Erika and I have arrived safely back to our respective houses in New York. Check back to this page in the next two weeks or so, as I will be updating the page significantly in that time. In this update, I will have a more comprehensive description of our travels along with many photographs taken (I took about 2500 images — 10 gibabytes!).
Now to plan our next trip…Any suggestions?
Greetings all! I am now in St. Petersburg, enjoying Russia’s second largest city. I leave tomorrow for Stockholm, Sweden where I will stay for a day and then fly back home to New York.
I’m sorry that I have kept you all in suspense regarding news from Kazan, Moscow and St. Petersburg these last few days, but I’ve just not had time to post anything of substance. I’ll post a whole writeup of our travels in the next couple of weeks and fill you in on the last week of Soviets, banyas, blinis, peroghi, canals, and more! For now, I’ll have to tide you over with a photograph that Erika took of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow.
We reached Moscow this morning after an overnight train from Kazan; however, this post is not about Moscow. This post is to fill you in on our last week or so in Central Siberia and the Ural Mountain region.
We left Irkutsk last Saturday on an overnight train that took us to Krasnoyarsk, the third largest city in Siberia. Krasnoyarsk is much more metropolitan than Irkutsk, and Erika and I both instantly liked it. After trying locations of two purportedly inexpensive hotels with no luck (Krasnoyarsk is not too much of a tourist town), we ended up splurging and going to the Hotel Krasnoyarsk (not really splurging, as this is Siberia after all). What we didn’t realize was that this hotel is the very center of the city, with people identifying locations based on their distance and orientation to it, so it ended up being a great place for us to stay for a night. Across the street was the Opera Hall, the Yenisei River, a series of colorful fountains and a slew of shikebab (called shashlik) and beer (called peeva) bar-cafes. Excellent!
The mighty Yenisei River flows through Krasnoyarsk, contributing significant wealth to the city as a trading port. The Yenisey is the 5th longest river in the world at 3,500 miles, as long as the Mississippi-Missouri River system, with headwaters in Mongolia and draining into the Arctic Ocean. It is even featured on the 10 ruble banknote with a view we saw from our hotel in Krasnoyarsk. Tourists can take several day river cruises along its waters, but we were already fixed on our plan of taking the train the whole way across Russia.
Speaking of rubles, they are the national currency here, currently going at about 1 American Dollar = 31 Russian Rubles. Each of the banknotes has a different city highlighted: 5R = Novgorod, 10R = Krasnoyarsk, 50R = St. Petersburg, 100R = Moscow, 500R = Arkhangeslk, 1000R = Yaroslavl, etc. It is sometimes a bit upsetting to ask how much something costs and here a price in the hundreds or thousands. Sometimes it is easy to think of costs in foreign prices as “some” money, without heed to how much things actually cost–but that is a good way to spend all your money fast. E and I have been pretty good about always figuring out equivalent prices before making purchases.
After our time in Krasnoyarsk, we took a 32-hour train to Yekaterinburg. Originally we had planned to go to Novosibersk, the 3rd largest city in Russia (after Moscow and St. Petersburg), but in the end it seemed like there was very little to see or do in industrial Novosibersk, so we skipped it. This particular train was a bit different from our previous trains, as it was “firmenhy”, which indicated it was a higher-quality train (cleaner, newer, faster, and a bit more expensive). All of the firmenhy trains also have unique names; ours which began in Krasnoyarsk and went all the way to Moscow (we didn’t take it that far) was called the “Yenisei” (like the river in Krasnoyarsk).
Aside from the firmenhy train designation, there are four different classes of train travel: First Class (SV), Second Class (Kupe), Third Class (Platzkart), and Fourth Class (obschiy). In first and second class, the train car is split into little cabins of two and four beds respectively. In third class, there are no enclosed cabins but bunks all over the place (more like 6 per cabin-like area), and fourth class just has seats. Erika and I have been riding second and third class throughout our trip, depending on what was available on the trains that best fit our itinerary in each city. I personally prefer third-class because it means getting to talk with other passengers more and it is usually about 66% the price of second-class.
Anyway, the train we took from Krasnoyarsk to Yekaterinburg was a firmenhy train where we had 3rd class beds. It was a lot of fun. You might think that on such a long train ride you’ll have tons of time to yourself and you’ll get bored. But I was never bored. I was either eating, exploring the train, playing cards/chess, reading one of the books I brought (Chekhov’s plays and Bulgakov), or most likely talking to the other passengers. We were invariably the only tourists in our train car (if not the whole train), so it was interesting to hear everyone’s stories, and they were always interested in hearing about us crazy Americans. People wanted to know about our families, where we lived, what we did, why we were making this trip, etc. I’ve learned pretty well how to hold this basic conversation in Russia now after several instances of it, but I have problems keeping the conversation lively after that.
Every few hours the train stops somewhere along the route to pickup/dropoff passengers, and people will get out to grab a beer or some food at one of kiosks at the various stations. Occaisionally, however, certain station stops become famous for some unique product that the townspeople come and sell on the platform. Sometimes it is fruit, or berries, but it’s best when it is freshly smoked fish! One of the stations near Lake Baikal (Sludyanka) was teeming with villagers selling smoked Omul, a delicious fish similar to Salmon that lives in the Lake. Another station on our trip to Yekaterinburg was selling a different oilier fish, but it was still very tasty and super-cheap. A whole 12-inch smoked fish cost about $3!
On Tuesday, we finally reached Yekaterinburg, the fifth largest city in Russia, sitting on the border between Europe and Asia. It has an interesting history: it was the location of the murder of the Czar and his family by the Communists during the revolution; it was the place in which the U2 plane debacle occurred at the height of the Cold War; and it is the hometown of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Like many cities in Russia, it has two names. The Soviets changed the names of cities to suit their causes. St. Petersburg became Leningrad; Volgagrad became Stalingrad; Nizhny Novgorod became Gorky; Yekaterinburg became Sverdlovsk. Despite the official name of the city being Yekaterinburg named for Katherine the Great, its Soviet name of Sverdlovsk remains on the train schedules, statues and some official documents.
Our visit to Yekaterinburg began with a visit to the Church of the Blood, a church that was built at the site of the Romanov family murders. During the revolution, the Bolsheviks ousted Czar Nicholas II and his family from Moscow and imprisoned them in cells in Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains, nearly two thousand kilometers away. Later in 1918, fearing a monarchist government revival, they had him and his family murdered, burned and buried in a mine shaft. The man responsible for the plan, Lenin’s right hand man at that time was named Yakov Sverdlov. Thus, Yekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk, to celebrate the Soviet leader responsible for the murders.
Now that the Soviets are out of power, the Russian government recognizes that it was pretty crummy to have murdered a bunch of innocent people, even if they were nobility standing in the way of the proletariat. The government has officially rebuked those responsible. The Church has gone further, though, as they have canonized the entire murdered family, making them saints. This, I cannot understand. Yes, it was wrong for the Czar and his family to have been killed, but does that mean they get to be saints?! Don’t saints need to have three miracles or something like that? Isn’t this watering down the saint brand a little bit? Well, anyway, they’re saints and the Church of the Blood is the main church celebrating them as such.
My Russian language abilities are pretty basic, consisting of 4 months of instruction, which means I can read, write, speak and listen at about the level of a 4-year-old. Russian is a challenging language, not just because of the different character set, Cyrillic, but because of 6 different noun cases, and lots of strange constructions that we don’t have in English. For instance, to say “I like X”, you say “X is likable to me.” I spend a lot of my spare time here perusing my English-Russian Dictionary. Erika has been really good about learning the character set and reading street signs, as well as learning how to order foods in Russian. Today she learned “I would like a blinni with honey, please.” Here is a USSR-themed restaurant in Yekaterinburg. In Russian, “PECTOPAH” is pronounced “RESTORAN”, but it still looks pretty funny to Westerners unfamiliar with the cyrillic character set. Pectopah…HAH!
While in town, we also visited the Military Museum of Yekaterinburg. Despite claims otherwise, there was very little in English, which made for difficult going for E and me. As you know history museums can be pretty dry in their written descriptions of events and items, and the same goes for Russian history museums, which meant we were pretty lost in museums without English texts. Fortunately, this museum did have something quite interesting: a small exhibit on Gary Powers and the downing of the U2 plane at the height of the Cold War in 1960. For those of you who don’t know, Gary Powers was a pilot in a secret American spy plane flying over Russia at very high altitude who was shot down near Yekaterinburg. The Americans lied and claimed that the U2 was a weather plane that had mistakenly gone unpiloted into Russian territory, but Stalin had Powers questioned extensively and it blew the lid off of an American spyplane campaign. This museum had pieces of the U2 plane as well as some items from Gary Powers’ emergency kit (Russian phrasebook and Rubles). Interesting!
Next post I’ll get to talk about Kazan and the Republic of Tatarstan, as well as Moscow, where I currently sit. See you then!
We’re currently in Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), a Russian city that is in the middle of the Ural mountains dividing Europe from Asia. It doesn’t quite count as Siberia anymore, as that is generally considered to be Asian Russia, but we had a great time in Siberia in the Lake Baikal region and around Krasnoyarsk.
It has taken a lot of research, but we’ve found the party responsible for the death of Russian communism: Adidas. Seemingly every Russian person owns several ensembles of Adidas sporting clothes. At least as far as our experience has gone, one in three people in Russia is currently wearing Adidas clothing–it’s really amazing. We had heard that track suits were the thing to wear on the train, but we had no idea how wide-spread the phenomenon would be! Of course, we had to follow the trend in order to blend in…
Irkutsk is the capital of Eastern Siberia and a pretty quiet town. In its hayday, it was the center of control of all of Siberia (including Alaska!). We spent a couple of nights in Irkutsk, visiting the market, several museums, and getting situated in Russia. One of the museums we visited was one of the former houses of one of the Decembrists. The Decembrists were a group of Russian Aristocrats who attempted to stage a revolutions in the early 19th century, but ultimately failed and were either killed or exiled to Siberia. Many of them found their home in Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia at that time. The museum wasn’t too thrilling, but it was interesting to see how the aristocracy of Russia lived out their lives in exile in the backwoods of the world.
The traditional architecture of this region is wooden houses, cabin-like in nature. The whole region is covered in coniferous forests (taiga), so there is an abundance of natural resources for homes. The houses are all very sturdy in order to put up with the cold Siberian winters.
Irkutsk is only about an hour drive from Lake Baikal, the largest and deepest fresh-water lake in the world. It has 20% of the world’s supply of fresh water, more than all 5 of the great lakes combined! There are all sorts of animals that don’t live anywhere else in the world that live in or near the lake, including fresh-water seals, fresh-water sponges, and lots and lots of fish! It is also the only place in Russia where you can drink the water out of the taps without fearing for your health, since the sponges keep the water so clearn.
It is claimed that Lake Baikal has significant healing powers, such that if you go swimming in it, you’ll add years to your life. Of course, this is no small feat, since due to its depth, it remains very cold all year round. I managed to jump in and swim around a bit when it wasn’t quite so cold!
After Irkutsk, I coaxed Erika into hiking an 18 kilometer trail (~12 miles) from Listvyanka to Bolshie Koty (literally “Big Cats”) a town of about 100 people with no roads (you have to hike or take a boat there). The trail was along the lake side, so it was a great way to get some exercise, see the environment of the lake and get to an otherwise hard-to-reach destination. It proved quite a hike, taking 7 hours and 600 meters of ups and downs as we climbed the steep hills along the lakeshore, but in the end we survived. Erika wasn’t too happy for much of it, but she stuck it out and did really well in rainy conditions!
After Lake Baikal and Irkutsk, we traveled to Krasnoyarsk in Central Siberia. We went there largely because of the recommendations of our friend, Josh Schroeder, who upon stepping out of the trans-siberian train 8 years ago exclaimed that he “really liked this town.” Unfortunately for him, he was only there for a 10-minute stop on the train, whereas we got a whole 2 days there, which we used to explore the city, the Yenisey River (sort of like the Mississippi River of Russia) and the hillside around the town.
I’ll have more to say on this front on my next update, but we’ve got to go. We’re going to the train station to catch a train to Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan Republic within Russia. Update soon!
I promised a decent update with pictures, but I can only live up to part of that promise. It seems everywhere we go has some Internet connection problems, whether it be censorship in China, or lack of infrastructure and power in Mongolia and Irkutsk. Unfortunately, I am still having problems uploading pictures because of slow speeds, but I’ll get more up as I can.
We left China several days ago on a 31-hour train bound for Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We were riding 2nd class, which meant that we were in a small cabin with 2 fold-out beds on each side of the room, one set at eye-level and one set at knee-level. Fortunately, there were no other people booked in our cabin, so we got to rampage about the place without having to worry about other passengers.
Riding on trains like this is a nice way to relax and recuperate in between locations, since you’re forced to just sit around, eat, sleep, read and the like for an extended amount of time. Somehow, it doesn’t get boring, at least not for us so far. The time goes by rather quickly conversing with other passengers, reading, or planning our next destination. Food isn’t generally provided, so you need to bring your own or purchase it from the vendors on the platforms at the stops the train makes every couple of hours. Some of the train stops have really tasty grub too, like smoked fish or fresh strawberries. Yum.
The only major hurdle to our first long-distance train was the border crossing. When we reached the Chinese-Mongolian border, it was about 9PM and everyone on the train was pretty tired after such an early morning (7AM train departure). No one was allowed much sleep though due to the barrage of activity for 6 or so hours of passing the border. First of all, you must deal with all of the rigamarole of passport control as you exit China, which is always a pain in the butt. Next, the Chinese make sure you’re not stealing any treasured goods from the Ming Dynasty by demanding that you open all of your luggage and show them all of your belongings (you really want to see my earplugs?!).
Then comes the changing of the bogeys… “What are bogeys?” you may ask. Well, it is an interesting story, and it starts out with the fact that Russians are paranoid. They are so paranoid, in fact, that when they created their railroad system over a hundred years ago, they intentionally made their railroad track widths a little bit differen than the standard railroad track widths used everywhere else (Europe, China, etc.) They figured that invading armies wouldn’t be able to use the Russian railroad tracks to carry their trains because of the difference in widths, which of course is true, but it also makes it a big pain in the butt when you want to travel between Russia and any other country by train.
So now you’re saying: “OK OK Cameron, enough with this pedantry, what does this have to do with Mongolia and China and Bogeys?” Yes, yes, I’m getting there. Mongolia adopted the same width railroad tracks as Russia (Mongolia was dependent on Russia for the last couple of hundred years), and China has the normal-width railroad tracks that are a few inches different than Mongolia’s. So when a Chinese train crosses the border to go into Mongolia, the bottom level of the train, the part that connects the train to the tracks called the Bogey, has to be replaced to fit the new track width. It takes about 2 hours, but it is really amazing to see an entire train lifted up off the track using massive hydraulic lifts, and then have these different bogeys shifted and locked back into place. Wow. You have to see it to believe it.
Anyway, after the bogeys had been switched, and passport control and customs had done their little routines, we finally got moving into Mongolia. But of course, then we had to do the whole passport control and customs thing again on the Mongolian side (along with a temperature gun shot at our foreheads to determine if we had swine flu!). The point is that it took forever and we were tired, but we got through safe and sound.
We arrived into Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia in the early afternoon. We found a cheap hostel, bought our exit train ticket for a few days later and immediately explored the city. It’s a pretty broken down place, with half-built sidewalks here and there, overgrown grass and weeds in the various parks, and the public buses looking like they were taken from The Bronx in the 1980s. Mongolia as a whole is not a very wealthy place. Their currency is the Tögrög, with about 1500 Tögrögs = $1 USD, so we were immediately thousandaires and almost millionaires! Of course, things aren’t that cheap, as one generally pays for things in hundreds or thousands of Tögrögs, but meals were usually only be $1-5, if that gives you some sort of meterstick for costs there.
The main City-Hall-type building has a huge statue of Genghis Kahn in front of it (they call him Chinggis Kahn), since he’s the most notable Mongolian in history. At the height of his reign in the 13th century, Chinggis’s empire controlled nearly all of Asia, from Shanghai and Beijing all the way west to the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Wow.
Anyway, Erika and I ended up spending three days of our time in Mongolia out in the countryside living with nomadic Mongolian families in a region northeast of Ulaanbaator called Terelj. A full thirty percent of the people living in Mongolia are nomadic, typically living in yurts or gers, these really cool tent/teepee like structures. The nomads herd animals: cows, yaks, sheep, goats, camels, horses, etc, and live off of the land. Our three days gave us a taste of their lifestyle. We got chances to milk cows, practice archery and wrestling, cut logs, sew clothing, horseback riding, shovel poop, swat flies, etc. It was pretty laid back, but interesting.
The nomads with whom we stayed were all very kind, and hardly spoke a lick of English, which meant us trying to learn Mongolian–man that was a challenge. But now we can say some basic things in Mongolian like “How was your Summer?”, and “Where is your toilet?” (a question you hopefully don’t have to ask because the toilets are all Slumdog Millionaire style toilets.)
The interior of a ger is generally very brightly decorated (almost always in orange), with only a few places for belongings (they are nomads you know…). There is a stove in the middle of the ger for cooking and keeping the ger warm in the winter, a couple of beds, and a chest or two for the belongings of the family. It’s pretty minimal.
I even had the opportunity to spread astronomy education a bit, by giving one of the families our small telescope that we had brought along for the eclipse. They were really enthralled by it, as one clear night I gave them close-up views of Jupiter, The Moon and Albireo with it. In the end, though, I think they were potentially more excited to be able to spy on their distant neighbors…
Oh, the other interesting people about Mongolians is their traditional diet. With their selection of livestock, they get a lot of milk to produce a huge variety of dairy products: milk, butter, yogurt, cheese, fermented milk, cheese curds, sour cream, plus lots of other things we just don’t have in the west. A vegan would not be able to survive here because of all of the dairy. The yogurt (called tarek) was amazing, putting my homemade yogurt to shame. Another interesting dairy product was fermented mare’s milk (called airag), a kind of cross between yogurt and beer. It has the potency of wine, the thickness of yogurt and the refreshing quality of beer–I thoroughly enjoyed it. The butter they use isn’t butter that westerners are accustomed to, it is the solid layer of cream the forms on milk after it has been heated for a while. I had no idea that there was any culture in the world that was so dependent on dairy, but it seems to work well for them, even if it did mess with my intestines after a few days.
Erika and I returned to civilization and explored Ulaanbaatar a bit more. We had a negative experience with a hostel called Golden Gobi, who stole our $20 key deposit for no legitimate reason, and were very mean to us. If you’re traveling to Mongolia, I recommend against staying there.
Anyway, there are more adventures to tell, but it is late tonight, and we’re heading to Lake Baikal tomorrow for a 10-mile hike along the lakeside. Our plan is to take a bus to Listvyanka, a town on the Southwest corner of Lake Baikal, hike along the lake north until we reach a small Siberian fishing village called Bolshe Koty, where we’ll hopefully watch the Perseid Meteor Shower. Exciting! I’ll be sure to take pictures and hopefully get them uploaded soon. I’ve added a few more to previous posts, so check those out too.
No time to write, as it is late and I am exhausted. Just wanted to write to say I am alive after having survived Mongolia. Erika and I are now in Irkutsk, Russia, near to the famous Lake Baikal. I’ll provide a big update sometime tomorrow with information and photos from Mongolia, nomads, yurts, milking cows and MORE. Good night for now!
Pictures will be uploaded as I get better Internet access. Stay tuned.
For whatever reason, Chinese people seem to be fascinated with garments that have nonsensical English phrases on them. My favorite so far was a T-shirt with the three words: “Learn Play Benign” on its front. I’m not sure if the owners of garments like these actually know what they say or not. I suppose these clothes are equivalent to the tattoos that many Americans receive with some random Chinese characters. You know, the tattoos that we’re told mean something like “Awesome Dragon”, but more likely they say “I’m with Stupid.”
Tomorrow morning, Erika and I will head to Mongolia on a 31-hour train after having spent the last 9 days in China. We’ve seen a lot here in Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing from the Olympic Stadium (Bird’s Nest) to the Great Wall. Let me give you a list of highlights and a little history.
Shanghai, one of the largest cities in the world at ~20 million people, seems like a really cool place to live, but it doesn’t have a lot of sites to see. Considering its size, the city is to some degree lacking in history beyond a couple hundred years ago. I think the main reason for its wealth and size is, strangely, English drug dealers. In the 19th Century, the English declared war on China in the First Opium War. Essentially, they wanted to import opium to China to make a huge profit by getting the Chinese population addicted to the drug, but the Chinese government wanted to limit the amount of opium imported. Because the English had superior firepower, they won, and claimed “concessions” in several cities in China, one of them being Shanghai. The concession in Shanghai was a region controlled by the English called “The Bund” in the center of town. Throughout the next 200 years or so, violence would come into the country in many forms: peasant revolts, Japanese invaders, etc. Business owners from the provinces would flee the danger and come to international areas like the Bund because of the safety the English borders brought. Effectively, this concentrated a huge amount of people and wealth in cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. Shanghai reminded me a lot of New York, with its modern stylings, skyscrapers, good subway system, and virtual indifference to foreigners.
Anyway, Erika and I spent two days in Shanghai visiting The Bund, the financial district called Pudong with its enormous Pearl Tower and a few of the tallest buildings in the world, the former French concession (yeah, the French were in on the concession business too), People’s Park, The Old City, and various different restaurants around town.
Traveling with a foody like Erika means food is going to be an important point of our day. Shanghai is known for its dumplings, so we made several visits to different dumpling stands: street carts and in restaurants. Generally they were steamed or fried and filled with pork and cost about 50 cents for 4-5 of them. Yum! Another specialty of the region is fresh seafood. In the evening, seafood restaurants will have their fresh catches alive in buckets and tanks on the sidewalk in front of their stores. If you want to eat there, you pick out whatever fish or animal you want to eat, they mark it somehow, cook it but leave the mark so that you know that you got your fresh fish. We went to one such restaurant, which was teeming with fish. They had about 10 different kinds of fish, squid, octopus, scallops, gooey ducks, razor clams, oysters, frogs, urchins and a bunch of things that I didn’t recognize. I ended up picking out something that looked like an enormous earthworm, because it looked the strangest, but the English translation for it on the menu was “intestine” despite the fact that it was some sort of wormy sea creature. E got a tasty looking fish, and the chefs cooked each up really nicely. Mine actually did have a similar consistency to intestines, so it will remain a mystery for the ages what I ate, but it was very delicious.
After a couple of days in Shanghai we went to Beijing for 4 days. Whereas Shanghai is a modern, international city, Beijing feels more historical and distinctly Chinese, and for good reason. It has historical buildings all over the place dating back to the 13th century and earlier. There is Tiananmen Square–location of Mao’s proclamation of victory for the Communists in 1949 and the student riots in 1989, The Forbidden City–home of emporers going back 8 centuries, The Summer Palace–an enormous park acting as an out of town getaway for royalty for centuries, Houhai–a series of artificial lakes constructed under Kublai Khan’s direction in the 13th century, the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube from the 2008 Olympics, and of course The Great Wall of China–the series of walls built along the Northern borders of China to keep the Mongol invaders at bay.
Most people (me included) believe that the Great Wall is one continuous wall defending the Northern border of China from Mongolia, but it is actually a series of disconnected walls built and rebuilt to keep out invaders. Erika and I spent a whole day walking along the Great Wall for about 6 miles at a section called Si Ma Tai, a relatively untouristed location 3 hours drive outside of Beijing. The only people on the Wall other than our group of 20 people who arrived together were Chinese locals waiting every few hundred meters to attempt a crummy t-shirt or cold water sale. Overall it was an amazing experience with beautiful vistas and a considerable amount of climbing (I clocked a net change of 600 meters of vertical distance on my altimeter watch–yes I’m a dork.) I want to look into coming back and doing a huge hike trekking and camping along all of the existing parts of the Great Wall, but I don’t know if the Chinese government will allow such a thing or just how long this might take. Badass!
The drive to the Great Wall was almost as exciting as the hike itself what with the crazy drivers here in China. Imagine if you will roads clogged with motorcyclists, bicyclists, buses, tractors, cars and trucks each carrying their respective loads. Now imagine that no one really cares about ideas like “right of way”, traffic lines or speed limits, they just care about getting wherever they are going as fast as possible, everyone else be damned. Now you have a good idea of how traffic is here. We saw constant situations on two-lane highways where drivers (like ours) would come up on slightly slower traffic and move into oncoming traffic or on to the shoulder to pass the slower vehicle accompanied by a honk to let the other driver know what was going on. The cyclists make everything seem more dangerous because they are everywhere, and one rogue move by one of the chaotic drivers could have devastating consequences for them. E and I were going to rent bikes at one point, but we didn’t find time and I was pretty nervous riding here even after lots of experience on New York City streets and riding the West Coast Highway from Portland to San Diego. I think it was a wise move not to join in the frenzy.
Well, it is late and I have to catch a train in 5 hours. I have loads more to discuss about the trip though, but I’ll leave you with a story.
In the middle of Tiananmen Square is an enormous memorial to Chairman Mao, which houses his embalmed body. Several days a week, people are allowed to briefly view his body in its crystalline tomb, so I coaxed E into going down one morning to check out old Mao. We arrived to find an huge line wrapping around the memorial mostly consisting of native Chinese. I approximated it at about 5,000 people. We queued up along with all of the other Mao-lovers and found that the line was moving at a good clip; however, about 30 minutes into the line we discovered that backpacks and purses were forbidden at the entry point. Erika, being the altruistic one she is (and not caring too much to see an old bloated Mao) was kind enough to take my backpack and wait for me while I continued in the line, but I held onto my camera as I was surreptitiously photographing the crowd and police who shouted at us to stay in line. I kept imagining that I was waiting to get a loaf of bread as one used to under communist rule in Asia. As I approached the security counter, now having waited about 60 minutes, I saw a sign in English that said cameras were prohibited along with backpacks. Oh no! Figuring that the jig was up, I started to leave, but then I realized that I could outsmart the Chinese officials. I stopped short to tie my shoe and I stealthily slid my camera into my sock (this is a little Canon elf, not some massive DSLR we’re talking about). When I got to the metal detector, I stuck my sunglasses in my pocket, so that when I beeped, I pulled out my sunglasses and they figured that was the source of the metal detected and pushed me along. Awesome! Of course, there were so many security around from that point on that I didn’t want to pull out the camera for fear of being arrested and sent to Chinese prison, but at least I didn’t get kicked out of line. Anyway, a few minutes later I got to see Mao in all of his discolored, waxy glory. He looks like a bright yellow, wax statue lying under a crystalline dome with a Chinese flag covering his body up to his chest. There is some speculation that his body may be fake, but the police usher you past him so quickly that it is hard to make any definite distinction. All in all, this proved an interesting experience to see so many reverent Chinese citizens cleary very somber about seeing this important historical persona. Maybe we should start embalming our leaders in the West and putting them on display to the public–first up, George W!
Updating this blog has become problematic from China. Somehow my domain got on the censorship list by the Chinese authorities, such that I cannot access it from here in China. (It’s pretty amazing that a government can justify blocking access for their citizens to huge chunks of the internet—Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, any article mentioning Tibet, Falun Gong, etc.) My good friend Jeff Oishi has been kind enough to update the blog for me while I’m in China with emails that I send to him. Thanks, Jeff!
I find myself in Shanghai at 9AM about to explore the city. Erika and I have had a wild last couple of days since I last posted. At our location of Tianhuangping, a mountain observatory and hotel northwest of Hangzhou, we succeeded in seeing the solar eclipse! This is some feat considering that a large number of eclipse-goers were clouded in at many other observing sites. It was raining heavily in Shanghai, it was cloudy in Hangzhou, and even a mountain a few miles from our viewing location (that we had considered for observing the eclipse) was clouded out. Evidently there was a line of clouds right down the center line of where the total solar eclipse could be seen, and we got extremely lucky to view it.
Tianhuangping is a mountain resort and observatory, hosting a hotel as well as the new location of the Shanghai observatory (the old one is too close to the pollution of Shanghai). It is about 1000 meters above sea level in a nice little mountain/hill chain, distant from any cities with light pollution or real pollution. We anticipated a few thousand people visiting the remote location, from domestic tourist groups to international tourist groups because of the publicity it had received from our very own Jay Pasachoff over the previous year or two as the ‘best’ viewing location for this eclipse. And right he was. There was a large reservoir near the hotel that provided a beautiful backdrop to the main event that was to occur in the sky. The tourists would be herded around the reservoir in their respective groups, each delimited by tape with security and police keeping a watchful eye.
All of the real astronomical research being done by the scientists located on the roof of the hotel, but there was little room for our low-tech setup of a telescope. Instead, we had scouted out a location with the most picturesque landscape below where the eclipse would occur. The backdrop were these stunning untouched mountains lush with acres upon acres of bamboo. We were joined by another astrophotographer and graduate student, Michael.
The morning started at 5AM on Wednesday the 22nd, when Erika and I got up, had breakfast and headed out to beat the crowds to our telescope setup spot. We weren’t strictly supposed to be in our location, as it was up a hill overlooking the reservoir next to the power station for the whole complex. We tried to look official so that we wouldn’t be forcibly removed by the police or overwhelmed by tourists trying to hone in on our location. Because we arrived early, we got set up quickly and then Erika sat like a guard dog on the path up to our location, blocking any potential tourists with a steely gaze and hands on her hips. Several groups of tourists tried to come up to our location (Chinese, Scandinavian and German), but Erika was very effective at blocking them and convincing them that we were carrying out official business on the hillside. It worked most effectively when the police came to take us down. Well done, E!
Our setup was anything but official-looking. I had intentionally brought low-weight, low-tech and low-cost instruments for observation, as I intend to leave the equipment here in Asia, rather than carting it the rest of our way home. I brought a Galileoscope, a $15 2-inch refracting telescope, a couple of $15 tripods, and a solar filter for the telescope. Instead of a nice SLR camera like everyone else seemed to be carrying, I had my Canon wide-field, point and shoot SD880 ELF. I set up the telescope on a tripod with the solar filter and an eyepiece, then arranged the camera on its own tripod to peer in the eyepiece of the telescope in the way a person would with their eye. It worked pretty well after some fidgeting, but in the end, it wasn’t good enough to get any great photographs through the telescope. The most entertaining part about the telescope is that it has a big sticker on the side with a graphic warning against pointing the telescope at the Sun! Of course, we were using a solar filter to observe the Sun, so it was OK, but it was funny nonetheless.
Solar eclipses occur when there is an alignment between the Sun, the Moon and the Earth, such that the Moon (which is coincindentally a similar angular size in the Sky as the Sun) blocks all of the light from the Sun for a certain location on the Earth. They last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, and they tend to occur *somewhere* on the Earth every year and a half. This particular eclipse was the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century, lasting over 6 minutes in some locations (only 5:39 in ours). The shadow of the Moon passed in a 100-mile swath from Northern India through Asia to Southern China and then out into the Western Pacific.
At 8:20AM, first contact occurred, where the Moon slowly started to eat the Sun. This was not obvious as there was no appreciable decrease in ambient light. You needed to look through a solar filter in order to see the shape of the solar disk—no longer was it a circle, but now it had a little bite taken out of the side. The weather was relatively hazy and cloudy during this period. You could see the Sun relatively well, but there were periods when thick clouds passed in front of it and blocked it out. Everyone was very nervous that we weren’t going to see it, given the clouds, and the weather forecast for thunderstorms, but we were still hopeful. After all, many people (like us) had traveled thousands of miles to witness this event.
Over the next 70 minutes, this bite in the Sun got gradually bigger and bigger, as the Moon overtook the Sun in the sky. In the last 5 minutes before second contact (the beginning of totality), things changed dramatically. The light took on an eery color and brightness that I had never witnessed before; it was dark like twilight but the Sun was still overhead making it look very surreal. I was trying to get my equipment trained on the Sun so that I could get some more pictures, but I was to some degree stupefied by the situation and found it difficult to fiddle with telescope equipment.
At exactly 9:33:01AM, the Moon covered the Sun and everything got rapidly and extremely dark. The five thousand people around the reservoir went crazy, shouting and gasping. Erika shouted ‘this is outrageous!’, and I had to agree. When the Moon covers the Sun during an eclipse, it blocks out all of the light from the main disk of the Sun; however, light from the corona (Latin for crown), the thin, superhot region around the Sun still illuminates the scene. The corona is one millionth the brightness of the normal Sun (about the brightness of a full Moon). The sky is as dark as a night lit by only the Moon, but instead of looking up to see the Moon in the sky, you see this strangely-shaped donut, the corona around the blotted-out Sun. The cicadas that had been whining previously took up a fever pitch, probably what they do at dusk, and it made the situation even more surreal. Looking along the horizon in any direction, you could see reddish light, coming from the regions not in the direct shadow of the Moon, where the white light is scattered down to an ember-red by all of the air on the way to our eyes.
Erika shouted to look at the zenith and I could see a bright point of light, Venus, directly overhead. Of course, Venus had been there all morning long, but it had been virtually invisible since the light from the Sun up until then had been too bright. Astounding! I struggled to shoot a few pictures through the telescope and then of the wide field of the scene, but I couldn’t focus on anything but enjoying the spectacle of it all. Erika and I looked through the telescope (now with the solar filter taken off) to see the corona close-up. It was amazing to see the streamers coming off the disk of the Sun, representing the hot plasma caught in the strong magnetic field lines of the Sun.
After 5 minutes and 38 seconds, the Sun arose from the Moon’s shadow at third contact. As it arose, there was a beautiful diamond-ring image that I was unable to capture, but that Jay’s group got a good photo of. All of the partial phases of the eclipse that we had seen leading up to totality happened in reverse order, but no one was too concerned with them. We had all witnessed something breathtaking, and we were excited to talk about it, not to see the shadow recede slowly from the disk. After 30 minutes or so, we packed up our equipment and wandered back to the hotel, discussing all that we had just witnessed.
In the end, we got lucky. For much of China, the eclipse was nothing more than a brief darkness in a cloudy sky, but for us, it was a once-in-a-lifetime surreal experience. I got a few pictures, but I couldn’t capture the glory of it all. For that, you’ll have to travel to see an eclipse. Be aware that there will be a total solar eclipse over North America in 2017, visible from Oregon to Kentucky, to the East coast, so mark your calendars. It is not something you will want to miss.
I’ll make this short, since I’m on a borrowed computer.
Erika and I flew for 14 hours from Newark, New Jersey to Shanghai, China on a direct flight. It actually took us over Northern Canada near the North Pole! Fortunately (or unfortunately, I suppose), I had so much work to do prior to my departure that I didn’t get any sleep the night before our 11AM flight, and I was able to sleep 6 hours on the plane. Now I’m hardly jet lagged at all, which is a stunt considering it is a 12-hour shift off of East Coast time.
Initially we were fearful of being quarantined by the Chinese authorities upon our arrival in Shanghai. Recently they’ve been checking the temperature of all incoming passengers on planes to identify flu-infected people and prevent them from spreading it to China. Fortunately, they didn’t check temperatures of people on our plane, having stopped with the practice the previous day. I’d hate to miss part of the trip stuck in a Chinese hospital-prison.
First impressions on Shanghai and China. It isn’t as shocking as I expected. It is crowded, hot, and humid, but the environment is reminiscent of Los Angeles in terms of the greenery and climate. We didn’t spend any time in Shanghai, as we immediately left for Hangzhou a couple of hours drive to the southwest. We stayed there the night of the 20th and immediately left for a remote location in the mountains west of Hangzhou to observe the total solar eclipse occurring tomorrow.
You see, we were lucky enough to contact Dr. Jay Pasachoff, a leading solar astronomer, who is performing several research observations from this location in Southern China during the eclipse. The path of the total eclipse will travel from Northern India across Southern China and out into the Western Pacific Ocean on the morning of Wednesday, July 22nd. He was generous enough to invite us to join his research team in witnessing what many people consider to be the most sublime astronomical event visible on Earth.
I’ve taken loads of pictures from this site already, but I cannot access the photos yet, but Erika snapped this one with her iPhone. it should give you an idea of all of the observing equipment set up here, more telescopes and cameras that I’ve ever seen in a single place! Erika and I are very excited, but we’ll see if the weather holds for the observing tomorrow. It seems the forecast is calling for clouds, so we’ll just have to cross our fingers!
Welcome to my site, everyone!
Everything is still a bit under construction, but this is going to be a site where I talk about science, put up photojournals of my travels, and more!
Stay tuned for my blog from Asia. I leave in about 10 minutes to go to Shanghai, China to observe the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century! Then I will spend the next 5 weeks traveling across Asia on the trans-siberian railroad until I reach Moscow, St. Petersburg, and finally Stockholm, Sweden. I’m calling it my Shanghai to Stockholm trip.
For now, just check out my itinerary:
I’ll post more soon!