A Total Solar Eclipse in Mongolia, and the Culture of the Eclipse Chaser

July 24, 2008 | BOOM! Ba-boom! The noise of mining explosives ricocheted between the surrounding mountains and the shabby buildings in town, bouncing like a ping-pong ball endlessly in the vast Mongolian landscape. It was impossible to sleep. I’d been lying awake most of the night, listening to the incessant barking of the town’s several-hundred guard dogs. I opened my eyes at 5:30 a.m., startled by how light it was. My head pounded and the knot in my stomach tightened. I’d felt this way since arriving in Hovd the night before, the maladies brought on by anxiety. Avoiding it all, I turned my attention to the chipped baby blue paint on the ceiling and a frayed edge of the cheap carpeting in a distant corner of the hotel room. The floor covering stopped a good foot short of the wall to expose cold, gray concrete below. It was measured and laid without care or skill—not unlike the travel plans I had cobbled together months earlier from my desk in San Francisco, I reflected. “What the fuck are we doing here on our own?” I asked my boyfriend, Benjamin. My voice wavered from the admission of doubt. I could tell that he was also awake by the sound of his breathing, but it took him a moment to answer. “I feel sick,” he groaned, adding yet another hurdle to what already felt like a pain in the ass: getting out of this godforsaken place and on with our real adventure, a do-it-yourself expedition into an isolated area of the country to watch a total solar eclipse. My preparation included months of research but the only tangible result was a few lines of notes scrawled in my journal: an eclipse timetable and latitude and longitude coordinates copied off the itineraries of tour outfits. Lots of things on my pre-departure checklist list were stroked with a yellow highlighter—things we would have to figure out when we got there. We only flew to Hovd because all the flights to Ölgii, the town much closer to our eclipse-viewing site, were booked. To see the eclipsed sun at its maximum duration—which in this case would be a mere 2 minutes and 5 seconds—it was imperative that we be in the center of what’s known as the path of totality, a 116-mile-wide shadow cast by the Moon as it aligns with the Sun and Earth, turning day into night. When a total solar eclipse happens (roughly every 18 months) this path traverses less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, and only those within it at the precise time of day will witness the spectacle. For us, this meant we had to be on the southern shore of Khoton Lake in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park on August 1st at 5:56 p.m. (I didn't know it at the time, but I was an hour off; the eclipse would start at 4:56 p.m.). And because there are no services or accommodation inside the park, we’d have to camp with whatever provisions we could find in Ölgii. The Lonely Planet Mongolia author assured me there would be gear for rent. It was easy upon arrival to imagine getting stuck in Hovd and missing the eclipse altogether. Outside the one-room airport, there were no taxis or hotel touts as we’ve become used to in even the most remote places in our travels—there wasn’t even a public bus. Just families collecting visiting relatives with giant bear hugs and bouts of joyful hollering in a guttural language that sounded like Klingon. I watched them leave us behind in a parade of rickety vehicles headed toward what I knew to be the town, but it looked like nothing more than beige blip in the wide lunar-looking landscape. The golden sunset light dimmed and the wind kicked up, sandblasting my cheeks with cold, gritty air. I wondered how we would get there and considered asking the small group of Western tourists for help, but my pride prevented me. Benjamin sat down on a concrete step, next to a shy and soft-spoken teenager named Hasha, and asked, “Do you speak English?” he said that he did. “Do you have a car?” Benjamin asked. He did. “Can you give us a ride into town?” Benjamin asked. It took him a moment to respond, but Hasha agreed to do it. “How much will it cost?” Benjamin asked. Hasha stalled before giving us an answer. “It’s five kilometers, so it will cost you five dollars,” he finally said. I thought the hesitation was because he was young and inexperienced and was sizing us up to determine how much to rip us off. Later I realized it was because Hasha wasn’t supposed to be driving—he didn’t have a license. He was hanging out at the airport to watch long-seen out-of-towners return home for Mongolia’s biggest festival of the year, Nadaam, a three-day long competition of wrestling, horse racing, and archery. It was starting the next day. I hadn’t expected Nadaam to be taking place; we’d just missed the event in Ulaan Bataar. ••• We could have signed up with one of the tour outfits offering eclipse trips, but organized travel isn’t my style. They were way overpriced for a country of nomads and dirt roads, and offered all-inclusive arrangements: pre-selected restaurants, hotels, and sights of interest coordinated against a schedule—the kind of control and order I travel to escape from. They boasted: Cultural performances! Traditional Meals! Celebration ceremonies! Those made-for-tourists sideshows are too “Disney” for my taste. Besides the thrill-seekers captivated by eclipse-trip brochures that transformed the remotest interest in Mongolia into a reason for going, there were genuine eclipse chasers—people who will travel anywhere to stand in the evidence of nature’s most surreal celestial event, the perfect alignment of the Earth, Sun, and Moon. The most serious eclipse chasers had their own groups—scientists performing experiments, or astronomers and hobbyists traveling together in smaller, clubby groups. During my pre-trip research, I met these folks through an online mailing list I’d joined, which is devoted to what some would call an obsession—eclipse chasing. Eclipse chasers call themselves ecliptomaniacs, eclipse junkies, eclipse addicts, clipheads, and umbraphiles. They’ve witnessed total solar eclipses (TSEs) from the jungles of Mexico; from Roman temple ruins and cruise ships in Turkey; while canoeing among crocs and hippos in the Zambezi River; even from the windows of airplanes traveling over Antarctica and the North Pole. They talk about eclipse periodicity and metonic cycles, use terms like declination and diurnal arcs, and have equipment lists that include high rejection filters and variable polarizers. These people are serious gadget geeks with scary-high IQs, who find the time and the money to venture to the middle of nowhere for an experience that lasts only minutes and that, in the end, could be obstructed by a simple cloud. Why do they do it? Some chase eclipses for the beauty or for the thrill; others do it for scientific study; and others seek communion with the Universe, calling the experience a religious one. A chaser named Klipsi describes it as such: “I am not a very religious person, but when I saw totality the first time, I fell to my knees and you can hear me murmur “Oh my God” four times on my video’s soundtrack. I had the strong impression that this heavenly light, the corona, was shining the way to Heaven—but it was just barely blocked by the moon. It looked as if I could almost see...God." I learned about eclipse chasing on a previous trip in Asia from a man who regaled me with travel tales to weird, obscure places, all to witness TSEs. Later, I came upon a bewitching photograph of a crowd against the backdrop of an Egyptian desert, all looking entranced by a black hole rimmed with fiery white light in an odd-colored periwinkle sky. It was both sinister and beautiful, and that image is what compelled me to see one for myself, and join the cult of chasers who have been traveling to TSEs since the first accurate prediction in 1715. Today, scientists have them precisely mapped and timed all the way out to the year 3000. I have a three-inch thick canon detailing the events on my bookshelf, sent to me by one of the clipheads on the mailing list, a NASA scientist. Eclipse chasers called people like me eclipse virgins. When I posed a question to the mailing list asking what I should expect for my first time, I received this statement from Glenn Schneider—he’s stood in the lunar shadow 27 times since 1970: “Be warned that the human brain is not really equipped to properly deal with the scale, scope, grandeur, and majesty of a total solar eclipse. I just stood there, frozen, motionless, and enraptured with emotions I didn't know I possessed. ‘Mesmerized’ would be wholly inadequate; I was enfolded in the umbra and lifted to a different realm of celestial perception. For 2m 54s I just stood there, completely oblivious to everything and everyone else around me that was not ‘totality’.” ••• “You cannot be sick today,” I told Benjamin, and then tossed a Caramel Nut Brownie Luna Bar I’d dug out of my backpack onto his bed, “have breakfast.” We had packed a bulk-sized box of the bars for the camping portion of our trip, but we would come to find they offered a nice respite from meals in typical Mongolian restaurants called guanz, or canteen. They are, perhaps, the origin of the expression “hole in the wall,” and offer menus that are mutton-based and greasy, like buuz (steamed mutton dumplings) and kuushuur (fried mutton pancakes). Both are tasty, but mutton grows tiresome quickly. We emerged from the hotel to find Hasha waiting for us. “I can help you get to Ölgii,” he said hopefully, “my uncle has a Jeep.” We walked to his home in a warren-like ger neighborhood—an expanse of chalk-colored, dusty brick walls with pools of sand in the potholed roads, and an assemblage of the white, round tents nomadic herders live in. I could see their domed tops popping out from the shoulder-high walls, a never-ending sepia-toned barrier. We made the deal with Hasha’s uncle to take us to Ölgii, and a few hours later, we were squashed in the back seat of a linoleum-lined Jeep, which swirled with flies and smelled like animal meat. A friend of his uncle joined us for the trip. “He knows the way,” Hasha explained. A road in Mongolian terms is nothing more than a dirt track that often disappears in flooded rivers or muddy traps, changing course over time with the travel routes of the nomads who constitute about 50% of the country’s population and move up to 5 times a year, following livestock to grazing land. We set out on a ribbon of dirt that stretched uninterrupted to the horizon, and into the most expansive and unpredictable landscape I’ve ever traveled. The wide-open Mongolian steppe, grassland that covers much of the country, is free of borders, boundaries, and the scars of modern cities and suburbs that have been cut up and parceled off and paved over. We drove through a terrain full of boulders and rocks that gave me the impression a small planet entered our atmosphere and had blown to bits, all landing in Mongolia, spreading across the earth like frosting on a cake. At another point, it was an underwater scene—a gradation of colors that rose from the plains and up mountainsides, shifting from fluorescent mossy greens to gem-like aquamarine and blue, then fading off to brown. In this one drive, we passed through a multitude of weather systems: hot, cloudless, sunny skies in one instant—gray skies with cold wind and rain the next. All along the way tiny settlements of white gers could be spotted in the distance, nestled against brown mountainsides or rolling plains like marshmallows floating in hot chocolate. We saw 2-humped Bactrian camels racing each other across the steppe and grazing near shallow, fast moving streams; massive herds of roaming goats and sheep; and the petite but powerful horses for which Mongolia is famous and that far outnumber the Mongolian population—their ancestors carried Ghengis Khan’s conquering army across most of Asia and Europe in the 1200s. Six bumpy hours later we arrived in Ölgii, the largest town in the Bayan-Ölgii province, which is populated by Kazakhs who hunt with eagles and is bordered by Russia, Kazakhstan, and China. These countries all share the slopes of Nairamadal Uul (Friendship Mountain), one of the five peaks in the Tavan Bogd mountain range, which would become the background scenery for our stay in the Tavan Bogd National Park. Although Ölgii was located within the umbral path (the path of the moon’s shadow), it was farther away from the central line of the eclipse, making totality 35 seconds shorter. The extra seconds we’d gain in the park would require another six to eight hours on unpaved roads. We spent the next three days traipsing all over town in search of travel companions, transport, camping gear, and food supplies. Ölgii is a one-stoplight outpost full of livestock, where jawbones of sheep and bloody hooves lie along the sides of roadways like the soft drink cans and fast food packaging that litter American sidewalks. The entire town smells of animal—sour, stale, greasy, fatty—the odor hangs in the warm air of dark buildings; the pungent residue from mutton-stained fingers is rubbed into paper bank notes called Tugrug; the scent even permeates the residential streets where people gather for ad hoc livestock auctions. There was a shortage of tents because of the unusual number of visitors in town for the eclipse, and despite the economic opportunity this brought, we encountered a lackadaisical mode of doing business: handwritten phone numbers scrawled on notes posted to office doors asked callers to phone if they needed something, “…and we’ll be right there.” We met up with an Australian woman named Saatia at the Internet café who joined our expedition and made the perfect travel companion. She was in Mongolia to purchase and export gers and having been in country for more than a month, she had a small Kazakh vocabulary. With persistence, we rented a tent and camp stove through a small outfit called Kazakh Tour, run by a man named Dosjan who studied business at a university in Turkey, spoke English, and was able to locate the all-important tent we sought—without it, we wouldn’t be able to stay in the park. Dosjan set us up with a non-English speaking driver named Koishibol, who had a Russian UAZ van—a rugged vehicle that resembles a mere toy when set against a massive Mongolian backdrop. He didn’t correct me when I unknowingly called him by the wrong name all week long. Koishibol was a patient and good-humored guy who found delight in even the most mundane tasks of our excursion, which included stopping at every shop in town on our way out of Ölgii in a desperate attempt to purchase additional butane gas for the stove. The gas wasn’t essential—most of the food we bought didn’t need to be cooked. The tiny grocery stores in Ölgii don’t sell fresh food—the shelves are lined with canned goods: sardines, soup, jars of pickled vegetables, and preserved fruit. We stopped at the bazaar, which sold everything from clothing to car radiators, and bought silverware, plates, a few cups, and fresh food like apples, eggs, and potatoes. Fully supplied, we left Ölgii and set off for the Tavan Bogd National Park, arriving at dusk after eight hours on skull shaking, callous, boulder-strewn roads. We set up camp on Khoton Lake, on a plot of gritty land with scraggy filaments of grass and swarms of tiny gnats. “Bugs,” I said in a flurry of arm waving to Koishibol. I’d taught him his first English word, and heard it over and over again throughout the trip with each appearance of an insect. On our first morning, a man on horseback rode through camp with a herd of cashmere goats and wooly sheep. We saw him later in the day as we hiked along the lake. Though it was hot, he wore a thick navy blue wool coat and cap, and from the mount on his horse, he offered us a jar filled with a milky white substance called airag, an alcoholic drink that tastes sour, tangy, and slightly carbonated, made from fermented mare’s milk. Mongolians are famous for their hospitality—a trait acquired from centuries of living as nomads in rugged and often unforgiving elements. Travelers seeking shelter and food are never turned away. One afternoon, Koishibol made a date with two herder boys, who we’d seen over the course of several days, to visit their home and help shear sheep. The next day, we held rudimentary metal scissors and clipped tufts of wool from bleating sheep, and were asked in for lunch by Balat, the head of the family, who lived there with his wife and four children. We went inside Balat’s ger, and entered a kaleidoscope of color: vivid red, fuchsia, orange, and green amongst deeper shades of red and blue on embroidered wall hangings and bedspreads decorated with intricate patterns and floral motifs. Three beds lined the perimeter, along with a cupboard for housewares, a barrel storing water, stacks of ornate trunks used for storage, and sacks of wool to be taken to the market. We sat on tiny stools at a table near the central hearth, upon grease-crusted carpets that lined a hard-packed dirt floor. A crisp blue sky exposed by the circular opening at the top of the ger, called the tono, lit the room with muted sunlight. It represents the eye of heaven looking down, and shadows cast by the sun are used to tell time. Mom, a serious woman with an impassive face, tended the piping hot stove, heating tea and cooking mutton. The table was swiftly filled with traditional fare: bowls of thick milk, tea, yogurt, fried bread, a variety of pungent cheeses both hard and harder, butter, cream, and the main meal: a tray of oily, fatty mutton meat, eaten without utensils and finished off with the pass of a communal rag used to wipe off greasy fingers as well as to pick teeth. Balat and his wife showed us the family’s prized possessions: an eagle hunter’s winter clothing, black & white family portraits, and an animal husbandry book with drawings to show how diseases spread and the symptoms of rabies and foot and mouth disease. To express our gratitude for the meal, we gave the family several pairs of the eclipse-viewing glasses we brought with us. The children squealed with delight and ran outside to look at the sun. It was July 31st—and the eclipse was 28 hours and counting. August 1, Eclipse Day Fifty-six minutes until first contact First contact is the moment when the Moon’s disk first kisses that of the Sun, initiating a partial eclipse. For this eclipse, first contact would last one hour and one minute. Being faithful to the geographic coordinates I culled from the Internet, we moved camp in the morning to be on the southernmost shore of Khoton Lake, right next door to one of the eclipse tourist camps I’d avoided joining—they had a huge number of gers, gleaming white in the bright sunlight, and visible from miles away. We chose the crest of a hill as our observation point, high above a grassy outcropping along the lake’s windy shore. Hawks circled in the cobalt sky above us among a smattering of pesky clouds. I knew from research that the moon’s shadow was racing toward me at a speed over 2,000 mph. But I didn’t know where to look when the time came—they say you can see the shadow speeding toward you in the moments before totality. The eclipse started at sunrise in the northeastern region of Canada, passed over Greenland, the Arctic Circle, and was probably now over Russia. After zooming by me, it would fall upon China, and would then disappear. Saatia and Koishibol climbed on top of the van, and peered at the sky through solar viewing filters that look like old-timey 3D movie glasses. “It started!” Saatia yells, “Oh my God! This is so cool!” Everything in my body froze and then accelerated with the sudden knowledge that I was missing first contact after so many months of daydreaming about this moment. According to my research, first contact should begin at 5:56 p.m.—one hour later. Apparently the information I pulled off the Internet was incorrect. Or perhaps it was for a different time zone. I’d misinformed so many hapless travelers along the way; I hoped they didn’t miss totality. I rifled through my backpack for my solar filter and looked at the sun—made orange by the optical coated glass. It looked like something had taken a bite from it and I was reminded of the mythical demon Rakh, a beheaded monster who lives in the sky and takes revenge on the gods for their role in his demise by eating the Sun and Moon when they cross his path—ancient man’s way of explaining the phenomenon of eclipses. Shamanistic rituals were taking place in Mongolia at this moment, to scare him away. The sun continued to get smaller—it looked like a crescent moon. It was slowly getting dark, but time was speeding up. The landscape was surreal. Shadows cast from rocks became crisper. A picture-book 360º sunset enveloped us—the sky turned a deep blue and was tinged with a soft shade of orange along the horizon; stars came out and the hawks that had been circling us in the sky disappeared. The shrinking sun became a skinny sliver… smaller, smaller, smaller. “We’re almost there–get ready for it!” I yelled. And then, like a light switch turned off, the sun winked out. 5:57 p.m. — Second contact: TOTALITY! Second contact is the moment when the moon’s leading side, or limb, touches the farther limb of the sun–the first instant of the total eclipse. For my location, second contact would last two minutes and five seconds, starting at 5:57 p.m and ending just after 5:59 p.m. The sun was a menacing black hole with streamers of bright, white light encircling it. It reminded me of Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron. Eclipse chasers call this effect “The Eye of God.” Time stood still. Everything around me—even my own existence—disappeared. I was hypnotized as if a sorcerer cast a spell on me. It was over in an instant. And it was amazing. 5:59 p.m. — Third contact Third contact marks the end of totality, as the trailing side of the moon first reveals the sun. For this eclipse, third contact would last almost an hour, starting at 5:59 p.m. and ending at 6:56 p.m. I snapped back to reality when a sliver of the sun reappeared. Slowly the lights came back on as the sun reemerged from the mask of the moon and I was released from my spellbound stupor. Grinning from ear to ear and brimming with excitement, we walked over to the eclipse camp next door to find out what they thought. There was a jubilant atmosphere—people drunk on adrenaline mingled as if at a cocktail party. Most of them were everyday tourists, but I found a few bona fide eclipse chasers in the mix. I could tell them apart because they were still looking at the sky—everyone else was giving third contact the attention they’d give closing movie credits. The astronomer traveling with the tour group weaved his way through the crowd making announcements. “Discussion in 15 minutes,” he called out, “let’s talk about what we saw.” I looked at my watch. There was still a half hour until the show was over. An eclipse chaser standing with several others on the fringe of the crowd muttered, “I’m not going anywhere until fourth contact.” 6:56 p.m. — Fourth contact Fourth contact marks the end of the eclipse, as the moon completely passes away from the sun’s disk, and the shadow disappears until the next time… I returned to our campsite feeling forlorn. The eclipse felt like a figment of my imagination, as if I had amnesia. My memory was as black as the eclipsed sun, but something inside me was changed. Eclipses are addictive–an effect, perhaps, due to the elusive nature of their recall. Some chasers already have web sites up for the TSE over the United States in the year 2017. But that’s a long way off, with many more TSEs between now and then. By land or sea, and at any cost or inconvenience, eclipse chasers will go the distance to watch the Moon’s shadow swallow up our Sun. And now, having popped my cherry in Mongolia, I’m no longer an eclipse virgin, but one of them—I feel the pull. No matter the hassles and hardships of traveling to the ends of the Earth for a few precious minutes, I will be there, to bask in the shadow once again. ••• Published in Wend Magazine — October 2009, and Silver Award winner for Adventure Travel in Traveler's Tales 5th annual Solas Awards (2011) See travel photos from this trip to Mongolia » •••