|Worldcycle > World Friends > Maarten Index > Newsletter 12|
Tashkent to Tehran Muscat, Oman
For quite some miles I am aware of my negligence towards you. Believe me, also towards myself. I have been pushing it, trying to be ahead of winters' claws, reaching down south merciless and early this year. Living like a migrating bird can be hard. Unlike the birds I had to sponsor some embassies in the process, causing delays in often smoky and congested places. While waiting for the fresh stamps, I didn't manage to find a peaceful nest. Instead, I rode fifties of km's from A to B , to C than back to A for days carrying all my belongings. Apart from the weight, it causes constant street performances entertaining hordes of bystanders, upon each arrival, waiting for traffic lights and even while riding, small motorbikes would follow me like a pack of flies enjoying my draft.
I am now remembering the crazy days in Tehran. I think I have never been that tired in my life. Fortunately I didn't encounter an email possibility other than a slow connection at Tehran University and an overpriced internet café.
Now, almost 2 months after my last email from Tashkent, visiting a friend of a friend here in the Sultanate of Oman, I am offered excellent conditions to provide you with the latest on my quest.
Yesterday I arrived in Muscat. I am having the first day of rest in a cozy nest since leaving the Bicycle Association in Tashkent. To meet Peter, my host, is such a pleasant change from having mostly brief conversations along the road. "From where, where going ?", "you no wife ?", "you alone, no good !", "you Guiness Book record ?", "you work government ?", "you no work ?". Inevitably as a result of moving but also I feel that one is 'weighed', valued according what he has and wears in this affluent area of the world. Peter has traveled a lot in his life, worked in different countries and made an epic journey in a kayak from Denmark to North Cape in 9 months. Upon arrival, the campfire smell in my clothes and gear triggered associations with his survival life. In some ways we share similar experiences of e.g. feeling lonely in cities/ports, not so much in nature. Fed by a combination of own reflections, often brewed under conditions of low self esteem, tiredness, feeling dirty, and vibes people give ("you no work"). In short the alienation from the established social structure. Perceived as an extreme way of life, feeling of being misunderstood or seen as a hero, it causes loneliness. "How can you afford 7 years traveling, and even so what about your future?" I feel often the fear of the people as they speak only imagining. I than often think I am a passive inspiration, to not be afraid to fulfill a dream. On the long term, the fact that most of us would like to share life, needs resources to live, and a drive to be self responsible, would force each individual, including myself, to compromise in order to reach to the social structure , "that's what money really is", quote Peter In the different ways of getting to the pie and consuming we all can make a difference. It is nice to see that the 'modern' world enables people to live in colorful ways. I realize that coming through some traditional worlds where still e.g. religion and family pride limits individual expression. It is quite amazing how a majority seem to be dressed the same way, think the same way. My utopian vision would be a step further, a world where individuals are not afraid to live their characteristics, desires and thus not compete with one other (starting already in the classrooms) to the extent as today. Not bothered with how the outside world perceives them. This could be stimulated by a democratic acces to resources, not because of pedigree or etiquettes.
I am getting too much carried away now in my thoughts to explain my loneliness. It does explain how I am feeling cycling through this part of the world.
So when Peter asked me on the phone as I called in:" How are you", he understood too well when I answered:" tired and lonely".
Late September, Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Soviet Jet engines are blowing me awake. We live in the neighborhood of the Tashkent International Airport. I slept quite well in the little garden-square of the old house, presently functioning as the Cycling Federation office.
I only met its' sole inhabitant, 20 year old 'Timur', son of the Secretary General 'Marat', yesterday evening. He returned in sweat from training and my first impression turned out to be wrong. He just quickly said hello, told me I could take a shower, than fanatically washed and cooked a meal, at the same time playing loud Russian Modern Music. In the meantime, I laid on a wooden platform, so common here in Central Asia, and watched the rising moon and a few stars.
He invited me in the little kitchen and we shared a nice evening. He has a lot of energy, his dream is to become a professional road race cyclist. One member of the association inspired him, a 34 year old racer who is making a living in Italy. The coming days I learn that he is training every day. If his tubeless tires allow him, as worn down they are. They reflect the state of the economy in the former Soviet Union. There is money, but kept by a few. Another example is Murad, member of Federation to become the first Uzbeki to make a long distance tour. In his 50's, equipped with a big belly and red no gear Russian 'roadster' he left in September '98 and made it too the pyramids. Still quite a distance, especially on a bike like that. Plan was that he would return in Tashkent after rounding the Mediterranean Sea during the 10 year statehood celebrations in 2001. I meet him as Timur's father invites me in his office. He makes a worried and serious impression to me and first thing he mentions is" We know many people like you", opens an envelope with the file of Murad, complete with glossy pictures of him posing in front of the pyramides and throws it in front of me. As he phones the consul of Turkmenistan, to arrange my visa, I flick through the planned route and letters. Marat wrote these as Secretary General of the Cycling Federation to support Murads' credibility abroad. Suddenly, Murad stands in front of me while squeezing my hand red. He heard of a Dutch cyclist's visit. Melancholically and sad, he explains that the President of Uzbekistan stopped funding his tour and commanded him to come back. Proudly he shows his shining red horse, parked outside, with the green canvas bags.
Uzbekistan's elite seem to focus on short term wealth. Later I meet the President of Cycling Federation,'Rustam'. He complains about the lack of fundings too. He has to pay out of his own pocket airfares and visa's to represent Uzbekistan in the international cycling arena. Only when there is media attention, the politicians are there to be captured with Uzbekistans' talented cyclists.
I am asked many times, "dollar yeast?" (have dollars). Acces to resources is clearly a problem in today's Central Asia.
Murad insists of taking me for lunch. I assume to his house. He stops a mini-bus taxi and after 2 ladies leave, the driver zigzags through Tashkent. When they both are discussing which road to take, I can only quess. My unbelief is even bigger when we stop in a narrow congested street, the taxi driver joins us and we follow a group of white-bearded old men. Are we going to a mosque or pelgrimage?
Turns out to be a wedding. Murad introduces both the taxi driver and me. We are guided to a open air square of a fancy house. Marble, sculptured wood, life traditional music and at least 100 men are eating along huge tables full of fruit. As we eat 'Plov', traditional greasy sheep and rice dish. I see between Murad and driver the woman in the kitchen, washing dishes. Small boys take care of the tables. Yes, the more West I come, the stronger I feel Mohammed's influence. Dress codes, segregation between sexes. Male cooks in front of the house cook the Plov. In one bowl they prepare 100 kilo of rice, 30 kilo of fried onion (in sheep fat),saffran,some lentils and 2 mature sheep. It is a prestigeous job, the pride of the family is at stake. The plov has to be excellent.
When we return to the Federation, Rustam, the President asks me how it tasted. Very nice and I mean it. Rustam has 2 wives so I assume he knows what he is talking about. He explains that besides weddings, the national dish is eaten every Thursday, and afterwards "Dien dien" and makes copulation symbols with his hands. It stimulates male potency. He is happy to be boss in the house too. While attending cycling events in Europe, he was shocked by emancipated women. He can't image to compromise in family matters. He feels sorry for European men. At the same time, I feel sorry for him. Where is the challenge, the seduction between partners, I ask him? . It shows our different backgrounds very clearly.
I got a 4 day transit visa for Turkmenistan, my next country to visit before entering Iran. Marat's official letter pleading for a 10 day visa only helped me to get 1 day extra. I feel rebellious waiting for this visa in front of the consulate. The consul's black Mercedes is washed and decorated with Turkmeni flags erecting from each side of the hood. The consul was about to make a drive. My concept of" borders only exist in brainwashed people's minds" resurrects clearly in my mind. What a circus, what a show. All these future visitors to that piece of earth have to spend a few hours waiting, in order to pay a 6 week local salary to be granted a 3 day stay on that little crust of the earth. Talking about access and resources.
I have a disproportionate amount of money being glued and stamped in my passport. For the last 7 months it amounts to 600 dollars. This is in no relation to what I spend on myself.
I have to tell the consul the exact date of arrival and departure too, so all at once I was tight not only by a season but also by a date.
Jet engines woke me up 3 times more camping in the little garden and with most of the repairs and visa formalities done, I left Tashkent, escorted by Timur and Rustam on their bikes and Murad in a taxi. Only Timur rode all the way out of the city. His father gave him the responsibility to take care of me all these days. We give oneother a big hug . We became quite close.
With only 7 days to make it too the Turkmenistan border, 11 days to Iran, I cranked up my speed on the old Silk Road. It helps to be out of the mountains. Also the road itself, a noisy and smoky highway with lots of trucks and buses allowed me to speed up without scruples. Typical transit-road communities of restaurants, tire mending, upholstery, little stores. Would have been so different in the old days of camels and caravansarays. I image the same elements of international trade but more colorful, less rush and noise. Now my throat is swollen and ears hurt. The days are getting a lot shorter, a sign of winter on its' way. At first, I ride through undulating landscape. I enjoy watching the activities. Crops of corn, cotton and melons are being harvested after a hot season of preparing, irrigating and seeding the fields. Here is the delta of the Syr Dagi river, flowing from the Tian Shan mountains through the Kyzyl Kum steppe into the Aral lake.
Among other exotic names as Kuala Lumpur, Kathmandu, Lhasa, Dar es Salaam, names that brought romantic pictures from long forgotten times in my mind during geography lessons I am soon to visit two other enigmatic names, Samarkand and Buchara . Before that however, I watch for the first time a phenomena that I cannot explain other than a UFO. For years, people asked me, "did you ever see a UFO in your starry nights", since I mostly sleep under unspoiled dark skies, lightened by stars. Until now I could always answer, "no". I have seen the unusual like huge meteorites with tails of blue/white light, even sparks as they hit the surface. But never something like this. On the Northern Horizon, above the endless steppe of Kyzyl Kum a light source headed right towards me, just as it was getting fully dark. I just pitched tent in a cotton field and I enjoyed a watermelon. I feel very relaxed and am intrigued by the light show. The dot approaches with speed and its' tail of white light is not dissolving. In fact seem to spread in the sky till it covers like 1/8 of the entire sky. The trucks and buses, don't seem to notice, nobody stops. They blind each other with their own headlights. Than the dot stalls for a short while, it forms a 'trapezium' -like figure under itself, looks like a neon advertising symbol, it forms another one on top of that and than it just blasts Eastwards, never saw a such speed. With that velocity, it doesn't spit out a tail of light. The remnants of the other light cloud slowly dissolves, after 15 minutes all is gone.
Well, it was flying and I couldn't identify it. So I suppose I should call it a UFO. Quite a spectacle, not fearful and it doesn't give me another perspective of life. It didn't look like a rocket or anything man made. May be it was a test of the Anti Ballistic Defense System of the Kremlin. Or they showed off to intimidate Kazachstan who pushed Russia to pay rent for using the services on the Baikan- launch station just the other day.
Samarkand and Buchara are two historical jewels furnished with beautiful architecture. I didn't have a lot of time to hang around. Also in Buchara, I didn't feel like it. I quess being tired and feeling lonely, misunderstood didn't help. I left Buchara quite depressed. I felt very hollow, empty inside. Is life only about survival and pushing genes to the future? interpreting the kind of questions I get from the people. It seem to be a universal reason of life. Traveling for 'just pleasure' (if they hear I am not doing it for my Government, nor Sponsor nor Guiness), makes them feel sorry for me. I leave Buchara, after being filmed and photographed by a French travel group, with a very empty feeling. Shame for such a beautiful city.
I expected rain, which was good intuition, but nobody seemed to be willing to board me in a shed or so. My aura must have been pretty miserable too, that doesn't help. I feel that I have hardly energy to ask people anymore. The bush becomes more and more a safe haven for me to relax. In the wound of Mother Nature I call it. My little fire and guitar is accompanying, the sound of the simmering lentils, the movement of the stars, cry of a night bird or a bat catching insects above my head. From Tashkent to Muscat, the last 2 months I might have slept in a house 4 times. I seem to get a little introvert, hiding in my shell facing all these prejudices, and too much popularity. It requires rest to restore the right balance between meeting people and riding. But visa limitations and approaching winter pushed me on.
Any ways, one man, 27 year old 'Islam' allows me to stay in an empty room. We drink tea, eat grapes and together with his friend, they do most of the talking. It rains the entire night. The next morning I leave early and make it to the border of Turkmenistan.
Well, leaving Uzbekistan was almost impossible. Immigration couldn't believe I had no visa. I told them how warmly welcomed I was as I arrived from Kirghezstan, see newsletter 11. Normally a visa costs 50 dollars, two and half month local salary. Well after an hour of discussion, I got a hunch. Rustam, the President of Cycling Federation gave me another business card leaving Tashkent. Any problem, I will take care of it, he added. Well, the little card performed a miracle. I told them he is my friend and he will support the immigration's decision to let me go without visa. First I had to visit 3 more offices though.
I meet sunset and dinner time on the other side. Nice orange glare over the vast steppe. It is dark when I have to enter with bicycle inside the building. Like their neighbors on the other side, they make me play the guitar. For a short while though. I am still in the phase that it is better to play to my campfire. Since I am starving I ask if they have some dinner left. So I get a dish of plov. Must be Thursday than today. All these man without their woman. How do they manage?.
I am told that after 10 km there is a police station where I can camp. A nice pitch dark night cycling on a narrow paved road. Along a river it seems. After half an hour the junction with a main road, a light indicates the police post. Another of the many road blocks My plov question is answered there. "Vodka and Tiroler video".'. They are surprised to see me in the night. They offer me a glass of Schnaps and show me the cover of the cassette. A snowy B/W television illuminates the little shack. Not my quiet place to sleep. I wonder what they are up to after the bottle is empty and the TV turns black.
So I continue, a couple on a Ural motorbike with sidecar tell me I am heading the right way. I than find a sovchoz-like settlement and manage to find a perfect camp place between chilli plants in a roofless greenhouse. Much to the surprise of the guard the next morning, with whom I share breakfast of tea and dry bread very common here.
I had only 3 days left to cross about 500 km's of mostly flat steppe/desert landscape. Glad it is no summer anymore, this place must be stifling hot, even now, early October. Many roadblocks and police always wanted to see the real thing, not the photocopied one. And everybody, entire busloads were checked. I reckon the President, now 8 years in office, displaying himself full color on every corner or roundabout in the cities is getting paranoid. Worse of all is that they check the date of visa. That means that I have to make it within the validity period otherwise they will deport me by truck or so. Very nice Kalahari like landscape, small bushy trees and sand. I share meals with truckers along the road. Many Iranians make it to here too, from Bandar Abbas to Tashkent. Some Uzbeki's are on the way to Kabul. Only because of passport they are exempt from wearing a beard. They warn me for the cobra snakes. "Better stay at police stations", they suggest. But nothing beats the peaceful nights in the Kara Kum desert. I feel quite excited to enter Iran. For so many years I wanted to. I meet the only cyclist on the road, Pierre from Paris, riding to Tashkent at a police post. We eat watermelon by courtesy of the police. They were quite amused to watch our meeting. We realized that we have been sitting in the desert, 50 km's apart, he blowing his flute and me scratching my guitar. It would have been nice to share the fire last night. It was nice to talk to a European, fellow cyclist. It demonstrates how lonely I am becoming.
I make it to 20 km's to the border before my visa expires. The road is too bumpy to continue in the dark. I am happy, I know I can ride it tomorrow and just little talking and they will let me through. I tried to stay a day at the immigration to rest, before entering Iran where I only have 30 days transit visa. They refused.
After crossing the bridge over a dried up riverbed, slaloming between semi-trailers, I noticed the clean and modern buildings of the Immigration and Customs. Inside air conditioning keeps the place cool. Compared to most travelers, a few Tadjieki students and some colorfully dressed women, I looked like a rag. The immigration officer interviewed me for a while. He called the local newspaper for a story on me but I never met the journalist. The students gave me food after I gave them some of mine. They wanted me to come to their university in Mashad, I never did.
My bike was inspected briefly. I started to worry a bit about my MD-player and the Western music. Especially after the students in front of me had to leave their videocassette. But also the customs treated me gently. After seeing my diary bag, I could go.
Second thing I notice is the different street population. Motorbikes swarm in the streets, buzzing like bees. In between a variety of car models , French Citroens, 2CV's, Peugeots, some old USA-gas guzzlers, sedans and jeeps. Most striking though are the black 'chadoors'. A chadoor, in Farsi language also meaning a tent, is a black tent like cover, hiding any female feature from the public male eye. Only in Tehran 2 weeks later, it became a familiar view to me. But like in any big city, women were more liberal. I notice that it doesn't prevent them from flirting.
The very colorful grocery shops, mostly containing a windowed fridge selling dairy. In front of the shop bales of nuts, rice, dried fruits sunflower seeds and newspaper thin bread.
With 1100 km to go before Tehran, I decided to ride out of town and rest in the desert. And desert it is. Beautiful mountain ranges, open plains with sheep and goat shelters close to water wells. I cooked lunch in one of them, on manure since I can only find scrap wood close to the road. Through the door of the little structure I see the wide, naked landscape where only an occasional vehicle passes or a motorbike. It is funny to watch the motorbikes. Often loaded with merchandise, the women in the black chadoor are sitting in the backseat, the wind beating her tent she looks like a phantom. It forms such a contrast which the yellow and brown surroundings. Back on the road again, two teenage Iranian boys passed me 'hands loose', challenging me to be the coolest. Iranian boys devote a lot of attention to their hair. Keeping it in glossy and cut of the 50's.
This was just the start. Passing villages I would attract a herd of bikers, mostly carrying 2 curious boys. Later in the South I would draw a qeue of curious boys behind me. By that stage I got fed up with being only surrounded by boys and men. Apart from a few modern families, I usually meet only half of the population.
Unidentified Bicycling Subject
That night, turning off the road into the desert for a camp, I am all of a sudden charged by a herd of dogs. They approach me full speed, like dark shades over the plain. Barking and growling. Only because I hear the bells clinging around their necks I know they are sheepdogs. To support my theory a mounted herder flares up his torch from a distance and rides towards me. I just peddle on, only to bump into the second herd, which looks like a black wall in the distance. I meet the herders, 2 guys carrying sticks. If they have seen the UFO a few days ago, they now probably think that I am dropped here as a UBS. Having just arrived in Iran today, I don't know one word of Iranian language called 'Farsi'l. An amazing meeting that is.. I just speak Dutch to them, only assuring them of my alien origin.
No way I can camp anywhere here without the local police or mullah disturbing my sleep, so I peddle back armed with stones to feed the pack of dogs a bit. They had a second charging party on my way out again. The stones kept them abay a bit.
I ride quite far into the night before I find an abandoned sheep shelter where I contemplate my first day in Iran.
I pass many villages coming closer to Mashad. Also here is some agriculture. At the moment the yellow honeydew melons are driven in town. I have no Riaals in my pocket so I ask a police post for some bread. I eat lovely fresh bread with butter and marmalade. I quickly learn that the police- and military force are very
Gentlemen like. Reminds me a bit of Chile. Before entering Mashad, I find a couple of melons, so I arrive well fed. Trying to repair my solar panel in a roadside suburb is crazy. Crowds of people, watching with their hands, an angry shop owner who chases me away. I am surprised to be chased away a few times, "Beri, beri, beri", is Farsi for "go". Not the best word to learn that soon.
I couldn't image that Mashad is a big city, carrying a few million people. Second city after Tehran. I arrive tired and as I look for some shade, I just let the people surround and consume me. I realize that people are not so eager to invite me in their house. Hossein is the exeption, a small postured electrician. He mimicks eating gestures and adopts me for a few hours. As we arrive, I have to wait outside, so he can prepare socially my arrival. He points me instantly to the shower and brings me new cloths. The house has a little square surrounded by buildings and walls. All designed to enable wife and daughters to walk discretely without the chadoor, for as long there are no males around. I have to wash my feet once more before entering the room and landing on the Persian carpet. I meet his wife only as I leave. She speaks a little English, writes even more, but cannot come to the room. So little daughter brings notes back and forth. First question: Are you Muslim? Are you Mashied?.(Christian I learn later) I feel uncomfortable with these questions. I am Maartenman, I mostly answer. Why do they want to label me? It is often asked though. It shows how important religion in their lives is. It is right in the center of life here. Only the few modern families I met are an exception.
Hossein, drinks black tea only after having a cube of sugar in their mouth. I tried that too, for short while though, my tongue is not resistant to the effects of this O.D.
After lunch I leave. It was a special meeting, communicating by hands and feet and feeling the difference in culture so sharp. Only as tested my solar panel connected to the Minidisc player, the music it plays , overcomes the cultural difference. That's the moment his wife and all children join us. I play from all corners of the world. Universal language, denying cultural laws. Only when a little boy falls and starts crying it is back to the old norms. Hossein wants me to keep the baggy thin black trousers and shirt.
Only when the siesta period passed I managed to change illegally 20 dollars in a bank. I bought some spices and food and met Turaj, a 24 year old baker as I was about to leave. The bakery is a family business and his father and 2 uncles share one apartment building West of Mashad. Turaj is the first of quite a few trying to immigrate to Canada. He speaks reasonable English. I am treated with their sweet pastry and fill my bags with bread. They invite me to come to stay and I insist in riding it. Only than I experience the size of Mashad. Huge and very illuminated. Broad avenue's loads of illuminated shops and prestigeous roundabouts. It took me an hour, lost the bakery pick-up in the process of getting there.
Inside their apartment, I experience a little of pre Islamic Revolution Iran from 20n years ago. I can give hand to Turaj's mother and sister. Sister also speaks good English and she chats quite a bit. In the meantime Turaj has to return to the bakery to assist the employees.
Turaj's grandfather was a known architect in Mashad . Three of his sons, now share one building. Turaj's father built this 4 floor apartment building and he shares it with his 2 brothers.
The next morning, I wake up the entire family sleeping on one of the three huge Persian carpets as I enter the room. Turaj and I have breakfast and he follows me by taxi to the outskirts of the city. I notice the yellow leafs on the trees. I have to go on.
The road passes many towns, like Sharud, Damghan, famous for its pistache nut cultivation, Semnan, Firuz Kooh, the coldest town in Iran because of its altitude. Typical in this area are the small industries along the road, sometimes on their own in the desert. Producing dairy products, to tomato paste, cement, plastics. Reminds me of Veneto, Northeast Italy, scattered family based small industries. I ask for some tomatoes at one of the factories. Only 'Jezerah' speaks English and he tells me that this family has a lot of money abroad and can invest here attractively. Average wage in Iran is 50 dollars a month. He is 49,divorced, qualified food engineer and eager to emigrate. He feels patronized with the Islamic regime. Rich people can easily obtain a visa to go abroad, he complains. Like the owners of this company. But for him it is only possible in a group package holiday, 2 weeks sight seeing Europe. Passports will stay with the tourist guide for the duration of stay in Europe.
Peddling through the heart of those towns, I can't help but to feel in Southern France. Many men, not wearing helmets are cruising the streets on their motorbikes and mopeds. The vehicles, old 2CV's, Peugeots, the abundance of little shops, like grocery-or pastry shops. Also the roundabouts, the smell of pine trees, the afternoon siesta. I ask Jezerah and he explains that before the Shah's strong friendship with the USA, Iran was strongly influenced by France. French was 2nd language e.g. City planning, architecture.
The side tour away from highway over some mountains before arriving in Tehran was nice. I enjoyed a few pick nicks with families aside the road.
So far I didn't wonder why nobody seem to invite me to stay overnight. But after Mr. Mehdi a keen cyclist himself couldn't host me during the 5 nights in Tehran nor somebody else I suspected it is not done in Iranian culture to host foreigners. I met him as well as his wife aside the highway. They were so excited to see me, I should straightaway call in upon arrival. So I did, in the heart of the city at his work. He is director of a branch of an commercial bank. He was very happy to see me. Introduced me to the whole staff. Proudly showed his bikes in the basement of the building.
I asked him if it was possible to stay in his garden since it was getting towards the end of the day. He felt really sorry to say no. Only in a later stage of the stay in Iran, I learnt that Iranian families generally only host other family members.
So in Tehran I had to arrange quite a bit. Apply visa for the next 2 countries to visit, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. A visa extension for Iran and calling home were the most important matters. Tehran is a traffic congested city, one of the most polluted. Iran Government recommend women and children to stay indoors. The smog is just horrendous. I managed to get most done in 4 days, met even 9 Dutch cyclists on their way East, but failed to meet Thomas, my cycling friend. We knew already for 8 months that we were heading to Iran from opposite directions just before the winter. I read an email from him in Tehran telling me he should be here by now. So I wrote him back, including my friends telephone number. Only the day after departure, when I called the friend again, I hear that he just called after I left Tehran.
Sometimes it is just not mend to be.
This afternoon Peter and I are mend to be surfing in the Indian ocean. If the wind allows us. I have been too long behind the screen anyway
I feel I have to relax do really nothing for a change,
I hope you enjoyed reading me.
Until next time,
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