Blah blah blah Shanghai blah blah blah changed a bit since I was here last blah blah blah Jade Buddha Temple still the same blah blah blah soup dumplings at Old Chenghuang Temple Snack Square blah blah blah more fast food courtesy of Mr Lee the California Beef Noodle King blah blah blah Liang An Hotel very nice but their website appears to have dodgy exploit code buried in it so you're not getting a link.
Right, that's got all that lot out of the way. Now let me tell you about the TOTAL BLOODY ECLIPSE I SAW THERE THIS WEEK.
Let's start at the beginning, a year or so ago. The Belated Birthday Girl and I had been thinking about a visit to mainland China for a while. 2009 seemed like a good time: it would fit in with my usual four-year cycle for Hong Kong, and it would give The BBG the chance to see all the new Beijing architecture put up for the 2008 Olympics without all those pesky athletes getting in the way. All we needed was some sort of hook.
In July 2008, we opened up the Guardian Travel section and found that hook. Wendy Wu Tours had just started taking bookings for a July 2009 tour of China: and aside from the usual cities covered by these things, they also planned to take in the total eclipse of the sun scheduled for July 22nd. This wouldn't be just any old eclipse, mind you: it'd be the longest one we'd get this century, with over six minutes of totality if you happened to be standing in the right part of Asia at the time.
By August 2008, our booking was confirmed enough for me to drop a subtle hint in that year's Edinburgh writeup. We wouldn't be travelling with Wendy Wu, though: some internet research revealed that they weren't the only organisation running eclipse tours. In the end, we decided to join one of the ten tours Explore were running, all travelling across different bits of China before converging in Shanghai for the main event. (With the occasional crossover in other cities too, hence that parallel universe moment after the Tang Dynasty show in Xi'an.) We went for tour SCE9, aka Cultural Treasures And Eclipse, because the timings allowed us to fit in a bit more city time at either end, and because it had an astronomer travelling with it to tell us what to look at and when. More about him later.
Meanwhile, back to the ongoing narrative: I last left you in Yangshuo, from which we were heading back to Guilin airport for the evening flight to Shanghai. Obviously, an epic tale like this needs a bit of third act jeopardy to spice it up, and ours came literally as we passed through airport security, when our flight status suddenly changed from CHECKIN to DELAYED. After one hour, they served us what would have been our airplane meal in the departure lounge. After two hours, they told us to take a bus to the airport hotel. This wasn't looking good.
The Guilin Airport Hotel was hysterical: it was basically a holding prison for people whose only crime was having problems with their flight. It didn't have a restaurant or a bar, so it quickly became obvious that we'd only been sent there to get us out of the way. We were, however, given rooms, a privilege which I abused horribly by stealing their electricity to charge up every laptop and camera battery in my possession. Meanwhile, tour leader D was on her mobile calling everyone she knew in Guilin and Shanghai about the status of our flight, because the airport certainly wasn't telling. (As The BBG noted at the time, how the hell did foreign tour groups survive in days before mobile phones?)
We eventually got the call around 10.30pm: be in the lobby for 11. Our flight finally left the ground at a quarter after midnight, a nice round six hours after its scheduled departure time. (Shanghai Airlines, to their credit, offered us each a £20 refund, only claimable in person from one of their Chinese offices. Never quite got around to following that one up.) Still, it did mean that we got a breathtaking view of the lights of Shanghai as we landed around 2.30 in the morning.
We were met by local guide Sunny, a fine example of modern Chinese youth. The good side of that: she came out with some surprisingly forthright views about the Cultural Revolution on one tour, which would have been unthinkable sixteen years ago. The bad side: all of her restaurant recommendations were for McDonalds and KFC. Still, Sunny by name, Sunny by nature, and her peppy attitude got us through the struggle of a 4am hotel checkin followed by a 9am breakfast, through to a whistle-stop bus tour of the city highlights. By the time we hit the excellent Shanghai Museum - an hour was far too short, but something had to give in the schedule at this stage - we'd got completely over the hassles of the previous day, and were ready to switch to full-on eclipse mode.
Meet our astronomer: Dr Francisco 'Paco' Diego of University College, London. A gentleman, a scholar and an acrobat, he was the main reason why we plumped for this particular tour: some of the others had astronomers travelling with them too, but Paco was the one who really seemed to know his stuff. And so it proved during the first official eclipse event of the tour, which was his presentation on the Tuesday night about what we could expect the next day.
D had travelled with Paco to another Chinese eclipse the previous year, and revealed that she'd specifically asked to lead the tour he was on this year. Based on her previous experience, she warned us that this presentation - the first time with all the Explore tours in the same room - would draw some interesting characters out of the woodwork, and so it proved. The BBG noted that when we go to filmmaker Q&A sessions, there are normally a couple of people who ask questions solely to show off to the rest of the audience how clever they are, so we're familiar with the type. The man who complained that he hadn't been personally notified of the exact location of the eclipse site came a close second to the woman who took issue with Paco's estimate of five minutes and forty seconds of totality there. "I was promised five minutes 54." A sentient human being actually said that.
All in all, it seemed like SCE9 was one of the more well-balanced and fun groups of the ten. Especially when we left secretly for the eclipse site half an hour before everyone else. We sneaked out of the hotel at 4.30am on the morning of Wednesday 22nd, all dressed up in our special t-shirts. Printed up by the multi-talented tai chi/painting/English master Henry during our weekend on the Li River, we'd collectively decided on the slogan ECLIPSE TOUR 2009 (OPTIONAL) for the back print. If Henry had been able to turn them around any faster, I would have put in a vote for I WAS PROMISED 5' 54", but you can't have everything.
Because you can't, can you? And that applies to eclipses as much as anything else. The weather forecasts had been promising a 50/50 chance of seeing anything in the sky on the day. We'd set out on our two hour drive to the site bubbling over with enthusiasm, but as we got closer the rain and clouds put a literal dampener on that. Sure, we were able to get first dibs on the best tripod spots in the Explore viewing area, but would we have any photos worth looking at? We were taking our lead from Paco, and all he could really do at that stage was stare at a spot in the sky where the sun should be and frown a bit.
Anyway, here's what you came for: Things That You Don't Realise About Eclipses Until You Actually See One.
1. They work best as communal affairs. Not just the people you've travelled with (we all became a big mutual support group as the prospect of total cloud cover loomed), but also the crowds either side of you. We had about an hour between first contact (when the moon just starts to cover the sun) and totality (when the sun's completely covered), and during that whole time the sun peeked out from behind the clouds for probably one minute in total. The huge cheers that broke out whenever there was the tiniest glimpse of sun in the sky were actually rather charming.
2. There's a certain sense of panic that breaks out as totality approaches. Not in the old-fashioned The Sun Has Gone We Are All Doomed sense, rather that you realise that you're in the presence of a once-in-a-lifetime event and you need to improvise wildly to get the most out of it. The BBG and I had both made our own camera solar filters, using what I insisted on calling Baader-Meinhof solar film purchased from the good people at the Widescreen Centre. Hers worked fine with her camera - see evidence above - but mine wasn't doing what it should with my camcorder. I ended up just holding my eclipse specs in front of the lens, and got a few nice shots of the partial phases with it.
3. Bugger me, it's fast. Not in the I WAS PROMISED 5' 54" sense, but the descent into darkness has a deceptively slow buildup before God's Dimmer Switch is suddenly twisted into the Off position. Based on my one previous experience of an eclipse (in a hot air balloon over Vauxhall in 1999), I'd expected some unusual behaviour from the birds and local wildlife as they got confused over whether it was day or night. Shanghai Daily had an interesting report the next day about people who'd visited Shanghai Zoo during the eclipse just to watch the animals freak out. No chance of nature-watching on our site, though: the Chinese approach is to chase away eclipses with loud noises, and over the other side of the bay they were actually letting off fireworks.
4. Whatever happens, you make do. After the dimmer switch got an equally violent twist back to On, we had an hour or so of more partial action as the moon moved away from the sun. As you've probably gathered by now, the actual total phase was completely obscured by clouds for the full five minutes 40. But shortly after that, we had several extended breaks when the partial eclipse was clearly visible in the sky. Pictures and video were shot by the ton: Paco rigged up a pair of filtered binoculars to give people a closer look: and everyone else just put on their eclipse glasses, lay on the ground, looked up and grinned, happy to have been there for at least part of it. And even the occasional lack of sun couldn't spoil the bonus event that came an hour later, a tidal bore several metres high surging across the bay without ever breaking. So that's the picture above explained for you.
I liked The BBG's philosophical perspective on the event. If it was a good eclipse, we'd end up becoming eclipse chasers because we'd be desperate to see more: but if it was a bad one, we'd end up becoming eclipse chasers because we'd be desperate to see at least one. Personally, I think the eclipse - despite the disappointments - worked brilliantly as the focus of the tour, particularly as we'd all come to know and like each other over the previous eight days. (On some of the other tours, the group literally assembled the day before the eclipse, and then got to carry their disappointment all over China. Imagine that.) I'd be up for another eclipse some time, I guess, but I suspect that the people travelling with me would be a large part of the deal.
Most of those people would be leaving China in less than a day, so tour SCE9 got wrapped up very quickly. A post-eclipse lunch at the Yanguan Scenic Spot, a complex of restaurants, stalls and attractions that appeared to include a theme brothel: a bus ride back to the hotel, during which Paco gave a couple of phone interviews to the media about the eclipse: a dinner cruise up and down the Shanghai waterfront they call The Bund, offering spectacular views of the lit-up skyscrapers: and a quick beer back at the Liang An Hotel, because it turned out that our original plan to go barhopping was too much for our nervous systems by that stage.
The BBG and I were staying on in Shanghai, so we had our final breakfast with the group the following morning and then waved off Claire, Gary, Sarah, Jackie, Mike, Rob, John, Graham, Pam, Roy, Viv, Helen, Keith, Peter, Lesley, Gunar, Francis, Martine, Francisco and Dave as they left on the bus for Shanghai Airport and home. Thanks, all: it was lovely to travel with you. And I'm sure they'd all agree that we couldn't have done this without tour leader D, who I've deliberately kept anonymous in case I had to write anything iffy about her. Which, of course, I haven't: her boundless enthusiasm and sheer energy got us through the tour in one piece and with a whole array of sights and experiences to take back home. So, to hell with anonymity: thanks for everything, Dee.
Meanwhile, The BBG and I took a taxi along Suzhou Creek to the hotel for our extra day in Shanghai, The Seagull On The Bund. You can't actually get at the Bund at the moment, due to all the building work taking place for Expo 2010. If that sort of thing interests you, you should head for the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, which despite its dry-sounding name is a fabulous building covering the history of Shanghai's constant reconstruction. You can see models of the Expo pavilions currently being erected, discover the history of key sites like the airport and Suzhou Creek, and - best of all - gawp at an insanely detailed scale model featuring every building in the city.
Apart from that, our extra day was spent shopping and eating, though we fared better with the latter than the former. We'd had a request from The BBG's brother to track down some Chinese girl pop CDs while we were over there: he's a big fan of Sa Ding Ding and wanted us to find out if there was anyone else he should be listening to. Here's what we discovered: apart from the usual dodgy geezers selling pirate copies on the streets - really aggressive ones who, when you give them the traditional response of "bu yao" ("do not want"), sarcastically parrot "bu yao" back at you - anyway, those guys aside, it appears to be impossible to buy a CD in Shanghai. Whether it's the megamalls of Nanjing Road or the funkier youth outlets in Xintiandi, you can't purchase recorded music any more. We ended up finding a few CDs in the bookstore at Shanghai Airport, massively overpackaged affairs in a DVD box with a cardboard slip cover. Not sure what they sound like, but they look nice.
The eating part of the day worked out better. Well, mostly. Lunch was at an interesting little place off Nanjing Road called 369, apparently because there are items priced 3, 6 and 9 yuan on the menu. My tea-smoked duck cost a little more than that and had way too many bones in it for my liking, but it was tasty enough to make it worth the gnaw. And our evening was spent in buzzy Hunanese restaurant Di Shui Dong in the French Concession, where my chili beef was so hot it had consequences several hours later that even I'm not prepared to talk about here. (The restaurant also had copies of the excellent local freesheet City Weekend, far too late in the holiday for us to do anything with it.)
Still, it all made our extra day in Shanghai worthwhile, topped off with an early morning visit to the ludicrously kitsch sightseeing tunnel under the Bund. But it had to be a flying visit, because later that day we were off to the final stop on this tour: the place where it all started for me back in 1993. We're going to spend two days in The Funnest Place On EarthTM, and there's no way at all that can turn out badly. Bring it on!