Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dragon devours the Sun

Having seen all those Earth Science teachers on my Beijing flight last week I did a little research and was surprised to discover that this year’s big solar eclipse was taking place along a path right through the center of China. With a better bit of planning I might have made my way to Shanghai or out to our plant in Chengdu but since Dalian is just 200 miles north of the path of totality staying put promised a decent show. The special thing about this one is the duration – more than 6 minutes and not to be repeated until 2132. Figuring I’d miss the next one I made plans to spend as much time as possible viewing it.

Were I at home I would have dragged out my telescope and sun filter and enjoyed a nice view but here I was going to have to improvise. I figured that at a minimum I could make a pinhole camera and do a projection, far better than nothing but some exposed film would have been wonderful. Who knows where to get a roll of film in 2009, I certainly don’t. Before heading out to work on Wednesday I watched the eclipse special on CNN and saw all those merry observers from the stock footage vault using their special eclipse glasses. Finding those here would be about as likely as stumbling upon a pile of fresh tortillas at Trust Mart. So I grabbed the only nail I could find in my house and tossing it in my messenger bag I went down to catch my ride.

Given that all the eclipse information was quoting Universal Time (UT) there was some debate about the time it was supposed to start here and it took a bit of research to understand that even though the UK, home to the Prime Meridian and the time center of the world observes Daylight Saving Time, UT does not change. Period. This was a key understanding because I was tuned into the fact that Ireland is currently 7 hours off of China time and I knew that Ireland was UT. But in this tricky case of deductive reasoning, 2 + 2 didn’t equal 4, it equaled 4+1 and the actual time in Ireland and the UK mattered naught – UT was UT and it did not move despite the fact that the blocks around the Prime Meridian add an hour for the summertime.

The event began about 75 minutes before the 9:36 totality, a tiny bite being taken out of the NE corner of the solar disk. The great thing about eclipses is that they last for at least an hour and even the smallest missing bit makes for an interesting sight. You can wander in and out and enjoy it as it progresses. I constructed my pinhole camera out of an old folder and a piece of white paper and it worked well enough through the office windows.

As the darkness progressed everyone in the office started to gather by the windows and in an empty hallway near the 3rd floor patio doors. One of the engineers had constructed an interesting device out of a folding mirror and a bunch of Post-its, the sun was aligned in a small uncovered space on the mirror and reflecting on the office wall resulting in a nice crisp image. Looking around I saw a lot of people observing through a piece of plain paper and I asked one of them what they were doing. They told me it was a pinhole camera but instead of using the pinhole to safely focus the image on a second piece of paper, they were looking directly at the Sun through the hole and focusing the Sun’s rays into a nice little laser beam straight into their eye. When I pointed out that this was really a poor idea I got that look that said, “I’m sure you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I began to wonder whether basic Sun safety was something they missed back in, let’s say, 1st Grade?

One of my co-workers showed up with her corporate health check x-ray chopped up into little pieces, just the right size for viewing. Serendipity, borrowing one I went outside to take some pictures. As the Sun disappeared the temperature dropped noticeably and while it was still late morning, the brightness of the day took on a shady, filtered look as though you were viewing it through a smoke colored screen. Despite being 75% obscured, the Sun was still impossible and unsafe to look at. We sat out on the patio for an hour visiting and watching. A couple of the boys performed a mock Aztec sacrifice in order to stop the serpent from devouring the sun. Other people came and went repeating the same goofy Sun behavior, squinting or looking through two or three pairs of sunglasses. As it wound down I took pictures at 10 minute intervals to show the maximum to minimum effect. While it wasn’t as incredible as it might have been, it was a wondrous thing and fun to see all my co-workers having a good time despite UV damaging their retinas. In some ways it was one of the best parties I’ve ever attended.

That evening my co-worker Mike asked if I would like to join him and his wife Lisa for dinner, nothing formal just something of a catch meal here in Kai Fa Qu. I had a few errands to run, all of which centered around Jinma Lu so I was glad when he texted me and told me to meet them at Chuān Rén Bǎi Wèi, my most favorite Sichuan restaurant. 川人百味translates as “Sichuan People, 100 flavors”, referring to the province and the spicy food for which they are known. Sichuan Province, 四川, means “Four Rivers” and refers to the four major watercourses, the Chang Jiang and three of its tributaries that rise in the Tibetan Plateau and merge in the plain eventually forming a part of the greater Yangtze Basin. Note that the character for river, chuan, is one of the few that retain their original intent – a pictograph of what it stands for, a flowing river.

I’ve talked about this restaurant before; it was one of our early finds back in the days when we were visiting Dalian at the start of the project. But since that time our regular hangout downtown was closed and replaced with an Apple Store which made me very sad, recovering when I discovered that there was a second one two blocks down the street from my house. So after collecting a few thousand Yuan from the ATM and giving 300 of it to China Mobile in (yet another) successful attempt to pay my cell phone bill, I made my way up to the 5th floor to meet them.

You sit in tiny kindergarten chairs at low tables and the menu is under sheets of glass on top. It’s a restaurant that offers so many options that it’s always hard to pick. One dish is always chosen – dry fried green beans with garlic. To that we added a traditional chicken and chiles dish, sweet and sour chicken and egg batter pumpkin. As always the food was fantastic, and worth extra mention are the sweet and sour chicken and the pumpkin.

As westerners, sweet and sour dishes are among the first things we eat on our maiden trips to Chinese restaurants. Even the best sweet and sour at home is a syrupy dish with some crisp vegetables and some batter dipped meat pieces, flavorful but not terribly interesting. At this place sweet and sour takes on a whole new meaning - the chicken pieces are been beaten wafer thin and dipped in rice flour and brown sugar before being deep fried. They are then served on a pool of brown apple vinegar and chopped scallions. The effect was instantaneous – sweet and sour the way it was conceived and amazingly delicious.

The pumpkin was cut into pieces about the size of steak fries and dipped into an egg batter and then deep fried. While the consistency was that of a limp French fry, the result was delightfully soft and sweet and succulently delicious.

Dinner over, we took the escalators down to the ground floor of the mall and stopped by Starbucks for a coffee. I had my first iced Americano of the week and picked up a bag of beans for my upcoming cold fusion experiment. We visited for a while before heading out into the evening, stopping for a bit to enjoy the ballroom dancers gliding around the open square.



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