A Travellerspoint blog

Myanmar

Making friends in Mandalay, Myanmar

sunny 37 °C
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The gang, reduced now to just the boys and I, flew with airasia from Bangkok to Mandalay in the morning and walked from the bus transfer point to garden guesthouse. It was already afternoon so we ate at a local Chinese restaurant and showered before heading out to watch the sunset at Mandalay Hill; a Buddhist temple on top of a hill over looking the city. The walk up to the top was along a massive covered stone staircase, which had close to 1800 steps!! We were not allowed to wear shoes and had to walk bare foot! Along the way there were stops for shrines or Buddha statues, as well as lots of local people also walking up who were very eager to talk to us!

We were first approached by a group of monks roughly our age. They were interested in where we were from and how we got to Myanmar. They were excited to hear we were English and told us that many local people come to the temple on Sunday evenings just to talk to tourists to practice their English and learn about the world. The most talkative monk told us about the English language school in Mandalay, and how his class always meet on Sunday evenings at the top. Sure enough, when we reached the top there were lots of people eager to talk to us, and as the only female in our group I was quickly surrounded by at least 10 young Burmese women.

They were fascinating to talk to as we exchanged questions and answers about our differing cultures. They were both shocked and excited to hear that I was (technically) travelling alone and asked multiple questions about the cultures of other countries I had visited previously.

We all watched the sun set together, stunning... what a beautiful introduction to Myanmar and the people. It was such a contrast to how we felt in Cambodia and some places in Vietnam. The people here wanted nothing from us but friendship and teaching. We offered to visit their language school the next evening and they were all delighted and excited to see us again!

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At the base of the temple were 2 guardian lions, they were so big I could only fit one in the picture!!
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People waking through the temple.
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View from the top
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Sun set
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Some of the people we met

After waking back down we went for food in the town and had chicken tosai/dosai; a savoury pancake filled with chicken curry and Dahl on the side. It was so cheap and delicious! We then went for drinks at a local bar which had a small stage on which local women were singing over a backing of electric keyboard preset rhythm tracks.... it was.... special...! What's more, the men in the pub buy what looked like Christmas tinsel to give as gifts to the women in recognition of their singing... We couldn't quite work out exactly what was going on. Perhaps a singing competition, perhaps prostitution... We were being too polite to ask directly! We didn't realise how much the tinsel was and after joining in, we were hit with a huge bill at the end!

The next day I organised a full day of sightseeing outside the town. We went first to 'the longest teak bridge in the world'. Actually, Myanmar advertised a lot of it's attractions as 'the biggest' or 'the longest' and we could never quite work out whether this was the true... but anyway, on the way to the bridge our taxi (aka pick-up truck) stopped at a silk factory and I bought a beautiful scarf to use as cover up for temple visiting.

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Driving through the town

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The women were very skilled. All men in Myanmar wore these skirt-like bottoms; a tube of material tied in front. Unfortunately, the boys didn't buy these :(

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U Bein bridge at Amurapura
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It was very windy!
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From here we drove to a village called Sagaing which was basically just a village of temples. We climbed what our driver said was the best/most interesting temple and in the views from the top all we could see were more temples and shrines littering the hillsides.
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Lots of steps again!
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Possibly hundreds of temples
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At the top
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Stupa at the top

We then drove to an ancient village; Mingun, where there was a temple housing 'the largest uncracked bell in the world'. We got there too late to go in so instead we saw the ancient elephant guardians of the temple.
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We raced back to try and make the English school but we turned up too late and so vowed to go back the next day instead. The food we had that night was amazing, but we had no idea what it was as it definitely wasn't what we ordered!!

After a tiring day we spent the next day chilling and walking around the town. We made it on time to the English school, and were asked to teach a little lesson each. I decided to talk about British traditions, such as Christmas, Easter, Sunday roasts, birthdays that we celebrate like 16, 18, 21, New year's etc. They loved it and asked many questions!
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The class!

Afterwards, we went to a traditional Myanmar dance and puppet show. It was pretty! We went back to the same place for food, and with the receipt from the last night, were able to order a great meal again!

We had had an amazing time in Mandalay, such a beautiful town with wonderful people.... However, we were in for a shock when we returned to our hostel that night, a huge riot had kicked off, and guys with long sticks were speeding on motorbikes with police trying to shut it down. We snuck around the back, with the help of some locals, and watched from the safety of our room. Nothing much happened apart from a lot of shouting, the police had managed to secure the area with road blocks and the threat of automatic rifles which they carried... We got bored of waiting for something to happen and went to bed. In the morning, there was no sign that anything had happened, and rumours were already spreading about the cause of the riot... We tried to keep an open mind, but it seemed like religious differences was to blame...

I don't think this incident effected any of our opinions of the town, and we all left thinking positively about Mandalay. I would definitely return to Mandalay, but I may think about staying elsewhere in the town.

Posted by Libbytes 07:45 Archived in Myanmar Tagged mandalay Comments (0)

Trekking in Hsipaw

sunny 37 °C
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From Mandalay we took the tourist bus to Hsipaw, a village in the north with great access to the minority mountain people of Myanmar such as Shan, Karen and Palaung people. We arrived late in the evening and booked a trekking tour through the hostel to a Palaung village.

The trek started at 6am the next day, through the village of Hsipaw, then through rice paddies, maize fields and tea plantations. The incline was shallow to start with, but then we started going up... the views got better, but the sun got hotter and it became so humid we were all dripping with sweat!
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Rice paddies
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Broad rim hats protected from the midday sun which was so hot.
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Local Shan women chilling outside the shop! You see Asian people sitting like this a lot... I find this position so uncomfortable, but they can sit for hours like this.
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Our guide was quick to tell us about 'the Chinese' who apparently steal all of Myanmar's resources, such as these pipes being built to transport gas and oil 400km into China... the local people who own the land where the gas is taken from see no money, instead, the government receives everything...
Further along the trail we saw hardwood and rubber plantations, with all the harvests again going to China...

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It wasn't quite a walk in the park...
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We finally made the top and our village destination...
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The village was beautiful, each house unique and set into the mountainside on stilts or in the valley. Houses had some personal vegetables and herbs, but most of what the village grows is shared, such as major vegetables, the tea plantations where they work and the rice paddies.
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This house had a private garden, but were happy to share!
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Steve helped this boy pick his Apple by lifting him up above his head, he thought Steve was a giant or something and was delighted to finally reach a branch... I just wished I could've got my camera out faster to capture it!

Our hosts cooked us a delicious traditional meal and offered us rice wine. There was going to be a big festival that night in the village, where people from neighbouring villages came to worship in the Buddhist temple. My face was painted with Thanaka; derived from tree bark and used as a natural sunscreen but also as decoration. And I must not have looked smart enough as she also gave me one of her sparkling bright t-shirts to wear!!

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Our hosts in the village.
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We stayed over night in the village and the party went on late into the night, but unfortunately I got a pretty bad migraine so went to bed early and missed most of the celebrations :(

The next morning we headed out after breakfast back down the mountain to Hsipaw.

Although the trekking was difficult, I did enjoy it, mainly the company and our tour guide, he was very funny (and extremely racist towards Chinese, mainly racist jokes!!). The village was beautiful and I was pretty sad that I felt too ill to enjoy the celebrations properly. Arriving back in Hsipaw we all had big blisters and sore feet and aching legs, so I think it was enough exercise for a week at least!!

Posted by Libbytes 04:27 Archived in Myanmar Tagged hsipaw Comments (0)

Wet season on Inle Lake; Nguanshwe

storm 30 °C
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We took an overnight bus from Hsipaw to Nguanshwe. A little different from most other overnight buses, the buses in Myanmar were not sleeper buses, so getting to sleep sitting upright is not ideal. Luckily for me I can usually sleep anywhere, so it wasn't so bad... the guys took sleeping pills to cope, which you can buy OTC in Asia!

We checked into Gold star guest house and were introduced to the wet season in Asia quite abruptly... I don't think it stopped raining for more than 20 mins at a time whilst we were here!

After giving up waiting for the rain to stop, the following day we decided to take a boat trip on the lake regardless. Many people live on the lake, either in floating villages or stilted houses. Those on stilts were far more impressive as they had to accommodate high floods in wet season. The season had only just started really, so most of the stilt was on show.
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Heading out into the lake through floating villages

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It in the centre of the lake I got a great 'lonely planet picture'!!

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Stilted houses
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Local shop!!

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People use the water ways between the reeds like roads

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They even have floating temples on the lake!

Our boat man took us to many businesses and shops, I guess he got commission for any sales, but that's ok, the trip was super cheap. In the shops the owners usually showed us what they do, with information too, so it was interesting anyway.

First to a reed cotton weaving factory.
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Pulling the thread out
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Weaving

Then to a blacksmiths, who made knives and other items.
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Tempering the metal
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Lots of knives!

A silver smith
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A traditional Myanmar cigar shop
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We got a free sample here and actually the cigars are delicious, mellow tobacco wrapped in a leaf with corn sheafs as the filter.

Lastly we went to a shop owned by people from a long-neck Karen tribe. Their necklaces are a spiral of thick bronze which gets replaced every year by a longer piece. The process of fitting the necklace can take a full day! They never take it off after this, until one year later when it's replaced. Incredible. A long neck is a sign of wisdom and beauty, but biologically, their necks are not longer, instead their shoulders are pushed lower.
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On the way back it rained heavily with lightning hitting the mountains surrounding the lake
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Black clouds.... scary!

The following day it rained heavily continuously... Steve and I visited a massage place down the road to kill some time. The lady who owned the shop was lovely, really friendly. She told us about her plans to start a local food cookery class. We volunteered ourselves to be her guinea pigs in the first class and pledged to go back the following day with Paul and Steffi.
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Thae Su's house!

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Chicken curry ingredients
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Frying the potatoes for potato curry
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Ingredients for Shan sticky noodle soup (my fave)!
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Finished product!

The day was great and the weather stayed nice during the cooking!

The Inle Lake area seemed beautiful, unfortunately with all the heavy rain I don't think we came away with the best impression, as all we could do most of the time was stay inside, mainly in coffee shops and the internet cafe we found. The lake was also quite commercial and touristy, but it was still nice to see and chat to the people.

Posted by Libbytes 19:31 Archived in Myanmar Tagged lake inle_lake nguanshwe Comments (0)

Ancient temples in Bagan

sunny 36 °C
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From the over night bus, we arrived in Bagan very early and straight off the bus we were surrounded by taxi drivers wishing to take us to the town. After some tough negotiation, which started a fight between some of the drivers... We finally got to town. We checked into winner guest house was slept until early afternoon recovering from the bus journey!

In the afternoon we hired electric bicycles. This was to be the start of a beautiful relationship with motored bikes... it was so much fun razzing around on a bike, so much freedom, and it wasn't tiring at all. With the rest of my gang we teared up the town!
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Steffi messing around skidding in the sandy roads!

We took our bikes that day towards town, to Shewezigon Paya, a huge stupa covered in gold. The entrance to the temple can be made at four points aligned to the compass, we went in the south entrance, which was lined with hawkers and street sellers which were very pushy. The temple was impressive though and afterwards we drove through the town along back alleys and, I think sometimes, through back gardens! We ended up at the river before finding ourselves at the north entrance of the big temple... how we got here I have no idea, we were definitely lost the whole time, but it was great fun!
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We headed out to the famous plains of bagan from here, where literally thousands of ancient temples were built between 9th-17th century. We went with the aim of catching a good sunset, but we didn't find a good spot in time.
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From here we went to a place in town cleverly named 'Weatherspoons'! The owner was a Myanmar man who had lived in Bristol for some years, and so Steve and Paul were instantly his best pals!

The next day we got up early and hired the electric bikes again to explore more of the plains. We were able to climb up some of the temples and so we scouted out a couple of good temples for good sunsets, before spending the rest of the day getting lost and driving along sandy dirt tracks.
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Quick pit stop in the shade!
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Sandy paths
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At one temple Steve and I got accosted by a group of locals fascinated by our height and skin colour! We spent about 10 minutes posing for pictures with them, I took a couple as well... why not!
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We finally found a great sunset spot on top of a temple, but our peace was disturbed by children trying to sell pictures and tacky souvenirs!
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After an afternoon nap, we went to a local curry house and had the best beef curry, Steve and another guy we picked up along the way ordered 2!! We sat people watching after this and noticed that it seemed to be the women that do most of the heavy lifting and construction work here...
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These women were carrying up to 15 bricks on their heads whilst about 6 men stood around a concrete maker, watching it rotate... bizarre!

After a full day of climbing temples, the next day we chilled at a local swimming pool which we got to by riding 2 people on each electric bike! This only just worked, but it did the job! When we returned to our guesthouse we caught another overnight bus to Yangon.

I loved Bagan, the temples were beautiful and exploring them on the electric bikes was so much fun! However, the tourism here was l starting to become more prevalent... I'm glad I came to Myanmar when I did as I think in 5 or so years the places will be too touristy with too many people trying to rip you off or exploit you... like what I thought of Cambodia's main towns and tourist spots...

Posted by Libbytes 01:10 Archived in Myanmar Tagged bagan Comments (0)

City living in Yangon

rain 36 °C
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Yangon used to be the capital of Myanmar until a few years ago when the government, paranoid about naval invasion, decided to build a new city from scratch in the centre of the country. We never went to Nay Pi Taw, and I had heard from other travellers we were right not to as it's a very strange city, brand new government buildings and streets, but deserted...

Again, we arrived very early in Yangon and checked into the cheapest option in town; Okinawa hostel. After a quick catch up on sleep we visited a coffee shop for the day (to steal their Wi-Fi), had amazing biriyani (best ever) then went to a Myanmar 'club' for drinks and a party.

The club was very weird... First, I got in free and the guys had to pay about $5-10, which included a drink. Women weren't allowed to drink, which I only realised after standing at the bar waiting to be served for about 20 minutes. The manager told me because we are tourists I was allowed to drink, but after one I felt a little uncomfortable so just had coke.

But there wasn't just the drinking that was weird... like the bar in Mandalay, the dance floor was like a stage and women, dressed in the same outfits, would parade around the floor to music (staring at the ground and walking very wooden). People stood around the dancefloor watching, and you could pay for the tinsel garlands and staff would deliver them to the women.

In the female toilets the women were getting changed into their outfits, stacks of bags in the corner held identical dresses and makeup. The women also left all their belongings, purses, mobile phones and bags in the toilets when they went on stage.

From what we could work out, and from what people told us (it was difficult to ask what was going on without sounding too nosy or rude) it was a sort of dating/potential prostitution outlet.
The women who receive garlands are obliged to go and talk to the men that bought them. This could either start longterm dating and a legitimate relationship if they like each other. Or, nothing could come from it at all. Or, at the woman's choosing, the man could pay for something more.… It was very bizarre.

After all the parading, the dance floor was opened and everyone, back in normal clothes, dances. BUT... men and women are strictly not allowed to touch. Security from the club enforces this, and they will literally push people apart if they get too close! It was like a child's school disco in England... I'm pretty sure this doesn't help the high level of sexism in their culture as this even permits friendship, as since the music was so loud you couldn't even get close enough to talk. It seemed like they made an exception for us though. God knows what they thought of me, one woman with three men.... :[

First impression of Yangon; a neglected, dirty city where men and women are certainly not equal.
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Yangon street outside our hostel
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We arrived back to find this!

The following days were a complete wash out, with our time spent eating and stealing WiFi at various cafes.
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Flash flood!

On one nice day we managed to get to the main temple in the city; Shwedagon paya. On arriving we realised that the entrance fee was $10 and so we got a few quick camera shots and made a fast exit... all other temples we'd been to were free... We felt a little exploited here (it was free for locals).
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Guardian lions were impressive
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This one didn't even have steps, it had escalators instead!
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Quick snap and quick exit...
The whole way up to the top was full of hawkers and street sellers who continuously harassed us... So we took a different route down.
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The temple was nicer from outside anyway!

We walked from here to Yangon zoo and botanical gardens, but didn't expect much for our $2 entrance fee.
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Steve had found an interesting bakery online; Yangon bakehouse. Which was a training and development charity for local women. So we got a taxi to there and had the most amazing cakes ever!

More Yangon bakehouse was to follow the next day, as well as the best Shan noodles I had at a little restaurant called Home K, next to the bakehouse.

That night we went to a different club, recommended by some Myanmar people we met at dinner. It was the same set up as the last place... women parading, no alcohol for women, but at least I get free entry.... :S it was getting difficult for me to watch the blatant sexism. Even in the streets, or going to a restaurant, the male waitors would ignore me, taxi drivers would only take directions from the guys, I was technically supposed to walk behind the men in my group not at the front... I realised how lucky I was too live in a society where women are (95%) equal.

Again we had a bit of a wash out few days, more bakery and more internet cafe. On the last day the weather picked up and we took the circular train line around the city. We paid a tourist price again, but it wasn't much more and only $3.
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The train was old and very slow, most of the time we probably could've walked faster...

The city from the train really was dirty...
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But the further we got out of the city and into the suburbs it got a little nicer.
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After the train we walked around part of the city northeast of our hostel.
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More dirty streets...
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Next to a beautiful park...
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With riot barriers just in case...

And then to the little India area where there was a beautiful Hindu temple and amazing smelling food! Made a difference to all the horrendous smells and durians in the down town area...
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I really enjoyed my time in Myanmar, but ending the trip in Yangon did disappoint me. Before here, my impression of Myanmar was as a clean beautiful place with friendly people. Yangon was dirty with unfriendly faces and a sexist culture more prevalent than in the rest of Myanmar. In my trip so far, it is probably the only place that I didn't enjoy staying in, and if it wasn't for our flight booked out of here back to Bangkok I would've left after a day. But, we did find the bakehouse, a great charity organisation, and learnt more about the cultures and society.

Posted by Libbytes 01:58 Archived in Myanmar Tagged yangon Comments (1)

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