RESULTS OF RING OF FIRE EXPEDITION #19:
EXPEDITION TO MONGOLIA AND THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE SUN
Paul D. Maley, NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society, Houston, TX USA
Not all of our expeditions turn out the way we would like. The 19th RING OF FIRE EXPEDITION to observe a total eclipse of the sun took off for Asia on March 1, 1997. Twenty members from the USA, Japan and Canada began the adventure departing from San Francisco at night, moving northward to the southern tip of Alaska. The timing was excellent. Most of us sitting on the starboard side of the aircraft could spot Comet Hale-Bopp. It looked very impressive in binoculars even through the aircraft windows. Adding to the sight was the appearance of a marvelous aurora; spreading from horizon to horizon, it appeared very similar to auroras viewed by Space Shuttle astronauts. One could see the three dimensional activity with changing shape and coloration. I was able to arrange to sit in the cockpit of the Singapore Airlines Boeing 747 and viewed the comet and aurora through the co-pilot’s exceptionally clear windows on the flight deck. The pilot and co-pilot could see the comet but claimed they had no idea what it was!
Nearly 15 hours later, we arrived in Hong Kong where the temperature was a balmy 68 deg F. We only spent one day here just three months before Hong Kong was to become part of the People’s Republic of China. One unexpected problem arose. Our flight tickets from Hong Kong to China were not delivered to our hotel in Kowloon as promised. While the rest of the group toured Hong Kong, I made frantic phone calls into China. There was only four hours left before we were to leave for the airport when I received a return call from our ground operator in China informing me that the tickets were across the bay in the office of a trading company. The company had never been told to deliver them.
I hopped onto the metro railway and took it to the Hong Kong side, found the office in an obscure highrise building, and got the tickets in the nick of time. That evening we boarded aChina Northwest Airlines flight to Xian, a large city in southern China where we would tour the famed site of the Terra Cotta warriors excavation and the neolithic village of Banpo. China’s airline system is being divided into regions: China Northwest, China Southern, China Eastern, China Southwest, etc. But the aircraft are mostly Airbus or Boeing products and give a much nicer feel than the old Soviet style planes that they used to fly.
From Xian we flew on to Beijing, capital of China. There we headquartered in the five star, 29-story Kunlun Hotel, located across a busy freeway from the Hard Rock Cafe. I count this Hard Rock as having the best cheeseburger of all Hard Rock’s that I have visited around the world. We were able to visit the famed Forbidden City and drove the Badaling Expressway to one section of the Great Wall of China. The claim is that this is the largest man-made structure to be observed from space. I have it on good authority that the Great Wall has never been successfully observed by American astronauts from space.
When we finally prepared to depart China for Mongolia, we had to do so before sunrise. Exiting our hotel we found the sky reasonably polluted by ‘clear’. Comet Hale-Bopp could be seen with the naked eye, though with difficulty in this city of 13 million people. Arriving at the Beijing Airport, we packed into the Mongolian Airline MIAT which uses Boeing 727 airplanes to take us to Ulaan Baatar airport, where vintage single engine propellor driven airplans and Russian helicopters dotted the airport tarmac. Our group was but a tiny speck in the 2,500 foreign tourists expected for this eclipse. Those professional photographers who intended to shoot the eclipse were being charged exhorbitant fees of US$25,000 – $40,000 according to the newspapers.
Skies had been clear all the way from Beijing. On arrival we boarded buses for the five hour (220km) drive north to the city of Darhan. Darhan is Mongolia’s main industrial center with about 80,000 inhabitants and no airport. We spent two nights in the Darhan Hotel which was the center of all eclipse activity in the country. If you weren’t in that hotel, you weren’t on the map. Our group occupied most of one floor of the hotel and we were consolidated with twoother groups in order to be assured of getting this rare hotel space for which so many had applied for and were rejected. Those not lucky enough to reside in The Hotel had to be satisfied with ger camps (round tents also called “yurts”).
We scouted the highway for observing sites the following day; I located two fairly decent spots. One was a snowy ‘parking lot’ near a Japanese tourist camp on the way to the centerline. The bus nearly got stuck here. Our driver found another good site but the Japanese TV (NHK in Tokyo) occupied this hill and refused us permission to set up there. The initial plan was to have everyone set up on the roof of the Darhan Hotel (about 100 people). It was obvious to me that such a plan would pose some real problems. The roof was difficult and hazardous to access. You had to clamber up a ladder of crusty metal onto an upper floor. Pieces of stuff littered the floor and it was constantly falling down onto people on the ladder. Once on the upper floor you had to crawl through a small window opening onto the roof. There was no way the roof could safely hold more than thirty people. Furthermore anyone walking on the roof caused enough vibrations to affect a telescope positioned to photograph the eclipse.
I was able to install a GPS receiver which collected data on the mornings before and of the eclipse through this roof access procedure. The data was to be used in collaboration with a Russian Academy of Sciences project to study changes in signals from GPS satellites by virtue of the rise and fall of the ionosphere during the eclipse process. My site was the third in a trio, the others being in Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude across the border in Siberia.
One of the members of the other group in the hotel brought a weather satellite receiving system consisting of a helical antenna, PC, and receiver. The night before the eclipse, a fairly decent picture from the Russian Meteor satellite was received. It showed many bands of clouds to the north and west. This was worrisome since it was the primary direction from which weather would move toward the Darhan area.
Our bus pulled out of the hotel on schedule at 5:00am on March 9. First contact was to begin at 7:48am followed by totality at 8:49am. We traveled northward on the two lane highway toward the Russian border. In the darkness we encountered light snow at first, which turned much heavier. The buses were made for transporting passengers in the capital city and were very new vehicles. They could only travel on relatively good, flat roads. We made three stops. At each stop, I checked the sky and it was overcast; as we moved north the weather was obviously worsening. I turned the bus about and headed back south driving through Darhan hoping to outrun the approaching weather system. We passed the other tour buses who continued to drive north.
There were no real forecasts and we had been told that traffic would be only allowed to move northward on eclipse day. About 400 police had been mobilize to help control traffic. But we found there was no real restriction on movement. When we awoke there were a few stars visible and it seemed that if the weather was moving slowly, there might be a chance to beat it. By 7:15 we arrived at a small hill 43km south of Darhan. Some breaks in the clouds were noted. There was also a police checkpoint, a gas station and a motel. Our guide tried to get use of a police cell phone so we could attempt to communicate with the other buses to the north. The bureaucracy of doing this was not worth the effort. Another try to use a phone at the motel was aborted due to heavy cigarette smoke from some Japanese tourists and the fact we could not locate the phone.
The snow which we had outrun at first began to fall within an hour of totality. The temperature never got any lower than 14 degrees F which was a treat considering predictions of -25 that we had been expecting. A Mongolian Airlines helicopter shot over our site headed north yet barely beneath the cloud base. Then it was three minutes until totality and we saw a break near the sun. The sun was a narrow sliver. Then it clouded over. We then went into totality. Lights in the motel came on and a lone car ambled up the highway seemingly unaware of the eclipse. Within two minutes the moon’s shadow began to slowly move eastward and with it any hopes we would see totality. This was the first time I had been totally clouded out since January of 1992 in New Zealand. It was very disappointing. Although two horses and a dog were by our site, we oberved no effects on them caused by the eclipse. Snow was all over the ground and our Texas flag flew stiffly in the wind. It was cold enough that even with two pairs of gloves, I felt almost frostbitten.
One of group, Johnny Duran, brought a Polaroid camera and took a couple of photos of a Mongolian policeman who wanted to have his picture taken with us. He and another Mongolian grabbed for the photo as it slowly was ejected from the camera like two children fighting over a new toy. They were very impressed with us foreigners and were very cooperative and friendly. During totality one Mongolian came up to Lynn Palmer and placed a heavy sheepskin coat around her. The Russian army ‘ear hats’ Lynn and I had bought in St. Petersburg last year really came in handy. After a group photo with about two dozne people in it, we all piled dejectedly back into the bus only to experience snow falling inside the bus as we moved up the highway. Looking up, we found a small vent was letting snow in, so we decided to let nature take its course. Along the road, the sky began to show signs of breaks in the clouds. When we arrived in Darhan we were told that the corona had been seen through thin cloud in the city but at the hotel they were clouded out. Those who went north were also clouded as, it seemed, was all of the country.
The most success was reported from Chita in Siberia and Mo He in China where skies were completely clear and the air bitterly cold. Sites there were more remote and logistically more difficult to coordinate. Mo He temperatures were at -30 deg C at eclipse time. Here the government had banned open fires–the main method people there use to stay warm–until after the eclipse in order to prevent air pollution. Chances of seeing the eclipse in Mongolia had been about 50% to begin with. In the afternoon of eclipse day, the skies cleared and remained so for the following two days. We had just been zapped by a fickle weather system and the timing was unlucky.
Before leaving Darhan, we entered a ger camp near our hotel where 20 lamas (monks) from the Gandan Monastery in Ulaan Baatar held prayer readings and a 1,000 candle lighting ceremony. They came to pray FOR the clouds! The monks belived that the negative energy imparted by the eclipse could be mitigated by clouds. The eclipse process is said to cleanse the sun and moon. The lamas prayed day and night. When we entered their tent following a snake trail of people we spied piles of local money called tugriks (1$=770 tugriks) layed out in front of each monk. These were offerings given by local people to help with the divine cloud request. Their duties did not end for another seven days. Each day had a different level of symbolism in the eclipse sequence. Mongolia’s Buddhist monks saw the eclipse as an ominous symbol of death. It was said that animals would howl, traumatized by the sudden darkness. Some Mongolians reported that they had beaten their own dogs into howling in order to frighten the deity Rah into retreating from his consumption of the sun.
By watching the eclipse, predictions could be made, it was portrayed, for the following year. If it snowed or rained on the day after the eclipse, the government would flourish. If there was snow on the second day, it meant a lucky year ahead. Snow on the third day meant that livestock numbers would increase, while snow on the fourth day showed that there would be danger of an enemy struggle. Snow on the fifth day forecasted severe weather was on the way. If it snowed on day number 6, the weather would be fine. However, snow or rain on the seventh day meant disease would spread across the land. My interpretation of this is a little different: if it snows on the day of the eclipse, it really doesnt matter what happens thereafter.
In camp around our hotel were various indigneous people intent on selling everything. It was a flea market to end all flea markets. You could find bear, wolf, fox and snow leopard skins, stuffed gophers, live eagles and reindeer. Police screened everybody entering the hotel grounds. One evening we even had a musical entertainment featuring a weird custom called throat singing. Yak, horse and camel rides were available; one peculair item visible everywhere were piles of small animal bones. It was explained to me that many of the vendors who had traveled from other parts of Asia ate small animals much as we eat Kentucky Fried Chicken; they would then deposit the bones (heads, feet with fur on them in some cases) after eating them! There were eclipse souvenirs depicting the eclipse on rugs, mugs and clothing. Special flights between Darhan and the capital city were advertised for only $25. round trip which was quite a bargain considering there is no airport in Darhan.
People from the Russian republic of Kazakstan and the Tsataan reindeer people, as well as a herd of camels from the Gobi desert were among the sights observed around the hotel. It was as if our hotel was the center of an obscure, short-lived universe. Our hotel was a sight in itself. We found a brochure in our room advertising the Miss Mongolia contest. It is a bit different than a typical beauty pageant. Amongst each candidate’s duties is a scheduled erotic performance. While we had no television, each room had a private bath with hot/cold water, twin beds and doors that locked.Souvenir stands were actually on every floor of the four story hotel. In one case, a souvenir hawker went door to door waking people up and asking them to buy from him.
Food in Mongolia was good. Each meal consisted of an appetizer and a main dish along with soup. Cake or Jell-O appeared on the table as desert from the moment one sat down at the table. Bottled water, beer and soft drinks were in abundance.
We left Darhan and spent successive days in Ulaan Baatar. Our group prowled the Natural History Museum where reconstructed original skeletons of dinosaurs were on display. Also seen were 10 meteorites that had been recovered in a special exhibition room that included the clothes and flight equipment of Mongolia’s only cosmonaut to fly in space. We toured the Ethnic Museum and recounted a display of femurs converted into trumpets. These leg bones were extracted forcibly from 18-year old virgins who were sacrificed in Tibet as part of a chanting ceremony. They say that this custom was not implemented in Mongolia. On our last two nights there we could view Comet Hale-Bopp byopening a tiny window in our hotel room, which you had to do anyway since the heat was oppressive. The final morning before departure to the airport, our group congregated on the roof of the Bayangol Hotel tolook at the comet again under clear skies.
From Mongolia, we returned to spend two half days in Beijing. We traveled the local subway, ate at one of 39 McDonalds restaurants, wandered back alleys at night, saw the old Beijing Observatory (aga 500 years) and took GPS readings in Tienanmen Square where we saw a countdown clock erected to display the number of days/hours/minutes until Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule. We also bought souvenir newspapers that recounted the eclipse.
Everyone agreed that they had a great time on the trip in spite of the cloudy eclipse. The next total eclipse in the region will be in 2008 when Mongolia experiences another total eclipse. The one before this occurred in 1907.