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3 days in Novosibirsk, Siberia - AND a total solar eclipse!

Author: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: August 2008

Salsa music was playing over speakers, and a shifting collection of couples, mostly young, a few older, and one with a child were dancing to it. They weren't just dancing, they were radiating the sheer joy of it. I took photo after photo - later, at home, I'd print them out just to be able to look at them when I wanted a lift. The salsa and break dancers, the English-only New York Pizza signs, the western summery clothing, the affectionate young couples, the happy playing children - this could have been anywhere in America - but we were in Siberia. Siberia!

Along the edge of the park, near the sidewalk, were tables on which all sorts of merchandise was being sold, including eclipse memorabilia. I ended up with a gorgeous square eclipse refrigerator magnet, a souvenir viewer- we already had our own - and a few other items. I bargained for a few odds and ends. Wandering amidst the people were attractive young men and women dressed in what appeared to be lightweight white robes. They were not religious cultists - they were selling eclipse viewing glasses! We saw many of them right up through e-day.

We finally walked another block and down a residential side street. The eclipse-art thing was in a room in a second-floor walkup. It was crowded, there were no seats, and there was no air conditioning. It was steaming hot. It was some sort of a lecture. We left quickly. I wanted to watch the dancers some more, and I did. And took more photos. We walked back, downhill to the hotel. Finally. Blessed sleep!

Thursday morning - that wonderful breakfast again, and once again being almost totally surrounded by Sky and Telescope tour group Americans! In the lobby was a table with a posted schedule for the tour group people. I decided it would be a good day to go to the much ballyhooed Novosibirsk zoo. Sweet little Olga directed us to the number 2 bus. Leaving the hotel, somewhat to my astonishment, there was a tall, sleek woman in tight red shorts and top, leaving against a fence at the edge of the hotel property. She didn't have a sign on her saying, into languages, "Hi, I'm a hooker!" But no such sign was necessary.

We crossed the street and boarded bus no.2, passing shops, apartments and tiny parks en route. Now, if you are in a country and don't know the language, just recite the name of where you want to go, and you will either be pointed that way or, in this case, warned to get off the bus there, which we did. Up an impressive entry drive, and we bought our tickets. There was a sign advising that an art-eclipse project would take place the next day - it would involve monitoring the reaction of animals to the total. Tempting, but we decided we preferred to be on our own, and, if need be, prepared to pay someone to drive us from under cloud cover.

Novo's zoo is BIG. Once past the booths and kiddy exhibits and pony rides, you wander endlessly along forested paths, coming to clusters of enclosures and refreshment stands, ice cream kiosks and mini-cafes. There are numerous forks in the road, reminiscent of the Oz scene in which Dorothy meets the Scarecrow. This being Russia, there was a fine collection of humungous bears, the largest of which stubbornly turned his face away whenever I raised my camera. I was exhausted when we finally, after soliciting directions several times, reached the exit whence we'd entered and caught the 2 bus back. I wanted to check out the inside of the trans Siberian railway station, and it was impressive, a busy Grand Central with signs in Russian and English and sign displays showing the history of the station. On a lower plaza, a troupe of Russian dancers and a few musicians were entertaining a crowd of people, most of whom appeared to be members of the American eclipse tour group. We leaned on a railing for a few minutes to watch.

Back in the hotel's business center, on their laptop, checking novosibirsk,guide.com I discovered another meeting scheduled under Mr. Lenin's auspices that evening, and once again, we headed up via the Metro. A plan had been made for a chartered van or bus to take those interested to a lakefront campground near the "Academic City" 25 miles distant. But the weather forecasts were both optimistic and spotty, indicating an equal probability of clear viewing no matter where we were in the region. My eavesdropping on tour group meetings at the hotel had indicated the same. It was decision time. Thomas was literally passing the hat, and "Stardust" approached and asked if we wanted to join the little expedition. If we did, we'd be picked up at our hotel in the morning and would be out by the lake all day. The eclipse was to begin around 4:41 PM, with the two and a half minutes of totality beginning at 5:44 and partiality ending at 6:45. It was a difficult decision. I finally decided that our chances of seeing the eclipse were just as good if we stayed in the city, saved the money, and had a chance to do some other activities. True, we wouldn't have the same mobility if we ended up with a bunch of clouds between us and the sun at the critical time. But I decided it was worth the risk. I thanked Stardust, but told her we would opt out and wished them luck.

We headed back to the park. Alas, the salsa dancing party had ended, but the shiny happy people were still there enjoying themselves. Walking back, it began to drizzle. It was dark, and I almost tripped several times on those crazy shallow sidewalk steps. Alas, the beer kiosks were closed. I wanted a cold Klinkskaya. Perhaps even two.

Finally in our room, I prepared for a good night's sleep when the phone rang. It was a group of independent eclipse-chasing Spaniards with whom I'd been e mailing and calling while still at home. We met a group of Spanish couples in the bar, and were each treated to a cold beer.

Friday, E day! One last splurge at the breakfast buffet! The hotel's internet service, such as it was, wasn't working, so we set out, looking for an internet café. We had plenty of time - the partial phase of the eclipse wouldn't begun until after 3 PM.

There were none. We had some leads, but in each case were told the internet café was no more. We returned to the hotel, got an e mail out and made some inquiries. Finally, we decided to go to the Siberian Regional Museum, which was halfway between Mr. Lenin and what I'd come to think of as Salsa Park. As we left the hotel, facing the street and the plaza and train station on the other side, there was a 30-ish woman, leaning and sprawled out against a railing, wearing tight red top and shorts. She was very obviously a practitioner of what has been called "the oldest profession," but no one seemed to be paying any attention to her.

The Siberian Regional Museum, just across from and a few doors along towards the park from the Lenin statue, was a fascinating place. As with many museums in Russia and elsewhere, there were two levels of admission fees, one without permission to take photos, and one with. We chose the latter. The many rooms contained mockups of Siberian native rooms, huts and yurts, implements, arts, crafts, photos, and many historic paintings, prints, newspapers, books and photos.

As we progressed from room to room, we also moved forward it time, and the scope broadened in terms of more recent Russian history and particularly World War II. It was there that we were taken in hand by an older woman guide, of whom there are so many in Russian museums. As we browsed through replicas of early 20th century offices and the one and only artistic triumph of Soviet communism - the world's most extraordinary poster art - she spoke to us, as best she could, of the sacrifices that Novosibirsk had made during the war. Although the front line had never come anywhere near that city, 180,000 soldiers from Novosibirsk and vicinity had given their lives, and she showed us the memorial books loving and proudly kept and maintained, as well as the many photos and newspapers of that era. After having taken many photos, she also cautioned us about the photo rule. Yes, we had paid for the right to take photos - but only if at least one person appeared in the picture! So my wife played that role in the last few photos.

Walking back downhill to the hotel, we saw more of the white-robed young men and women selling eclipse viewers. Back in our room, we overlooked the railway plaza and watched the sky. Eclipses, like Swiss trains, always run on time. We were armed with our own viewers - rectangles of number 14 welders glass - and two binoculars. The sky was mostly clear. Soon after the first bite was taken out of the sun, a fat cumulus cloud hid the sun for five minutes, but, after it passed, I could see that any oncoming cumulus clouds weren't big enough to hide the sun for more than about 30 seconds. After another 10 minutes or so, it was clear that there were no more clouds at all in the sun's path, and, with about a third of the sun now "missing," we headed downstairs. I stopped at the desk to urge sweet little Olga to be sure and come out for totality, assuring her what many people don't know - that during totality, the eclipsed sun is no brighter than the full moon, and just as safe to view.

We entered the plaza. On the huge outdoor video screen, images of the partly eclipsed sun alternated with views of the crowd and a group of commentators at a table. The plaza was always busy during daylight hours, but people were moving more slowly and breaking out viewing devices. The white-robed youngsters were still circulating. There was something almost mystical about them. We moved to a ledge overlooking a large ramp that led upwards and downwards, to and from track level. People were constantly emerging from the lower level. A few had their viewers in hand. One friendly lady asked to use our glass for a minute or two.

It's difficult to describe the incredible sight and intensity of a total solar eclipse. Without a viewer, there is no sensation of an impending extraordinary event until 10 to 15 minutes before totality, when the light begins to very gradually dim. In some cases, it takes on a peculiarly yellowish tint, but that wasn't the case here. The daylight simply lessened. I began taking photos, using a special disposable camera that would not adjust for the degree of light, so the darkening would show. It was only two or three minutes before totality when the light diminished enough so that it seemed like actual twilight. By now, everyone was totally absorbed in the onrushing spectacle. People were still streaming up and out from the track levels and out of the ramp. The thin crescent of sun still visible became a curved thin line, visible both in the sky and, greatly magnified, on the video screen.

When totality comes, it's very quick. Sometimes, you can see a black disc appear and crowd out the last thin line of light, which sometimes breaks up into "Bailey's Beads," broken up by the lunar mountains. In this case, the eclipsed sun simply seemed to spring forth instantly, full blown, a black disc in what was like very deep twilight, with the solar corona - the sun's pearly luminescent atmosphere - surrounding it.

In many eclipses, the corona takes odd, sometimes irregular shapes, and solar prominence - red or pink flames - flare out. In this case, the full corona was uniform and thin, almost like a ghostly ring around the black disc. The image shown out on the giant screen as well. The scene was fantastical yet oddly normal, like being on a different planet with a different kind of heavenly apparition where a sun might normally be. The phenomenon is quick and at the same time very stretched out, seeming not to end. Yet, once the prescribed two and a half minutes were up, a brilliant star appeared, quickly blaring out on the opposite side of the disc from where the sun's final crescent had vanished. This is the "diamond ring" effect, one thing that always happens at the end of totality. Ever so quickly, within minutes, the strange twilight ended and it was daylight again. Most observers quickly stop looking, but I kept peeking through my now-essential viewing glasses, watching a solar crescent facing the other way and slowly widening.

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