Posts Tagged With: Tibet

How to plan a trip to Tibet

Planning a trip to Tibet isn’t easy. Firstly, it’s extremely remote and difficult to get to. Secondly, the Chinese authorities seem to want to make it as hard as possible for foreign tourists to visit. This is presumably because the foreign tourists might discover for themselves just how “peaceful” China’s “liberation” of Tibet has been. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that planning our trip to Tibet took far longer and gave me far more headaches than any of my previous trips. With that in mind, I’ve put together this planning guide for anyone who is thinking of going to Tibet.

Step 1: Find a reputable Tour Agency

Independent travel to Tibet is impossible. You need a permit to enter the region and a guide with you, to allow you to get into all the main tourist sites. You might be able to visit the shops in Lhasa by yourself but that’s about it. Therefore, the first step is to find a travel agency. There are Chinese run agencies and Tibetan run agencies. Decide which you would rather give your money to. We wanted a Tibetan agency and were put in touch with Snow Lion Tours, by Lobsang from the excellent Land of Snows website.

Step 2: Decide where you want to go and who with

If you are a solo traveller, the best thing to do would be to join a group. This does obviously mean that you don’t have 100% control over your dates. Due to our holiday times, Janey and I could only go in December, which is the quietest time of the year for foreign tourists. Consequently, joining a group was never likely. It would have been possible for the two of us to form our own group but it would also have been prohibitively expensive. It was after I discovered this that I started my sales pitch to my old colleague Tyrone. He was looking for somewhere adventurous to go in his December holiday period and was instantly captivated by the idea. Successfully persuading him and Virginia made the whole trip financially feasible, as well as provided us with excellent company.

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Step 3: Book your flights in and out of China

After making your booking with the tour agency, you need to get a Tibet travel permit to allow you to get into the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Before getting this though, you need to have your Chinese visa. To get a Chinese visa, you first need to book your flights in and out of China. You could also choose to book your flights / train tickets in and out of Lhasa at this stage. I decided to wait until my visa had been officially approved though.

Step 4: Apply for your Chinese visa

There are many different types of visa for China. At the time of our visit, we needed a single entry L class visa. Carefully check which one you need before you start your application. On the form you’ll be asked to state your itinerary in China. DO NOT SAY THAT YOU’RE GOING TO TIBET. This is a trick that the Chinese authorities play. If you put Tibet on your itinerary, they’ll say that you need a Tibetan permit and decline your visa. Paradoxically, you need a visa to get a Tibetan permit. Therefore, you need to “invent” an itinerary. Do study a map of China and make sure your route is convincing though! For example, our itinerary was BEIJING – CHENGDU – CHONGQING – SHANGHAI – XI’AN.

China Map

We really were flying into Beijing and out of Xi’an so this was pretty realistic. You’ll also need to have your first night of accommodation booked and to provide proof of this. Hypothetically, you could just book something and cancel it at a later date. You just need it for the visa application. To get the visa, you usually need to go to the Chinese embassy and return to pick up your passport a couple of days later. If you don’t live in a city where an embassy is located, you could do what we did and get a local travel agency to sort it out. We used an agency called SAS Travel in Penang. They obviously charged a mark-up but they had the passports back with us within a week.

Step 5: Get your Tibet travel permit

Once you have your visas, send scanned copies of them to your agency, who can then start the application for the Tibet travel permit. This is usually done a month before your intended travel date and takes a couple of weeks to process. Once they have been issued, the agency will post them to your hotel in the city that you’re staying in before your flight to Lhasa. In our case this was Chengdu.

Step 6: Start your journey!

Once you’ve done all of the above, you’re ready to go! Be prepared for one or two little hiccups on the way though. When I arrived at Beijing airport my passport seemed to trigger some sort of alarm. There was a lot of calling supervisors over and making phone calls but eventually they realised that everything was legitimate (apart from the fake itinerary, which I could reasonably claim to have changed) and let me through. At Chengdu airport, we just had to show our permits and we were allowed through to begin our journey to Lhasa.

Now that I’ve gone through the process of organising a semi-independent trip to Tibet, I’m going to try to answer some FAQs about travelling in the Land of Snows


1) Should I or shouldn’t I go to Tibet?

There are obviously powerful arguments against going to Tibet. The Tibetans are an oppressed people and by going there you risk legitimising the Chinese occupation. However, Free Tibet and the Dalai Lama himself, both actively encourage people to to go to Tibet to see it for themselves and make their own minds up. Having been there, I obviously share the latter viewpoint.

2) What is the best time of year to visit?

 It depends. If you want the warmest weather, then go in the summer months between May to September. Bear in mind though that this is the time when “domestic” Chinese tourists flood into Tibet in droves and many of them are not particularly respectful towards Tibetan culture. If you can handle the cold, then December is a great time to visit as the skies are crystal clear and thousands of Tibetan pilgrims descend upon Lhasa, which makes for a great spectacle.

3) What is the best way to get there?

You can fly to Lhasa from a number of cities in China, including Beijing, Chengdu, Kunming and Shanghai. Alternatively, Tibet is now even more firmly linked to China by the railway line which runs from Xining to Lhasa. You can connect to this train line from other cities all round China. Bank on at least 24 hours on the train. If you want to have both experiences, you could do as we did and fly in, then take the train out or vice-versa.20151226_112528

4) Which languages are spoken in Tibet?

Tibetan and Mandarin and that’s about it. You will find extremely little English spoken, even in Lhasa. This is another reason why having a tour guide is a great idea.

5) How much do things cost in Tibet?

Food is inexpensive and, presuming breakfast is included in your tour cost, you can get by on around 50-100 Yuan per day. Entrance to temples usually costs between 50-100 Yuan. The most expensive entry fee we paid was 180 Yuan to the Qomolangma (Everest) National Park. Haggling is accepted but vendors bargain hard and aggressively.

6)Will I get the chance to meet real Tibetan people?

The Chinese rule Tibet with an iron fist but this is one thing that they are more or less powerless to prevent. If you book with a Tibetan travel agency, you’ll stay in Tibetan run hotels and eat in local restaurants, meeting local people in the process. Conversation will obviously be pretty limited but it will still be rewarding.

7) What’s Tibetan food like?

Hit and miss. In Lhasa we had some great meals, particularly hearty stews and curries. Once you get out of Lhasa though, the standard drops drastically. Most meals are incredibly carb heavy with hardly any meat or vegetables on the plate. You’ll also get incredibly sick of eating noodle soup every day. And I really love noodle soup!20151226_143158

8) Is Yak butter milk tea as bad as it sounds?

Most definitely. If anything, it’s even worse than it sounds. However, if you’re lucky enough to get invited into a Tibetan house or monastery you won’t be able to refuse it! The trick is to smile politely and drink in tiny little sips as your cup will be constantly refilled otherwise.

TRAVEL TIPS

For more detailed information about everything to do with Tibet, go to www.landofsnows.com

 

 

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Tibet Days 7-9: Finishing the journey

Day 7

We weren’t at all sad to leave New Tingri, despite another mouthwatering dry chapati and fried egg combo. We got back on the road and our first port of call for the day was Sakya Monastery, which is between New Tingri and Shigatse. I was definitely getting a bit templed out by this point but Sakya offered something a bit different to what we had seen before. In the courtyard outside the monastery, a bunch of locals were parading some seriously mean looking effigies up and down, in preparation for an event that would apparently take place a couple of days later. This was accompanied by the sound of some young monks blowing long, deep horn type instruments. We must have watched them for about half an hour, temporarily forgetting the cold to take in a surreal but memorable experience.

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That afternoon we drove back to Shigatse and a hotel that actually had running water and one of the most welcome showers I’ve ever had. It felt like returning from the wild, which was essentially what we were doing. That night, we were able to get a decent meal and have a belated celebration of the New Year.

Day 8

We had an extremely early start to our final full day in Tibet, as there were still a few things to see and a lot of miles to travel before we got back to Lhasa. First of all, we went to a carpet factory in Shigatse, where we were able to interact with some local Tibetan people and see the results of their labours. Janey and I still had a couple of weeks left on the road at this point though so there was no way that we were buying a carpet to lug around with us though. The factory was an interesting place to visit. However, I do have to question why, in a country as poor as Tibet, 44% of the profits of the factory go to the monastery, and only 28% go to the workers.

After leaving the factory, we had a very long drive back to Lhasa, along the Northern Friendship Highway. This is a misnomer if ever there was one, as it’s not a very friendly road at all. Damdul got into a ridiculous game of tit-for-tat overtaking with a massive bus, that went on for at least half an hour. He then made up for it though by, with very little ceremony or announcement, turning off the main highway and driving into a small village. It turned out that he was taking us to his family house, where we met his wife, grandparents and children. The family seemed delighted to have us there as they insisted on pouring us copious amounts of butter tea, and even posed for a family photo for Tyrone. He later printed this and sent it to them, via Snow Lion Tours. I like to think that it still takes pride of place in their simple but beautiful home.

Later that day, we arrived back in Lhasa and went souvenir shopping round the Barkor. This was one of the least enjoyable experiences of the whole trip. The vendors set ludicrous prices and bargained very aggressively. I appreciate that a lot of these vendors are very poor but by being a bit more courteous and not thinking that all Westerners have bottomless pits of money, they’d have probably made a lot more sales.  Not too long later though, we went to an incredibly hospitable family restaurant where I ate the best meal that I had all trip, which completely overshadowed the unfriendly vendors. That’s the thing with Tibet. It wasn’t always the easiest place to travel but in the end, something always proved that it was worth all the effort.

Day 9

I woke up on Day 9, our final day in Tibet, with no headache. My body had finally got accustomed to the altitude! I had to laugh at this. That morning, we said our goodbyes to Tyrone and Virginia and went our separate ways. They sensibly headed to Lhasa airport, where they boarded a plane to Chengdu and then travelled on to Bangkok. Janey and I had made the decision that, rather than flying, we were going to take the 33 hour train journey from Lhasa to Xi’an. When we were planning it, this seemed like it could be one of the highlights of our seven week trip. In hindsight, what on earth were we thinking?! The best adjective I can use to describe that journey is “character-building.” A day and a half later, with character sufficiently built, we stepped off the train and headed into the city at the end of the Silk Road. Our Tibetan odyssey was at an end.

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Tibet Day 6: Everest Base Camp

The story of our trip to Everest Base Camp really has to begin with where we stayed the night before. There was no running water and no heating. The temperature inside the room was around ten degrees below zero. When we awoke from what little slumbers we had managed, we were “treated” to a truly dreadful breakfast of two dry chapatis sandwiching a fried egg which looked like it had been through a nuclear explosion. The amusing thing was though, this was almost certainly the best hotel in town.

The cold and lack of sleep meant that I wasn’t feeling in the best of shape at the start of what was supposed to be the most auspicious day of the trip. We got into the van and started climbing up the most incredible mountain road. I’m not a fan of the Chinese government’s “peaceful liberation” of Tibet but this road is a truly incredible feat of engineering. The switchbacks were insane. When we reached the top of the pass, we were presented with the magnificent sight of Everest, along with four other 8000 metre peaks. All of them are megalithic in their own right but Everest towered over the rest of them. I was struck by how windy it was at only 5000 metres. I looked at the spindrift coming off the top of the great peak and imagined just how brutal it would be at the top. It was about this moment that I made a solemn resolution to never attempt to climb it.

After a couple of hours of driving through some incredibly beautiful scenery we arrived at Rongbuk Monastery. At an altitude of 5200 metres, this is the highest monastery anywhere in the world. We’d been travelling all morning and it was seriously cold so I asked Kalsang where we could eat some lunch. Sheepishly Kalsang said “actually there isn’t anything to eat.” I was incredulous. Pure hanger started flowing through me. What on earth did he mean, there wasn’t anything to eat?!  Possibly out of self-preservation, Kalsang then played a blinder. He managed to wangle us an invite to go and eat with the monks. This was a truly surreal experience. We were in the highest monastery in the world, sitting by a roaring fire, whilst saffron clad monks sat round chanting mantras. To make it even more bizarre, we were served butter tea (this was the only time that I found it palatable) and spicy pot noodles. That unusual combination would come back and haunt me later but it was still an utterly unforgettable experience.

After lunch, we were given the choice to walk from the monastery to base camp but were told it would take around four hours. None of us were feeling fit enough for this so instead we elected to go halfway down the road and walk from there. Finally, this was an opportunity to walk in the Himalaya. I started slowly and got very short of breath. This was easily the highest I’d ever been in my life and it felt like it. Janey, on the other hand, was powering ahead. She’d had an obsession with Everest since the age of seven and was definitely putting mind over matter. The walk took just under two hours. The highlight of it was walking across a completely frozen river, with Everest rearing up in front of us. Just after that, we climbed up a hill to a completely deserted base camp. Clearly, there weren’t many people mad enough to be there on 31st December. Our timing was impeccable because two minutes after we got back into the van, shaking with cold, the clouds moved in and the top of the mountain was hidden from us. We had been incredibly lucky to have had clear views for so long.

Unsurprisingly the rest of the day was a bit of an anti-climax. I felt pretty dreadful on the way back down the winding mountain roads (the aforementioned butter tea and spicy noodles combo may have had something to do with that) and all four of us were far too knackered to see midnight and ring in the new year. However, I can still say, without any doubt, that it was definitely the best New Year’s Eve I’ve ever had.

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Tibet Days 4-5: The Road to Everest

Day 4

We didn’t have the best start to our fourth day in Tibet. Firstly, our driver Damdul showed up an hour late and hadn’t even filled up the van. Next, I had to pick up mine and Janey’s train tickets (for our onward journey from Lhasa to Xi’an) from Lhasa station. This was a truly horrendous experience. Witnessing the way the Chinese officials treated Kalsang left me in no doubt about which country we were really in. Therefore, I wasn’t feeling too positive by the time we finally left the city. Thankfully, the bewitching lunar landscape quickly improved my mood. After a short time the road started climbing and winding it’s way around mountain passes. Janey and Tyrone were both bemoaning the roadside barriers for getting in the way of their photos. Virginia and I, on the other hand, were very thankful that the barriers were there, especially as Damdul wasn’t exactly the most cautious driver in the world. Finally, we reached the top of the Gamba Pass, at the giddy height of 4998 metres.  The only thing more breathtaking than the altitude was the view of Yamdrok Lake and the snow-cappped mountains behind it.

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Surprisingly none of us suffered from altitude sickness at the top. Drifting off to sleep for a while was a big mistake though. I woke with a truly skull-cracking headache. It felt like my brain was expanding and pushing against the sides of my skill, which of course it was. I used a combination of drugs, breathing techniques and large quantities of chocolate to try to combat it. I was still feeling rubbish though by the time we reached the top of the Karola Pass, at an even higher altitude of 5020 metres. We saw a very negative side of Tibet there. As soon as the van stopped, vendors ran up to and started banging on the windows and waving prayer flags in our faces, in an attempt to get us to buy. I did feel sorry for them but there was no way I was purchasing anything under that sort of pressure. The good news was that in terms of altitude, this was the high point of the day. As we descended the pass, I finally started to feel human again.

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Our final stop of the day was one of the coolest places we visited in all of Tibet. The town of Gyantse was once a Silk Road trading post and you could feel the history there. The highlight was an incredible fortress on top of a hill that caused Virginia to remark “it’s like the opening credits from Game of Thrones.” At the Kumbum Stupa, we could climb to the top, look at views of the city walls and imagine the hardy silk road travellers several centuries ago.

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Night was falling as we embarked on the final leg of our journey for the day; a two hour drive to Shigatse; Tibet’s second city. We went to a Chinese restaurant with no English menu and completely put our trust in Damdul, who played a blinder. The result was a truly delicious meal.  For this reason, I decided to partially forgive him for using his phone whilst driving one-handed down the mountain passes.

Day 5

Day 5 began with the now obligatory skull-splitter. An excellent breakfast of corned beef, eggs and chips, coupled with several ibuprofen made me able to face the day. Our first stop was the Teshilungpo Monastery, former home to the Panchen Lama. It was mostly destroyed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution (a misnomer if ever there was one) but has since been partially rebuilt. It was an impressive building but it didn’t have anything that particularly distinguished it in the way that Drepung and Sera did in Lhasa.

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After lunch, we drove up the first high pass of the day, Tsola at a mere 4800 metres. At the top, prayer flags fluttered violently in the strong winds. We bought some paper prayer flags of our own and threw them to the wind. I’m not sure what spritual affect this had but it was quite a lot of fun. The next high pass, Gyatsda, was the highest so far, at 5200 metres. Thankfully, my body was finally starting to get accustomed to the altitude but it was the cold that got us up here. To use a meteorological term, it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. We didn’t hang around for too long.

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On our way down from Gyatsda, we were treated to our first views of the sub-Himalayas. I had been waiting for a very long time for this moment and it didn’t disappoint. We had been driving for a few minutes after this when Virginia spotted some tall looking mountains and asked what they were. Kalsang casually declared “that tall pointy one is Everest.” Cue all four of us absolutely losing the plot. We hadn’t expected to see it until the next day. Kalsang knew all along and had kept quiet about it. He’d make a great poker player. Later, when we were taking photos at the viewpoint we asked him if he’d ever been on Everest. Just as nonchalantly as before, he told us that a few years ago he was a porter and had climbed to 7500 metres. On numerous occasions. With 30kg on his back and no bottled oxygen. It’s not hyperbolic to say he’s the toughest man I’ve ever met. Sadly, as he was a porter, rather than a Sherpa, he’d never been given permission to have a crack at the summit. It seemed desperately unjust. That night we checked into our hotel in New Tingri, which was so basic that we might as well have been camping in the -13 degree temperatures. It didn’t matter a bit. The next day we were going to Base Camp.

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Tibet Days 1-3: Lhasa

Day 1

Boxing Day 2015. My alarm clock rang at 3:30am. I was not feeling optimistic. It seemed like too many things had been conspiring against us since our arrival in China a few days before. We met our friends Tyrone and Virginia at Chengdu airport. Some months earlier, I had pitched the idea of coming to Tibet with us. They hadn’t needed much persuasion. I was now seriously worried that we weren’t going to get in though. What if the permit wasn’t right? What if the guy at immigration just took a disliking to us? Nervously we approached the desk and handed over the permit. A quick glance from the guard and we were waved through with absolutely no problems. We boarded the plane and all four of us broke out into peals of exultant laughter. We’d all secretly been nursing the same unspoken dread. I’d even gone as far as looking into the feasibility of going to Mongolia instead. The whole airport experience had been impossibly easy though. To add to my good mood, the views from the plane were some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, or probably will ever see in my life.

Upon arrival at the airport, we were met by Kalsang, our guide from Snow Lion Tours, who would be with us for the duration of our time in Tibet. The good news also kept on coming. My bag, which had gone missing in Beijing three days earlier, had finally been located and was due to be put on the next flight from Chengdu to Lhasa. When we reached the old part of the city, it was like stepping into a different world. The sky was dazzlingly blue and the air worryingly thin. We walked through a market, where hard faced men sat hacking at dried yak carcasses with machetes, to our hotel. The door was covered by a thick Himalayan rug, which we walked through to the most amazing hotel lobby. There was a roaring turf fire in the middle of the room and bunches of pilgrims and saffron clad monks sat around eating momos and drinking butter milk tea. It was everything that I had imagined Tibet to be and more. Later that afternoon, I had a mad dash across town to find my backpack, which had bizarrely been delivered to the Potala Palace bus station rather than our hotel. It made me think of the first time I went travelling when I was nineteen. A bunch of lads from my local pub asked me “Why don’t you just go to Benidorm?!” Times like this are why. I was exhausted and suffering from altitude sickness but utterly exhilarated by the adventure.

Day 2

I woke with my head feeling like it was splitting in half. It had been several years since I had slept at this kind of altitude and my body clearly didn’t like it. At 10:00, we gingerly left the hotel and headed for the Potala Palace, Tibet’s most iconic building. Even though I’d seen it on TV and in books many times before, nothing prepares you for actually seeing it up close for the first time. The building seems to just rise up out of the rocks. Janey had been yearning to see this for 25 years and was predictably ecstatic. After the obligatory photos outside, we started the walk up the steep path to the entrance. Kalsang explained the colour system on the building to us. White symbolises purity and the Land of Snows, yellow is the Sun’s rays spreading Buddhism throughout the world and red means energy.

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Inside, I liked looking at the room where the youthful Dalai Lama had entertained visiting foreign dignitaries, and particularly enjoyed Kalsang’s stories about the sixth Dalai Lama. As well as being a spiritual leader, apparently he was also a legendary drinker and womaniser. Who says those two things can’t go hand in hand?! The Palace is certainly interesting on the inside, but like many such places, in my opinion the true highlight are the views of it.

After a delicious lunch of yak curry and flatbreads, we made our way towards the Jokhang Temple, centre of the famous Barkhor pilgrim circuit. Tyrone aptly remarked “It’s like a scene from National Geographic.” Kalsang explained that whilst for foreign tourists the highlights of Tibet are Everest and the Potala Palace, for Tibetan pilgrims the Jokhang Temple is the most important place of all. The said pilgrims spend all day circumambulating the temple to cleanse themselves of their sins. Some of the really zealous ones prostrate themselves on the floor, recite an incantation, and then get up again and repeat the process, all the way around the circuit. Apparently, they do this up to 500 times. It must be like doing 500 burpees, the worst fitness class exercise of all. I decided that my soul was sufficiently pure for the day and headed back to the hotel for some yak stew and momos. I even treated myself to a solitary Lhasa Beer. It’s not going to win any brewing awards but it’s certainly the most obscure beer I’ve ever had.

Day 3

Day 3 started with me feeling even worse than the previous morning. I’d only had one beer. I couldn’t be that much of a lightweight could I?! Our first stop of the day was the Drepung (Pile of Rice) Monastery, which for me was the highlight of Lhasa. The 40 minute drive out of the city afforded us amazing views of the soaring mountains. I found out at this point that these weren’t actually the proper Himalayas and quickly chose to ignore it. I’d been waiting years to see the Himalaya and was not letting something as small as my own ignorance ruin that. There wasn’t much to see at the Monastery (other than a little annex for elderly monks, nuns and cute puppies where they were using old satellite dishes to create solar power) but it’s the location of Drepung that makes it so spectacular.

After posing for dozens of photos with inquisitive locals, we headed to Sera (Storm Monastery). It isn’t as enviably located as Drepung but it’s still incredibly beautiful. The highlight at Sera was watching an abbot deliver some sort of lecture to a group of seated monks, who then broke out into a low guttural chant that lasted for about twenty minutes.

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Thousands of miles away in the Tropical Spice Gardens in Penang, there’s an iron sculpture that you put your ear up to and “listen to the sound of the Earth.” This is exactly what the monks sounded like. It was an unforgettable experience. Amusingly though, during the chant some of the younger monks obviously got a bit bored and started throwing stones at each other. When they processed out one of the young reprobates gave me a complicit wink. That evening, I felt sufficiently strengthened to actually walk the Barkhor and double the number of Lhasa beers consumed. The next day we would leave Lhasa and our adventure would truly begin.

TRAVEL TIPS

  • We booked our tour with Snow Lion Tours. They are a Tibetan owned company. Wangden, the manager, speaks excellent English and was a pleasure to deal with, throughout the entire long and complicated booking process. http://snowliontours.com/

 

  • It’s unlikely that you’d be able to book your own accommodation in Lhasa but even if you don’t end up at the same hotel as us, I’d recommend going there for some home cooked authentic Tibetan cuisine. It’s called Rama Kharpo hotel and it’s located in the middle of the old town, not too far from the Barkhor circuit.
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