Report on eclipse expedition to Siberia

The path of the total solar eclipse on March 9, 1997, will pass through the territories of five portions of the Russian Federation (Yakut Republic, Khabarovsk Territory, Amur and Chita Region, and Buryat Republic). The eclipse will also be observed on a small territory in the north-western part of China and Mongolia.
This story about the experiences of our latest eclipse expedition to Siberia is available - peppered with rare links - at the address and will be "upgraded" within 10 days or so into an illustrated article.

  Daniel Fischer, Bonn/Koenigswinter, Germany, March 14, 1997  FAX: ++49-2244-870-966

"E" - 3 days

March 6th, 1997, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, somewhere between the towns of Ulan Ude and Chita in Eastern Siberia, close to the Mongolian border. It is hot. Damn hot. Our thermometers show +29 degrees Celsius, and there is no way to turn off the heating in the German-made car while the frozen, yet beautiful, landscape passes behind the windows (which one can't open either). Endless taiga forest, now and then a village and a frozen river, all covered by light snow.

This is the 5th day of our expedition in Siberia, on the quest to bag yet another total solar eclipse - and one that is widely regarded as a mission impossible. "This is a cold weather eclipse," the Eclipse Bulletin had stated and conveyed a lot of dire warnings: "Electrical batteries retain only about 20% of their energy at -30 deg.C... Film will break as it winds forward" and so on. Only the conditions in Mongolia, where the path of the eclipse began, would be tolerable, the experts advised.

And yet here we were, three eclipse veterans from the North-Rhine Westfalia state in Western Germany, Bernd Brinkmann, Georg Dittie and myself, Daniel Fischer, already 7 and soon 8 time zones East of home - and with a trail of shattered preconceptions in our wake. Russia a 3rd world country on the brink of economic and social collapse? At least not where we had been so far: Apart from somewhat chaotic procedures at Sheremetyevo airport during an initial stop-over on the way from Frankfurt to Irkutsk, the level of organization had approached Western standards.

The airplanes - run by the much-hailed new Russian carrier Transaero with Western comfort - had been quite on time, and our hosts had awaited us both in Irkutsk and later Ulan Ude (they had gotten their instructions from our German Siberia specialist via e-mail). A dense network of public transport (trams, trolley- and mini busses) surpassing that of many Western cities made getting around easy, and the supplies of food and everything else seemed plentiful. Getting hold of something to eat or drink in the middle of the night? No problem: Little kiosks are everywhere and never seem to close.

Siberian cities in winter a place of unbearable tristesse? On the contrary: Wooden architecture with delicately styled facades dominates cities and villages - and the buildings are painted in bright colors, while stone ones are generally well-maintained. And even unattractive housing areas from the Stalin and Khrushchev eras change their face once you enter the living rooms - which we did all the time, as we always chose homestays with Russian families over hotels. Even the smallest quarters are turned into comfortable islands, albeit often crowned by an amazing array of kitschy objects from various decades.

And finally: Siberia in winter an unbearably cold place, the best proxy to Antarctica? This idea, too, had to be qualified: True, in mid-winter temperatures drop to -40 degrees even in this southern part of Siberia, but early March often yields a preview of spring, with daytime temperatures above freezing. And the air is dry, making cooler spells quite tolerable.

So now, after visiting Irkutsk with its frozen Angara river, the breathtaking and also frozen Lake Baikal (with a big vacuum solar telescope on a nearby hill, unfortunately out of commission), and the fascinating capital of the Buryat Republic, Ulan Ude (with an excellent natural history museum, a large Buddhist temple nearby - and the biggest Lenin head in the world), we were now on the Trans-Siberian Railroad again.

The first leg on this legendary line (which connects Moscow with Vladivostok and Beijing), from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, had been uneventful (apart from the changing views of Lake Baikal and its surroundings) - but this time astronomy came over us with a bang. And before we arrived in Chita, the largest city in the zone of totality, we had won two new friends.

There was Dmitri, an educator from Moscow who had been on the train all the way from there, bringing sophisticated radiometric equipment to record a 'light curve' of the eclipse in the UV, visible light and IR. His children's group was then supposed to analyze and publish the data. Dmitri was also an infinite source of information on how to travel to the extremely remote Tunguska impact site from 1908 - apparently there is an expedition from his organization to there every year.

Our other aquaintance on the train was Tolik, a young aspiring journalist from Chita who was returning to his hometown for the eclipse. When five astronomy enthusiasts meet in the middle of nowhere there is plenty to talk about, and so the 9 1/2 hrs in the Trans-Siberian sauna flew by. There was even a possibility to watch comet Hale-Bopp from the train, but only its dust tail made it through the dirty windows. Our new Russian friends were impressed (and struggled in vain to pronounce the comet's name American-style - there is no 'H' in Russian). When the train pulled into Chita we had exchanged lots of valuable information and, of course, our addresses: The axis Germany - Moscow - Chita will stay.

"E" - 2 days

In Chita. As before in Irkutsk and Ulan Ude we had been met by local travel specialists or their relatives or friends - everybody knows everyone else, it seemed, with the logistical center being a small company in Irkutsk. And as before we found a temporary home with private people - almost a necessity in this town near the point where Russia, Mongolia and China meet and where the few hotels are either way too expensive or occupied by strange "business men" (or both - plus equipped with cockroaches falling from the ceiling, as we were told).

Two days before the eclipse we had a number of "appointments." First, Tolik had arranged for us to give a little improvised talk about the event in German to students of the Foreign Language Academy of Chita University. Afterwards we distributed some primitive solar filters - nothing whatsoever had been prepared in this regard in Chita - and had to autograph various papers and photographs we happened to have with us. We also paid a visit to the head of the University's astronomy department and their "educational roof:" A number of clever geometrical constructions from bent metal rods had been placed here to explain celestial angles to the students. Several small telescopes were parked in the astronomer's office.

Since approaching Chita, the weather had turned perfectly clear (and finally "adequately" cold for Siberia, with morning temperatures around -25 degrees and noon temperatures around -10). This gave us the first opportunity to show our hosts - and ourselves - Hale-Bopp in the evening sky: Despite the city lights the dust (but not the plasma) tail was very evident, and a 4-inch reflector easily revealed the famous dust shells in Hale-Bopp's inner coma.

"E" - 1 day

Today the sky is still cloud-free but not as transparent as yesterday. It is a special day for Russians: March 8th, International Womens' Day. And since it falls on a Sunday, the festivities are extended into the following Monday as well, generating a 3-day holiday - with the eclipse in the middle. March 8th is a family affair: The streets of Chita were pretty empty. In a restaurant we finally meet another foreigner, the only other eclipse traveller we ever encountered during our stay in Chita. Actually there should have been a few hundred, esp. Japanese, plus a few dozen scientists, according to the local newspapers, but they must have been hiding in their hotels or at dedicated observing sites outside the city.

Our "find," though, has bad news: Clouds will be coming in tonight, and the prospects for eclipse day are unclear. Armed with this information, one of our hosts goes to great lengths to call various offices in Chita and finally gets a rather detailled picture from the Weather Bureau: There is indeed a cyclonic system moving towards us from the West. Their advice: Go East... For the umpteenth time we change our travel plans at the last minute and decide to stay in Chita for tonight - in order to leave towards the East at 4 a.m. Ominous cirrus clouds can soon be spotted in the West.

Of little help for our planning is the Russian TV, which is dominated by March 8th stuff anyway. Only one news program mentions tomorrow's eclipse and only in a humoristic context: If you live in the West of Russia, hurry up and don't tell your wife. Weather satellite images seem to be unknown to Russian TV, where the weather reports mainly concentrate on temperatures.

Eclipse Day!

At 4:30 a.m. it is clear again, and we head out of the city, with a Japanese car, its driver and an interpreter. Hale-Bopp is now a brilliant sight in the East, and once outside Chita the plasma tail becomes visible again, at an angle with the much brighter dust tail. Unfortunately our car has been sighted, too - by Russia's hated traffic control militia GAI, which guards a key road intersection. To this day we still wonder what these people in their tiny jeep were up to, but all arguing by our driver and interpreter didn't help: We were escorted back to Chita and into the militia's HQ (at least they weren't impostors, which we heard did exist).

Not that they were rude (they even organized chairs for us) or obviously corrupt (they never even hinted at wanting to get money) - but it was evident that they had not been instructed about March 9th being an unusual day on which strangers might drive around in the wee hours. The procedure took two hours and at times involved the head of the Chita tourist bureau (on the phone) and a kind lady from some visa deptartment (in person). Lots of papers were filed, and then we were - verbally - "cleared" to move wherever we wanted.

No written document to that effect was handed to us, however, but it wouldn't have had any use anyway: The "post" where we had been intercepted hours earlier lay deserted when we passed there again, and we never met any other GAI patrol on E day. This made this episode - the only time during our whole journey that the old Soviet Union raised its head again - all the more bizarre. Fortunately it was over in time for us to resume our hunt for clear skies: While we had been in custody, Chita had clouded over. With the exception of a clear patch close to the Eastern horizon, however, towards we now raced as fast as the bumpy (but well-paved) road allowed us.

Sunrise was spectacular in that very cloud gap, and it became clear that we were making progress towards it: The car actually outran the clould front, at least for the time being. The eclipse had long started by then, and it was only 45 minutes till 2nd contact and beginning of totality when we reached Urulga, a little village that our driver knew. We took a little hill to the East of it, setting up our impromptu observing site at about 1 100 m elevation. The air temperature was -20 degrees C, but who cared, with the sun shrinking almost visibly to a smaller and smaller crescent.

Meanwhile the cloud front came nearer again, and soon a layer of broken thin clouds moved in front of the sun, which would be 18 deg. above the horizon during totality. The view of the corona would be somewhat compromized but little else - and then there was a phenomenon which we had often read about but not actually planned for: The thin clouds acted as a perfect screen onto which the shadow of the moon was projected. Longer before 2nd contact than at totally clear eclipses it could be seen approaching from the WSW, aided also by our high ground. Amazingly also, all cameras - video and photographic - showed no signs of malfunction due to the cold yet; the same could be said for the human systems present.

2nd contact was breathtaking, with the dark wall of the moon's shadow racing towards us and engulfing first a half, then almost all of the sky. And the colors! The dark zone surrounding the eclipsed sun does not reach all the way to the Eastern horizon. Instead there is a bright and colorful band where one looks out of the moon's umbra. None of us had ever observed an eclipse so low in the sky and from such a Northern location: The all-sky view differed starkly from previous eclipses in the 1990's. And also unique was the line-up of planets (notably Mercury and Venus close to the Sun), almost parallel to the horizon: Usually we had travelled to regions much closer to the equator where the ecliptic was always strongly inclined.

Had one looked hard, enough one could also have spotted Hale-Bopp high above the dark sun, but probably without much of a tail. Our dash towards Urulga had given us 20 seconds of totality more than Chita had: 2 minutes and 35 seconds. This is already a very comfortable length for an eclipse, giving you plenty of time to look at its beauty visually (this year's corona resembled the minimum's form from 1994, as is also evident from images by the LASCO coronagraph on the SOHO satellite), try out several photographic techniques, and prepare yourself for the 3rd contact.

As it is so often, it was the highlight of the whole eclipse as a long prominence near the North-Western limb of the sun was progressively uncovered by the moon, easily visible to the naked eye. And when the moon cleared the sun, the shadow racing away towards the Northeast was once more a stunning sight, visible for almost a minute. The expedition was elated - despite the fact that the temperature had dropped another 5-10 deg. during totality, our coats were covered with ice (from our condensed breath), and the cameras were now so cold one couldn't touch them anymore without gloves. But all batteries and most mechanics had taken the temperature drop without giving up: Arctic eclipses can be done! And they can be done in the open, with a heated car as a warm refuge, of course.

Nonetheless our enthusiasm for the now rapidly growing photospheric crescent was somewhat stifled by the cold, and we picked up and left ("normally" we wait another 70 minutes to celebrate the 4th contact, too), once more traversing the stark beauty of wintery East Siberia with its rolling hills, forests and frozen rivers. And then the partying went ahead full swing: Our hosts in Chita - where the eclipse had been well observed, too, through similar clouds as at our site - took us out to a true Siberian winter picnic at the Molokowka mineral water spring. One gathers around the hood of the car (at minus temperatures and in snow flurries that had now set in) and drinks the water (Russian: Woda) and a related beverage named Wodka... Still later on E day we threw a party at a restaurant, and the celebrations continued at home till 4 a.m. This had been 24 hours none of us is likely to ever forget.

"E" + 1 day

Naturally the next day started a bit slow but allowed us to reenact yesterday's eclipse on our host's TV set - by totally rewiring her system we even managed to make a copy for her. On the afternoon we had our 2nd encounter with Chita's educational system when our host arranged a meeting with an English class of 5th graders. What a contrast to the University setting three days earlier when the students had watched our presentation in silence (apparently the traditional behaviour in the presence of a teacher). But the 11- and 12-year olds were a different kind.

They not only spoke a remarkably accent-free English and had a large vocabulary - they also fired question after question at us. And one particularly clever 11-year old boy knew certainly more about Western Europe's geography than any of us had ever known about Transbaikalia, the region "beyond" Lake Baikal that Chita belongs to. Only one major cultural gap surfaced during this fascinating 1-hour exchange, by the way: The children couldn't understand why Germans aren't out in the woods hunting all the time...

Later that afternoon the real celebration got underway, a 6-hour (!) farewell party with all the people who had made our stay in Chita such a wonderful experience (and no, the GAI was not invited :-). During the proceedings we also watched a 20-minute special program on the eclipse on local TV which documented the crowds watching in Lenin Square and other places and also the professional eclipse camp outside the city to which we had been invited two months ago. All had seemed set, but one day (!) before leaving Germany we had learned by chance that the Moscow astronomer responsible for the organization - who had declared everything set and organized in faxes and e-mails - had in fact prepared nothing at all.

Only the amazing effectiveness of our German Siberia specialist and his Irkutsk contact had saved the day on that Friday afternoon. When said astronomer was featured prominently in the TV program, our jeers for him were only half-hearted, of course. If he hadn't bungled our trip to the remote observing site at the last minute, we would never have spent four full days in Chita and gotten to know our marvellous hosts (and their exciting lifestyle) so well!

"E" + 2 days

Our departure from Chita was in style, too: by one of the new "babyflot" descendants of the dissolved national Aeroflot state airline. Until takeoff we weren't even sure to whom the Antonow 24B belonged, because it was still painted in the old Aeroflot colors. The 2-hr flight in the propeller plane (of ChitaAvia airlines) was very smooth, and the airborne visions of frozen Lake Baikal before our arrival back in Irkutsk were stunning. The ice on the lake was also the final astronomical target of our Russian adventure, because underneath it high-end astrophysical research is taking place.

A major Cherenkov detector for neutrinos with extreme energies has been being assembled here since 1993, hovering a few 100 meters above the floor of the lake - which is 1366 meters below the water surface here! The very clear water of the lake is the detector: Particles moving through at relativistic speeds cause the emission of Cherenkov radiation, which is detected by photo multiplier tubes on long strings. And these strings are maintained only when the surface of the lake is frozen and forms an ideal working platform.

We were picked up at the Irkutsk airport and were rushed to the site in a minivan - driving first to the village of Listvyanka and then for one hour straight over the ice! This is an amazing way to travel (particularly when the van got stuck in the snow on the ice), somewhere between driving on a salt lake and crossing Antarctica. And then there was the experiment, with a computer and engineering center on the shore and the "ice camp" 3.6 km away on the lake. Mid-March was a good time for a visit as the temperature now allows for work in the open and the ice is still thick enough (about 40 cm) to carry the various winches which retrieve and lower the kilometer-long cables with the photo multipliers and other equipment.

The Baikal observatory is unique in that no one has ever seen it as a whole: it is assembled and disassembled (mainly for cleaning the photo multiplier casings of sediments) in small pieces. Even a submarine that recently studied the depths of Lake Baikal didn't dare to come close because it could have become entangled in the cables. The amazing Lake Baikal neutrino observatory and the pioneering astrophysics performed here will be described in deserving detail elsewhere.

"E" + 3 days

Finally there they were: Irkutsk airport has become the focal point of eclipse travellers who had just returned from the Chita area by train. They were all happy, since all across the region the cloud cover had been slight or even absent. And the story didn't end here. When we visited the center of Moscow on our last afternoon in Russia, the skies once again turned into a deep cloudfree blue. And then there was the comet again, this time hovering over the walls and towers of the Kremlin and plainly visible with the naked eye from the middle of the city.

Lacking any comparision stars of similar magnitude (-0.5, according to estimates posted from elsewhere), its brightness was hard to guess, but it was still a bit weaker than the big red star on the famous Kremlin clock tower as seen from Red Square. A fitting sight to end a journey into a fascinating country, with people we have learned to know - and value - better than on any other astronomical expedition. We'll stay in touch, and who knows: More eclipses (such as in 2008 in Western Siberia) and the Tunguska site beckon in the vastness beyond Moscow that is no longer the Wild East to us...

Daniel Fischer, Bonn/Koenigswinter, Germany, March 14, 1997 FAX: ++49-2244-870-966