Growing up, I had never given eclipses much thought. I remember a few happen around Chennai when i was growing up. The Surya Grahanam was not an auspicious sign and we were usually told to stay indoors when it happened. You were not allowed to take a bath or eat anything during the eclipse. And once it was over, the family would do a small prayer, offer food to the gods and the crows and only then you can get back to your regular routine. Superstition or a ritual with some practical meaning behind it.. I'm not so sure.
Anyway, that was then. Now, i didn't have any such misgivings and the moment i heard about the eclipse from one my friends i made up my mind to go see it.
There was one little hitch in my plans though, the weather. The whole region was drenched with heavy rains and thunderstorms everyday since the beginning of July. With the 'E'-day coming nearer and the flight prices jumping up every passing day, i had to make up my mind and Soon!!
I chose what i believed to be the safest option. Near Hangzhou, there is a small city known as Haining and it is home to the famous Qiangtang River Tide. On the same day as the eclipse, a tidal bore was predicted on the river and it seemed to be the perfect choice. Even if the weather was bad and i couldn't see the eclipse, atleast i'll get to see the tidal bore which in itself promised to be an interesting spectacle. So, with the odds on my side, i decided to go ahead with the trip. And i got another person from the Beijing couch surfing group to join me for the eclipse. We were gonna meet up in Hangzhou, watch the eclipse and then go to Haining to watch the tide.
I took the night train to Hangzhou, it was scheduled to arrive in Hangzhou at 8:45am. Lots of time for me to head over to our meeting place and watch the totality, which was supposed to begin at 9:34am.
They say that you can set your clock by the train timings in china. And usually it is true, the trains here depart and arrive on the dot. But this time somehow the train was running late (or the website gave me the wrong info). It was 8:45am and we were nowhere close to Hangzhou and the eclipse had already started. But it was not all bad though, the cloud cover was not very thick and i could actually comfortably see the moon inching its way across the sun without any special glasses.
As i was watching the eclipse, the clouds parted slowly and my eyes were hit with the full glare of the sun. I took a moment or two to turn away and as i blinked i could see the crescent shaped orange disk inside my eyelids. I opened my eyes and it was still there swimming infront of me, slowly moving from left to right. I remembered reading on the net about the dangers of looking at the eclipse directly. They say that a permanent image of the sun would be burnt in at the back of your retina and i was pretty sure that it had happened to me. Strangely i was calm, thinking about how my life would be if everything i laid my eyes on has a crescent shaped sun superimposed in on it. It didn't seem so bad and luckily i didn't have to live with it. Slowly after about 10 minutes or so, the image faded away and we were pulling into the Hangzhou station.
Everyone, i mean everyone on the streets were looking up at the sky. Funky solar spectacles, x-rays, photo film strips, stacked sunglasses... whatever people could get their hands on, they were using it to watch the eclipse. Those who didn't have anything still couldn't resist looking up at the sky, shielding the sun with their hands as they look up to catch a glimpse of the eclipse. I wanted to shout out to them about what just happened to me.. but i didn't. I was in the taxi, too busy trying to catch the glimpse of the eclipse myself. Sticking my phone out of the window and trying to catch the reflection of the sun on the dark matte side of the phone.
Only a few minutes left for totality to begin and the traffic came to a halt and the city lights were all turned on. I was close to to Hangzhou west lake but still not quite there.. i was sitting in the taxi contemplating whether or not i should just jump out when i suddenly i heard a collective gasp from everyone around me. I thrust a 20RMB note into my drivers hand and jumped out just in time to catch the moon sliding over the last bright bit of the sun. There was collective cheering and whooping going on and i let out a few of my own.
It was bigger than i imagined, strangely calm and beautiful.. a cool silver orb glowing in the sky, unlike anything that i had experienced before. We had a perfect view of the totality and could see the Sun's Corona from behind the moon in all its glory. It took me a few moments to realize that i was taking pictures with the wrong lens and quickly changed it to take some more close up shots.
Then i decided to cross the road and try to get a shot of the eclipse with the lake in the foreground. It would've been an amazing shot but in all my excitement i had forgotten to time the event. As i was crossing the road, i heard another collective gasp and when i looked up the sun was showing itself again. I missed the diamond ring by a few seconds and i was absolutely livid with myself. But on the plus side.. it gives me a reason to go catch the next one. Eclipse chaser ???.. maybe. There's so many things in life that i want to be, adding eclipse chasing to the list doesn't seem that much of a stretch.
Then i finally metup with my new CS friend and she had bought me a solar spectacle. I put it on to 'safely' see the moon on its way out over the sun. But somehow after experiencing totality, it was just bland and not very exciting.
Both of us didn't know when the tide was supposed to happen. We were not sure if we had enough time to get to Haining, but we took a taxi to the bus station anyway. On the way the taxi driver told us that there might not be enough time for us to get to Haining and that we can watch the tide, albeit a bit milder, from the Hangzhou itself. He then dropped us off close to a bridge nearby and took our spots amid the other people there and waited for the tide.
After waiting for a couple of hours we were not really in the mood to wait any longer. And after hearing from a few of her friends up at Haining that the tide was not really that big (1meter tall and moving slowly), we decided to give it up and go have lunch in the city. Getting a clear view of the totality was more than i hoped for and i didn't mind missing a few 'waves'.
We had a nice lunch at a small dumpling/noodle place in the city. And said our goodbyes. She was off to Shanghai and i had my return train from Hangzhou at 8:00pm. I just spent the rest of my afternoon and evening wandering around the west lake, taking pictures and reflecting on the amazing experience. I've never been a lucky traveller, always ending up at the right places at the wrong time. And this time everything worked out perfectly.