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Western China awaits total solar eclipse

Latest update : 2008-08-01

With just a week remaining before the Olympic Games get underway in Beijing, western China is bracing itself for a total eclipse of the sun. In ancient times, Chinese peasants believed this meant a dragon was eating the sun.

JIAYUGUAN, China, Aug 1 (Reuters) - A full solar eclipse
will sweep across the Arctic and Siberia before ending in
western China, where it will kick off the month in which
Beijing hosts the Olympic Games.

The eclipse was due to begin in Canada at 0804 GMT, track
across Greenland and eastern Russia and end around sunset on
Friday to the east of Xi'an, China's ancient imperial capital.

Eclipses were dangerous omens for ancient Chinese
astronomers, but this one comes exactly a week before the torch
is lit in Beijing for the opening ceremony of Games designed to
restore China's pride and showcase its achievements.

Planeloads of cheerful foreign eclipse chasers converged on
Jiayuguan, in Gansu Province, and in the hot deserts of
Xinjiang, to watch the sky go dark and a halo wreathe the
hidden sun.

"I've come all the way from California for this. It's going
to be my 11th eclipse, I try to see them all," said Dave Balch,
a cancer care advisor wearing an eclipse T-shirt.

Scientists studying the sun's surface prepared for a brief
glimpse of the faint outer corona that is normally obscured by
the sun's brightness.

"Nowadays, the equipment works well enough that we do have
time to look up at the eclipse," said Jay Pasachoff, a
professor at Williams College who travelled to Novosibirsk,
Russia for his 47th eclipse.

"It's very dramatic and awe-inspiring when the darkness
suddenly comes. That's why thousands of tourists go to see."

Hundreds of millions of people won't have to go any further
than their front doors on July 22, 2009, when the next solar
eclipse will cross India and northern Bangladesh, then run
along the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Shanghai in the most
populated path ever.


Chinese hope that the Olympics will usher in a new era
where China is once more as modern, wealthy and important as it
was more than 10 centuries ago, when imperial astronomers were
among the world's best scientists and camel caravans carried
riches along the pass guarded by Jiayuguan.

Chinese astronomers in the state of Lu, present day
Shandong, carefully recorded solar eclipses that can be dated
as far back as 720 BC. Earlier than that, inscriptions on
oracle bones asked what eclipses might portend.

Eclipses were sometimes linked to the subsequent deaths of
emperors and empresses, said F. Richard Stephenson, professor
emeritus at Durham University in northern England.

Chinese astronomers understood what caused eclipses and
could predict them very accurately by AD 300, but superstitious
courtiers and peasants still banged drums to scare away the
dragon they thought was eating the sun.

People still find their lives can be touched by eclipses,
but the modern view is a little more philosophic.

"I was born during an eclipse, and I have always felt
that's made my life more fortunate," said a driver named Zhou.
"But I didn't turn out to have any special genius, so I can't
say the eclipse left any mark of fate or destiny on me."

Date created : 2008-08-01