The yurt door opened and the sunlight came crashing in bringing the lively patterns on the wall to life. I was confused. My eyes gradually focused on the lattice framework above and my fragile head reminded me of the Kazak rice wine from the night before. I soon realised where I was. Dilshat had entered clutching two mugs.
“Good morning,” he said enthusiastically. “Coffee?”
Away from the madding crowd
I had come to experience a total solar eclipse that would start in Canada before casting its umbral shadow across Greenland, Russia and Mongolia and eventually fade away in Xinjiang just before sunset.
The capital city, Urumqi, was buzzing with the usual array of excited astronomers, dedicated eclipse-hunters and curious tourists.
While thousands of people then flocked to Hami to a purpose-built viewing area, my friend Alex had organised a horse-trek in the Koktokay National Park. Our guide, Dilshat, was a young Uyghur man who, as well as five other languages used in the region, spoke excellent English.
Everything started badly. At the entrance to the national park Chinese officials told us that foreigners were not permitted to enter.
A Chinese tourist had recently been stabbed and killed by a Kazak man for insulting the Kazak culture and spitting at him. In spite of this, Chinese tourists were still allowed into the park but foreigners were not.
We were told that there was no way to enter but that it should be fine the next day.
Anyone who has ever tried to argue with Chinese bureaucracy will know it is a pointless endeavour and so, after a few frustrating hours, we gave up. Our original plan had been to trek for two days to a camp just inside the Mongolian border but this would no longer be possible as we had now lost a whole day.
The Drinking Yurt
Dilshat took us to a Kazak village made up of one long, brick building and several Mongol-style yurts.
He spoke to the owner of what appeared to be a drinking yurt who promptly booted out the locals to make room for us. Embarrassed, we sat down for a few beers.
Despite their eviction, the locals were in high spirits and a handful of them soon came tumbling back in to meet us.
One red-faced man produced a bottle of the lethal Kazak rice wine and several toasts were proposed until the owner again ejected them. Just outside they treated us to an impressive, albeit slightly drunken, display of dancing to questionable Kazak pop music before dispersing.
The revellers were soon replaced by a couple of wide-eyed children who lay on the felt rug giggling at us. These two were also shooed away by the owner and I was soon wrapped up sound asleep in the yurt.
Mercifully there was no trouble from the officials back at the national park the next day and I was soon bouncing along in an electric tourist coach to a bridge over the Irtish River, our starting point.
A brisk dip in the river put paid to any remnants of a hangover and then the three of us set off on horseback.
The passage through the mountains was tricky and the pace was slow. Every so often a Kazak rider would overtake, effortlessly negotiating the boulders scattered ahead.
I disliked riding in this terrain (especially when my horse slipped onto its knee) and was relieved when we eventually stopped to make camp in a clearing on the flat part of a hill.
The horses were left to roam, Dilshat assembled the tents, Alex set up his camera and tripod and I went to gather firewood and explore the area: a little stream nearby, pine trees and black mountains that stretched into the distance.
Black Hole Sun
We thought we had arrived just in time for the start of the eclipse but nothing was happening: “Have we got the wrong day?” No, we had got the wrong time. There are two different times in this part of China: Beijing and Xinjiang time.
The Chinese government insists that the whole country operates on the same time but this means that it doesn’t get dark in Xinjiang until 10 pm. While Beijing time is generally used for commerce, the locals prefer to run on Xinjiang time, two hours behind.
Two hours later we looked up as the faintest slither of black appeared and we settled down to watch as the moon crept across the sun; not long now until totality.
The sun was going down inexorably fast and threatening to disappear behind a mountain. This scenario had not occurred to me and I started to worry about having come all this way only to miss the main event.
As the sun sank lower and the time-to-eclipse grew nearer I realised that we would lose this race.
A few minutes before totality we panicked and scrambled up a hill just in time to set up the camera again.
The last moments before an eclipse are peculiar. The light dims to an eerie hue and tiny crescents are projected through the trees on to the ground in a pin-hole camera effect.
Suddenly, the shadow rushed across the mountain plunging us into darkness and there it was: total eclipse. Nature does not anticipate this extraordinary phenomenon and, as is usual, the birds went silent and the nocturnal insects came out.
Strange things also happen to humans and I have a blurred memory of jumping around, shouting and, for some reason, singing. Two minutes later it was finished, leaving me with a mix of euphoria at having seen it and deflation that it was over. As the last shred of moon disappeared, an astonishingly rich, yellow tinge of light clung to the air for a few minutes.
One of my most vivid memories of the experience is of Dilshat’s reaction during totality. Having never seen an eclipse before, he had been fairly indifferent and wondered why we had come all this way to see it; even during the build up he was still not that interested.
When the sun was finally blotted out, however, he was awe-struck and sat there filming and chattering to his camera excitedly in Uyghur. Afterwards he said that it was one of the most incredible things he had ever seen.
Back at our camp, Alex showed me his remarkable pictures of the eclipse nestled on the tree-topped fringe of the mountain – that is how close we came to missing it! He had also captured the diamond ring effect brilliantly and pointed out the little red speck of a solar flare poking out of the side.
Soon after the eclipse the sun disappeared again, this time for the night. Dilshat had set up three tents but the epic sky above was too good a show to miss. As the fire faded, we crawled into our sleeping bags and gazed upwards: satellites flickered, shooting stars fizzed and the international space station ambled across my view before I was eventually hypnotised to sleep.
Garlic and Hot-springs are Good for the Health
I was not looking forward to getting back on the horse the next day but discovered that it was a lot easier to let the horse find its own way instead of constantly yanking the reins in my chosen direction; they know this route a lot better than I.
After a few perilous moments involving saddles (and riders) slipping off, I was happy to stop at a Kazak village for some lunch.
Over a greasy but delicious meal of mutton and thick noodles accompanied by fat cloves of raw garlic and sundried chilli relish, we chatted to the locals about the eclipse. They told me that while most of them had known what was happening, an old woman in the village had never seen one before and, thinking that the world was ending, started crying and praying to Allah.
After lunch, the owner of the restaurant insisted that Alex and I had a soak in his hot spring.
The spring was supposedly therapeutic and many people travelled to this remote area to use it; he pointed to some pictures on the wall and said that they had been gratefully donated by a wealthy Chinese man who had been back many times.
We paid for the privilege and were soon in an oversized bath with tepid water at the back of a grubby shed – not quite the miraculous oasis I was expecting.
Refreshed nonetheless, I rode for a few more saddle-sore hours while my stomach argued with me about the demerits of eating raw garlic.
Back at the bridge, I finally dismounted and was soon rattling back to the car park in another tourist cart to meet our driver for the long journey back to Urumqi.
Driving back, our protagonist the sun had one last part to play in our story: setting spectacularly over the desert before vanishing below the horizon to re-emerge in another part of the world and brighten up someone else’s day.
On 22nd July, 2009, another eclipse was visible from China. At 6 minutes 39 seconds it was the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century!
Our tour to the Koktokay national park was organized through Country Tours in Hong Kong.
By air: A number of Chinese airlines (including China Southern) and a few central Asian airlines fly into Urumqi International Airport.
Where to stay
There are a handful of smart hotels including the charmless Kunlun Hotel with its communist decor and the pleasant Junbang Tianshan Hotel in the Uyghur district.
There are also a number of hostels:
Xinjiang is famous for its food and the cultural diversity there means you can find various types. Definitely try some Uyghur food (mutton kebabs, naan bread, fat noodles) which is available from street stalls and restaurants. For western food, go to Fubar (see below).
Expect usual Chinese restrictions.
It is easy to get around the city center on foot but taxis are fairly inexpensive.
Things to do:
Walk around the Uyghur district taking in Mosque architecture, bazaars, food, etc. Also visit the Xinjiang Regional Museum. Excursions include the Heavenly Lake and the Tianshan Mountains.
Nightlife is fairly limited in Urumqi. One of the best things is to just amble down the bustling Jie Fang Road.
The western-owned Fubar is a good place to check out, not least for its home comforts including imported beer, western food (boasting the best pizza in Urumqi), and pool table, but also because the staff are keen to help with what to do in Urumqi and further afield.
The Niya bar on the third floor of the Tunhe Ramada Hotel. On the pricier side, but the house band plays excellent Uyghur music.
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