A Travellerspoint blog

August 2008

Our Eventful Introduction to China

rain

Hello, this is Dave. Our introduction to China was a challenging one. We had it so good in Hong Kong and Japan, but now it is back to roughing it. We had read that China was tough but we weren't quite ready for it.

To tell you about it, here is my journal entry from August 24th that I wrote during our overnight bus ride:

What a crazy ride we are on now - China! Holy shoot, I'm not ready for this! We left Hong Kong on a train this morning. After a short ride we arrived in mainland China where we were hit with probably the biggest challenge of the trip so far. We had to find out where to buy tickets for the over night train we wanted to take up to Guilin. But none of the signs, directories, or schedules were in English. Just a bunch of Chinese characters that, of course, made no sense at all to us. There were masses of people and at least 12 queue lines leading up to various ticket counters. We didn't know which one we needed so we decided to just get in the shortest line and hope that the salesperson at the counter would know some english and be able to help us. The man at the front of the line next to us was shouting and arguing with the sales woman and she was yelling and shouting back. They were in a huge disagreement about something. While waiting in line Lynette turned to the young man behind us and asked if he spoke english. She pointed in our guide book to the city we wanted a ticket for and asked if we were in the correct line. The guy didn't understand but he took off running and brought back a woman who spoke some english. After telling her what we wanted she directed us to the last queue line at the far end of the room. So we headed that way. To our dismay it was a really long line and after about 10 minutes of waiting the line didn't move an inch. We thought luck was on our side when a security guard came up and pointed us over to yet another line that was much shorter. After a short time waiting we got up to the counter and pointed to the book and asked if there were tickets available to Guilin. But unfortunately the sales woman shook her head telling us there were no train tickets availabe for tonight or the next night. We were not happy because we knew this meant we were going to have to take a dreaded overnight bus.

We had some trouble finding the correct bus ticket office, but we eventually got our tickets. We waited around outside for a few hours then went back to the office at 5:00 PM to catch our bus. After a few minutes a somewhat official looking man came and got us and motioned for us to follow him. Clueless, we did so and walked a bit through the station, and oddly away from the bus area. Then out of no where he stops and motions for us to keep following some kid who appeared at his side. This didn't seem quite right to us, but we've learned that you never know how things work in these other countries. The process is not what you think it is or are used to back home, but somehow it works out. So we followed. We walked a good ways down a busy road and Lynette and I became more and more apprehensive. "Why were we leaving the station?" We came to a minivan where a guy jumps out and opens the trunk. He and the kid direct us to put our stuff in the back and get in the van. Our minds are racing and before we get in Lynette says to me, "Are you sure about this, this doesn't seem right?" I pointed to our tickets and asked the kid, "Bus...bus?" He nodded his head and pointed off into the city somewhere and says, "Bus." (Well we wanted an adventure right?) We decided to get in and trust and see what happens. We take off in the minivan and get onto the highway. After a few minutes of heading across town Lynette and I are still worrying. We keep coming up with possible positive scenarios for why we are leaving the bus station in a minivan with two non-English speaking strange Chinese men to find a bus somewhere across town. Not many reassuring scenarios were coming to mind. But one was that Lynette had read that there was another bus station in a neigboring city, and that maybe we were heading there. We drove a bit more then came to stop along a city street. "Is this where the guys try to coax us into some shop to buy stuff," we wondered. We said, "Is this the bus?" and started to get out. But the driver shook his head and gestured some hand signal that looked to us like the sign for "time-out." We assumed this meant to stay put. The kid got on his mobile phone and started chatting with someone. We had stopped at what looked like some kind of bus stop. Some busses came and went but we just sat there for about 5 or 10 minutes. Finally a bus pulls up that the guys seem to have some interest in. We figured they'd now tell us we can get out. But instead, as the bus drives past us our driver pulls out behind it and starts to follow the bus back onto the highway! After about a mile or so we get off the highway and eventually pull up and park behind where the bus had stopped. They get us out of the car and show us over to the bus. The kid pats me on the back reassuringly as if to say, "You can stop worrying now, I told you we were going to the bus." We didn't know yet if this was a tipping country, but after the ordeal I didn't feel like offering up any extra money to anyone. My fight or flight adrenaline was still flowing but at least we could now relax - a little.

We loaded our bags under the bus and boarded. It was a sleeper bus, the first for us on the trip. We'd had been on sleeper trains before, which I'd give mixed reviews, but we'd heard horror stories from other travelers about the busses. But unfortunately we had no other options to get where we were going. Getting on board we were instructed to take off our shoes and put them in a plastic bag that we were handed. We went down one of the 2 narrow corridors between the 3 rows of steel tube frame bunk sleepers. The beds (if you can call them that) are not fully flat but reclined. You can stretch your legs out fully, fitting your lower legs into the compartment underneath the reclined torso of the person in front. That is of course unless you are a near 6 foot tall person like myself. At full stretch my feet are wedged at an awkward uncomfortable angle inside the steel compartment. There were only 2 other people on board so we had the pick of most the beds. It took us a while of sampling to decide where we'd stay. Lynette chose the top bunk on the right side of the bus and I took the one below her. The smell of stale cigarette smoke and sweaty armpit (maybe my own) hovered in the air. Its very bumpy right now so I can't imagine I'll sleep much. I just took 2 Dramamene to prevent motion sickness so hopefully they'll also make me drowsy and help me sleep. Right now the young Chinese fellow next to me who boarded a ways back has been staring at me for several minutes. At one point he leaned over to read what I was writing. I showed it to him but because he could not read the English he poo-pooed it as jibberish. Its going to be a long night. I'm just hoping at this point that they stop a few times along the way for pottie breaks.

End of journal entry.

Well we were on our way, and the rest of the bus trip was also quite eventful. The front of the bus which was mostly full of women was quiet and restful, while the back, where we were, seemed like a frat party. The mostly male group was talking loudly, shouting, and laughing. One guy two bunks over had his radio playing at full volume and was whistling along to the Chinese dance music. I was amazed that nobody seemed bothered by the rudeness and noise of the group and no one, not even the driver, said anything to them. Even though we took a pee and smoke break every couple of hours a few people decided to light up on the bus in the middle of the night. Besides the smoke being annoying, I kept imagining the possible dangers. Lynette and I were surprised when around midnight the bus stopped for a dinner break. We got off the bus and entered a run down and dirty old restaurant. The front of the place, as with most low-end restaurants in Asia had a big metal roll up door on the front like a mechanic's shop and was left open. It was hot and muggy. The one oscilating fan in the place barely moved the thick air and was left pointed at the table where the driver and his assistants sat. Lynette and I didn't want to eat, we just wanted to stay on the road and keep going. But we sat down at a table. While everyone else was munching away, no one served us and eventually I realized that you had to order your food up front at the counter. But we were too tired and not hungry enough to care so we just sat there.

My Dramamene pills were at full effect at this point and I felt half asleep and could barely keep my eyes open. My head was in a fog. This worked great to my advantage though when we were back on the bus. I couldn't believe how well I slept, given how rough and bumpy the roads were. It was pretty uncomfortable but I was able two find two positions I could sleep in for a while before alternating.

I actually slept most of the way, waking every few hours when we'd stop to use the facilities. The restrooms so far are the worst we've experienced anywhere on the trip. They are absolutely disgusting. I can see why the bus driver made us take our shoes off before getting on. At one place the men's room was next to the pig shack and I could barely tell the difference. If it were not for the squatting men's heads and shoulders poking up above the 3 foot stone stall walls as they did their business I might have thought I was in the wrong place.

What was supposed to be an 11 hour train ride ended up to be a 15 hour bus ride. We finally arrived at our destination. However, getting off the bus and standing on the side of the road we became very aware that we didn't have a booked hotel, nor did we know what part of town we were in or where to go. But the rest is for another story.

dave & lynette
dbuck242@yahoo.com
lschimpf@gmail.com

Posted by schuckley 20:28 Archived in China Comments (0)

"night of excitement"

Dave and I made it to Hong Kong this morning after quite an ordeal. Our plane was supposed to take off from Tokyo to Hong Kong at 6:30 p.m. yesterday but we found out earlier in the day that a tropical storm named Nuri was heading right for Hong Kong and was expected to hit Hong Kong in the afternoon. We kept checking the status of our flight online and it kept on showing that it was on schedule although other flights to Hong Kong were being cancelled right and left. We even called NWA right before we had to catch the bus to the airport (which takes 2 hours). The rep said that there has been no delays. We get to the airport and go to check in and sure enough our flight has been delayed till 9 p.m. No big deal we find a restaurant eat dinner, hang out watching other planes take off, etc. Our flight ends up taking off just as expected at 9 p.m. but the problem comes when we try to land. The pilot tells us that the winds have not died down enough for us to land in Hong Kong so we are going to hang out in the air for about an hour waiting for the winds to subside. An hour later the winds have not subsided and the plane needs more fuel so the pilot tells us that we are going to have to fly to Taipei to refuel and hang out until the landing conditions in HK improve. Taipei is only a little over an hour from HK so we landed there in no time. Unfortunately the Taiwan gov would not allow us to get off the plane since technically we were not supposed to be there - the jerks! They should of shown a bit of sympathy for us I think. We end up spending over 3 hours sitting at the gate in the plane in Taipei. It was around 2 a.m. in the morning at this point so although the thought of spending 3 hours on a plane sitting still on the tarmac has filled me with trepidation and worry, I told myself that we were actually still moving in the air headed to our destination that takes 8 hours instead of 4, and it worked because I fell completely asleep and woke up hours later. Finally after 3 hours in the very inhospitable country of Taiwan, the pilot tells us that the winds have died down in Hong Kong and a few airplanes have successfully landed and we were going to take off but it was going to be a bumpy descent into Hong Kong. We did experience some strong turbulence on the way down but it was over quick enough. We successfully landed in Hong Kong around 6 a.m. Hong Kong time. This whole ordeal from take off to landing was about 10 hours long. The original flight was 3 hours and 45 minutes. However, we were duly compensated for our unfortunate situation with several gift certificates including $25 off our next round trip flight with NWA. The flight ended with the head flight attendant coming on the intercom and thanking us all for basically not rioting and for showing extreme patience in this "night of excitement." We were just thrilled to be on solid ground again.

Posted by schuckley 02:50 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (2)

Images of Japan

Hello. This is Dave.

Japan has been wonderful. Its extremely clean, organized, and safe here. One of the great things bout Japan is their Japanese gardens. We visited several and even though this isn't the most popular time of the year for them (when the cherry blossoms are blooming,) they were still absolutely beautiful. Peaceful pathways, koi filled and lilly pad covered ponds. Babbling brooks with stone foot bridges, trickling waterfalls, and a variety of extraordinary trees. All with the line of hazy mountains in the distance. Well, here take a look for yourselves:

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We were blown away at one garden when we rounded a bend and were struck with the view of this spectacular bamboo forest. It was just like the one in the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Minus the battling swordsman balancing above.

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English is not very prominent in Japan. The language barrier has actually been the hardest here out of all the places we've been so far, which was surprising with how modern it is. Our friend living here taught us a few phrases that have helped a lot, and we've used the guide book for a few interactions. The train system, especially in Tokyo is massive and complex, with so many different lines. Sometimes it can be stressful trying to find your train, with not all the signs also being in English. Especially during the chaos of rush hour. Then trying to find a worker to help who speaks a bit of English can be difficult. But it always works out somehow, even if we look a bit foolish at times.

Here are some shots from our trip up the Tokyo Tower. As I said in the last blog it was built to resemble the Eiffel Tower, except painted bright orange. I'm sure you can see the resemblance.

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We also went up the Kyoto tower while we were there. We spent a little time viewing the city from the top then came down to a lower level for a few drinks at the lounge. We both decided to try sake for the first time. We each selected a different brand, and we didn't know what to expect. I had thought sake was like a liquor that would come as a shot, but they brought us each a bottle the size of an average beer. Mine tasted a lot like straight vodka but was not as high of alcohol content. The harsh taste made it hard to finish, but I managed. Lynette was pleased that hers actually tasted more like bubbly champagne. It was amazing to sit back and relax while watching the sun set over the city.

If you are ever planning to go to Japan you should take enough cash to last your whole trip. Even though they are very modern here it is very hard for foreigners to find places to get money out. The other day we were in Kyoto and were trying to find an ATM. It was getting late and we only had a few Yen left. We went to several Japanese banks but their machines only take cards made specifically for Japan. Besides the machines only display text in Japanese so we couldn't read them. Finally we were lucky to find a tourist info office open late and they told us to go to the 7-11 down the street and use the ATM machine there. They said its the only place in town where foreigners can use their cards. It was kind of funny because we had unknowingly gotten money out at the 7-11 when we were in Tokyo. We didn't realize at the time that those stores were the only places you could get money out in Japan. Thank heaven for 7-11.

We've had some great food here in Japan. I'm actually surprised that I like it so much. I like a lot of different types of Asian food but all I knew of Japan's was sushi which I don't like. But there is so much more. Here's some shots of Lynette enjoying her noodles:

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Almost all of the restaurants here have plastic displays of the food out front so you know what you are getting. It was quite helpful for us. Sometimes a woman stands outside and you point to what you want. Another place had a machine outside where you put in your money and push the button of the item you want, like a vending machine. It gives you a ticket that you then present inside to get your food.
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We've also discovered green tea ice cream which is everywhere here. I was a little freaked out about the green color and hesitant to try it. But it was actually mild tasting and very good. We had it several times:

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We've seen a lot of Buddhist temples on the trip, but some of them still amaze. Here are some shots from some of the several we visited here.

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The Sofie Star in Japan:
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This temple is the largest wooden structure in the world:
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In Nara they have hundreds of tame deer roaming the streets and parks. You can walk up to them and pet and feed them. They are just considered part of the community.
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I swear to God this one waited for a green light to cross the street. We couldn't believe our eyes.
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Harajaku park in Tokyo is a fun place to hang out and relax on the weekends. On Sunday morning young people gather there dressed in all sorts of costumes. There's a fifties greaser look, cutsie baby doll and Lolita look, and of course the whole goth thing is popular - and much more.
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Here's the famous intersection at Shabuya in Tokyo with the hordes of people that cross in every direction when the light changes.
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I loved hitting all the shops with vintage and modern toys and action figures. They've got tons of Power Ranger type shows here from the 50s up until now with the most unique super heroes, villains, and monsters. I couldn't resist and picked up a few for my collection. The stores are filled with display cases like this one:
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Mr. Bagman:
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There have been so many things we've wanted to buy on this trip, but its tough. Not only because we are on a tight budget but because we have to carry everything we buy. But at the end of each country we ship a package home full of the small things we do actually purchase. So it will be nice to have at least a few souvenirs to remind us of our journies.

Until next time.....

Posted by schuckley 02:47 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

Japan

We have been in Japan for a little over a week. We started out in Tokyo where a friend of ours who lives there was amazing to let us stay with him for a few days and was our tour guide for the city. Thankfully he also helped us figure out the complex subway/train system. Our days were packed from morning til night with exploring the city. We saw the area of town where the young people hang out and dress up in outrageous outfits and the famous intersection in Shibuya where all traffic stops to let the massive amount of people to cross in every direction. We visited tons of shops that sell everything from funky clothes to Manga and Anime toys (where I bought two cool Japanese action figures.) Our friend also took us to some great restaurants, including one where everything was cooked with garlic. The food there was amazing. One night we went up in the Tokyo tower to see the sun set over the huge expansive city. The Tokyo tower was built to mimic the Eiffel Tower, but is painted a bright red color and is several meters taller. We also enjoyed touring an outdoor museum where traditional homes were taken from various parts of Japan and rebuilt on the site. We did a lot more in Tokyo but we only have five minutes left on this computer so we will move on to Kyoto, where we are now.

One of the coolest things about coming to Kyoto is getting to ride here on the Nozomi Bullet train which reaches speeds up to three hundred miles per hour. Seeing the countryside along the way was quite a sight. Kyoto is a big modern city but has countless ancient temples and gardens throughout, which we have visited a few of in our short time here.

Our time is up so we must log off now. We will try to write again soon with more on Japan, and post some photos.

-Dave and Lynette

Posted by schuckley 19:23 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

Final days in Hong Kong

Hello. Dave here. Our month in Hong Kong is coming to an end. We will shortly be moving onto Japan. We are excited about the road ahead.

The service apartment we've been staying in has been quite nice. Good location, close to city escalator, library, stores, restaurants etc. No internet cafes nearby that we know of though. But the library has 2 hours free internet per day so we've been going there quite frequently. The apartment has a small kitchenette area so we've been making small meals to save money. But we still go out to eat on occasion, usually some place cheap. We hadn't been around western food for a long time so here we've been making up for it. I know its not healthy but I can't tell you how many times we've gone to McDonalds. Its a different experience because there are so many people here and the fast food places are so packed that we usually end up sharing a table with strangers. The food is the same though, and oh so tasty. I don't know if they have this in the states now but here they have a burger called the McPepper. I suppose it is a bit on the spicy side for the Asian palette, but we didn't try it. We've also been enjoying pork and rice which is a common and cheap dish found at most Chinese restaurants here. Our apartment is on the fourth floor and with no escalator the hike up the stairs gets us winded. But at least its helping counteract some of those cheeseburgers and fries.

The only real problem with our apartment is this loud and annoying deep buzzing sound coming from upstairs. It goes off at random throughout the day, sometimes starting early in the morning and going late into the night. It was an immediate wakeup call and prevented any possibility of falling back to sleep. During the day it goes off sometimes about every 20 minutes or so and lasts anywhere from 5 seconds to maybe 2 minutes. It sounded to us like the sound bad pipes make when turned on, but man it was loud. I tried to ask the folks that live above us about it once early on, and even though it was a challenging discussion due to the language barrier I determined that it in fact did have something to do with the pipes, but that they didn't know what caused it. I can't understand why they haven't looked into having it fixed. Not that it would make any difference to them but I don't think they realize how loud it is down in our place. The other thing is that the bed is rather small. Its supposed to be a double bed but we think maybe for smaller people. Its a tad bigger than a US twin bed. To have more wiggle room Lynette switched ends so her head is at the foot of the bed. I've forgotten a few times and turned to kiss her in the morning and gotten a mouthful of toe.

The place has a strong smell of incense. Everyone else in the building are long term residents and I think all Buddhists. They pretty much all have a pot of sand in the hall next to their door which they put lit incense sticks into. The scent permeates the stairs and creeps into our room. Its not a bad smell, just very distinct. If we ever smell that particular type of incense back home we will definitely have flash backs of Asia. They also on occasion play very loud Buddhist ceremonial music, and without closing their doors. A few times they've had some type of celebration with lots of people and loud music. I didn't know Buddhists were such partiers. If this was our permanent residence we might have found the loud music annoying, but we actually enjoyed the unique and surreal experience.

Since we were staying here at one address for a whole month Lynette's sister had asked if we needed anything she could send us. At first we couldn't think of anything we needed that we couldn't get here in Hong Kong. But then I remembered I needed underwear. I came on the trip with 3 pair of $15 per pair travel underwear. They are really durable and quick drying. They've held up spectacularly, but I can't find myself able to wash them frequently enough for them to be enough. I bought some in Malaysia and some in Vietnam. Both were supposedly X-large, the largest they had, but that must have been in Asian man standards because they felt like little girl panties on me and cut into my waist something awful. The same was true with the ones I found here in Hong Kong. So I asked Angie if she could send me some Hanes underpants in my size which I will keep confidential. (Don't tell, Angie) We got her package the other day and I can't tell you how happy I was when I slipped them on and they didn't dig into my waist. They were so soft and comfy and fit like a dream. Now that I think of it this might make a good Hanes commercial.

A big tropical storm was headed for Hong Kong yesterday. What we didn't realize is how seriously they take the storm warnings here because of the past experiences they've had with wind and flooding damage. We had a few packages that we had intended to ship out from the post office yesterday. We leave the country tomorrow so we only had yesterday and today to do this. So we got the stuff together and headed out. But we were stunned to find the streets completely baren. There were no cars on the streets and maybe one or two people within site down the street, which was really strange compared to the usual hustle and bustle in the city. It was literally like a ghost town. As we walked we noticed all the stores and restaurants gated up. Supposedly the city had been told to stay home in case of the storm, which we found strange since it was barely drizzling. Of course the post office ended up also being closed, and we worried that it would be closed today as well because that would be the last chance to ship it out before our flight. But that ended up being the least of our worries when we remembered that we had taken our clothes to the laundry the day before and we were supposed to pick them up. At least we could take our packages with us on the plane and mail them from Japan. But there would be no way to pick up our clothes if they were shut down both days. All of Lynette's underwear and socks were there as well as an extra pair of North Face pants I just bought that I'd been needing for the past 6 months. We tried to stay lighthearted about it realizing that it was just clothes and that it could be replaced, but we still felt pretty anxious throughout the night wondering if the place would be open in the morning. Thank goodness it turns out the storm veered to the west and missed a direct hit with Hong Kong. So the weather was not that bad and we were really happy to find the laundry open the next day and we got our clothes. I feel bad for those pour buggers to the west though.

We've done some more sightseeing and here are a few photos from those ventures.
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My camera's stealth mode is working perfectly:
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Here's a better shot of the city escalator:
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We finally made our way over to Lantau island to visit Hong Kong Disneyland. We took a subway then transferred over to the Disney rail which takes you a short distance over to the park. Of course they do it up Disney style with Mickey shaped windows and handles inside the train cars. The park is smaller than the US ones but still a full day of fun. We got there pretty early and stayed until close and still didn't get to ride everything. The rides are all pretty much taken from the US parks but with smome twists to make it different. Which was nice so we weren't just seeing the same old thing. Some of the lands seemed kind of sparce. Especially Adventureland. They only had the Lion King show and Jungle Cruise, oh and the Tarzan tree house. No tiki birds show or even Pirates of the Caribbean! My favorite ride was actually the Small World attraction which was recently added. The twist here was that in the Hong Kong version they've added Disney characters in with all the other figures. I thought this might be a little obnoxious but it was actually rather subtle and we enjoyed trying to pick out the characters. The design of the scenes was spectacular as always.

The Sofie Star enjoys its visit to Disneyland on the other side of the world:
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Here's Stitch on the Small World ride.
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This is where the Disney rail line drops you off at the front of the park.
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They had some beautiful signs and graphics throughout the park, some of which designed by a good friend of mine I might add. Check out this dentist sign with the tooth and the drill. Pretty cool.
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Its strange to see a mountain range behind the castle.
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Next time we'll be in Japan!

Dave and Lynette
dbuck242@yahoo.com
lschimpf@cfl.rr.com

Posted by schuckley 22:46 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (1)

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