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Eclipse Over China 

July 24, 2009

Return to San Francisco

Galloping Horses

Somewhere in Shanghai, there’s this beautiful life-size sculpture of a herd of galloping white horses.  At times, it must’ve felt to our tour managers as if they were trying to corral a similar herd, only of tourists, and running headlong into other wild herds of tourists coming from all other directions.  Hats off to everyone at Siemer & Hand Travel and their partner agency for this trip, Shanghai Far East Expeditions – all did superb jobs planning every last detail, arranging tickets, picking up luggage, accommodating vegetarians, getting eclipse glasses, and trying their best to keep things under control.  Even when things didn’t go perfectly, recovery seemed a relatively simple matter.  Hard work paid off – well done!

Some of our group departed for other destinations, some returned home, and others stayed for the extension of our trip,  which involves a 3-day cruise on the Yangtze River from Chongqing back to Shanghai. Calm waters and fair winds, fellow travelers…now Certified Eclipse-Watchers, all!

My wife and I returned home to San Francisco, taking off about an hour and a half late from Beijing Airport due to a heavy downpour that made us think we might have to start considering a boat ride home instead.  Shortly after the rain subsided, we boarded and waited our turn in a line of backed-up planes on the runway, and after takeoff I managed to get a shot of the shadow of our plane on the clouds below, surrounded by a rainbow – it’s subtle, but it’s there.  The photo doesn’t really do it justice.


Another long, 12-hour flight, traveling eastward across the International Date Line, meant that we left Beijing at about 5:20 pm CCT on Friday and arrived in San Francisco around 2:00 pm PDT – also on Friday – arriving before we left, so to speak.


Even if we hadn’t been able to see the solar eclipse, this trip has been so rich and rewarding that it would still have been a success just the same to have seen the cultural, historical, and archeological wonders of this amazing country.  I certainly am glad, of course, that we DID get to see the eclipse, in spite of the challenges presented by the weather – the suspense seemed to make it all the more satisfying.  We made a lot of friends during this trip, and we hope to keep in touch.  Special thanks to Dr. Daniel Gardner of Smith College for his expertise in Chinese history, enabling us to better appreciate such an incredible country.

If anyone else from our group has photos of the eclipse that they’d like me to post, send them to me at bquock@calacademy.org, and I’ll post them.

Filed under: Uncategorized — bquock @ 7:44 pm

July 23, 2009

Shanghai (continued)

Profile in Paper

I said I would post that little portrait of one of our group that a gentleman cut out of paper at the Xi’an Airport.  Take note, it’s only about 2 inches tall.

Shanghai – one of China’s largest cities and its economic capitol.  The city is filled with bold, exciting architecture that really makes it look like like Disneyland from some angles.  And there’s all kinds of new construction going on in anticipation of next year’s World Fair here.  This is China’s City of the Future.

Shanghai SkylineShanghai BuildingsStriking SkyscraperThe Wavy Building (well, what would YOU call it?)Oriental Pearl Tower - as tall as the Empire State BuildingWorld Financial Center, aka "the Bottle Opener"

And yes, that haze is thick and persistent – the top of the World Financial Center literally disappeared into it, and I was lucky to get the shot of it that I did.

After lunch, a little free time on our own, and we had to take a ride on Shanghai’s famous MagLev train – the fastest commuter train in the world, and a joint Chinese-German demonstration.  The route runs between two stations, one in the city and the other at Pudong Airport – 30 kilometers (18 miles)…whoosh…7 minutes.  And if the train going the other way passes by, you’ll miss it if you blink.

MagLevBoarding the Fastest Train in the WorldThat's 267 MPH


Filed under: Uncategorized — bquock @ 3:50 am

July 22, 2009

Shanghai (post-eclipse)

Photo by Sean LeaPhoto by Sean Lea

The above two pictures were taken by Sean Lea, a young member of our group who’s accompanying his grandmother on a great trip filled with many memorable moments.  If I can get photos from other participants, I’ll post them, too.

We heard that within the city limits of Shanghai, the sky never cleared up, so anyone who stayed within the city didn’t see the eclipse.  The previous night, someone from the UCLA group had proposed moving our viewing site to another location westward.  I’m glad we stuck to our guns and stayed where we were, but I’d be interested in finding out what the weather was like inland.

Shanghai in the Rain

After the excitement of the eclipse, we had lunch but couldn’t stop talking about the fact that the sky had cleared just enough and at the right moment so we could see totality – an experience I certainly won’t forget.  Following lunch, we headed for downtown Shanghai and the Shanghai Museum, which is unabashedly described as China’s biggest and best museum, shaped somewhat like an ancient Chinese cooking pot.  It’s a museum of Chinese culture, with so many historical artifacts that we couldn’t see it all in the two hours we were given to explore.

Shanghai MuseumShanghai Museum EscalatorsView from the 4th Floor BalconyHorseJadeBronze PotAncient Wooden Furniture

Tomorrow: more Shanghai.

Filed under: Uncategorized — bquock @ 7:12 am

July 21, 2009

Eclipse Day

Eclipse Day Morning

Overcast at the hotel in the morning, but reports of some loosening of the clouds.  By the time we got to Dishui Lake, others who got there an hour earlier said that the sky conditions had improved.  There was a half-hour to first contact, and we weren’t sure if we’d ever see blue sky.  Then, briefly, right on time, a hole opened up, and amid the cheering, when I could detect a nibble taken out of the Sun,  blew my whistle and told everyone to look.  Our large combined group was big and spread out, so not everyone heard me, and the MIT & UCLA people had their own experts anyway.  Through a patchy opening, everyone saw it…maybe.  Then the clouds closed up again, reopening a few minutes later when the nibble became a more definite bite.

The clouds continued teasing and tantalizing us by covering the Sun, then showing brightenings, then closing in as a heavy mass moved in from the north.  Finally, a brief break about 50 minutes in clearly showed a deep partial through a thin layer.

Deep Partial Through CloudsCertified Eclipse WatchersMore Eclipse-Watchers

Then, the clouds hid the Sun again.  We were worried that we’d been done in, but tried to stay optimistic – hey, we saw first contact and the partial stage, so it hadn’t been a total loss.

Not Gonna Happen, Is It...???

Then, minutes before totality, a hole opened up in the clouds again, showing the thinnest crescent to applause from everyone.  The sky darkened…BOY, did it darken – like a dark,  stormy day.  Finally…

ChromosphereTotality Through Thin Clouds

Through an uneven patchwork of clouds, we saw totality, the corona clearly visible.  That was it – no other part of the sky was visible, so we couldn’t try to see any planets.  The eclipsed Sun played hide-and-seek, but it was amazing.  Because of the clouds moving in and out, I never knew whether my shots were coming out, so I didn’t want to monkey around with different exposures.  A friend who’s an experienced eclipse-chaser once told me that totality never lasts long enough, and it didn’t.  Five minutes went by in a flash, and when I saw the diamond ring of third contact, I blew my whistle again.  Applause…WE DID IT!!!

With totality over, the clouds allowed us to watch partiality for a little while, showing each other our pictures of the corona and talking excitedly about when the next eclipse will be.  Then, the clouds came in and completely covered the sky over again, and everyone decided there wasn’t any reason to stay.  As we headed back for the hotel, it started to rain – talk about timing!  And it’s not even noon…we still have lunch coming, check-out, and a bus ride into Shanghai proper.

More on this memorable day in the next entry.

Filed under: Uncategorized — bquock @ 8:57 pm

Day 5: Shanghai

A convergence of circumstances made this day…different.  After breakfast, we headed for Xi’an Airport.  While we waited to receive our boarding passes, one gentleman in our group was approached by a street artist who offered to do a profile-portrait of him in paper.  He did an exquisite job with a small pair of scissors, and I’ll have to try to get a shot of that tiny masterpiece, which got him twice the amount he’d asked for.

Artist at work

When we got our passes, we went to the gate and waited to board our plane…and waited…and waited.  About an hour behind schedule, the airline people quietly opened the door and let people board with no explanation that I can recall hearing.  I’d been contacted by CBS News for an interview about the eclipse and found a window in our schedule that allowed some time to meet them at 5:30 pm, Shanghai Time.  The hour-late flight wouldn’t be a problem – we could still make it in time for the interview.  Lunch was served on board the flight, including a foil bag of some unknown condiment, labeled only in Chinese.  GAAHHHH – chili pepper sauce…took a while to put the flames out.  I hoped it wasn’t an indication of what all Shanghai food is like.

After we landed, we got our luggage and boarded the buses and waited to leave…and waited…and waited, finally finding out that one person in our group had managed to get separated, so we had to wait while our travel managers ran around the airport to find the wayward member of our flock.  That pushed us even farther behind schedule, and we were now seriously concerned that we wouldn’t be back by 5:30.  As on our first day in Xi’an, instead of going to the hotel from the airport, we went straight for another walking tour, this time of a small village outside of Shanghai, but while the group disembarked to explore the town, the tour manager arranged for me to stay on board the bus so that I could be driven to the hotel in time to meet the CBS crew…so sorry, no pictures of the village tour.  I was just glad to find out later that we finally did recover our missing person, safe & sound.  On eclipse day, you might catch something of that interview on the CBS national news, if they decide use any of it.  If the weather holds out, the TV people also want to join us at the viewing site at Dishui Lake to catch totality.  Immediately after the interview, I gave my second talk to our group, previewing the eclipse, then went to what – to my relief – was a pleasantly non-spicy dinner in one of the hotel ballrooms, combining with other tour groups from UCLA and MIT.

Then, during dinner, from inside the hotel, we heard the thunder…

As I write, it’s raining, and there’s sheet lightning flashing about every 5 seconds.  Here’s a shot of our hotel grounds that I just took.

Doesn't the Donghu Lingang Hotel look nice, lit by lightning?

It’s not daytime.  It’s about 10-ish at night, and the scenery is being illuminated by lightning.

The official weather forecast isn’t the most optimistic, but there are still 10 hours to go – anything could happen…right…???

Filed under: Uncategorized — bquock @ 7:49 am

July 20, 2009

Day 4: Xi’an

Xi’an is one of the most important cities in China’s history, serving as the eastern end of the Silk Road from Europe and Africa.  Founded in the 11th century BC during the Zhou Dynasty, it was one of the four great capitals of China – I can’t say I’ve been in very many 3000 year old cities.  Images of the First Qin Emperor, Shi Huang Di, are everywhere, as much as are those of Xi’an’s famous terracotta warriors, which were commissioned by the Emperor to protect him in the afterlife.  Our hotel has an especially impressive 45-foot tall relief sculpture of the Emperor right behind the lobby, and little terracotta warriors are all over the place, like garden gnomes.

emperor Shi Huang Di, and behind him, General Meng Tian and Premier Li Si.Those little terracotta guys are everywhere!

Within the city is the still-surviving wall that was built around the city in 1370 to replace an earlier one.  The wall – 40 feet high and 50 feet thick – is open to pedestrians and bicyclists and is a popular spot for tourists who can visit and view its battlements, watchtowers, and archers’ stations…or dress up for a half hour as palace guards.

Xi'an City WallPeople can stroll, rent bikes to tootle around, or hire a bike-driven rickshaw.Heading back to the costume-rental shop...their half-hour's up

Hey, you – no straggling; back to reality…right now, buddy!

Awww...do I HAVE to???

After breakfast, we piled into our buses for the Big Wild Goose Pagoda on the grounds of a Buddhist monastery.  Swarming with swallows, the place is beautiful and peaceful.

Those aren't geese...they're swallowsPeony PavilionPure as snow...Dragon water spouts

Lunch, another bus ride out to the excavation site a mile from the Qin Emperor’s tomb, and then…

Terracotta WarriorsMore Terracotta Warriors Terracotta Warriors closeup

The Terracotta Army is mind-boggling…almost too much – the brain just can’t comprehend the scale of this project.  At least 8000 life-size statues, many of which are yet to be unearthed, most badly damaged upon discovery, but painstakingly restored.  It’s as overwhelming as the Forbidden City.

Afterwards, dinner and entertainment in the form of the Tang Dynasty Show, a dazzling display of colorful costumes, music, dance, and martial arts representing the Tang era (618-907 AD).

Musical InstrumentsRibbon DanceThe Guys' TurnFeather DanceMaartial Arts DanceDragonsFinale

And it’s raining in Shanghai…

Filed under: Uncategorized — bquock @ 3:12 pm

July 19, 2009

Day 3: Xi’an

After a nearly 2-hour flight, Academy travelers set foot in one of China's oldest cities

After a nearly 2-hour morning flight, did our intrepid Academy travelers stop for a rest as soon as they set foot in China’s original capitol city?  Braving the blistering 97-degree heat, they boarded buses and headed straight for the Shaanxi Provincial History Museum, while local travel managers took all luggage to the hotel and took care of check-in.  Immediately immersed in the incredible history of Xi’an, we saw artifacts from as much as 150,000 years ago and reproductions of human skull fragments that date back more than 1 million years.

Love how the rearview mirror mounts make the buses look like Mr. Caterpillar97 degreesThis imposing creature makes his lair in the Museum lobby

3-legged vesselHorse SculptureMiniature Figures

A few of Xi'an's famous terracotta warriors - a preview of what we'll see more of tomorrowTerracotta WarriorsTerracotta Horses

As we left the museum, a remarkable sight greeted us: a string of 100 miniature kites in the sky.

Gives "kite string" a whole new meaningKites

After a lunch of dumplings (famous in Xi’an, but not unlike dim sum for San Franciscans), we visited the Great Mosque, an interesting amalgam of Chinese and Muslim design where Muhammad Ali once prayed.

Great MosqueMosque GardenMosque PavilionStone Arch

After spending time at the Mosque, we finally retreated back to the blissfully air-conditioned bus and headed for our hotel, where our luggage awaited in our rooms, delivered as promised.  Drained by the heat, the crowds, the traffic, the hucksters, and the beggars, it was good to have an opportunity to rest and refresh ourselves.  I still had to give my first of two talks, this one describing achievements in the astronomy of ancient China, followed by dinner and what should’ve been an early bedtime…except I have to do this blog.  Hoping,  however, that our changing fortunes with the weather are a good sign for eclipse day.

Heaven on Earth

Filed under: Uncategorized — bquock @ 8:38 am

July 18, 2009

Day 2: Beijing Without Rain

A welcome sight after the previous day's downpour

Much better…

Morning came with no rain and a promise of clearer skies.  Beijing’s sky is quite hazy, but the Sun shined brightly, and things were looking drier.  After a quick breakfast, we piled onto the bus and hit the road for the Ming Tombs, 31 miles away.  Actually, we headed for the Sacred Way, a four-mile long paved path that Chinese emperors supposedly used to descend from and then return to Heaven, which leads to the Ming Tomb complex.  Lined with huge statues of animals, warriors, and priests, it is peaceful and contemplative, the air ringing with the buzzing of cicadas.  It turned out to be a clear and hot day, so we were all glad that the path is also lined on both sides with willow trees that offer some shade.

I don't think anyone really considered the fact that it's 4 miles long...

Emperors walked here

Our chartered bus then took us to one of the actual Ming Tombs – 13 of the 15 Ming Emperors are buried in mausoleums scattered across a 46 square mile expanse in the mountains.  We climbed to the top of a hill, then descended 27 meters through a passage to the underground burial chamber of one of the Emperors.

Approaching the entrance to the groundsVisitors make offerings of money to the spirit of the emperorThe view from the tower upon leaving the tomb of the Wanli Emperor

After lunch, we finally went to visit a section of the Great Wall.  So, it seems, did everyone else in China.  We passed several other sections of the Wall that are easily visible from the highway, but hit a HUGE traffic backup at the Badaling section, one of the best-preserved portions of the 4000-mile long structure.  When we finally debarked, we were given a choice: take the longer, easier, more popular route or the steeper, less-crowded one.  The group split up, and from the less-crowded stretch of the Wall, I got a few shots of the thousands of people cramming the long route up the mountain.

Along the way, we hadn’t really noticed the developing cloud cover…and then it started raining again.  Not that it was a hard rain, but we still remembered how icky it felt to get rained on when you’re already hot & sweaty, and we didn’t know if the rain would get any harder.  Satisfied that we’d pretty  much taken the memento photos we wanted of ourselves on the Wall, some of us bailed and headed for the rendezvous point, which gave us more time to raid the souvenir store.

Oh, the humanity...The Wall - and the people - both seem to go on forever

On the way back, we made a quick detour through downtown Beijing to pass some spectacular buildings, including the “Bird’s Nest” stadium made famous by the Beijing Olympics – an awesome sight up close – and, if you can believe it, another building made to resemble the Olympic torch!

Site of the 2008 Summer Olympics ceremoniesAlso said to resemble the head of a dragon

Tomorrow:  Goodbye Beijing, Hello Xi’an…

Filed under: Uncategorized — bquock @ 10:33 am

July 17, 2009

Day 1: Beijing


What the heck – let’s explore the city!  The rain lasted pretty much all day, letting up a little every now and then, but we were good and soaked by the time we were done…and we did a lot of walking.  We started off taking a chartered bus to the Temple of Heaven, built from 1406 to 1420, and where Emperors of the Ming and Qing (pronounced “ching”) prayed for a good harvest.  In times of drought, they also prayed for rain.  It worked.

Our tour guide's big, yellow panda umbrella made it easy to find her in a crowd.

We explored the temple grounds amid hundreds of other tourists and locals, finally reaching the main temple after a long walk.  Not one nail was used in its construction, and apparently there are just three other similar structures in China.  Only the Emperor was allowed to ascend to the top of the three-tiered terrace surrounding it, while priests could only go as high as the second level, and government officials were confined to the lowest tier.

Impressive, even in the rain

Next, a bus ride to the Ancient Observatory, built in 1442, where the real showpieces are a group of magnificent bronze instruments that were ornately-decorated with dragons, designed by Belgian Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest in 1673.  On the lower grounds are 1/3-scale reproductions of other instruments, including a simplified armilla and an equatorial armillary sphere, and some incredibly lifelike bronze busts of famous ancient Chinese astronomers.

Bronze pre-telescopic instruments visible on the roof Now museum pieces on public display, but cordoned off so no one can touch themReproduction of the real Ming-era device

After a very tasty Chinese lunch, we headed to Tiananmen Square, an enormous plaza overlooked by a painted portrait of Chairman Mao on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is the portal that leads into the fabled Forbidden City, so-named because no one could enter – or leave – without the Emperor’s permission.

Gateway to the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is a mind-boggling collection of 980 ancient wooden buildings, comprising the residence of 24 successive Emperors across nearly 200 years.  Literally a walled city in the heart of Beijing, it was packed with sightseers, despite the rain.  The sense of history is palpable, and you really wonder what life was like in this walled city-within-a-city.

One of many halls or pavilions of the palaceThe rain does not keep them awayOne of many small courtyardsA contemplative rock-gardenWhat are those structures on the hill?

Tomorrow, the Great Wall!

Filed under: Uncategorized — bquock @ 8:30 am

July 16, 2009

You’re Kidding…

Morning in Beijing

Woke up to the sound of heavy rain on the windows and thought through the bleariness that maybe it was the ventilation system.  Yeah, right.  Looked out the window – it’s rain.  Yesterday, Johnny (our local guide) had mentioned on the bus ride from the airport that a thunderstorm had been expected, so this must be it.  Look, it’s okay – it could be worse…this could be Shanghai.  No reason to panic.  The eclipse is still 5 days away, and Shanghai is 600 miles away.  Enjoy Beijing.  We’re scheduled to go to China’s largest temple and a pre-telescopic observatory built in 1442, and then, after lunch, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.  After yesterday’s heat, it’s rather refreshing…and the hotel gave us an umbrella.

Morning in Beijing 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — bquock @ 3:34 pm
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