Our eclipse expedition left Ulaan Baatar at noon on the 5th of March. Of course, we had planned to leave at nine, but when at last my companions came to pick me up, the reason for our delay became immediately apparent: it seemed that my colleagues' colleagues had insisted upon a few drinks for the road, and a few had turned into a lot, so that once I had snugly installed myself in the middle of our sturdy Russian Jeep's sturdy back seat, I could barely breathe through the haze of alcoholic exhalation and cigarette smoke. In spite of our late start, however, everyone felt good, myself included, about the upcoming journey finally materializing after so much planning, and the spirit of excitement and comaradic expectation filled the air far more than the sour smell of digesting vodka and burning tobacco could hope to overcome.DAY 2
I had already met the three physicists who now surrounded me, and who are the central characters in my story. Looking around the car at them, I wondered what the next five days in their company would hold.
In the front passenger seat sat Galsan, the leader of the expedition, whose gaunt, hollow-cheeked face offers the immediate impression of an earnest if humorless thinker conditioned under the cold pressure of a luxury-free lifestyle. His concentrated look of hard creases and slate-gray eyes gave him the ascetic aspect of a former Soviet scientist, a man who goes about his work with tireless vigor. We had met in the office of a high-ranking secretary of the Academy of Science one week before, a place I had lucked into finding, and since that first encounter Galsan and I had met several times to arrange the details of my joining their eclipse expedition. I felt perhaps the beginnings of a strong connection between he and I in those meetings, as we discussed solar phenomena and made arrangements for me to join their excursion. I felt fortunate to accompany them, to avoid the tourist hordes of Darhan, certainly, but more to see the eclipse with a group of people dedicated to studying it. Besides which, Galsan had promised me an observation point in a village of 150 people outside the largest monastery in Mongolia, where we'd sleep in gers and live a simple, relatively traditional life among the monks. I looked forward to this most of all, not only to seeing the monastic preparations and reactions to the disappearance of the sun, but also to living rather like a monk myself, restricted to only basic nutrition and comfort, to the company of an entirely male group of scientists, and to hardly any verbal communication at all: poverty, chastity and silence. I marvelled at the prospect of a week of such asceticism rewarded, ultimately, by an eclipse, which is itself the product of long discipline, the rigor of celestial precision and enduring calm. The gap betwen this eclipse and the one prior, in 1995, had been 16 months, nearly the maximum possible interval. And as the appointed day grew near, I was beginning to feel a gnawing impatience with the deliberate velocities of the cosmos. "A week of monastic austerity," I reasoned, "will be a perfect prelude to the event."
From Galsan's angle, he eagerly agreed to have me come along, not only because as the only one of the group to have actually seen an eclipse before, I had experience which he considered essential to the success of his mission; but also because my background in philosophy and my fascination with the various cultural mystiques surrounding eclipses (I told him about the solar-lunar rituals I had witnessed during other eclipses in Bolivia and Borneo) resonated well with his acceptance of the Buddhist eclipse legend, a story which he seemed to hold as scientifically valid. The apparent contradiction between these beliefs and his scientific pursuits notwithstanding, I had no doubts as to his integrity, viewing his Buddhist convictions not as an obstacle to science, but as the supporting structure of a dedication to morality and truth. Several days before our departure he had insisted upon taking me to his temple, the site of a huge new 26 meter statue of Ariatal, his patron goddess. There he told me the Buddhist eclipse story (see inset), in which she played a central role. Galsan seemed to me confidently devout and authentic, with only the slightest undertraces of strangeness toward me, a feeling which I easily wrote off to the differences in our cultures.
Of course, since Galsan spoke no English, all of our communications and meetings had been mediated by Daramsenge, the solid-state physicist who sat on my right in that cramped Soviet vehicle. The only one among the scientists who spoke English (and I'm being generous in saying so, but given the state of my Mongolian I can't complain), Daramsenge served as living evidence that marketing and packaging have a place in the world. His was the sort of slow, deep, methodical intelligence that science naturally requires. But his personal presentation and speaking style left so much room for improvement that despite his well-thought-out ideas and his careful analyses of the empirical world, his company remained difficult to endure. To be fair, he was an unattractive man. Aging and chubby only slightly beyond the capacity of his threadbare, professorial clothing, he had managed to retain only a handful of skewed teeth, which had made impressive headway in the slide toward attrition against not just mere decay, but full-fledged rot. The several greasy ropes of hair he used to accentuate his advanced baldness (despite their purpose to conceal it) seemed discontented with their position as masks, and rarely stayed where he meant them to be, instead flying up, or back, or often out, cascading like comets off the side of his head, drooping gravitywise, arcing away from the scene of the deception which he hoped them to commit. All of this posed almost insurmountable distraction from the text of our conversations, a distraction which in theory could have been overcome by the fascination and depth of the topics we discussed, were it not for the way in which he discussed them. I felt drawn to and enthralled by his rich knowledge of global historical linguistics and modern space physics, but still he managed to extinguish my interest through a practiced technique of droning, broken sentences, a purely static style of tonal inflection, and repeated, recursive digressions, each nested within the last, into more and more arcane details of subjects with no apparent relation to any previous topic. He had the unique ability to, like the painters of the Maltese Falcon, conceal solid gold in the trappings of lead, thick, heavy, and unappealing. And though he made a poor speaker, Daramsenge was an even worse listener, always interrupting my questions to answer slightly different questions from the ones I was actually trying to ask, no matter how forcefully or repeatedly I would attempt to ask them. In our several visits prior, he had already proven himself as a frustrating presence to withstand. But still with this Mr. Daramsenge I attempted a special effort, because I recognized the potential of his ideas to stimulate my own, because I thought him to be a very deeply lonely man, and because I understood that for five days in the Mongolian countryside he would be my only link of communication to the other scientists and to the world. And I knew that if I could survive the journey with my wits intact, I would have made a good friend, if a difficult one.
Here is the eclipse legend that Galsan told me, with Daramsenge as interpreter, and then put into my own phrasing.
In the olden times there were, apart from ancient man, two types of beings, gods and demons, which were called Asura. The gods lived in the sky, and the demons on earth, in the Himalayas. There they built for themselves a paradise, and planted huge trees, which bore much fruit. Everything was relatively peaceful for a time, or at least balanced, until the demons' trees grew too high into the sky, which threatened the gods' domain. War erupted between the demons and the gods. At this time in history among the demons were many fierce warriors, and they fought and won and lost many fierce battles. During one such battle, a brave Asura fighter named Rakh went into the sky, the kingdom of the gods, and stole a flask of lonely water, the drink of the gods. This he brought victoriously back to earth. This lonely water was very powerful and when he drank it he attained immortality. When the water had passed through his body he urinated into the same flask from which it had come. And just as the water had contained powerful good, now the contents of the flask were powerfully bad, since it was the drink of the gods filtered through a demon. Rakh meant to cause much calamity among man with this dangerous potion. 3 gods witnessed these actions of Rakh. One of them, Ariatal, a deeply humanist goddess who looks out for the welfare of mankind, took and drank the liquid from the flask, in order to save humans from its power. her neck swelled up and turned terrible colors, but being a god, she did not die. The second god smote Rakh mightily with his sword, separating his head from his body. The body fell into the sea, and his head flew into the sky, and became the moon, but since Rakh had drunk the lonely water, still he did not die. Thus the head of Rakh is always somewhere, fearful, lurking behind mountains and clouds, and sometimes showing itself. The third god made it his job to find and destroy the head of Rakh, and with thunder and lightening he can still be seen trying to achieve this purpose. So when there is a solar eclipse, we must stay home and pray, we must not make noise and we must quiet our dogs, for Rach is strong when he appears in the day to blot out the sun and we should not invite his demonic attention. But when there is a lunar eclipse, then we celebrate, we bang metal things together and cause our dogs to bark, for Rach is subdued by the shadow of the earth.
That's the story. Galsan told me that when he lectures his students even today about eclipses, they ask more questions about Rakh than about celestial bodies and orbits. The blend of science and religion I found in Mongolia was a thorough mix.
And on my left, sat, or rather leaned, Dr. Gunchin, the drunkest of the gang, exuding and basking in a cumulus aura of alcohol fumes and smoke. This man I had met only briefly before, and he was drunk then too. But something about his comfortable, loose vibe and his friendly, drooping eyes attracted me to him as a fun person, a funny person. Beyond this I had no idea of him, but looked forward to his presence in our group for the next few days, despite the rather irritating drunken way he pressed his weight against me as we pulled out of the housing complex I'd been living in, and set off for the countryside.
After a few short stops at various petrol stations (since by law only a small amount of fuel can be sold to any one car per station per day), the road led us out of the city and into the vast open area of rural Mongolia, a place where the sky and the land, both frozen and white, seemed mirror images of each other, with our car slipping transparently between. Soon the smooth surface of the narrow roadway began its unchecked surrender to the winter elements, and we bounced and jolted along, the jeep's suspension creaking happily in rhythm to the familiar bumps and jags of this strip of rocky pavement traced in parallel by two lone wires carrying electricity and communication to the distant reaches of the vast landscape before us. As we progressed northward into the mountains our increasing altitude showed itself in the ever icier terrain, white all around, as though we were driving not into the hills but into the serene immensity of the sky.
Daramsenge, of course, talked at length, launching every episode of conversation with the words "Is interesting fact..." and then embarking upon a meanderous narrative journey, each time beginning with a description in his inimitable fashion of the geophysical properties and features of the surrounding icy spread of white contour occasionally speckled with dotted scatterings of dwellings and animals, but always ending his stories somewhere completely different. While throughout, Gunchin leaned ever further and more heavily across my lap to hear every precious word of Daramsenge's inconclusive discourse, his cigarette smoke stinging my eyes and nose. Very quickly I became uncomfortable and irritable, sandwiched between the strain of difficult communication on my right, and the heavy mass of a drunken scientist on my left, an irritation which grew with each story from one side, and with each cigarette on the other, all amplified by my recognition that our long journey had only just begun.
Thus I was glad when at around two o'clock we stopped to eat at Galsan's brother's place, one in a small settlement of gers near the main road. The atmosphere inside was welcoming, the tea hot, and the food as carnivorously delicious as I had come to expect from Mongolian cuisine. And then, after a bottle's worth of vodka shots (from which our driver fortunately abstained), we once again took to the road, charged with the fresh exuberant energy of recent alcohol influx.
By this point I felt tipsy as well, and less bothered by Gunchin's tilting mass, or the continuous onslaught of Daramsenge's stories as the scenery flew past. He even told a few jokes -- or at least I call them jokes, since that's what he called them. Each consisted of yet another rambling anecdote composed of intermittent grammar and imprecise diction, but what distinguished these stories as comedy was that rather than beginning with the typical "is interesting fact", they instead ended with that requisite non-acknowledgment of failed humor, "is very funny story, no?" This mantra provided for me the only recognizable punchline to Daramsenge's witticisms, and grew funnier each time I heard it. Thus I could genuinely laugh in all the right places, adding fuel to Daramsenge's comedic fire, encouraging him to tell more and more.
These stories were only occasionally interrupted when Galsan, riding in front and comfortably plastered, would burst into song. He sang old Mongolian folk songs, tunes full of winding melody and punctuated delivery, and did so in a voice far stronger than I would have expected from a man of such slight physique. Invariably the others joined in, filling the car with the friendly discordance of summer-camp fire circles and forgotten family outings. I felt glad to be along with these people, and to share in their adventure.
From time to time, however, despite the tone of solidly bonded community which pervaded our close cabin, I could not help noticing some confusing inconsistencies in my companions' behaviors. The way Galsan repeatedly threw his empty beer cans out the car window and into the pristine countryside bothered me not a little, and perhaps even more, his denials that he had done so when I gently called it to his attention. But as the outsider and not wanting to excite any tension, I let such actions slide. Everyone was in a good mood, and I felt content to watch the land go by through the cracked windshield.
Thus the hours melted into the past amid singing and laughing, occasionally boosted by a circulating can of beer, and as the last of the paved road gave way to packed earthen track, the day gave way to a night blizzard of such density as to render our headlights useless for anything other than kaleidoscoping the heavy crystaline atmosphere we were plunging blindly through. The deathly cold outside evidenced itself with unequivocal magnitude, a palpable force accompanied by the whistle of a bitter tundric wind, and the obliteration of nearly all visibility as we, full of hubris in our lttle metal box, continued to crawl our way across the frigid wilds of northern Mongolia.
Finally at around ten o'clock, we could see some light emerging from the distance, and we soon came to the town of Tsagaan Tolgoi. Our destination, the Amarbaysagalant temple, still lay 50 km ahead, but Galsan decided to stop for the night, claiming that the final stretch would present more threatening driving conditions than we had yet encountered. We had only to find a place to stay.
But accommodation for five in a town of only three thousand inhabitants during a nighttime blizzard is an optimistic goal at best, and for us posed no small challenge. First we stopped at an apartment building where some words were exchanged beyond my comprehension. Apparently Galsan wanted very badly to stay there for some reason, but ultimately we were turned away into the night. We drove around and around, asking anyone unfortunate enough to be outside in such weather if they knew where we could stay, but with no success. The town had gone to bed, bundled warmly behind dimly lit windows, and as ignorant of our plight as the snow or the wind. I wondered if we might end up sleeping in the car, and if we could get more fuel to heat it, but the others seemed somehow confident that we would find a lodging.
Eventually we found a small regional technical school, and with it a student residence. Again, they had no place for us, but at least here was a warm spot where we could rest while Galsan went out, accompanied by the residence's superintendent, in search of a home, leaving us in the dorm room and the sleepy, reluctant company of a student majoring in agricultural machinery mechanics. We waited, exhausted from the drive but glad to be warm, until Galsan returned to collect us.
Galsan conducted us back to the first apartment we'd stopped at, and to which we somehow now had access, a place built in the Soviet days, and which had seemingly begun to crumble along with the Soviet Union as well. It was a squalid flat of peeling paint and bare furnishing, but it had enough of the requisite appointments to qualify: heat, locking doors, and beds enough for our team. We moved in, unloading our packs and equipment into our new home, drank some tea, said goodnight, and happily, at long last, fell asleep.
The morning of the sixth I woke up pleasantly, rested, to the soothing guttural drones of our driver's morning Buddhist chant. It was ten o'clock. Surprised at the lateness of the hour and that no one had roused me to continue our trip, I rose, got myself a cup of tea, and relaxedly asked why we were still in town. Galsan informed me that'd we'd hit an obstacle, a bit of bad news: the road to Amarbaysagalant was impassable, so dangerously icy and precipitous had it become in the recent storms. The site he had so carefully selected was therefore out of the question, unreachable across the frozen hilly vastness. If I wanted to see the temple he'd promised me, Galsan said, I could hire my own driver for $70 to take me there and back. It seemed odd to me that this "unreachable" location was indeed reachable, only for a price, especially when it had been one of Galsan's major selling points to entice me to come with him, but my concerns now lay more with where we'd be for the eclipse than with Galsan's intractable logic.DAY 3
"So what should we do about the eclipse?" I asked him.
"I have already found a place to study it," he answered, "let me show you."
And we spent several hours poring over detailed regional topographic maps, satellite photos and umbral path charts trying to ensure that his suggested replacement setting was suitable for our syzygystic pleasure. This posed no easy problem, since the eclipseworthy portion of Mongolia is a mountainous place and at such northern latitudes at this time of year, the sun hangs very low in the sky. Therefore our charge was to find a place with a full view of the sun's ascending path unobstructed by the surrounding hills, as near as possible to the eclipse's centerline, and accessible for us and our equipment. Eventually we agreed that his chosen spot looked acceptable, donned all of our many layers, and set out to find it for real.
The afternoon sun shone strong overhead in a full blue sky and reflected a clean light from the snow-covered fields and hills all around, giving the world an aspect of clarity, of bright beneficence, while the bitter cold lent a sharp bite of truth. Everything felt happily real as we hiked over and through the icy landscape, and when we found our designated spot, it was breathtaking. We stood atop a large hill with a spectacular view of the earth for miles around, ringed by a jagged line of mountains at all points along the horizon. It seemed an ideal spot for eclipse watching, and a preliminary reading of the sun's future trajectory on the morning of the ninth confirmed our hopes. Tomorrow we would come watch the sunrise to be super-sure, but for now Galsan marked the spot with a huge girdered tripod, a sturdy structure perhaps 15 feet tall which he assembled from pieces he had brought along, and atop which was attached some phernalia of some sort. When I asked what it was, he gave me a non-committal answer about "photoradio reception" and "very important data."
"Where is its power source?" I asked curiously. There were clearly no wires or electronics of any kind, only metal pieces.
"Passive method," came the reply, in a defensive tone I could not place.
"So it records the data it receives?"
"It communicates with a network of similar devices all over Mongolia," I was told, and then he tried to close the conversation with an impressive buzzword: "Triangulation." Now I began to grow wary of the information I was receiving. The answers to my queries felt evasive, as though I should not be doubting the word of such a lofty expert as Galsan. But the facts didn't add up.
"So there are more of these structures?" I persisted. "Where? And how do they communicate with no source of power? And what kind of data do they collect? Are there other teams like ours spread across the eclipse path?" I was genuinely curious about their research and the methods they were using, as well as determined to get a straight answer I could understand. Eventually Daramsenge confided to me out of Galsan's earshot that this enormous metal object served no actual purpose for their experiment, but only acted as a marker of our observation location. I was also given to understand that Galsan did not appreciate my questions.
So dropping the subject and vowing to return the following day, we headed back to our now permanent home for dinner.
We would need to wake up the next morning well before sunrise, and accordingly I planned on an early night that night. I relaxed and wrote some postcards, drank some tea and was preparing to go to bed, when suddenly a knock came at our apartment door. Daramsenge went to answer it, and returned followed by a troop of people, the research assistants of my three companions, newly arrived from Ulaan Baatar. With the addition of these six physicists, all apparently graduate students, our quiet evening suddenly evolved into a party, their voices booming and echoing through the flat. Everyone was happy to have finally arrived after such a long drive, and eager to share information with their colleagues. The newcomers had also brought with them more vodka, and we all drank as the glass passed around and around.
Hours went by, and bottle after bottle emptied. At one point I asked Daramsenge if everyone would be staying in this small apartment, clearly not large enough for such a group.
"No," he told me, "they have another flat in this town."
"How did they find us? And when was their flat arranged for them?" I was not liking the suspicions that had begun to infiltrate my optimism.
"Galsan arranged everything, of course, weeks ago," Daramsenge told me, proud of his leader.
"Then what were we doing last night, looking for a place to stay?" I asked.
Suddenly Daramsenge realized that he had perhaps said the wrong thing. He answered my question shakily and with averted eyes, cowed by the truth. "Looking for this flat," he said.
"So he knew before we left that we would be staying in this town? That we would not be visiting the temple?" This I did not like, not only because of what it implied about the information I had been led to accept and the people who had conspired to lead me there, but also because of the stinging sudden disappointment in learning that not only wouldn't we be living among monks in the country, but that we'd be spending the whole time here, in this flat, in this town. I felt angry, but restrained by a mixture of diplomacy, frustration, and my own powerlessness to change the situation. "You all knew this beforehand? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Uh, maybe, I don't know," came Daramsenge's sheepish response. "Drink some vodka."
I felt deceived, and what's worse, unsure as to the motives of my deception. Why would Galsan lie to me? I did not know what I could say or do, trapped as I was with these guys for the duration of our expedition, and feeling the shock of disillusionment brought on by now certain evidence that something very wrong had happened. "But now that I am irrevocably here," I resolved, "I must deal with the situation and make the best of what comes along."
So thinking, I drank more vodka with my companions, and when at last the predoctoral contingent had all shuffled off to their flat, I tumbled into bed, grateful for the silence and the rest.
The next day we got an early start. Waking at seven, Galsan, Daramsenge and I downed a quick cup of coffee and headed out into the waking day. The air outside was dense, cold and thick with an oppressive morning fog. There was nothing to be said. We looked around us, then at each other, and collectively started to walk. Our apartment at the edge of town quickly disappeared into the mist behind us, and not a minute later we had passed out of sight of any buildings, plodding through the heavy white air across fields and hills of last night's snow.DAY 4
All was white, as though the world had ceased to exist, color, space, time, heat, all vanished, leaving us only blank air, blank land, and the crunching sound of the hard crystal crust beneath our heavy boots. The sun had not yet risen, but the atmosphere already glowed with a suffuse radiance, creating the sensation of imprisonment within a huge grey neon light. Visibility was practically nil, but we knew the way already, and so easily guided ourselves in silence back toward the site from the day before, a trial run to insure that two mornings later, when it would matter most, we'd have a good view of the sun's rising trajectory. So on we trudged, warm beneath so many layers but always deeply aware of the power and majesty of the cold around us, fearful of its awesome force. The elements had already illuminated the texture of every available surface, etching in fine lines of frost the fingerprints of our cloth jackets, the filamented tips of each hair in our fur hats, all in perfect resolution, a stern warning from the cold: "I know all about you."
When we had once again reached our marked spot, Galsan erected a smaller tripod atop which he installed a sextant. After he had carefully balanced and calibrated it, we could do nothing but wait for the sun to show himself. And exactly at the appointed time he appeared, peeking around the horizon's corner as though inspecting what lay ahead for him on our side of the world. Of course for us the sun appeared not as a perfect disc, since the surrounding fog obscured the sharp solar edges, revealing as it rose not a smoothly traced circle of light, but rather a bright stain, a smear of yellowish platinum in a background field of grey, a hint of the potential power of fire through the heavy curtain of cold air.
Every two minutes Galsan measured and recorded the sun's ascent, carefully marking down its position, trying his best with frozen fingers to keep his writing legible. I pointed out to him that I already have an accurate solar ephemeris published by NASA, a chart detailing the sun's position minute by minute and degree by degree. He need not risk frostbite to learn what we already knew. In response he simply pointed at his sextant and uttered a single word, his hiding place and the justification for all his idiosyncratic whims: "research." Whatever. I was now beginning to form the impression that this entire experiment, the whole astrophysical basis of our trek, was of the Mickey Mouse variety, poorly planned and inconclusively scientific. But observing the sun was their business, observing them was mine, and I chose not to question their methods any further.
Between readings we jumped around for warmth, walked patterns and pictures into the crusty snow, clapped our hands together, stamped our feet. I paced a large image of an eclipse perhaps thirty feet across into the pristine white hillside, an entreaty to the Mongolian gods of the sky to reveal the further distances, to give us a good clear eclipse. And sure enough, as Sol climbed ever higher toward the 12 degree point, the point of his future occultation, the air around him grew less and less opaque, until, at the moment exactly 48 hours to the second before total eclipse would occur, he shone bright and clear in the frigid Mongolian sky. Encouraged by this turn of events, we packed up our gear and headed for home.
Safely inside, I began to fling off my many layers of coats and jackets, shirts and pants, hats and gloves, but before I could even unlace my boots Galsan handed me a large glass full of vodka. I told him that no, thanks, but I wanted to do some writing and needed a clear head to do so. But he was adamant. He explained to me through Daramsenge that the assistant group had brought with them a weather report from Ulaan Baatar, and that the forecast predicted snow on the morning of the ninth. We must, therefore, drink lots of vodka to please the gods, to beg them for a clear day of eclipse. I listened to this story, and wondered to myself: did he really believe this to be a sound method of meteorological control? Did this man of science truly feel that by ingesting alcohol, we could hope to manage the weather? But looking into his cold laughless eyes, I knew that he did, that he believed in it as sincerely as he did in chemistry, or math. This was, for him, real, and important. And willing to do anything I could, regardless of how silly, to contribute toward clear weather, I acquiesced, and downed that glass, and then another, and another, as we drank to and for the future success of our mission.
Now, after so many glasses of vodka, I had begun to feel a mite tipsy, but my condition ranked nothing in comparison with that of Gunchin, who stumbled in from god knows where a short time later. For although I'd never seen him when he wasn't drunk, the Gunchin of the two days prior seemed like a temperance advocate next to the raging, swaying, bellowing hulk of a beast who confronted -- or rather, affronted -- us now. He had vomit crusted into his mustache, his eyes were swollen almost shut, revealing only narrow crescents of red sclera, and to stand upright without lurching into things clearly posed for him too great a challenge to bother with. What he really needed, I thought, was a glass of water and some sleep, but in my entire time in that country I never knew a Mongolian to drink water, and sleep was for him out of the question, there being something which he, very badly, it seemed, needed to say.
So we sat quietly in our own alcoholic mist, Galsan, Daramsenge and myself, as Gunchin ranted and tiraded, expounding and pontificating for the better part of half an hour, shouting in hopelessly slurred Mongolian the no doubt deeper truths of his years of wisdom and experience. He did not threaten, but only annoyed, and we, powerless to sober him and irreversibly confined to his company, let him play out the tape until at last he passed out on the floor of the kitchen with his head and one shoulder propped up against the door frame like a rag doll, floppy and harmless. As silence once again took over, we looked at the scientist asleep before us, then at one another, and drank a last round of vodka, before standing up and heading into the town.
The director of the technical school had invited Galsan to speak to the students about eye safety during the eclipse, but when we arrived he asked if we would instead submit to a short television interview. I found it odd that a town of such scale should have a TV station, and I said as much, to which the director replied that the students had built a small transmitter as a school project a few years back. He would send a cameraman and interviewer to our flat that afternoon. Thus informed we returned home and drank more vodka until they arrived.
And wouldn't you know it, as soon as they'd set up their VHS camcorder and begun to ask us questions, Gunchin decided to rise from the dead. He didn't, in truth, directly interfere with our media proceedings, but we were drunk enough as it was, trying to somberly discuss the dangers of ultraviolet radiation and unfiltered solar observation, without the worry of Gunchin stumbling noisily around the apartment in the background, coughing and grumbling to himself, and very audibly retching into the bathroom sink. Galsan kept trying to ignore these intrusions, instead pulling out all his tricks in a vain attempt to distract the camera audience from Gunchin's racket. He displayed maps and charts of various places and phenomena, as well as his infrared satellite photos of the regional irrigation system, all hopeless material for television display, held up to the camera's lens. He seemed as intoxicated as he was, and more intent upon impressing than educating. The cameraman sat bored until he had finished. Then I managed to get in a few words about the benefits of Mongolian-American collaboration and the importance of not staring at the sun, before the tape at last stopped rolling.
When the TV people had gone, we drank to our successful, if slightly madcap, performance, and then after such late partying from the night before, such an early start that morning, and so much alcohol throughout, I went to sleep and did not wake up for another twelve hours.
The 8th, our fourth day out and our final day before the eclipse, began very like the mornings before and after it, but with a difference. Up and out before dawn, Galsan, Daramsenge and I once more made the hike to our designated spot, again wordlessly, again bundled against a glacial wind, but this time with no fog, not even a trace of cloud, to obstruct our vision of the wide and magnificent sky, an ominous and welcoming sheet of darkness above us bluing to pale as the east slowly caught the fire of day.DAY 5
We reached our marker just as the sun, now crisp, sharp and red, came inching above a gap between mountain crenels at the horizon. Galsan produced his notebook and sextant and started sternly into his futile "research," a term which struck me as particularly appropriate, in that he was searching for information that had been searched for -- and found -- already.
Leaving him to it, I set off to reinforce my eclipse snow-drawing of the day before, only now under a pink-yellow sky of such hazeless purity that I rejoiced even as I shivered against the wind. "If tomorrow is like this," I hopefully mused, and allowed my thoughts to trail off into the mystery of syzygy, the sun using the moon as a finger to selectively deluminate northern Mongolia, isolating a discrete area with its soft touch of shadow. It seemed to me a huge chess game was taking place in the sky, with celestial bodies for pieces, maneuvering around each other in a dance of check, capture and release. I thrilled at the potential of it and the reality, finished pacing tracing the trodden image, and returned to see how Galsan's work was progressing.
As I approached my two companions up the hill, I could not help marking their resemblance, both physical and narrative, to Laurel and Hardy, one squat and one lanky, performing an inane investigation into nothing more than the accuracy of their equipment and calling it "science." And when I reached them, we quickly set into a conversation worthy of Laurel and Hardy as well.
It began something like this: I noticed two bottles sitting on the ground under our huge tripod. One, recognizably enough by now, contained clear white vodka, while the other held a quickly freezing orange-brown liquid. I pointed to the second one.
"What's this?" I asked.
They looked at it, and then at me, before answering. "It's fruit juice. Not so useful. Vodka is more healthy for the cold."
And at that a minor comedic argument ensued. I insisted that not only does juice have vitamins and nutritional value while vodka has almost none (they agreed), but that alcohol slows down your circulatory system (they agreed), and causes dehydration (they agreed), all of which could prove disastrous in this cold climate (they agreed). Vodka, I went on, might contribute to the psychological perception of warmth (they agreed), but could in fact cause major problems. They seemed to concur with each of my premises, but could not manage to synthesize the information into any conclusion other than the one they preferred: vodka good, juice bad.
So frustrated with their logic, I drank the juice myself as they toasted to good weather out there on the hill in the snow, with the sun burning ever higher and brighter above the horizon. And when they'd finished the bottle, I watched incredulously as Galsan reached his arm back and lobbed the empty glass container with all his might into the snowy distance.
"Is that very ecological?" I asked Daramsenge.
"Maybe not. I don't know," he replied, and that was the end of the discussion.
Soon the sun had arced high overhead, Galsan had thoroughly confirmed NASA's data, and we were preparing to walk home, when Galsan pointed to a nearby group of birds and made a forlorn-sounding comment to Daramsenge, who then turned to me.
"He says that a congregation of this type of bird is a sign of bad weather in the future. Not good the day before an eclipse."
I caught myself wondering which might wield a more powerful meteorological influence: these birds, or our vodka habit, and quickly abandoned attempting to reconcile these two bits of non-logic. Instead, I tried dispelling Galsan's bird-worries with a bit of gently harsh reality:
"Perhaps," I said, "they're not assembling here because of tomorrow's weather... perhaps they're here because of yesterday's feast."
It was the truth: the afternoon before, while we were busily foraying into vodka- and TV-land, the assistants had clearly come up here for a picnic, and I say clearly because they left a ridiculous lot of wrappers, papers, bottles, plastic and discarded food parts in their wake. It was around this disgraceful mess that the birds all sat, picking peckishly at the ground. Daramsenge and Galsan understood my point, laughed at my naivete, and started homeward. Shaking my head, I followed them down.
By now it had become clear to me that this expedition was only dubiously scientific at best, steeped as it was in alcohol, a thorough disregard for the environment, and an absolute lack of anything even approximating experimentation, or rigor, or, for that matter, science. But perhaps the most telling example of all occurred that afternoon, and involved the report which these learned scientists planned to publish, detailing the results of their diligent experiments. In order to make their findings more globally accessible, they wanted to translate it into English, for which Daramsenge solicited my help. Of course I agreed, and readily aided him in Anglophizing their findings. But strangely enough (or maybe not), I did so on that afternoon, the day before the eclipse -- before any experiments had been conducted. They had full plans, it seems, to publish their expectations and calculations in the past tense, as though everything had worked out exactly according to their predictions. And when, most oddly of all, they offered to include my name as co-author of their research, I had to decline the honor. Not only had I no part in their work, but even if I had I wouldn't want my name associated with it. It smacked too much for me of science-fiction, rather than science.
And as I was doing my best that afternoon to make at least their report's language worthy of publication, if not the content, our resident chief dipsomaniac Dr. Gunchin appeared, accompanied by a member of the local constabulary. It seems he had made some sort of drunken spectacle of himself in the town, and had now been called upon to produce identification. Daramsenge handled the cop with admirable diplomacy, and before the officer even left the flat, Gunchin had fallen asleep, snoring loudly from his slouched repose in a wooden kitchen chair. When the policeman had gone, Daramsenge and I finished translating their future results, and passed the remainder of the afternoon in independent worlds of writing and books.
Later that evening, I thought back to the night before the last eclipse, dancing around a fire in northern Borneo, enjoying the tropical climate, and the stars. I felt so far away from that night now, the distance between two remote locations, the densely packed experiences of the intervening 16 months, the different situations. "But still," I thought, "tomorrow the moon will eclipse the sun, and tonight is therefore a new moon. Some things do not change." I began to dress, and Daramsenge asked where I was planning on going. "To see the stars," I told him. "wanna come?" He assented, and together we traipsed out into the night.
We stood out there, side by side, our heads cocked back to survey the heavens through the clouds of our intermittent exhalations. The night was crisp and a thin layer of mist greyed the blackness above us, allowing only the brighter constellations to reach us. "Not so many stars," Daramsenge said. "Wanna get a beer somewhere?" I asked.
We walked into town in search of some semblance of tavern, but there was none to be found. Instead we stumbled into the social, that is to say the society, that is to say the town, or at least most of it, all gathered in the school gymnasium, all wearing their Sunday best, and all dancing to the strains of Mongolian folk pop coming from a wildly amplified Casio keyboard located, with its pianist, near the door. "It's Saturday night!" I exclaimed. In all the ecliptical build-up, I'd completely blanked on the days, focusing rather on the dates.
So we watched for a while, the men dancing with women, and the women dancing with both men and women, in a rapidly twirling step that made me dizzy to watch. Each pair of dancers spun around each other, and groups of these couples formed into rotating circles of spinning pairs, which spiraled around other rotating circles of spinning couples, in a triply nested complex of angular momentum, like a tilt-o-whirl without all the apparatus. The girl-girl pairs always danced better together, presumably because they'd had twice as many partners to practice with, since the men didn't dance with one another.
I enjoyed watching this gathering, but after four or five songs, felt ready to leave. "I will stay," said Daramsenge. I think he wanted to dance without me watching, and I was grateful for the opportunity to walk home, to be, alone, with the night.
But before going inside, I wandered out into a field by myself and contentedly absorbed the vast, enduring silence of the sky. I am in deepest awe of our universe, and gazing upward wondered at the precision timepiece that is our solar system, and at the fact that tomorrow, as punctually as a German railroad, the now invisible moon would sneak in seemingly from nowhere and negate its patron star. Yes, tomorrow would be a day for the moon, but tonight, tonight the stars alone, limited by only a few clouds, ruled the sky. I took one last good look up, and turning, went home and to bed, full of anticipation.
On the morning of the eclipse itself we rose at six, drank some coffee and headed out into the big day. To our dismay, visibility was low and the sky and air glittered with snowflakes falling from a thick blanket of clouds, thick enough to immediately discourage any hope of direct solar observation.POSTSCRIPT
"It's an eclipse anyway," I mused to myself: "it's the clouds eclipsing the eclipse."
But I felt no anger or even really disappointment. An eclipse is a wonderful, powerful force, but so is a climate, and I recognize that I must have respect for both. Besides, totality wasn't due for another two hours, and there seemed to me a chance, no matter how slight, that the clouds would allow us a peek. So remaining sanguine, I paced for warmth through the heavy morning snow as the light broadened across the sky.
The others, however, took the meteorological situation a little harder. They sat glumly drinking vodka. They paced impatiently drinking vodka. They occasionally glanced at their instruments and wrote down some notes. Only Gunchin and Daramsenge worked continuously, Gunchin recording his magnetic field-meter readings, and Daramsenge marking down our latitude and longitude minute by minute with the aid of a hand-held GPS. Glancing at his notebook to find out what time it was, I noticed that, since he wasn't moving from his spot, all his readings were the same. I pointed this out to him. "Very important informations," he said without looking up, and continued with his work.
And though already depressed, the group's tone and mood soured as the moment of first contact, when the moon first starts to cover the sun, came and went without a single change. But for me, I realized, this was great; I've seen numerous eclipses and all on clear days. I've watched as the quality of the daylight from an increasingly crescent sun has become more and more surreal until the advent of totality, a shutter of darkness across the window of day. And each time I've wondered: would this same strangeness occur through a cloudy sky? And what would totality be like? It's the kind of question you hope you never learn the answer to firsthand, but now that I found myself faced with a quickly vanishing sun and a sky full of opaque humidity, I did not mind the variety, and the chance to see an eclipse interacting with wintertime Mongolia's most renowned feature, the cold.
And, gratifyingly enough, as the clods of fluffy dry snow continued to hurtle lightly down from above and the theoretical moon clamped its silver jaws ever tighter around the throat of the theoretical sun, I could indeed discern an eerie something, an intractable hazy clarity in the heavily filtered light, the sort of focused unreality usually reserved for dreams and summer memories. I futilely attempted to call this to the attention of my companions, but their powers of observation seemed completely trapped within their instruments, which apparently had no meters with which to gauge the bizarre.
And so I basked alone in the crazy light, which only grew crazier and crazier until suddenly, like a glorious vision of peaceful death, the whole brilliant white world, the ground, the air, the sky, faded at once to grey, and then to black, as the moon's shadow soundlessly penetrated the same cloud barrier that the direct light of the sun had been powerless to puncture.
Of course, the concentric sun-moon still lay unfortunately hidden behind the wall of sky, but at this distance from the tropics, those boundaries beyond which the sun cannot stray, the shadow had elongated itself, elliptically distorting as it reached diagonally to the ground, and had grown so large in the process (at our position 346 km wide) that the effect of darkness in daytime was remarkably complete.
"Pawn takes queen," I thought.
I gazed around at the now obscure landscape, and could not help laughing at the scientists' shocked exclamations of surprise at the phenomenon's reality and power, as though they hadn't really expected it to happen, and certainly not to be observable with an instrument as primitive as the human eye. They flew to their gravimeters and magnetometers, leaving me to marvel at the mystery and majesty of solar conjunction, and at the whims of uncontrollable time.
For who could have known two weeks before, as I partied comfortably in Berlin, that now, when the sun and moon were set to align themselves with earth, I'd be standing on a broad Mongolian hillside outside a town containing more horses than cars in a -15 degree blizzard with the Marx Brothers of modern science? Life is a festival of being, albeit sometimes an uncomfortable one, and so I simply smiled and submerged myself in the smooth delicious blackness.
It lasted 144 seconds, and when the soft edge of the shadow passed over us at the moment of third contact and drifted silently beyond the mountains to our east, the negativland of black snow and darkened sky went with it, leaving again everything white, white, white, as far as the eye could see.
In the hour that followed until fourth and final contact, the wind picked up a bit, enough to occasionally allow the sun a few short appearances through less dense areas of cloudcover. This demonstrated to me yet another benefit of less-than-perfect weather: because a thin layer of haze still masked the sun, I found myself able to stare at it directly, to watch with naked upcast eyes the crescent star slowly emerging from behind Luna's back, like a shy child, overcome with curiosity, cautiously peering around its mother's coat. It's just a trick of perspective, really; only with such vast distances at play could something as large and radiant as the sun hope to seek shelter behind a body so small and cold as the moon, 400 times its junior. But from the earth's position the two make a perfect fit, an uncanny match unique in the solar system, and standing on that frozen hill I thanked the clouds for allowing me to see it without the silly filter-glasses normally required for solar viewing.
At last fourth contact came and went, and everyone packed up their instruments and notebooks. I expected to return to our apartment for lunch, but instead one of the junior scientists unpacked a large bag containing wood, metal skewers, and the leg of a sheep, apparently freshly butchered, with the skin still on it. And there on the top of the hill we had a campfire cookout, hacking pieces of meat right off the bone and roasting them, marshmallow-style, over coals which sputtered and popped against the cold afternoon air. Everyone had now regained their high spirits, and the vodka passed most plentifully around the fire.
But despite all this warm feeling out among the frosty winds, that afternoon back in the secure warmth of our flat the vibes turned downright frigid. It was a dispute over money. Galsan suddenly informed me that I had to pay him $170, fifty for Daramsenge's translation services, which was a fee he had neglected to mention before, and $120 for the return trip to Ulaan Baatar, which I had previously agreed to pay only if I decided to leave early, hiring a car and driver to take me back without the rest of the group. As it happened, the entire team meant to return the following day, yet still Galsan demanded that I pay, in effect, for the car for everyone.
I refused, insisting that he stick to our original deal, and reminded him that not only had he lied to me about going to the temple and about sleeping in a ger, but that he still owed me five dollars, change from my 5 days' room-and-board payment. "I worked it out," he told me, "and you will have been gone from Ulaan Baatar not five days, but five days and eight hours... so I will keep your five dollars to cover that extra time."
I laughed in his face at this infantile claim. Not only did he want me to pay for everyone's transportation back to the city, but he intended to charge me for the time it would take to get there. Tensions were high and hard, and when I laughed at him, he became furious, threatening to have me arrested and thrown in jail if I did not pay.
Again I laughed at him. I found it all just too funny, too contemptibly childish, this quack-scientist-turned-quack-businessman-turned-quack-lawyer promising to imprison me for non-adherence to a non-written contract that we non-had. I asked Daramsenge, who had translated all the original agreements and was therefore clearly an active witness, what he remembered of our prior deal. But Daramsenge, his loyalties split between his friend, the truth, and $50, and with a sense of integrity about as firm as mashed yams, replied only (and need I say with no eye contact?) "Yes, maybe, I don't know."
I looked at the others gathered and listening but when they offered me only sympathetic glances quickly averted I began to understand: Galsan's capacity to lie and cheat was news only to me, was for them a well-known pattern, but as his professional subordinates they held no power to contradict him. As low-ranking members of the Mongolian Science Mafia, they were afraid to testify against their Boss.
Fine. Galsan stormed out of the room, presumably to go falsify some data or something, and I asked Daramsenge to help me find a driver. I wanted to leave immediately. "If I must pay for my return to UB," I told him, "at least I won't pay Galsan's way as well." And with Daramsenge's assistance, I arranged for the driver who brought us from the city in the first place to return us there, at once and without Galsan.
I knew the driver already as a strong man and a capable chauffeur, but more importantly I really liked him. His energy, unlike the self-important ego-inflated projections of the physics team, felt calm, secure, rootsy and real, and his smile filled me with confidence in his genuine character. He seemed to like me too, and having come to an agreement we loaded up his car and set off across the ice, bound for home.
He drove back much faster than he had out. With his foot pressed down onto the bare steel pedal, we flew across the lush countryside, all the contour of the land tucked under clean sheets of fresh white snow for the long winter night. My driver spoke no English, and Daramsenge was tired from all the argument translation, so we simply exchanged smiles and vibes as the sun went down over the mountains and the snowy foothills reflected the bright purple light of the deepening sky. We drove on and on, exchanging not a word.
A few hours after dark, we still shared the peace of the relative silence, our faces illuminated by the few dashboard lights and the only sounds coming from the cold air whistling through the lesser insulated parts of the jeep, and the suspension's happy creaking and thumping along the roadside, when suddenly my driver turned to me and smiled.
Now, in many such situations, in isolated locales, in a car, with a strange man who literally holds the reins of the only way out, when he smiles, I think I have a problem. People can be weird that way. But with this guy, I felt very comfortable and at home. As I said, he was a strong-looking man, not only in physique but in attitude and in energy, but it was such a peaceful sort of strength, such a mellow friendly energy that he radiated, that his smile did not alarm me. He was a Buddhist and a serious one, with shaved head and prayer beads and the lot, and I trusted him. And when he smiled, I smiled back.
Then he began to sing.
And when I said he looked strong, that included nothing of the voice I did not know he had, but which he then began to use for me, for him, for the world around. The songs he sang were beautiful old Mongolian folk songs, full of strange modes and keys, shifting seamlessly from mood to mood. And god his voice! It seemed to come not from him, but from all directions as once, rich and full of power and intention. He truly sounded to me not like a man with a larynx, but a full orchestral event. He finished the tune, and upon seeing my grinning appreciation of his performance, he launched into another, and then another. He knew them all, and for hours he went on, filling the car with the most incredible music. Sometimes his voice would shift into a different form, a different technique of vocalization, somehow filtering the air through the muscles in his throat to produce sounds almost indescribable, quiet and loud at once, full of a controlled, tinny sort of respiration that gave the impression of a faraway radio broadcast, or a high-fidelity album with victrola-style scratchiness encoded in the disk by design. And this with the melodies of the Mongolian past. Incredible music.
We hurtled through the night, me thrilling, him singing, everything at peace.
About halfway through our journey, after I'd heard the entire history of Mongolia in song along with Daramsenges occasional translations of the lyrics, we stopped by the side of the ice-strip-of-a-road for a stretch and a break. Here the clouds had no grip on the sky, and the stars, all of them, glistened like quartz, spanning the black dome above us. We all stood transfixed, gawking at the universe, for a short time.
And then, before we got back into the jeep, my friend the driver turned to me and pointing aloft, said a word in English which I could clearly understand: "comet." I looked, and beheld the chilling, awe-inspiring sight of the newly discovered comet Hale-Bopp, a streaked star with crystal head and fuzzy tail, hanging amid the stars in the shining depth of the night. I couldnt contain the thrill which welled up within me, and remained for a spell, just staring, after my companions had returned to the relative warmth of the car. At last I joined them, and we again began to slide our way home.
For the remainder of the trip, we said little. Sometimes the driver would sing a short tune, and then smile, lapsing back into silence. Once a wolf crossed the road just in the range of our headlights. But for the most part, we all accepted the silence as a welcome and necessary part of the space around us, and a fitting end to our journey up into, to look at, the sky.
In the end, I'm glad I decided to join the expedition, and for all the reasons I expected. I got to see another eclipse, if a cloudy one; I lived for a few days in a Mongolian country town; I made a good, albeit strange, friend in Daramsenge; and I definitely had a unique adventure away and completely different from the eclipse tourist center of Darhan.
But more than any of these reasons, I got to see a rare and revealing slice of modern Mongolia. A week after our return, over dinner with Daramsenge, I asked him how a scientist could bring himself to lie as Galsan had. Removed from Galsan's presence and the resulting pressure to fudge words, I at last got a relatively straight answer.
"Perhaps," Daramsenge said, "he is not as precise in his dealings with people. His morality stops with his work."
He then told me about a phenomenon which I'd already heard, read and experienced a great deal of, the current drive which has swept through Mongolia with its return to a market economy, to milk westerners for as much money as can be gotten. With the economy in a downslide and tourism increasing, many have begun to feel at home in presuming their right to take money from travelers and tourists. Even the government advocates as policy such institutionalized racism, where every product has two official prices depending upon the purchasers nationality, and where theft can be considered righteous if the victim comes from a rich country.
In some cases, these policies rightly backfire: Darhan received only 20% of its expected tourists due to overinflated taxes and prices, attempts at money-grabbing which drove people to other locations. Daramsenge stressed this example to me in illustration of Galsan. The free market is new in Mongolia, only a few years, and Mongolian people have limited experience at business, and management and planning. Galsan miscalculated your capacity to pay, and your ability to be taken in by his tricks.
To be fair, I do not believe all Mongolians feel or act this way, and the vast majority of the people I met during my time in Mongolia were genuine, sweet people, looking for nothing more than friendship, or at least fairness, in their dealings with me. Most of the people I became friends with in Mongolia seemed to me very real, dedicated people, down to earth and functional.
So it seems that more than seeing rural Mongolia and a solar eclipse, I got a round picture of an evolving Mongolian culture as well, spending time as I did with both honest sweethearts and a phenagling cheat, seeing Mongolia's tradition of friendly openness alongside the dangerous potential of a former Soviet economy faltering under the weight of too rapid free-marketization. I enjoyed the time I spent in Tsagaan Tolgoi, I saw and felt a great deal, and I fulfilled my two primary purposes in being there: to witness a wide range of Mongolian reactions to a hallowed celestial event, be they social, scientific, religious or economic; and to stand on a big white frozen hill far out in the countryside, staring upwards, as the moon slowly covers up the sun. I am satisfied.