a western face as "big nose," but I didn't feel the hostility that I feel when some of my countrymen refer to orientals as "slant eyes." To this tourist making his way in the land of the dragon, China felt big enough for "big noses" and "slant eyes" and a whole lot of other folks.

     What I Took Home from China

     I came home with a bunch of small souvenirs from China. I got a silk shirt with an embroidered dragon, small terra-cotta warriors in Xi'an, fake Rolex watches, tiny luminous jade cups, and all kinds of t-shirts. At the behest of a friend, I brought back some splat pigs, toy pigs that squish flat when thrown on the floor and then regain their pig shape. Why you would want to throw a toy on the floor to squish it is something between you and your psychiatrist, but it is cool to watch it regain its pig shape afterward.

     I came home with some new friendships with my traveling companions. As I said before, these were interesting, educated, erudite, well-traveled people. I expected to meet some interesting people and I wasn't disappointed.

     I came home with a lot of good feelings about China. That isn't unique or unexpected either. I developed a warm feeling about eastern Europe in my travels there during the 1990s. I enjoyed India in 1998 and 2007 and would cheerfully return. Africa is a place I would like to visit again with some supervision and planning. Finally, I'll have to find some excuse to go back to Australia. So it's no surprise that China left me wanting to return.

     Plans for 2009 July 22

     This time I don't need to find an excuse to return, I've already got one. 2009 July 22 is the next total solar eclipse and the path runs right through Shanghai with six minutes of totality. That's a long time for a total eclipse, near perfect conditions. Alas, Shanghai in July has cloudy skies half the time, not the brightest prospect for an eclipse, but it's worse everywhere else along the path.

     So what should I do? I figure there are two major sites of sights along China's tourist path that I missed this time around, Beijing and Guilin. So my current plan is to head to Shanghai long enough to see the eclipse, or at least to see the clouds get dark for six minutes, and then to see the other places.

     I look forward to going back to China. It doesn't get better than that.

    

_

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