CHASING THE MONGOLIAN ECLIPSE

by Ernie Piini


Never before, after 18 solar eclipses, have I chased one to its last fading moments. With a cloud cover that looked impossible to penetrate, most people would have stopped and said, "Forget it." But miracles do happen, even with only 10 minutes left before totality. The prospect of seeing comet Hale-Bopp in the same sky with this eclipse drove us on. So why not go for it?

For four days before the big event it was surprisingly clear and cold in Ulan Batar, the capital of Mongolia. The evening before eclipse day, the entire group of 230 people from the British based Explorers Tours were thoroughly briefed with eclipse information by the knowledgeable and entertaining Dr. John Mason of England. At the end of the briefing, and for the first time ever, we had to pay a $10 eclipse tax imposed upon us by the Mongolians. They would accept only US dollars, not Mongolian togrogs. This tells you something about the real value of the US dollar.

On eclipse day morning March 9, 1997 our caravan of 10 busses (one serving as a backup in case of an emergency) left our Hotel Bayangal at 1:50 a.m. for the five hour journey north to the city of Darhan just south of the centerline. Our proposed destination (49deg. 53min. North lat.; 106deg. 15min. East long.) is a few kilometers north of the centerline, ill-defined as near "a bridge" at an altitude of 800 meters (2624 feet). I was assigned to the eighth bus in line in the caravan. We did not stay there for long because our bus driver had a little Genghis Khan blood in him, and the only position he would accept was first. Our ride could be classified as a "white knuckle" variety. The road was icy and full of chuck-holes but that did not stop our driver from tailgating and passing other busses. It was only a matter of time before we were first in line, at the expense of some daring and scary moments.

At 4:10 a.m. the caravan stopped for a peek at comet Hale-Bopp, truly spectacular against a very dark sky. We hoped to see it again in a few hours 46 degrees above and to the north of the totally eclipsed sun. However, around 5:30 a.m. a weather front moved in and it began to snow. Jubilant faces soon turned gloomy.

Decision time. Do we turn around and go back south to where it had been clear (and hope that it would still be clear) and give up a minute or so of totality, or continue on in hopes that we will find it clear in Darhan? After much discussion the decision came to continue. First contact was to be at 07:49:45 a.m. and totality at 08:49:45 a.m.

Explorer's Tours had scheduled a breakfast stop in Darhan at 7 a.m. but the restaurant was not big enough or capable of handling 230 people in short order and have us back on the road again in a timely manner. Outside, the overcast sky was unpleasantly dark and gloomy. The breakfast line I was in moved from a snow covered sidewalk and up a flight of stairs to the second floor in about 45 minutes. This was much too slow if we were to reach our site in time for totality, now less than an hour away. About ten percent of the group had been served, when word passed that we would forgo breakfast until after the eclipse; so, onto the busses again. Like the Golden Horde, our driver "peeled rubber" and we were first out of Darhan, again leading the chase to the northeast.

Around 8:30 a.m. our hopes momentarily brightened when we saw the partially eclipsed sun trying to poke through the clouds, but it soon disappeared again behind thicker clouds. We continued our race northeastward, passing people along the roadside with cameras on tripods and Mongolians riding horses.

At about 8:40 a.m. we saw the sun trying to poke through once more, and this time a clearing was forming just a few degrees above where the sun would be during totality. We stopped, quickly got out of the bus onto the roadway, and set up what minimal equipment we would need to capture something from this eclipse. The temperature was -27deg.C (-17deg.F). Not too cold when fully clothed with thermal underwear, two pairs of pants, snow mask, woolen cap, down jacket, inner and outer gloves, snow boots and three pairs of socks; that is, if you keep moving. But while standing in one spot for 3 minutes around totality my feet almost froze.

With the help of Michael Koop of the San Jose Astronomical Association, I had built heating blankets for my camera, camcorder and the 12-volt battery used to power the heaters. These were powered up about 30 minutes before totality to prevent my equipment from freezing. (I should have made a heat blanket for my feet.)

The highly elongated moon shadow moved over us like a tornado. While viewing the eclipse through my Canon ES-2000 camcorder's color monitor, I saw a mottled thin crescent vanish into totality at 08:49:26 a.m. local time. My time display was calibrated to within a second of Universal Time using my handheld GPS unit. The camcorder conveniently recorded the exact timing at 2nd and 3rd contact. I could see traces of the corona along the periphery of the black disc of the moon. With about 20 seconds remaining, the display improved as the details of two streamers near the inner corona began to brighten. At 08:51:50 a.m. the "diamond ring" appeared signaling the end of totality.

The measured time of totality from my camcorder taping was 2 minutes and 24 seconds. This places the point where we stopped to view the eclipse at slightly north of the centerline at approximately 49deg, 35min N; 106deg, 05min. E. Again the wind ceased during the eclipse; a condition I have observed at 17 of the 18 eclipses I have had the good fortune to attend.

This wasn't a clean eclipse, but we did see something. Many of the 2500 people who flocked to Mongolia for this event saw nothing but clouds. Disappointed? Not really, after all we still looked forward to seeing the Great Wall of China, Tianamin Square in Beijing, the Terracotta Army in Xian, the fabulous Li River boat ride out of Guilin and a visit to a very modern Shanghai. And how about Mongolia, better known as Genghis Khan country, with its Russian influence, gers (a mobile circular house tent) and yaks? I really enjoyed this trip.

There will be another eclipse next February 26, 1998, less than a year away in the Caribbean. No cold feet there.

Ernie Piini

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