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Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Eclipsed in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China

While we were busy seeing the sights in Shanghai, the earth and moon continued on their paths towards a rare alignment on the morning of 22 July when the moon would totally block the sun over a narrow band across eastern China for nearly six minutes, the longest total solar eclipse anywhere in the world for 150 years. Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, 80 minutes by train to the west of Shanghai, was on the path of totality and it was to here that we headed when we left Shanghai on Monday.

Until the 6th century AD, Hangzhou was a small fishing village but it became a busy commercial centre following the expansion of the Grand Canal southward from the Yangtze. It prospered during the Tang Dynasty and rose to become the nation’s capital in the Song Dynasty. However the city’s fortunes suffered a bad reversal in the late 13th century when it was overrun by Kublai Khan’s Mongol hordes. But this didn’t stop Marco Polo describing Hangzhou as “without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world” when he passed through just a few years later.

The Hangzhou of today is no longer the most splendid city in the world but it remains a beautiful, green metropolis and certainly one of the most pleasant and visited cities in China. Hangzhou’s No. 1 jewel is its serene 65 square kilometre West Lake Park in the city centre. Beautifully landscaped, it attracts thousands of tourists daily who saunter around its shaded waterside promenades and along its winding garden paths. We spent a day doing exactly that on Tuesday, despite the uncomfortable heat and humidity at this time of year. We took a boat across the lake to a couple of small islands in the centre, visiting such sights as the Bamboo-lined Path Leading to Serenity and the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon.

This morning, eclipse day, we were up at 5.30am to check the weather. Unlike the previous days, the sky was blanketed with cloud, consistent with today’s weather forecast of thunder, lightning and rain. We dejectedly resigned ourselves to not seeing anything other than enveloping darkness when totality came. But our spirits lifted at 8.30 when the cloud cover thinned somewhat and the sun shone through, enabling us to see the moon begin to move across and ultimately block the sun entirely. The large crowd gathered around West Lake buzzed with excitement when totality came at 9.35am and the normally blazing sun was replaced by a corona-surrounded black disc that hung in the sky for 5.5 minutes, and which at this stage could be viewed with the naked eye. Then there was an eruption of Oohs and Ahs as the first shards of sunlight shot from the top of the disc, momentarily giving the appearance of a diamond ring before more light flooded back down and daylight returned instantly.

Given the ugly weather forecast, we felt very lucky to have seen what we had and we later adjourned to the Lakeview Restaurant for lunch, just in time to avoid the electrical storm and rain that swept in and lashed Hangzhou for the next hour. In the late afternoon, seeking respite from the unrelentingly oppressive weather outside, Dick introduced us to Shanghai Rummy and we played that for a couple of hours until it was time to return to the Lakeview for an eclipse celebration dinner in the 7th floor restaurant overlooking West Lake.

Mission accomplished in Hangzhou, we returned to our rooms in the lakeside Overseas Chinese Hotel and turned our thoughts to tomorrow’s flight north - to Peking.

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