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Eclipse in the Land of Genghis Khan
March 3-12, 1997
Dharkan, Mongolia

Eclipse chasers are a strange lot.  We suffer an affliction known as "eclipsomania".  Symptoms include the willingness to mortgage our homes for cash, to fly, drive or hitch-hike to the most remote corners of our planet, and to endure hardships that might make Indiana Jones look like a lazy couch potato―all for the opportunity to stand for a few brief moments in the shadow of the moon.

Yes, we are a very strange lot indeed.  But do it just once and you, too, will become infected.  A case in point is the 1997 eclipse expedition to Mongolia.  Our group of two dozen
some seasoned veterans, others eclipse "virgins" who had only recently heard the callingjoined forces with others in Dharkan, north of the Mongolian capital of Ulaan Bator.  It was here that we began our preparations for the great eventall with the able help of our guides and the townspeople.

For me, one of the great side benefits of globetrotting in pursuit of darkness is the rich culinary experiences found in foreign lands.  In Mongolia I found the food to be... well,... interesting.  Suffice it to say that I've had enough cabbage and beef tongue to last a lifetime.  Thank heavens for granola bars!

After enduring several days of bitterly cold temperatures and fog, we began to rely heavily on weather satellite photos to select our observing site.  Cloud bands were approaching from the northwest, one after another after another.  On eclipse-eve, we found ourselves completely socked in, but we retired for the evening knowing that the eclipse was still ten hours away, and that anything could happen overnight.




I was already awake when the alarm screamed around 4 a.m., peeking out through the frost-covered windows every so often with hopes of a meteorological miracle.  The clouds, it seemed, were now thicker than ever.  "Things have a way of changing," we reasoned, so we bundled up for our trek into the wilds of Mongolia.
After a hardy breakfast of bread, a thin slice of plastic-wrapped cheese, and something that might have been meat, we lugged our gear through  the frigid darkness and blustery snowstorm to the waiting busses. 
The cold was bad enough―especially for us "desert rats"―but the thick fog and snow was enough to depress even the most optimistic among us.  Our plan was to drive north until either it stopped snowing and the sky cleared, or people started to speak Russian.
After more than an hour on the road the snow had stopped but the clouds remained, so we settled on a hillside a few kilometers south of the Siberian border.  The partial phases of the eclipse were well underway by now and, like cockroaches running from the light, passengers scurried in all directions up the snowy hillsides with hopes that a few extra meters of elevation would bring them clearer skies.
With temperatures now hovering at a balmy -7 degrees C, and with snow up to our keesters, we watched the skies... and hoped.  Sometimes during eclipses the clouds part unexpectedly.  "It happened in Hawaii in '91...", we reminded each other.
But this wasn't Hawaii.  The clouds weren't budging, and totality was only moments away.




All wasn't lost, however.  For you see, under a clear sky, the eye and mind are mesmerized by the rapidly disappearing sun, the last rays of sunlight bursting over the lunar horizon, and the sun's pearly-white corona engulfing a black hole where our star used to shine.  With such a magical sight, few can even think to pay attention to the reactions of the rest of nature
and then only peripherally.

Not so under a cloudy sky.  The sharpness of the lunar shadow projected onto the clouds and the rapidly fading light appeared absolutely staggering!   And the show, though it wasn't what we had expected, was one to be remembered.  Indeed, one of our group exclaimed excitedly that it had been the most incredible experience of her life!

I'd like to think that it was my tenacity as an avid eclipse chaser that carried me through this harsh winter environment
even though we were clouded out.  But let's be honest here;  what really kept me going were thoughts that, in less than a year, I'd be basking in the tropical Caribbean sunshine, sipping an ice-cold Pina-Colada, and watching one of nature's greatest spectacles from the deck of a luxurious cruise ship.

Now that's the way to experience totality!

Dennis Mammana





(c) Dennis L. Mammana.  All rights reserved.