Category Archives: UlaanBaatar

Canned applause from China (Trans-Siberian Leg 3)

Canned applause from China (Trans-Siberian Leg 3)

For the final leg of our Trans-Mongolian train journey, we were to board another Mongolian train. This meant that we would complete our “Trans-Siberian Railway” trip without once getting on a Russian train. At least we’ll have the memory of the shabby Russian restaurant cart from our first leg, with good old Vlad the Impaler and his Borscht.

Another turn up for the books, which we discovered when comparing tickets one night in a Gerr, was that our new friends, Maarten and Paulina, turned out be our cabin mates for the remaining to Beijing. As we’d been living in eachother’s pockets in Gerrs for the past few days, what was another 30 hours between friends eh?

In the cabin next door were couple from the UK, Meg and Steve, who we’d seen before briefly at Lake Baikal. They’d come a similar route to us so far – through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, and now into China. Also like us, they were heading for South-East Asia, but then of to Nepal and India I think. We didn’t know it at the time, but these 2 would turn out to be good friends, who we met up with at a couple of places in China, and as we arrived in Vietnam.

All 6 of us chatted away and enjoyed a few beers, many laughs, and the odd game of cards, and shared stories of our misadventures so far. It was a really pleasant trip, with the only downside being that Maarten and Paulina decided to try out the Mongolian restaurant car, and got stung for a hefty bill for food they didn’t even ask for. The shady looking restaurant Manager gave them menus, asked if they wanted lunch, to which they replied yes. He then promptly took the menus back before they’d had half a chance to look at them, and disappeared into the back. A while later he proceeded to bring out 3 courses of mediocre food, and charge them $50 for the privilege  It’s a bummer, but these things happen, and we all agreed it wasn’t likely to be the last time that any of us fall victim to such scams.

The major difference about this leg of our train journey was that this was a… wait for it… A modern train. The heating wasn’t coal powered, it was clean, there were LCD screens in the cabins (which didn’t appear to do anything, but still), there were digital signs in the corridor showing what station we were arriving at, how fast we were travelling, outside temperature and all that palaver  We even got free tea bags and cups of tea. We were seriously high rolling.

The most annoying/surreal part of the journey was the Chinese border crossing and gauge changing combo stop. The stop in total was over 8 hours, and for at least half of this, it frustratingly felt like absolutely nothing was happening. The gauge changing was a very strange experience to say the least. The purpose is to change the bogies (wheelsets) from Russian 5′ gauge to the standard 4′ 8½” gauge used in China. The train is shunted into a shed, and then the carriages are somehow uncoupled and lifted, until many are side by side, rather than tip to tip. The carriages are then raised up high and a bunch of noisy, busy people, with hammers and machines do something or other, than gradually put the train back together again. If I read correctly, all this gauge changing monkey business is purely because the Russians decided to use a different width of train track, so that if they were ever invaded, at least the invaders couldn’t use their own rolling stock on the Russian rails. After being invaded, knowing the aggressor was unable to use their own trains on my rails would seem like quite a hollow victory to me… Anyhow this lasted for a few hours, and the Chinese passport and cabin inspection lasted the same. What was happening the rest of the time I have no idea.

Once passports were checked, as we were just sat at the border crossing, we were able to get off, go to the station shop and use the bogs etc (Train loos were still out of bounds when stopped, which suggests that even on this swanky modern train, they are still dropping shits onto the tracks). The strangest thing however, was that during this stationary period, during the wee hours past midnight, huge speakers on the platforms were blaring out very load, and very poor quality martial type music, and every song was followed by canned applause – no doubt supposed to be the jovial tidings of the vast and completely unified (of course) Peoples Republic. Unlikely though it sounds, I’m pretty sure they also played an instrumental Michael Jackson number, and a piece of Mozart.

Eventually the train set off we tried to grab a few hours shut eye. When we awoke, the change in scenery was remarkable. As we trundled through the quarries and ravines of the mountains of Northern China, we began to see the first signs of the truly unbelievable scale of construction that is happening in China. As we neared Beijing and the terrain flattened, vast half built cities seemed to appear on the horizon every few miles. Huge clusters of 20 or 30 high rise apartment blocks were everywhere – some built, some half built, many seemingly abandoned half way through construction. It’s as though things are popping up so fast, they forget to finish one project before they start on the next. I’m pretty certain some of what we saw were China’s infamous Ghost Cities. Apparently China builds something like 12-14 new cities a year, and then the wealthy middle class buy up all the real estate (Government laws don’t allow the Chinese to invest overseas), thinking of it as a safe investment, then no tenants can afford the rent, so entire cities stand empty. Madness.

As usual, I digress… Around 2pm, after about 170 hours of sitting/lying down on a train, a few days of stop overs in Siberia and Mongolia, and 4,735 miles from Moscow, we finally arrived in Beijing.

Trans-Siberian (Trans-Mongolian) Leg 3
04/04/2013 – 05/03/2013

(PS – the previous post was about our time in Mongolia in case you missed it, feel free to take a goose. Hopefully a fair few more posts to come in the next week or so to bring us back up to date)

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Munching Marmot in Mongolia

Munching Marmot in Mongolia

As we arrived in UlaanBaatar in a freak blizzard, we were glad to have taken advantage of the hostels free pick up offer. We were greeted by a short and bubbly Mongolian lady called Bogi, and what she lacked in height, she more than made up for in Jolliness, making us feel instantly at ease in this strange new place.

After a precarious taxi journey through the snow we arrived at our hostel, the Golden Gobi.  In terms of atmosphere, this was one of the best hostels we’ve stayed in. A family run affair with a large common room/kitchen which, during our time there, was often filled with (mostly) friendly and interesting travelers exchanging adventure tales.

After catching up on a few hours sleep, we went for a mooch about town. It’s hard to describe UlaanBataar, but I’ll have a bash – Ugly, crowded, noisy, bustling, and seemingly surrounded on all sided by snow capped mountains. Rampant consumerism has really taken hold here, with aesthetically inconsiderate advertising shouting at you from every direction, and scores of teenagers buzzing around in all the latest fashions – headphones blaring. These kids wouldn’t look out of place on the trendiest streets of Manchester or London. It’s a stark contrast from the simple nomadic and village life still practiced by so many on the steppes surrounding the city. One really bizarre sight, right on the red square, surrounded by mega flashy glass high rises, was an outdoor showroom – appearing to sell sheds and garages. On closer inspection, we realised what it was: An upgrade-your-outdated-Gerr(Yurt)-and-get-with-the-times showroom. Here, Mongolians were being encouraged to forget about their ancient traditional way of living, and plant some roots with a nice shiny fibre glass shed. (If you were the sentimental type, you could even get one in the shape of a Gerr… Thoroughly depressing, and after we spent the next few days experiencing life in Gerrs – it seemed even more so.

Despite all this, UlaanBaatar wasn’t an unpleasant place to be. It seemed to be thriving, with big groups of friends and families all around, smiling, laughing, and appearing extremely laid back – All of this was quite surprising after we were just getting used to the seriousness of Mother Russia. It is possible that the city does not always seem this welcoming, as we caught the tail end of a weekend long festival promoting healthy living, with streets closed to cars, bike rallies everywhere, and various stalls and attractions all around. (It turns out the idea of fruit and vegetables has only just reached Mongolia, a country with virtually no arable land, that has historically been built on the meaty carcasses of anything that moves).  Anyhow, our later experience of the huge lawless roads in the city does leave us to suppose that everyone isn’t always in such a good mood as they were during our visit.

We only spent one full day and one evening in UlaanBaatar itself, so these are all first impressions really. It’s definitely an intriguing place that would well warrant a bit of time and exploration. As well as the imposing Sukhbaatar’s Square, and massive modern glass office blocks, there is also a huge Ancient Buddhist temple in the centre of town which we unfortunately didn’t get to see. By all accounts its pretty special though, as it’s huge, and is still a working temple where visitors are welcome to go and watch mourning/evening prayers.

Although we wanted to go and see some of Mongolia’s famous countryside, it depended on how expensive it was going to be. Luckily, the Golden Gobi offered good deals, and we were offered to join a Dutch couple on a trip they had booked which would lower the cost for us all. For £90 each, we got the chance to go out to the nearby Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, and spend 3 full days and 2 nights in Gerrs with some genuine Mongolian (and Khazak Mongolian) families, eating, drinking tea, hiking, horse riding, and visiting a surreal Genghis Khan monument.

The morning after we arrived, we met with our driver Ishka, and our guide, who turned out to be Bogi, our jolly friend from the train station. We got on instantly with our Dutch travelling companions Maarten and Paulina, and having good friends to travel with made the experience all the more enjoyable. They had also come on the Trans-Siberian and their plan was now Mongolia, China, Tibet, Nepal, Burma, South East Asia (and possibly India I think). We hope to stay in touch and particularly look forward to hearing about Tibet, Nepal, and Burma, as these are place we would really like to go (maybe on the way back).

Anyway – off we went in our rickety but robust little Russian mini van, taking in the wild wide open vistas of the Mongolian steppes. I could write for pages about this trip and all the things we saw, but I haven’t got time, and nobody wants to read any more waffle than is absolutely necessary anyway, so I’ll try and be brief. As the van trundled along, we were a bit concerned about what the trip was going to be like – the whole notion of “authentic cultural  tourism” is a bit strange as it is, and we kept passing things signed as Gerr Tourist Camps, which were little clusters of Gerrs fenced of with shops and western toilets and the like. Thankfully, we quickly went off the beaten track, and were swallowed by the vast Mongolian wilderness.

As far as we could make out, the families involved in this tourist scheme were genuine animal herding families, living semi nomadic lifestyles, who supplemented their income, by letting foreigners stay with them for a few days. There may well be arguments against it, but to us it seemed like a win-win situation for both parties. We get to see a totally different culture, and they make a few extra quid by just letting us stay there, feeding us, and getting on with life as usual. The families probably thought it was bizarre that people would pay to come and see the hum-drum of their day to day. We’ve been wondering how we can get people to come and pay to watch our daily grind when we get back.

The three days we experienced were basically a Mongolia taster session. The first family we visited actually had an electricity line to their Gerr, with a fridge and a television. They were still semi-nomadic, in that they moved locations every season, but they would rotate between the same 4 locations every year, and instead of loading up their homes onto horses and camels, they used 4x4s. The Kazakh family were much more remote, with no power line, but they had wind and solar generators, and on the steppes, wind and sun are in abundance. The Kazakhs rounded up their herds using motorbikes and dogs, and also had an ancient television, but they were so busy working this seemed to get little use. Around cities, this modern tinged, semi-nomadic life seems quite normal. It makes sense too, unless they were actively shunning modern technology like the Amish, there is no reason why they wouldn’t use cars, have generators and mobile phones etc. Apart from a few pieces of technology however, their ancient culture and way of life seems well preserved.

One of the main things we were all worried about was not adhering to the traditional customs. If you read the guide books, there are huge lists of things – like always accepting the snuff bottle with your left hand, not pointing your feet at the fire or the door, sitting in appropriate positions according to gender and seniority, not slapping people round the chops, etc… For us it was all worry for nothing, our hosts were very accommodating to tourists and didn’t mind our cultural faux pas, and I reckon much of the rules and regulations would only be observed and the extremely remote and rural nomadic families.

When we arrived at the first Gerr, our family weren’t home, so we stopped by a neighbours  who promptly fed us and gave us our first taste of Mongolian tea: Milk from various animals (sometimes combined) and stewed with some particular grasses and sieved  It’s kind of salty, milky and herby. I was dubious at first, but after about 3 cups I was hooked, and I still miss it now. We went for a trek to a local Buddhist temple, and then came back to meet the family we would stay with. They must get a fair few tourists, as they had a separate Gerr for us to sleep in, with actual beds in it (We thought we would be sleeping on the floor a is normal, and as we did at the next place). They stoked the fire so well before we went to bed, that Amy woke up in the middle of the night, practically on fire, and had to hurtle out into the snowy darkness, practically in the knack, to cool down.

Next day, after a stupendously surreal visit to a ridiculous Genghis Khan monument, we set off to the next family we would be staying with. They were Kazakh  and apparently there are quite a few Kazakh nomad families in the area. Although they are nomadic and live in Gerrs in Mongolia, there were many differences in culture. For example they were Muslim  whereas most Mongolian nomads follow Buddism or some form of shamanism. The journey over the steppes was amazing, and with no roads or apparent points of reference it was amazing Ishka knew where he was driving. When we arrived we were greeted by a traditional dressed old lady, who looked approximately 200 years old, with a dress soaked in blood, and a lamb under her arm. She waved at us and pootled off with said newborn, and we didn’t actually see her again for the rest of our stay. Due to the time of year, animals were popping sproggs out left right and centre, so our hosts were extremely busy. In the evening we were treated to a bit of music by the son of the elder, who had an amazing singing voice and can make a beautiful sound with the simple but haunting 2 stringed Dombra (a lute type thing). Playing music and having a sing song is also a big part of Mongolian tradition, and Ishka and Bogi joined in with the singing instinctively without any restraint or reserve. Annoyingly, every Mongolian seems to have a wonderful singing voice, and they then wanted us to let loose a little ditty for them, but we politley declined, due to having the combined vocal talent of a cat being throttled by a noisey goose.

Bogi and Ishka really made the trip for us, they were a great team, always laughing and joking with each other. Ishka couldn’t speak a word of English, but was such a laid back and friendly guy, always having a little nap anytime he could. It was a suprise to find he was once a high ranking officer in the Mongolian Soviet Army. Bogi worked as a tour guide around UlaanBaatar to pay for her brothers to study (they lived with her too). Her first love (as with many rural Mongolians) was horse riding, and in the high season she got to work as a horse trekking guide back home in the west near her nomadic family.

If you have the time, and the balls, you can attempt a really amazing way of travelling around Mongolia and the Ghobi desert – Gerr to Gerr. In the West and South, out in the desert, away from cities, genuine nomadic families still exist without any connection to the modern world – other than maybe a mobile phone. It is possible to travel around Mongolia, by car, motorbike, or horse and simply stop at every Gerr you find on the way. No matter what time of day or year, you will be welcomed in, and given food, water and shelter. This isn’t a myth either. This hospitality is deeply ingrained in rural Mongolian culture due to necessity. Before a train and rail network it would of been virtually impossible to travel the vast barren expanses without it. Apparently, its totally OK to arrive at a Gerr, and even if no one is home, enter it and treat it as your own home. It is said that the rural Mongolians don’t understand the concept of privacy, and if you were to pitch a tent near a Gerr, you could well expect them just to walk in without announcement to see what you were up to or offer you a brew. From our short experience of Gerr life, we can certainly believe it – there is no room for privacy with families living in such close quarters in big round tents.

The journey home was pretty mental, our driver Ishka nearly failed to stop at a toll booth, but didn’t, and was then extorted by the police, who threatened to make serious trouble for him if he didn’t hand over some cash. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself on a road (most of the time its just open plains and dirt tracks) its serious bum clenching time. As we arrived in the city at rush hour we saw many cars bumping into one another, until we then crashed into the back of someone. It was only minor, but this seemed like something to be expected daily on the roads here.

Other things about Mongolia:

The sky at night. Out on the steppes, the night sky is easily the most impressive we’ve ever seen. It feels like the whole universe and beyond is visible, and is really quite humbling,

My mate… Mar…mot... With the first family, we got to try the famous Mongolian hotpot, made by shoving hot coals in with the meat and potatoes and giving it a good shake. Like the barbecue in western cultures, this is a man’s domain, while all ther cooking and housework seemed to be primarily done by the Women. Hotpot this evening was made from a freshly caught Marmot. Through our guide, the man of the house explained how in the winter, the marmot is whipped out of its hibernaty-hole by hand, and still asleep, it is placed by the fire to warm up and get the blood flowing to its tasty little muscles. It then begins to stretch out and yawn like a little baby, and is promptly offed… Sad, but the little fella was undeniably delicious.

Mongolian whispers. The reason we got to try the hotpot was that the head of the Gerr also had a business partner from China staying with him, and he wanted to try the local specialty  (Apparently they were in the paper trade together, but I’m not sure how that worked from a remote farm in the Mongolian wilderness). The Chinese guy spoke Chinese to his interpreter, who translated to Mongolian to Bogi, who translated to English for us, and then our Dutch friends also had an inner interpreter. It was an extremely strange experience, but Mr Chinese-paper-man was a lovely bloke, and had apparently never been with so many foreigners before and wanted a picture with us all. Madness.

Chinggis Khan to the Mongolians, or Ghenggis to you and me, is still a popular national figure. Recently, a company sinisterly calling themselves the Genco Tour Beurau have built an immense statue of him in the middle of the Steppes. Currently its just the giant statue, with a museum inside (and the worlds largest leather boot, as the concierge proudly explained), but the plans and model inside show that intends to become a vast complex, with gerr hotels and the like. There are to be 1000 warrior statues built outside, and it comes to light that Jackie Chan was a big investor in the project, and so one (or all, we’re not quite sure) of the statues are going to be built with Jackie Chan’s face. Yes that’s right, Jackie Chan. This seems like the crazy hair brained project of an eccentric billionaire, and it may well be. It looks like nothing else is being built around the statue, and the place itself, only built in 2008, is already in a state of disrepair, with flags stones cracked and crumbling steps. We were the only visitors when we were there. – The museum was interesting though (A private collection of Mongolian artifacts through the ages.

life and death on the steppes. After our horse ride, we got to have lunch in a local families Gerr. Inside on a tray was the full set of gizzerds from a sheep, which was being eagerly devoured by all present Mongolians. Next to this on a table was a large bowl of what we think may of been afterbirth. Behind the table were many new born baby goats and sheep – very cute. In the entrance was the head and spine of freshly slaughtered sheep. It was poking its tongue out at me so I flicked it. It was weird.  Outside we saw some little goats popping out the back of some bigger goats. It was gory, but at least we finished on life instead of death. One goat decided to headbutt another in the side, which almost popped the kid straight out. I’m not sure that it was being intentionally helpful though, it looked pretty mean.

“How did they get up here?” Amy asked as we climbed up the slippery rock into the cave – The cave is known locally as the 100 Lamas cave, due to 100 Buddhist monks (lamas) hiding in it during the Soviet purges in the late 1930’s – “How did who get in?” asked Bogi, our guide.”The animals” Amy replied. “No animals” said Bogi, rather confused. “The Llamas” insisted Amy… I eventually understood where the confusion was, and we clarified that it would of indeed been very difficult for 100 of the small humpless camel type beasts to climb up and hide in the cave, but it was sitll impressive that 100 monks hid out there for so long. (Almost 3 years I think, but eventually they were found and many were killed by the Soviets)

UlaanBaatar and Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Mongolia
31/03/2013 – 04/04/2013

PS – It’s been a while since our last post, and as is evident from the dates above, I’m a bit behind with posts. China was a bit hectic and I’m too pedantic when it comes to uploading stuff… I’m trying to train myself to be less so, and to be a more efficient blogger, but its a slow process. Hopefully I’ll do a few posts soon to get more up to date with where we actually are. We hope everyone back home is well – stay in touch.

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Mongolian banana smugglers (Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2)

Mongolian banana smugglers..
(Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2)

The first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey was about 77 hours. This next leg, as our train veered South from Siberia into Mongolia, was a paltry 30 odd hours. Nothing for battle hardened rail pros like us… we thought.

The train was a Mongolian one. Rather unshockingly, the staff were also Mongolian. Instead of our scruffy jack the lad Chinese carriage guards, we now had carriages staffed by a battle* of smartly dressed, diminutive, and severely efficient Mongolian ladies. *Unsure of collective noun for female Mongolian train guards.

Our carriage was totally packed with rowdy Mongolian blokes, we guessed maybe returning home for the weekend (Work can apparently be scarce in Mongolia these days). When we showed the guards our tickets they began to swear and fret amongst themselves, and seemed pretty unsubtley annoyed with us. After some heated debate they shoved us through the throng into our room, where we immediately gathered the cause of their annoyance. We had the tenacity to have prebooked beds, which happened to be in the cabin the staff seemed to have commandeered as an extra chillout room. The table was full of tea flasks and various train guard paraphernalia  and the under-seat luggage storage was full to the brim with boxes of Bananas (Yes, we were puzzled too). We attempted to shove our luggage where we could and were just about to get settled in, when the guards burst in and began pleading to us in Mongolian, whilst starting to collect our bags and coats. We gathered they wanted to move us, but we were slightly reluctant and tried in vein to explain (reasonably in our view) that we wanted to keep the beds we had paid for, with the numbers printed on our tickets. By using a mixture of bafflement and bribery (we gathered through mayhem that they were trying to assure us we’d have the new cabin to ourselves), the whirling guards somehow managed to get us into another cabin.

So, bruised an bemused, we once again began to settle in, this time without interruption  Our Mongolian matriarchs were also (almost) true to their word, and we did have it (almost) to ourselves for the duration. Bizarrely  half of our luggage space was still full of fruit. It seemed that a couple of the blokes on the train were traders, and had some sort of dodgy deal going with train guards – It did cross our minds that we may get done by customs for trying to smuggle in fruity contraband, but thankfully the border crossing went smoothly.

The border crossings on Trans-Siberian/Mongolian trains are still something we are yet to make head or tail of. The train is checked by both countries on their respective sides of the border, and there is a huge amount of time where absolutely nothing happens, and nothing is being done by anyone. Our total Russia-Mongolia border took around 8 hours, and apart from a bit of crawling and shunting, we were stationary for nearly all that time. Passports, Visas, immigration and custom forms are all checked, and rooms and (sometimes) bags are inspected. This happens on both sides of the border, and usually only takes between one and two hours each side… What’s going on for the remaining 4-6 hours is total mystery (apart from when they change the undercarriages to fit the different gauge of track when trains enter or leave Russia).

Our Russian part of the border crossing was in Ulan-Ude. The station is in the middle of nowhere but we were allowed to get off and stretch our legs and use the toilets – train toilets are out of bounds during stops, and 30 minutes before and after. This makes timing toilet visits one of the foremost concerns of the entire train journey… Anyway, at Ulan-Ude the train was split, most carriages carried on across Russia, but one carriage was left to enter Mongolia. Because of this, anyone who was destined for Mongolia from the other carriages were all quickly bundled into our carriage, and so a couple of Mongolian students promptly sat on our beds and cracked open the instant noodles. We left them to it and went for a potter around the train station. As we ambled around taking pictures and enjoying the leg stretch, we noticed a train engine couple itself to our carriage, and slowly begin chugging away. Our brains were telling us that there was no way the train would just leave without us, without any indication or signals at all, but our eyes told us a different story. In the true British tradition of running-for-a-bus-but-trying-not-to-look-like-you’re-running-for-a-bus we briskly walked after the train politely trying to get the guards attention who was hanging out of the back door. He made an indiscernible hand signal to us, and the train carried on into the distance. After we realised our power-walk-pursuit was futile, we stopped and stood in silence watching our train shrink in size, as is the nature of perspective. Just as the shocking realisation that all out bags, money, and documents were heading off without us, we noticed the train actually stopped shrinking, and then began to look as if it was growing again. Initially I thought this must be an optical allusion, akin to that when a wheel looks to be spinning backwards at a certain speed, but low and behold, it was really coming back towards us. It was of course, just changing tracks. We slowly turned around, only to see groups of locals chuckling to themselves on the platform. The train reversed passed us at an agonizingly slow speed, as more locals peered out of the windows, laughing at the numpty tourists who thought their train was leaving without them. We pretended not be embarrassed  but the colour of our faces may have suggested different.

The Mongolian border crossing consisted of stopping just outside a remote ramshackled farming village, at a small hut with the words ‘Mongolian Customs’ spraypainted on the side. The train was saluted by a row of smiling soldiers and then the standard border crossing procedure began. Our cabin door slid open, and we were strangely saluted by a tall Mongolian GI Jane. She didn’t seem too friendly and proceeded to almost take out cabin apart, taking of roof panels and all sorts.

Considering all you have to do is fill in a couple of forms, and sit there for hours, eating and drinking tea, border crossings are a remarkably stressful experience. They also do an amazing job of shattering romantic Trans-Siberian notions. Because you can just sit there and chill out while it all happens, it’s still slightly preferable to the cattle market treatment you have to go through when flying, it’s just the length of stationary time that’s the main downer.

Although it has the lowest average temperature (over a year) of any capital city, UlaanBaatar apparently has clear skies most of the year round. We arrived at six in the morning, to a -6 degree blizzard and a good few inches of snow. Of course.

Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2
30/03/13 – 01/04/13

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