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Viewing a Total Solar Eclipse in Mongolia

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By Pamela West
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 18, 2009

Forty-six hours in airplanes, 39 hours in airports, 16 hours in a turbo van over bone-jarring camel and horse tracks: harrowing.

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Two minutes and 4 seconds of Twilight Zone darkness: priceless.

Aug. 1, 2008: At 4 p.m., I drag my canvas chair to the big red rock. We are on a small beach promontory by a pristine sapphire lake, in a place deemed by NASA a prime eclipse location. Across the lake is a ger village of round white felt yurts ("ger" being what Mongolians call those portable tentlike homes); beyond are forest and the five snow-capped peaks of Tavan Bogd Mountain. And across those peaks: China, Russia and Kazakhstan.

The sky has been blue all day; then again, that's why they call Mongolia the "Land of Blue Sky." Clear skies are part of why we've come this far to chase the moon's shadow. We've also come precisely because it is far -- the last bastion of unspoiled wilderness in Central Asia. We are three former college roommates from the 1960s who have seen Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Tibet and Bhutan. Mongolia is the seventh wonder on our bucket list.

Peter is squiring his nephews, Cy and Sam, 18 and 21. They're Vermont boys, and roughing it amid great natural beauty is pretty much everyday for them. They're passing the time till "first contact" tossing a Frisbee. KK is in her tent, searching for her lost contact lens.

Only one person in 1,000 ever experiences a total solar eclipse (when our moon passes in front of the sun). We're dead center of the 147-mile-wide umbra that began at dawn in Canada, traveling east at more than 1,000 mph, and will end in China at sunset over the Great Wall. The sun is 400 times bigger than the moon, but it's also 400 times as far away, so they appear the same size from Earth; when the moon has its dark (new) side to us and the Earth, sun and moon are in perfect alignment, it scribes a narrow line of darkness across our planet.

Peter pulls up a chair when, suddenly, from the north, clouds mushroom. A warm breeze whips whitecaps on the lake. I train my binoculars on the distant gers; people are assembling on the mesa above the beach. They're astronomers and scientists with fancy cameras and T-shirts that list past eclipses as if they were rock concerts. Eclipsoids and umbraphiles, they call themselves. We five sit clutching our cardboard viewers and peeking at the round sun. White clouds fly past, casting cool shadows. KK is looking at her eclipse instructions when she shrieks, "I can read!" It seems a miracle, an eclipse phenomenon; then I deduce the location of her missing contact lens: She has been wearing it all along.

A bank of gray clouds spreads overhead. Through our viewers it looks purple. On the opposite shore a tower of sand spirals into the lake, beating up foam. Fifteen minutes to go, and the mercury plummets. Suddenly our whole eclipse is in peril. What if we've come all this way and it's a bust?

Five minutes to Totality. The cloud bank has stalled over the sun. Please, cloud, move. It's our sun, our five o'clock high.

* * *

As we fly into Ulan Bator (or UB, as the locals call the capital), green and purple undulating hills seem to melt around a shiny river. Tracks wind like DNA strands across the steppes. White gumdrops -- the portable gers of nomads -- dot the landscape.

UB is squat and gray: solid Soviet. A bronze Lenin salutes us as we are driven down Peace Avenue. The Ulaanbaatar Hotel claims five stars, and we are not disappointed in our suites overlooking the scorched facade of the former Communist headquarters. It has been less than a month since the most recent state of emergency, but our travel consultant in Sausalito, Calif. (a wizard who pulled rabbits out of hats to make this whirlwind trip happen), said we would be safe.

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