For two weeks my family toured China in constant amazement as we experienced both the ancient and modern world. We explored the Forbidden City and Summer Palace in Beijing, were stunned by the dramatic impact of the terra-cotta Warriors in Xi'an, climbed atop the immense Great Wall of China and were overwhelmed by the endless skyscrapers and avant garde architecture of Shanghai. But the best was still to come.
As we approached eclipse day the weather forecast was looking dismal with almost certain complete cloud cover and an 80% probability of thunderstorms in the Shanghai river area. My eclipse group was scheduled to observe the eclipse at the Tianhuangping Reservoir, located near the town of Anji. The reservoir sits on top of a beautiful 3000 ft mountain of swaying bamboo trees where the marvelous forest fighting scenes in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" could have been filmed. The reservoir is located about 140 miles west of Shanghai. The Chinese government had approved roughly 5000 eclipse chasers to ascent the mountain and set up along a walkway that surrounds the lake.
Before first contact I walked around the periphery enjoying the international flavor and variety of equipment set up around the lake (mostly camera and small telescopes but also some large research scopes). Different eclipse groups were given specific assigned areas, so although there were thousands at the site, they were spread out and it didn't feel crowded.
Despite the dismal weather forecast for probable showers, there was no rain on our ride up the mountain and although skies were fairly cloudy, the conditions were obviously improving with the clouds thinning out. After 30 minutes of the partial eclipse phase some large patches of blue skies started to open up. By the time the first diamond ring arrived there were only thin clouds sweeping past the sun and we were very blessed to view second to third contact with the sun in a mostly clear hole in the clouds. The 5 minutes and 38 seconds of totality was an awesome experience with a stunning diamond ring punctuating the end of totality. A huge cheer and shouts of joy swept over the reservoir at the end.
One odd sight was Venus nearly at the zenith and shining amazingly bright during totality. The sky itself was not the deep twilight color as I've seen before but virtually night-time dark! The clouds in the sky certainly contributed to this as well as the unusually large diameter of the moon (near perigee) and finally the surrounding mountains blocked the views of the lit skies around the horizon. For whatever reasons a number of folks commented this was by far the darkest eclipse they had experienced. This was my third eclipse and they have all been wildly different, but experiencing the longest eclipse of the 21st century on a bamboo mountain in China with my wife and two kids was an unforgettable experience.
Although third to fourth contact was also in mostly clear patch of sky, at the end the conditions started to deteriorate and by the time we had driven down the windy mountain road it started raining and kept up steadily on our drive to Suzhou. Later we head that conditions were generally poor near Shanghai and many folks missed out completely which is a shame as this eclipse had the most populous track in history. Altogether an awesome experience and I'm looking forward to my next chance to spend a few minutes in the shadow of the moon!
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