msnbc.com news services
updated 8/1/2008 9:54:01 AM ET 2008-08-01T13:54:01

The moon's shadow swept across the planet from Canada to China on Friday, delighting throngs of skywatchers who flocked to see a total eclipse of the sun.

The stellar spectacle — which arises when the moon passes directly between the sun and Earth — began in northern Canada, tracked across Greenland and the Arctic, then moved through Russia and Mongolia.

The celestial display ended in western China, where some saw it as a dark omen ahead of next week's start of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Others, however, took a more contemporary view.

"These days, we don't think it's bad or lucky, it's just natural," said Joy Yang, who joined hundreds of people on the massive stone city wall in the ancient capital and Silk Road terminus now called Xi'an. The crowd broke into shouts and cheers during the total eclipse, which has been christened the "Olympics eclipse" by state media.

The local newspaper instructed residents to protect their eyes by looking at the eclipse through dark film. Yang, like others, gazed at the sun through X-rays of teeth and other body parts, tearing large pieces of film into smaller bits to share with others.

Tens of thousands of tourists gathered in different areas of the far western desert in Xinjiang in search of the best view, overwhelming some of the region's remote communities, according to state media.

Researchers and commentators from NASA, the Exploratorium and the University of California at Berkeley broadcast their view of the total eclipse from Xinjiang over the Internet. Other scientists made Xi'an and the surrounding area their base of operations.

Superstitions still exist
Despite the ruling Communist Party's emphasis on scientific thinking, China still has its superstitions. The date and time of the Olympics' opening ceremony on Aug. 8 are stuffed with as many eights as possible, because the word "eight" in Chinese sounds like "fortune."

Adopting Friday's solar eclipse as a good sign meant stripping away the ancient superstition about it being the unluckiest event in the sky.

When eclipses happened, emperors were blamed and had to apologize for angering the heavens. Being able to predict solar eclipses and show control over the skies became so political that some eclipse reports apparently were manipulated, said John B. Henderson, a history professor at Louisiana State University who has written about Chinese cosmology.

"Eclipses were reported where none took place, in areas of political or bureaucratic strife," Henderson said. "It may have been a means of voicing dissent."

The urge to seek links between the Olympics and natural phenomena such as the eclipse is understandable, if not exactly rational, said Jiang Xiaoyuan, a social sciences professor at Shanghai's Jiaotong University who has written about astronomy research and patriotism in China.

"We'd already known about this eclipse many years before we got the right to host the Olympics, so how can we explain this is retribution?" Jiang said.

Seen in Siberia
Millions of skywatchers could witness the celestial sight across a wide swath of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, where the partial phase of the eclipse was visible. But the total phase — where the moon's disk covers the sun's disk completely — could be seen only along a narrow track.

Video: Solar eclipse time-lapse Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city, was one of the biggest population centers in the path of totality. Thousands of people mixed awe with excitement as day turned into night. All gazed in wonder as an eerie silence descended on the Siberian city, and gushes of unusually strong wind tore through the crowd of skywatchers. Birds stopped chirping and the temperature suddenly dropped.

"It's very dramatic and awe-inspiring when the darkness suddenly comes. That's why thousands of tourists go to see," said Jay Pasachoff, a professor at Williams College who traveled to Novosibirsk for his 47th eclipse.

In the remote Siberian settlement of Berezovaya Katun, near Russia's border with China, a large crowd of tourists clapped and cheered as organizers released thousands of balloons into the darkened sky.

In Moscow, which saw a partial eclipse, passers-by froze as they tried to catch at a glimpse of the phenomenon. In St. Petersburg, people shouted "Look! Look!" and pointed above as the moon blotted out much of the sun.

"You just feel part of nature. ... This is so rare," one St. Petersburg resident told Reuters. Many looked through special sunglasses, computer disks and even beer bottles to protect their eyes from the partial eclipse's glare.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and Reuters.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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