Date of Trip: August 2008
I’d wanted to visit Russia since my teenage years; after the Soviet Union collapsed in ’91, I sometimes joked that I had missed my chance to go there when it was still “dark and evil.” I didn’t know if I’d ever get there, but the laws of planetary motion finally dictated a trip this past July and August. You might say that it was “in the stars.”
I’d wanted to see a total eclipse of the sun ever since I was into astronomy and science fiction as a kid. My dad wasn’t about to allow my then-adolescent self to travel alone from Buffalo to Minneapolis for the 1954 eclipse, and I missed the 1963 spectacle because I was too busy courting my wife-to-be. But when I realized, early in 1970, that a total would be crossing Mexico and the southeastern US on March 7, I checked the weather forecasts carefully, flew to Virginia Beach (I was then living in southern Michigan) and saw a beautiful eclipse in a totally cloudless sky.
I was hooked! I began chasing totals (and a few spectacular annulars, in which the sun is almost but not quite covered) seemingly everywhere – north and south America, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Europe, India and southeast Asia, some alone, some with my wife, some with one or more of my three daughters, and once (Curacao, 1998) with the entire “gang of five.” After my wife and I saw the ’06 total in the spectacular Cappadocia region of Turkey, I had 11 totals, two annulars and one spectacular and rare annular-total (in downtown Atlanta, of all places!)under my belt. And I hadn’t been clouded out once, although I’d had some very close calls! In ’07, my wife asked me when and where the next one would be. I checked and told her – far (VERY far) northern arctic Canada, Siberia and China. The forecast for arctic Canada was – well, as New Yorkers famously say, fuggedaboudit! That left Russia and China. My wife was nervous about traveling independently in China because of its sheer “foreign-ness,” and I had been getting really put off by Chinese repression (not that Putin’s Russia was that much better), the Tibet issue, and the regime’s closeness to such world-class regimes as those of North Korea, Sudan, Burma and Zimbabwe. But the deciding factor was that the eclipse would be August 1 and the Beijing olympics – with the attendant crowds and inflated prices – would begin only days later.
I began studying the path of totality through Russia. The path entered from the north and sliced down through central and southern Siberia, clipped the SW corner of mongolia and then entered China. Quite a few Russian cities and towns were in the path, but the clear winner was Novosibirsk, the biggest Russian city that I (and probably you) had never heard of. Russia’s third largest city, it lies astride the River Ob, and is a major junction on the trans-Siberian railroad. The weather prospects were favorable, and there was easy access. It was settled. “Novo” was our choice.
The first step was getting the plane tickets. TransAtlantic airfares in the summer are costly, but, fortunately, require no more in the way of mileage awards than offseason. When you live in south Florida and have kids and grandkids in Atlanta and LA, the miles pile up, and we greedily hoard them. That’s how we got to Austria and Turkey in the summers of ’99 and ’06 for those totals.
After spending a few hours on the phone with American Express and Delta reps, we got our paid-for-with-mileage tickets as far as Moscow – leaving Miami International the afternoon of July 28, Air France to Paris and again to Moscow, and return to Miami via NY/JFK on Aeroflot and Delta on August 12. This allowed plenty of time to get from Moscow to Novo. Those tickets had to be paid for – with money, unfortunately – and bought directly from Aeroflot. That should have been easy. It was not. Aeroflot wanted not just money but documentation, including at least one passport, before turning over the tickets. Frustrated, I finally decided to physically go to their office in Rockefeller Center during a one day visit to NY in December. I got to see the big Christmas tree – but not the tickets! They had the reservation request, and I had my passport in hand, but they wanted to see my wife’s passport as well. After returning home, my wife faxed a photocopy of her passport to them, and they finally mailed us the tickets. Our flights were now settled. We’d arrive Novo early morning of July 30 after 25 hours in transit and two redeye flights two nights in a row, leave Novo the early morning of the 2nd, land in Moscow 4 hours later, leave Moscow on the 4th on a 70 minute “shuttle” to St. Petersburg, fly back to Moscow the morning of the 12th, then nonstop to NY/JFK on Aeroflot and on to Miami on Delta.
Now came the processes, first, of getting a hotel room in Novo, and then getting our Russian visas. Have you ever tried to book a hotel room in a city which might as well be on the moon as far as all the usual American and European booking sites know? Moscow? No problem. St. Petersburg? No problem. Novosibirsk? Fuggedaboudit! As if that wasn’t enough, the hotels themselves, once I managed to get their names and addresses, were impossible to reach directly. E mails, in the rare cases in which an e mail address was available, were ignored. Phone calls? Fine – if you speak Russian. We didn’t.
Why the hotel room first and then the visa? Very simple. No paid-for hotel room for each Russian city on your itinerary? No visa! To get a Russian visa, you need a ‘letter of invitation” from every place you’re going to stay. In practice, that means a letter from each hotel certifying that you have a room reserved – AND have paid for it. But wait! There’s more! You need to get rooms in hotels that offer “visa registration.” What’s that? It’s a requirement that you have to “register” your visa in each city in which you will spend three or more days. Three days can mean three full days. It can also mean arriving in a city at 11:55 at night on Day One and leaving at five minutes past midnight on Day Three.
OK, you don’t HAVE to stay in a hotel that offers visa registration – IF you don’t mind going to a government office in each city and maybe waiting in line and then doing it yourself, probably with a clerk who speaks no English.
I found several travel agencies that could get us what we needed in Novo. Each one wanted to charge us 3 to 4 times the going rate. I finally found a German-owned Russian agency – with an office in Novo, and an obliging young English-speaking lady named Alla – who booked everything that we needed for us in all three cities, at reasonable prices.
There would be eight full days between our initial arrival in St. Petersburg and our final departure from that city. St. Petersburg is not far from both the Estonian and Finnish borders, so I decided to spice up our itinerary. Three days and nights in St. P., then a visit to Tallinn, Estonia, then a boat across to Helsinki, a visit there, then back to St. P. for one more day and night there. I decided to arrange that, but first we needed not just Russian visas, but Russian double-entry visas, because we’d be leaving and then returning to Russian territory. We downloaded the Russian visa application forms, discovering in the process that the fee had been raised from $100 to $131 each to match a recent US increase for Russians in the same amount. Money orders or cashiers checks only, of course.
We messed up two sets of those forms before finally getting everything right. Names (single and married), current and the previous two addresses, name, address, phone number and dates for every previous employer and every college and/or university attended as well as last high school attended, addresses and phone numbers for each of our hotels, every country visited within the last 10 years, and so on. All this went, with our passports, money, and the required prepaid return FedEx empty packet, to the Russian embassy in Washington. A week and a half later, our passports came back, each with the precious sticker in it. Needless to say, we kept copies of everything we’d sent.
We were now into the spring of ’08. The next stage was to fill in the Estonia/Finland travel itinerary, which eventually involved a bus from St. P. to Tallinn, ferry to Helsinki, and bus back to St. P. I’ll save the details of those trips, and the preparation for them, for separate trip reports.
It was time for the final planning stage – the local logistics and tourist stuff. My practice, when traveling, is to use public transit whenever and wherever possible – especially when going to and from airports. Doing this in Russia, once you visit the library and photocopy everything you need from guidebooks, isn’t that difficult. But there is one catch. You MUST learn the Russian/Cyrillic alphabet! Without that, you will be lost, unable to make out station names, street signs, etc..
No problem. The letters A, K. M, O and T are the same in Russian as in English. Russians also have B, C, E, H, P and X. Problem is that their B is a V, C is an S, E is a “yeh,” their H is really an N, their P is an R and their X is, well, an H. A small ‘y’ is “oo.” A small e is an e, but if it has two dots over it, it’s “yo” (as in Rambo). Russian, of course, wouldn’t be Russian without a few of those backward letters that western cartoonists love to make fun of. So, a backwards R is “ya” (as in a Minnesotan saying “yes”) and a backwards N is “ee.” A 3 might mean 3, but also might be a Z, unless it’s shaped a little differently, in which case it’s “eh.” I’ll spare you the rest, except to note that if you’ve ever seen what a spider looks like after the cartoon cat Garfield has squashed it, well, that is a “zh” sound. Every night for at least two months, before turning in, my wife would say “why aren’t you studying your Russian alphabet?” Eventually, I “got it.”
I had made a special effort to rent a car in Novo, in case we needed to move quickly to get out from under cloud cover, as I had had to do for several totals in the past, but this turned out to be next to impossible. There were six or seven local rental agencies. I called them all, and no one spoke English. Hertz had an outlet and available cars, but we were leaving too early the morning after the eclipse to return the vehicle while their office was open. I finally decided we would see what arrangements we could make when we got there. Perhaps we could hook up with some other independent travelers and pool our resources.
I accumulated lots of photocopies of maps, suggested itineraries and so on. The final thing left to do was to arrange to have our house, two dogs, cat and bird taken care of in our absence. I managed to arrange for one of our daughters to move in for all but the final three days, during which I hired a pet sitter to come in three times a day.
The first stage of the trip was an overnight nonstop on Air France from Miami to Paris/Charles de Gaulle (CDG). We’d taken that same flight in ’06. It was full then, and was full this time as well. As always, we carried our luggage. I’d been advised that the weight limit for a carryon suitcase was 10 kilograms – about 22 pounds – and a “personal item” was also allowed. We kept our suitcases down to 19 or 20 pounds throughout, and I packed everything heavy into my “personal item.” I had supplied myself and my wife with hand-printed plasticized home made baggage tags for every segment of the trip in case we were forced to check anything. Each tag had our destination hotel in English and Russian. (Thank you, freetranslation.com) I knew that, in Europe, the carryon suitcase is always weighed, but the personal item is not.
We were packed in, but were also fed well and supplied with free drinks. In ’06, we’d had to change from an Air France Miami-Paris flight to an Air France Paris-Istanbul flight. It was a nightmare – we had just over an hour to do it, had to change terminals, take a bus, cope with the only rude and unhelpful people I’ve ever encountered in France, go through extra layers of security, and finally found our gate when the question “Are you people going to Istanbul?” was answered with ‘We THINK so!”
I was told that this would be much easier. Our flights arrived and left from the same terminal, we’d have only to walk from one gate to another nearby, and we’d have four hours to make the switch. Right. We had to walk endlessly, ask several times before discovering which way to turn, take a monorail ride, go for another long walk, and go through extra security, during which the small scissors that TSA had had no problem with were confiscated. (“Ohhh, FORBIDDEN!”) and everything was hand searched. Thanks to decades of familiarity with inflated airport prices, I’d packed plenty of food, and we had snacks at our gate. The flight to Moscow took about three hours. Lunch was served. The landscape was totally clouded over. It was only on the final descent that we saw ground, trees and buildings.
We were brought to a building, told to descend a stairway, and were in a huge room with at least 500 people in it, milling around as best they could in such a crowd. There were passport control booths, but people were processed with extreme slowness. On our right were two special lanes, one for diplomats and one for people with electronic passports. All the signs were in both Russian and English. Even though we had a four hour layover before leaving for Novo, I was concerned, because we were going to have to transfer from the international airport, Sheremetyevo (SVO) 2, to the domestic terminal, Sheremetyevo 1.
The room emptied very slowly. I began seeing more and more people go through the “electronic passports” line and began thinking that perhaps many of them didn’t have electronic passports. Finally, I walked up to that booth – there was no line at all – and asked the woman if she could process us, and she said certainly. Afterwards we walked through the customs “green line.” I didn’t see anyone’s bags being searched.
Outside was chaotic. Cab drivers were besieging us and everyone else with offers to take us to Terminal 1. I saw what appeared to be a shuttle van. I’d read over and over about Russian cab drivers, and none of it was favorable. We got into the van and were taken the three miles to the other terminal. The fare was posted as 15 rubles – about 65 cents – but no one asked for any money, so our ride was free. We had to go through a cursory security to get inside Terminal 1. It was confusing, a sort of long wide corridor with dozens of numbered doors. There were frequent announcements in Russian and English, each with a number. We finally figured out the system, and when our flight was announced, we headed for the appropriately numbered door and were allowed in, and our passports were checked.
The last thing I’d expected to see in a Russian domestic airline terminal was a crowd of other Americans, but now we were amidst well over a hundred of them, mostly 50s and up, and all wearing badges for an eclipse tour sponsored by Sky and Telescope magazine. Such tours are all inclusive, and also very expensive. They were from all over the US. One woman had paid $100 – that’s dollars, not rubles – for a cab ride between the two terminals, the same journey that we’d made for free. It was a mob scene. When I got to the Aeroflot checkin desk, the impatient and irritable young woman agent insisted that I check my bag. It was the only time during the trip that that happened. I could have asked for the station manager, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble. It was a nonstop flight to Novo. I made sure it was correctly tagged (OVB) and put my own tag on it before handing it over.
We left around 11 PM, with probably a greater percentage of Americans aboard than on the average US domestic flight. It was about a four hour flight, almost due east. The cabin was darkened, and we dozed off. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, we were awakened with everyone else and served a full hot supper. It was good, too. We dozed again, waking as the sky lightened and we saw a strange almost-barren landscape with strange elongated shaped land between rivers and streams.
Novosibirsk’s Tolmachevo airport is a new, modern two-story facility, with shops, some of which were already open, and a cafeteria. We left the plane with no formalities and I claimed my bag. I knew there were public buses that ran into the city and to the huge Novosibirsk Hotel, but what I didn’t know is that Novo, like other Russian cities, has both private and public buses running along the same routes. It was confusing, but we finally found a large, inter-city type bus heading into the city for a low fare. We passed buildings and factories – Novo was founded as an industrial city in 1895 – and finally crossed the bridge over the Ob and were soon at a huge multi story hotel. We entered the large, well furnished lobby, checked in, collapsed in our modern room, and turned on the TV, eager for news, but the only English language channel we could get was Bloomberg business news. We couldn’t have cared less about the Nikkei average and the price of pork belly futures.
We looked through our windows. The view was amazing. We overlooked one of the city’s busiest streets. Across the street was the huge, surreal, green-colored Trans-Siberian railway station. Between it and the street was an enormous plaza, filled with people and vendors. On the left side of the plaza was a huge, ever changing video screen, mounted on a sort of pedestal. On the other side of the station and behind it was the River Ob, with various watercraft on it and an industrial area on the other side, fading off to the horizon. between the station and the river, and on either side, was a network of tracks, with trains frequently moving in and out in both directions. The sky was clear and the weather was very warm.
A word about the Hotel Novosibirsk’s buffet breakfast. It was awesome! I wasted few calories on the mediocre pastries, preferring to splurge on the fish, the cheese, the veggies, the fruits, the olives, the sausages, the berry juice. Lunch? Fuggedaboudit!
A few weeks before the trip, I had discovered the novosibirskguide.com website. It seemed to have been created primarily for the purpose of bringing together people like us, who were traveling there to see the eclipse, and doing so on our own. Several dozen people, all from Europe and the UK, had written in. the site was being more or less coordinated by a woman from Holland who had taken the nickname “Stardust,” and a man from Austria named Thomas. Several days before we left, it was announced on the site that we’d all be getting together at the Lenin Statue in Novo at 2 PM local time (local time being 11 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time) on July 30, the day of our arrival. So much for crashing from exhaustion right after arriving and taking a very long nap.
There was one desk employee, a young pretty woman named Olga, who spoke English well and gave us directions. We set out, passing the casino and KFC outlet adjoining the hotel, heading up hill along a busy street lined with buildings, shops and a few restaurants and cafes. It was mid afternoon of a weekday. The sidewalk was crowded with workers, shoppers and delivery people, all looking and dressed much like Americans on a typical American city street on a warm day. There were just a few things about the scene that distinguished it from that. The Cyrillic letters on signs and building fronts, the frequent shallow yet hazardous steps built into the sidewalk, and the profusion of small private buses running back and forth with number and fare signs in their windows. And, most of all the covered kiosks – small roofed structures – which sold snacks, newspapers and magazines, and dozens of different brands of cold beer and bottled water – the latter considered a necessity in Russian cities. I quickly learned to ask for Russian rather than the costlier German beers – the Russian was just as good, and a bottle averaged about 65 or 70 cents.
We managed to get lost several times, because Olga had told us it was only a few blocks, and it seemed more like a few dozen. But eventually we came to a huge intersection. On the other side of it was a plaza with a large raised stone platform. On it were way larger-than-life statues of three heroically-posed men. The middle one was Lenin. A Soviet image right out of the books.
People were gathered atop the platform, and we joined them. These were our fellow eclipse-chasing independent travelers. We were half an hour late, but it didn’t matter. Everyone was chatting. but no one had any clear plans for “e-day” – August 1st – and no one had arranged for a vehicle rental. Finally, someone mentioned that there would be some sort of eclipse-related artistic presentation that evening. She pointed down the street that ran in front of the statues and to either side, providing directions.
We headed back to the hotel, the walk easier for being downhill. We had plenty of food left in our bags. My priority now was getting internet access to let our three daughters and others know that we’d made it safely. The hotel had a large room off the mezzanine lounge which served as a business center. Two doors from the mezzanine lounge led into an even larger conference room. An orientation for the American Sky and Telescope group was taking place in it, and almost every chair was filled. On a long table inside the business center was a single laptop. I had to buy a voucher from the front desk, come back and submit it. The system didn’t work well, but I did manage to get my e mail out and check a few incoming notes.
On the end wall of the business center area was a huge video screen, divided into at least a dozen square sections. On the screen ran a continuous and endlessly varied series of street scenes and blown up photos, some obviously current, some dating back years and even decades. The young man in charge proudly told us that “this shows the history of our city.”
The eclipse-and-art event we’d been advised of was scheduled for 7 PM. I asked Olga how to get to the Lenin statue by public transit. I didn’t feel like another long uphill hike. Take the Metro, was her advice. During my research, I’d learned that Novo indeed had a Metro (subway) system, less than 20 years old, and with two intersecting lines. Our station was easy to find – there was a large sign with a big yellow “M” in the railway station plaza. The fare was about 65-70 cents, paid for with small coppery tokens bought at a window. We boarded at one end of a line. The cars were sleek and modern. We changed lines, and emerged right across from Lenin. The street we followed took us past a couple of museums, and ahead of us, in a sort of island, was a small church with a huge golden bulb on top.
Two blocks along, and one block short of the side street where the event was, we came across a good sized park, and I experienced one of the most magical moments of the trip. The park was filled with – as the old REM song goes – shiny happy people. All age groups, all enjoying themselves, all enjoying themselves on a balmy summer evening. There was a large fountain, with people sitting on a low wall around it. There were children enjoying pony rides, lovely flower gardens, various types of beautiful luxuriant trees, and intriguing semi-abstract white statues of people, including my favorite, a mother and baby. Off to my left, bordering the park, was a popular restaurant I’d come across in my on line research, the improbably named New York Pizza – part of a small Siberian chain, founded by an American expatriate. On the other side of it was a small area in which people were breakdancing! The last time I’d seen public breakdancing had been in Rockefeller Center.
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.
We couldn’t stay up late, because our flight out to Moscow would be leaving at 6:55 the next morning. I stopped to see if Olga had gone outside to watch totality – she had. We went for a walk and then had dinner in an American-type grill attached to the hotel. We’d both wanted to try hot beef borscht, and we did. It was excellent. We knew that our flight left too early to catch a money-saving bus to the airport, so we did what is highly advisable in Russia – arranged for a taxi to the airport. Olga took care of it. It was eerie, checking out early and riding through the still, slowly lightening city and over the river and back to Tolmachevo. The cafeteria was open and, like all airport eateries, was overpriced, We settled for cups of tea – coffee made Starbucks look cheap. Our counter finally opened, and as we took off, we looked down for the last time at the River Ob and the strange landscape before a layer of clouds intervened. It was a 4 ½ hour flight back to Moscow.
NEXT WEEK: 2 days and nights in Moscow. A hotel clerk tries to steal money from us, we get drenched in a rainstorm, and my wife takes a bad fall – in Lenin’s tomb!