Monthly Archives: October 2012

Red Hero

We took an overnight train to Ulan Ude , the capital of the Buryat republic, in order to catch the connecting bus to Ulaanbaatar. With only an hour to spare, it was just enough time to visit the world’s largest Lenin head, even if it was 6.30am and still pitch black. Whoever crafted this Lenin head has decided to give him more Asian features, it was more like coming face to face with the Wizard of Oz. All Lenined out and not needing a brain, a heart or any courage, we strutted down the yellow brick road and onto the bus to Ulaanbaatar.

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The bus was more like an ice box on wheels, luckily I was wedged in next to a twenty stone Russian woman for warmth. Stopping at a service station I decided to have my first taste of Mongolian cuisine, the same old problem occurred of not being able to understand the menu. The cheapest thing was 1000 Tugrik ( there are 2202 Tugrik to one pound) so I just went for that. Turned out to be a bowl of lettuce covered in that old foe ‘dill’, not a good start.

Ulaanbaatar (literally red hero) is the world’s coldest capital, this was apparent as soon as we stepped off the bus. UB is also the second most polluted city I have visited (Middlesbrough is obviously the first). The whole city has a putrid burning smell that that is caused by traffic and construction, but mainly garbage being scorched outside the city in the ger camps.

Sukhe Bator square in the centre of the city, is a site of patriotic celebrations and a main meeting point. A giant statue of Ghengis Khan over looks the square where George Bush made a speech on Mongolian freedom in 2005, no one understood a word of it.

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A walk through the suburbs took us to Gandan Khiid, a monastery complex home to the spiritual head of Mongolia, the Khamba Lama. I was was shocked to learn that in the 1930’s, almost all of Mongolia’s 700 monasteries were destroyed and over 14000 monks executed by Stalin’s communists for refusing to give up their vows.

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How many pigeons?

We paid a visit to the black market, which sells absolutely everything, including kitchen sinks for dirt cheap prices. I tried to buy a pair of pink Calvin Klein kegs, which the lady wanted 3500T for. I went in with an offer of 1000T, the kegs were abruptly snatched out of my hands and returned to the stall. I take it they don’t do bargaining here…

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The Zaisan memorial perched on the top of a hill on the southern edge of town, has good panoramic views of the city, albeit clouded by the smog. Looking forward to getting out into the country to see some nomadic life….

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The Blue Eye Of Siberia

Lake Baikal is truly one of the world’s phenomenons that make you realise how amazing our planet really is. It holds 20% of our fresh water, if the rest of the world’s ran out tomorrow, Baikal would have enough drinking water to supply the entire Earth for the next 40 years, this fact is constantly brought up when talking about Baikal. It is the deepest, among the clearest, longest, widest, and has the most marine life… The lake holds almost as many records as Sachin Tendulkar. We took the short drive to the village of Listvyanka to eat smoked omul by the pebbly shore.

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Lady selling Baikal Omul

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To the locals Baikal is known as the Holy Sea, since there are many legends and myths surrounding it. Most notably the one concerning Shaman rock. Old man Baikal had 336 sons (what a player he was, this is the number of rivers that flow into the lake) and one daughter (the Angara river which flows out). One day, Baikal’s only daughter enraged him by refusing to marry the feeble Irkut, preferring the longest river in Russia, the Yenisey. After being sick of told who she will and will go out with, she tried to do one. In an attempt to keep her under control Angara’s father hurled the giant Shaman rock at her to stop her fleeing to her fancy man. It was all in vain and to this day the rock can be seen from the shore at Listvyanka. I can assure you that it is based on a true story….

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We took the eight hour bus ride (but it was reduced to five thanks to our nutter bus driver) to Olkhan island for a few days. Olkhan island is the third largest lake bound island on Earth, but did you hear Tom Daily complaining about his bronze Olympic medal? The indigenous Buryat people believe the Island to be a spiritual place, and among the five global poles of Shamanic energy. Some rituals are still practised here.

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Shaman posts

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Sacred Tree

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The entire lake freezes solid during the -35C winter, a sight I would love to see. The bus back the Irkutsk was twice as much as what we paid going there, they’re certainly not stupid are they! And with that, signalled the end of our Russian journey. Russia has exceeded all expectations, taught me that stereotypes are often a million miles away from the truth, and helped me to acquire a strange fetish for neat vodka. Next stop Mongolia….
Поехали! (pa yeh kha lay)

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Trans-Siberian playlist

The question on everyone’s mind – what on earth do you do on a train for so long? Well it is surprising how fast the time passes, but when all else fails – music. You will hear the odd pretentious traveller say something like ‘why would you want to listen to music on the trans Siberian railway?’. Thankfully I’m not one of those, so I’ve put together this small playlist from my iPod, which I thought went well with the world’s longest train journey and Russia in general. Listen whilst looking out the window at the vast never ending nothingness, or to drown out the sound of snoring and ‘vodka talk’. What would you have on your playlist? Comments welcome!

1. Russian Dance – Tom Waits
2. Trans Europe Express – Kraftwerk
3. Freight Train Blues – Bob Dylan
4. Farmer Labour train – Woody Guthrie
5. Acres Wild – Jethro Tull
6. Englishman in New York – The Police
7. The Wild Hunt – The Tallest Man on Earth
8. Tweeter and the Monkey man – The Travelling Wilburys
9. The Russians Are Coming – Val Bennet
10. Bad Moon Rising – CCR
11. A Forest – The Cure
12. Train to Skaville – Ethiopians
13. Evergreen – Ryan Adams
14. River man – Nick Drake
15. American English – Idlewild
16. Ný Batterí – Sigur Rós
17. Nothing – The Cat Empire

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Siberian Shamanism On Derby Day

The train from Omsk to Irkutsk was our longest yet and took 40 hours. It was a lot quieter than the other trains and the two days were pretty much non eventful. One man we shared a berth with I believe had been on since Moscow, but smelted like he had been on since Mars. In the two days he muttered only a few words when he got off, which I’d like to think were something like ‘goodbye’ or ‘take care’, but have a feeling it was something more on the offensive side.

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I had heard that shamanism was practised in these parts of Siberia, so was very pleased when we were invited along to a ceremony. Although the concept of the shaman is fairly common throughout the world, the word itself actually originates from the Tungus tribes of Siberia. People visit a shaman for all kinds of reasons, most commonly to cure illness or to ask advice.

We arrived at the small wooden house just outside of Irkutsk where the practice was taking place. A goat had been sacrificed not long before we arrived and the smell of flesh was still lingered in the air. The shaman wears spectacular robes and has prepared themselves for years to be able to connect with the spirit world.

My question to the shaman – ‘where do my ancestors come from?’, something I have always been curious about. Knelt before the shaman to avoid eye contact with the spirit, as it is believed that making eye contact with a shaman could result in disastrous consequences, I got my answer. After beating the drum and entering a trance, the shaman told me that I am 17th generation descendant of William the Viking archer.

So there you have it, I have been called many things, Muslim, Puerto rican, Spanish, Georgian, Italiano (by Tony the drunk in Hikkaduwa R.I.P) to name but a few, they were all wrong. 100% Viking.

The other thing I was determined to do in Irkutsk was to somehow find a way to watch the Wear/Tyne derby. Most of the bars I asked in I got the same response ‘Newcastle and who?’ My mission was accomplished, as I managed to watch a 10 man Newcastle team pick up a well deserved point at the dark place against a 12 man Sunderland team. Demba Ba’s unlucky deflection ending up in the back of the Newcastle net and in the process, making him Sunderland’s second top goal scorer for the season. May I add that Newcastle will always be a much bigger club than Sunderland and to quote Valentin ‘Sunderland will never survive’. SMB

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Everything ….sk

Tobolsk is a town which lies slightly off the major Siberian line. The train to Tobolsk was our maddest yet, the carriage was full of workers making their way home from the Caucas, they had already been on the train for several days so a lot of them were already drunk as lords. In the few hours we had before we went to sleep, we witnessed a few arguments, one fight, and several topless Siberian men being put to bed by their compadres. They were all best mates again in the morning though.

My opinion of Russian trains seems to be changing with every leg of this journey, but what I’m certain of is that every one is different and most folk just use it as an excuse to get steaming drunk whilst making new friends. They especially like it when a foreigner such as myself ends up in their carriage.
I really wasn’t in the mood for drinking this time, but ended up having a large shot of vodka and a glass of bootlegged whisky, just to be polite….just to be polite! The smoking area on this train freaked me out a little bit, half a dozen men were simultaneously quizzing me in Russian, I felt like Nick Griffin on that episode of question time, in the sense that a room full of non British people were asking me questions that I could not answer.

The main reason for visiting Tobolsk was to see what life is like in a small Russian town. Tobolsk is famed as the site where Yermak Timofeevich and his Cossack forces defeated the Tatar army in 1582. We spent an hour walking around the handsome kremlin, perched on the top of the hill where Yermak won his battle.

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Tobolsk Kremlin

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Took a visit to a fine arts museum, but we didn’t actually go in till the next day. The woman at the desk spoke no English, but punched in a number on the telephone and handed it to me, the person on the other end simply said ‘the museum is closed’.

We walked down the wooden steps from the Kremlin to the old town. There wasn’t anything to write home about here, most of the buildings were in a run down condition, creating a sad and haunting atmosphere, had I took a wrong turn and ended up in silent hill?

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The highlight of our time in Tobolsk, was probably the moment we stooped to an all time low of communicating with non-English speakers. No Renglish, no sign language….drawing pictures. We didn’t know which bus to get back to where we were staying, nor did we know the name of the area. What we did know was that it was next to an old ferris wheel. Not knowing the Russian translation of ‘ferris’ or ‘wheel’ or anything of the sort, it was time to get the sketch pad out…..

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Another overnight train journey later, came Omsk. We weren’t originally going visit Omsk, we wanted to go to Tomsk but there were no direct trains. So we ditched the T and opted for Omsk instead.

The first day in Omsk was simply just a place for me to rest and get over ‘trans Siberian man flu’, something all travellers contract from sharing a smokey train with a load of coughing Russians.

Omsk was our first exposure to the bitter Siberian cold. At around -1C, it’s hard to believe that it’s going to get colder from here on in. There really isn’t a lot to do at all in Omsk, but it was nice to break the train journey up and I must say the place had its charms. Sometimes the thing about travelling, is not always about the sight seeing, but just BEING somewhere. So freezing the cossacks off a brass monkey, at least it felt like real Siberia. We spent the afternoon walking around the centre of town…

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Leaf Juggler

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Another Lenin monument

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WWII Memorial

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Serafimo-Aleksievskaya Chapal

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Europe to Asia, Asia to Europe and back again

Yekaterinburg is geographically classed as the beginning of Siberia, a sign at the train station clearly read ‘Welcome to Asia!’ Nestled amongst the Urals mountain range, it is a popular stop off for any Trans-Siberian traveller.

Yekaterinburg is most well known for being the place where the last Tsar, Nicolas the 2nd, and his family were murdered by the communists. We decided to take a walk with our hosts Anya and Eugene to the ‘Temple on the Blood’ a place of worship that was built on the exact spot the Romanovs were put to the sword.

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I was surprised at how warm it was for this time of year, walking around the river Iset soaking in the atmosphere was interesting….

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Locals playing chess by the river

Yekaterinburg is famous for two other things, the home town of Boris Yeltsin and the U-2 affair. But I was more interested in exploring the surrounding area of the Urals, than the city itself.

We drove to Ganima Yama, a monastery built on the site where the Romanovs were buried. The set of wooden churches were an interesting contrast from the usual churches we’ve visited, to be honest it was nice to be away from the city for a while. We hung around the monastery and I made some poi lightsabers in the forest…

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We took a road trip with Eugene 276 kilometres from Yekaterinburg, to visit the Kungur ice cave. Kungur is actually in the Perm region which is geographically back in Europe. Perm also is the only place in the world where it is still acceptable to have…a perm. The cave is home to numerous ice formations and grottos, all of the guided tour was in Russian so didn’t understand a lot of what was said but found it pretty ahem *cool* non the less. The old lady guide we had was very unenthusiastic about the tour, at the end she stated that whoever walks through the cave is believed to become five years younger, this led to a bombardment of jokes from the Russian men, such as ‘well it obviously hasn’t worked for you pet!’ nice one lads.

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Sculpture from the ice cave

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Road trip!

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Guide of the year

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Velcome Tartastan

The train ride to Kazan was an eventful one, two guys in our berth decided to share some Vodka with us, of course I joined in, when in Rome…

We managed to have shot after shot of Vodka while still being able to have half a conversation in Renglish (Russian, English and sign language). One of the men decided to stand up and say to us ‘you man, you voo-man’ thanks for that very obvious statement mate, god loves a trier.

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We’re in Tatarstan now, one of the republics of the Russian federation with a high population of Muslims. The Tatar people are darker skinned than your typical Russian, with the eastern music playing from the kiosks and numerous mosques dotted about, Kazan felt more like central Asia. It’s a shame that most of the city is under construction at the minute, they’re building a new metro system and preparing to host the university Olympics in 2013, I know, I’d never heard of the university Olympics either, maybe it’s where a bunch of students get together and play drinking games followed by a game of giant jenga…

The only part of Kazan which didn’t resemble a building sight was the kremlin, the original and oldest part of the city. The small old town is home to the biggest mosque in Russia and the leaning tower of Kazan.

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Kul Sharif Mosque

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Leaning tower of Kazan

Bought some lunch from a restaurant where staff spoke no English at all and the menu was in Cyrillic. We ended up just pointing to anything and basically having a surprise lunch, it ended up being chopped beef and mushrooms smothered in mayonnaise, couldn’t have asked for a more random concoction.

To take a break from wandering around looking at sights, we decided to go to the water park. It bared all the similarities of wet ‘n’ wild, except they sold alcohol, I forgot to mention there is no concept of health and safety in Russia….

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Metrosexual

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The Moscow metro in itself, is a tourist attraction. Opened in 1935 it is one of the largest transit metro systems in the world and at the beginning of the cold war, a deep section was made in the event of a nuclear war. Unlike Saint Petersburg, all the signs and stations names were in Cyrillic only, so navigating the metro was a lot more difficult.

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Every station on the metro system is unique in some way. Some have interesting statues, some have nice mosaics, we even passed through one that had a temporary exhibition on the platform.

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Площадь Революции (Square of Revolution), is one of the most famous stations. Both sides of the lobby are lined with sculptures representing people from the soviet union, there are 76 sculptures in total. One of the statues, a guard with a frontier dog, is believed to bring good luck to those who rub its nose. You can see on the picture that the nose is extremely polished from thousands of people rubbing it every day. I found myself doing it every time we passed through this station.

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We were warned that the Moscow metro was a haven for pickpockets, but I felt very comfortable riding it and found that the London underground has far more dodgy characters. A million miles away from the awkward ‘don’t make eye contact with anyone’ rule of the London underground, or the ‘drunken charva throwing up peasant chariot’ that is the Tyne Wear metro, the Moscow metro oozes with elegance and style, just as Stalin had intended it to. And for 28 roubles ( approx 56 pence) to ride anywhere on the system, it’s a bargain!

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Москва

Moscow (Москва, Mosk-var), was immediately different to St.Petersburg when we stepped out of the train station. A cold, misty morning and surrounded by a giant mass of soviet style concrete, now I feel like I am truly in Russia. I noticed that about sixty percent of the men in this area are wearing leather bomber jackets with matching leather flat caps. With the smell of stale smoke and booze in the air, you’d think I’d stepped into an old working man’s club flogging cheap del boy costumes.

Took a stroll down Арбат (Arbat), one of the main pedestrian streets in the centre of Moscow, which takes us all the way to Red Square and the Kremlin.

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Saint Basil’s cathedral, straight out of Disney land! The cathedral was build by Ivan the terrible to celebrate his victory over the Tatars. Named after Basil the simpleton, a beggar dressed in Loin cloths who loitered outside. Apparently Ivan was so pleased with the finished product, he ordered the architect have his eyes gauged out to prevent him ever creating anything as beautiful again. The guide book says this about every nice structure though, it makes you wonder why anyone would want to be an architect back then…

Inside the Kremlin, there are buildings ranging from Romanov imperial to Soviet modernism. The Kremlin is the seat of the Russian government and formally the centre of the Orthodox church.

Was looking at some fur hats outside, the salesman began to name the materials ‘rabbit, raccoon, fox’ for a joke I asked ‘you got any gorilla?’ to which he replied ‘gorilla, ha, gorilla, hahaha’. It defiantly tickled his sides, I walked back past ten minutes later and he was still laughing, Christ it wasn’t that funny.

Новодевичий монастырь (Novodevichy cemetery), is the final resting place of over two hundred famous Russian generals, mathematicians, inventors and presidents to name but a few, Boris Yeltsin’s tombstone being the main attraction.

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Yeltsin’s grave

The Moscow skyline from Sparrow hill, especially on a grey and wet day, is a unique site. From the top you can see the Olympic stadium, the commercial district and all of the soviet style skyscrapers that Stalin commissioned.

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Moscow from Sparrow hill

We returned to Red square on our last morning to try and see Lenin’s embalmed corpse, it was closed as they were building a new wall around the mausoleum, bummed out again. The same thing happened to me a few years back when I went to visit Ho Chi Ming in Hanoi, it seems I’m not destined to see the remains of any great communist leaders….

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Bummed out with Lenin

The soviet structures in Moscow are really jaw dropping. I keep expecting to see Batman pop up at any minute, he would fit right in with his silly leather clothes

 

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Moscow opera house

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Moscow University, one of the seven Stalin buildings and perfect example of Batman architecture

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Saints Cyril and Methodius, creators of Cyrillic script

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Two Words, A City, Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg, named after the patron saint of its founder, Tsar Peter ‘The Great’, a man who had extensively toured Europe and built the city as ‘a window to the west’. The city itself has a rather European feel, built over a maze of canals and set upon the mighty Neva river.

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We’re staying in the ‘East End’ of St.Pete, but there’s no Queen Vic here, as the locals just decide to buy beer and vodka from the 24 hour supermarket and drink it outside.

Alexander Nevsky, a Russian nobleman who protected his great nation from foreign forces, think a Russian William Wallace, has his very own street, Nevsky Prospekt. It has been the city’s main shopping and fashionable street since its founding. A walk down ‘the avenue’ takes you past many monuments, palaces and churches.

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The iconic horses of Anichov bridge

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A nice lady in the park who we played charades with

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Spas na krovi

We took a boat ride around the canals and the Neva river. Some of the bridges close at night shutting of the islands from the rest of the city. So best not miss that last bus home.

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Paid a visit to the museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, which is the oldest museum in Saint Petersburg and possibly the strangest. It features Peter the great’s personal collection of exhibits from around the world, the stand out being an assortment of pickled foetuses in the anatomical section, from Siamese twins to cyclops babies. Sadly photos were forbidden.

We had a short stroll around Peter and Paul fortress, a structure built to keep the Swedes out. I couldn’t see two little dickie birds though.

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View from the Fortress

While in Saint Petersburg, I really wanted to go to the football match between Zenit and AC Milan. I asked a couple of young Zenit fans where I could buy tickets. They hardly spoke English but with the few Russian phrases I know, and some sign language, we came to the conclusion it was sold out and that touts were selling them at a high price. Funny how you can somehow communicate by talking in your own language and playing charades. It’s like in Star Wars how Hann Solo and Chewbacca don’t speak each other’s languages but can still strike up a conversation….

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Hermitage museum

Apparently, no visit to Saint Petersburg is complete without a visit to the state hermitage museum. A gargantuan collection of priceless art from ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt among others. Just think this started off as a private collection presented to Catherine the Great, and I thought my football sticker collection was cool…

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