A Travellerspoint blog

This blog is published chronologically. Go straight to the most recent post.

Departure!

And I’m off across Siberia

sunny -15 °C
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Leaving Moscow

Leaving Moscow

The day has finally arrived were I’m stepping aboard the most famous rail way in the world! I am absolute trilled… I’ve had a taste of it between Murmansk and Saint Petersburg, but there is just something mythical about setting off from Moscow on the real thing – and I don’t even know why…
The stories you hear and my own romanticised thoughts about it are sure to be part of the explanation. Two concerns does strike me, here at the beginning though: First, the fact that this is not a proper trip with the rail way, it’s just my way of reaching Mongolia. A proper Trans-Siberian journey would take me all the way to Vladivostok and back, and include a non-stop journey one of the ways – almost seven straight days living on the train. But this will have to wait till later in life.

Enjoying the first bit of rail

Enjoying the first bit of rail

The other thing worrying me is my high expectations for this part of the trip. With all these stories and expectations this part of the trip really needs to be epic not to disappoint. Hopefully it won’t!
On the day of departure is there no shortage of high hopes – I’m like a little boy waking up on Christmas just spending all day impatiently waiting (Anglos should know Danes open their presents on the evening of the 24th). And I don’t even think this really counts since my first stretch is a mere seven hour overnight trip to Nizhny (Nish-nee) Novgorod.

It is a rather tough start though. It only gave me about five hours of sleep before I step off the train at 06:28 – in a battering minus 18 degrees Celsius. Not really my favourite way of starting a Monday morning.

Morning arrival at Nizhny Novgorod

Morning arrival at Nizhny Novgorod

I’m only in town for 12 hours. Second stretch of my journey begins at 19:20 with a train to Perm (look at the map above), where I’m spending a few days. Given this fact I’m homeless (e.g. without a hostel to store my backpack). I repack a little bit: My toilet bag doubles as my daypack, having the perfect size for a small bottle of water, gloves and hat, a guide book and my notebook or laptop if needed. Then I can leave the big pack at left luggage.

Mural at Nizhny train station

Mural at Nizhny train station

The first hour is spent taking the metro into the city center and waking around (mostly in the wrong direction) to find a cheap café and some breakfast. Not to forget, some shelter from those minus degrees. All while the city’s population is rushing to work – a rather nice thing to observer. And a little like going home a Friday morning after being out drinking the whole night. That kind smug felling knowing you’re not one of these guys needing to be somewhere for work in a few minutes.

The sun rises and temperature slowly rises with it, topping at a more pleasant minus 5 – I think I’ve been in the cold too long, since I’m actually finding minus 5 a pleasant temperature to walk around in!

The Volga, Kremlin view

The Volga, Kremlin view

Nizhny’s is Russia’s fifth biggest city, and its main attraction is a 16th century Kremlin still standing, some fine local art museums, plenty of churches and monasteries and the mighty Volga River. I’m mainly focused on the Kremlin, packed with rather nice parks and a peaceful WWII memorial (every Russian city seems to have a few) and it's overlooking the frozen Volga.
This legendary river stretches for more than 5300 kilometers and used to be the most important trade route in Eastern Europe – essential for both Viking and Arab traders. Situated strategically on the river Nizhny grew into the river’s most important trade post.

My spot towards Perm

My spot towards Perm

A pleasant, but cold visit, where keeping warm in various art museums and cafés, drinking an unprecedented amount of tea, filled about half of the time. The temperature had plummet to minus 12 degrees when I boarded the train again, setting off towards Perm. A trip lasting about 16 hours bringing me to the Ural Mountains (23 hours and still in Europe!).
At this it is worth noticing that my neighbour on this trip has a striking similarity to Jabba the Hut – unfortunately it’s been too dark to get any real good shots of him. Forgetting his size for a moment, he was actually quite nice. A 43-year old Moldavian oil worker on his way to Siberia for work.

Arrival at Perm

Arrival at Perm

I spend some time helping him with his English - he was using the train ride on catching up on the grammar hoping to find a job somewhere in North America in the future. With most of his life story in my backpack I got off the train at Perm on a beautiful morning, with the Sun shining from a clear blue sky… And minus 24 degrees.

And I now promise not to talk about the temperature again unless it dips below minus 30

Posted by askgudmundsen 09:52 Archived in Russia Tagged train river expectations trans-siberian novgorod volga Comments (0)

The Ural Mountains: Where Credit Cards stop working

Stranding without money in provincial Russia

sunny -28 °C

Travel writers often believe that: “You [the reader] don’t want to hear about the traveller’s fun; what keeps you reading is the traveller’s misery, outrage and near-death experience.” (Poul Theroux: The Tao of Travel)
I tend to agree. The bad stories are the best stories to tell the readers. The obvious exception being my parents who’d prefer easy-going and un-dramatic travels.
Anyhow, things only seem to go sour, when I’m not prepared. Not that this should be a big surprise, however, my troubles are rarely connected with the preparations that I’ve failed to do. Take my latest misery at the Perm train station in the Urals for example:

I’d had a solid day. I’d spend the morning visiting Russia’s best preserved Gulag camp and the evening watching one of Russia’s best opera and ballet schools performing Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The sun had shined from a blue sky all day, and I was feeling truly trouble free. Not often, as there’s usually some small piece of travel duty nagging in the back of my mind – something in need of being done or figured out.

Perm Theater

Perm Theater

Done at the theatre around 22.30, the train leaving at 00.30. Transport, stocking up on provisions for the 35 hour ride to Tomsk and buying the ticket would quickly take up those two hours. But I was confident. It would be manageable. Note that, with the exception of getting my body and backpack the three kilometers from opera house to the train station, the rest could (and should) have been prepared in advance. That would have given me plenty of time to deal with unexpected events.
In good accordance with Murphy’s Law: Arriving at the station half an hour before departure, there’re the usual automats you stick your credit card into and after a step-by-step guided in English the ticket comes out. I’ve done it before, this time however all I got was a screen saying “Credit card not valid”… Not really the response you hope for in the middle of the Urals Mountains – certainly not because I prefer riding the Trans-Siberian low on cash, so I don’t have to worry about keeping it safe. All in all I had about 30$ left in Rubles – about half the ticket price.

The train at Perm

The train at Perm

I tried the ticket window: Card got rejected. I tried the two ATM’s at the station: Same message delightful message. Have my bank finally got suspicions about all those foreign transactions and blocked my card, closing the account? I’m more than a month into my trip, but they might just be sluggish. Or maybe my last purchases did go through and I got blacklisted by the Russian Railway? The station had free wifi and I had 20-minutes of power on my laptop. I’ll just buy the ticket online and get the automat to print it. The internet will save me!
Nope. Somehow, even on the World Wide Web, the Russian Railway’s homepage doesn’t think my card as valid. A cocktail of about two parts frustration and one part anxiety, shaken (not stirred), would be the best way to describe my mood. Maybe even with a bitter, bitter piece of lemon added. I’d used the same website, the same credit card two days earlier, and at this exact moment my train just rolled out of the station. Murphy, you’ve timed it perfectly!
Next train was leaving four hours later, giving me an unexpected and annoying 6-hour wait at a station in the middle of nowhere. But that was honestly just water under the bridge compared to me not having any accessible money! Sure I got 300 emergency dollars I can get changed in the morning, but they won’t last me long if this credit card situation isn’t fixed.
Since my card seems to be the problem the solution should be simple, since I travel with a backup. A Visa Electron set up to another account without money on it. I mostly use it to make my fake wallet look more credible in case of a robbery, but it suddenly comes in handy.

Last night's beer tasting forgotten

Last night's beer tasting forgotten

Next problem is surprising: finding a plug and recharging my dead laptop. The attitude of Russian train station seems to be: No freeloading on our electricity! Only a few plugs in the entire station, security threw me away from the first one I find, the two next doesn’t work. I do manage to find a coffee automat around a corner in a little visited part of the station, unplug it and plug in my laptop. Not wanting to draw attention from would-be angry station personnel and people passing by, I leave the computer in my backpack, hiding the cable to the plug and pretend to sit on the floor reading for half an hour. Back in the waiting room I can finally log on to my bank and transfer the money. I’ll be able to buy myself a train ticket.
But Russia wanted it differently. The now familiar “Card not valid” is again triumphantly paraded on the screens of both the ATM’s and the ticket automat. And all I get at the ticket counter is a sympathetic look and a shaking head from the women behind the glass, but no ticket.
It is time to call my bank! In the middle of the night, in the waiting area of the train station I plug my headphones on and dial my banks number on Skype. Not being able to hide my very Danish conversation to the people around me I get plenty of curious looks and half a dozen kids gather around me to investigate this strange creature with the familiar looks of a fellow human, but making incompatible sounds. A low voice and polite and apologising smiles seems to be enough for my fellow passengers to accept this unusual behaviour.
The first call is fruitless. My card should work fine, the bank hasn’t done anything to them, and I haven’t exceeded the monthly amount I’m allowed to use. The payment to the Russian Railway has gotten through, so that can’t be the problem. I’m passed on to technical support.
Nothing seems to be wrong, with the exception of my laptop running out of power again. Finally the person at the other end of the line has an explanation that might be right (it is no solution, though): The Visa-connection might not reach all the way from rural Russia to Denmark where it needs to be verified. So much for the so-called international credit card!

Finally leaving

Finally leaving

Finally remembering that I’ve had the same problem in an ATM in Murmansk, where one bank would give me money and another wouldn’t, I see a way out. Only problem is the long work back into town to look for a branch of that bank in the middle of the night in the freezing cold.
Instead I give my laptop another 30 minutes in the plug behind the coffee automat and Skype home to my roommate back in Denmark. Given the time difference it’s still before midnight there. Walking him through the steps of buying a train ticket on the Russian Railways’ homepage (in Russian) takes about 25 minutes, and it’s a nice opportunity to call home and say hi – something I hadn’t done earlier on the trip. At last I’m able to get my ticket printed in the automat that has denied me any form of tickets for the last hours. Revenge is mine and it tastes oh so sweet!
Tired, very tired I board the train at four in the morning – looking forward to an über relaxing 35-hour rail journey through Siberia. Boy was I wrong about that - but more about that next time...

Posted by askgudmundsen 01:18 Archived in Russia Tagged train credit_card stranded troubles perm ural_mountains misery Comments (0)

The Legends are True!

On how presumptions, legends and stories about the Trans-Siberian Railway are all true.

sunny 26 °C
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The Trans-Siberian has always been the stuff of legend to travellers. Though I honestly imagined some of the stories; the welcoming people, the hospitality, the feeling of distance, and the time that flies to be just that – legend, from travellers who’d exaggerated just how great the World’s Greatest Railway Journey actually was.

Leaving Perm

Leaving Perm

When I left you here, I’d just manage to board the train four in the morning, for a 35 hours ride between Perm and Tomsk – the longest stretch of my Trans-Siberian journey.
Waking up on the train am I greeted by a cherry “’morning” by two Russian guys in the bunks below me. One of them is a Moscow lawyer speaking a little English, the other a (former) long distant bus driver, speaking a little German.

Trans-Siberian breakfast

Trans-Siberian breakfast

They are eating breakfast, consisting for white bread, canned fish, coffee and vodka. Still a bit disorientated I’m offered plenty of bread, fish and coffee and the conversation takes off in the usual fashion with where we’re from, we’re going and what we work with, so on and so forth…
The first toast “to international friendship” occurs less than half an hour into the conversation. And when in Rome, right… So I accept, though I make sure to ask for a small drink. It works, kind of, and I’m served considerably less than they take for themselves. I still get served considerably more than I’d like this time of day. Welcome to Siberia.

Big beer!!

Big beer!!

Bottoms up! There’s no biting over the shot during a Trans-Siberian celebration of international friendship. The vodka is washed down with some lemonade I’m also offered. Vodka is always drunk unmixed, first afterwards comes a zip whatever’s available, in this case lemonade, to take the edge off. Even though I’m fairly sure a lemonade-vodka drink would be quite tasty as an alcoholic breakfast.
Next toast is initiated about 20 minutes later. All while various subjects are being are being discussed, forgot, re-discussed and translated a number of times between English, German and Russian. Most popular topics are: The size of Russia, everything Danish, whatever is outside the window (relates slightly to the first subject), the European economy (surprisingly enough), canned fish, why I – for all that is holy – would bring fruit with me on the train, their jobs and my studies.

Train-conversation

Train-conversation

The forgetting of any given conversation or subject is usually related to the serving of “tea” as the lawyer humorously calls the vodka. Whereas we pick up the conversation at very other place until something comes up, that makes us rediscover the interesting piece of conversation that we left three vodkas back…
Times fly, though, and the kilometres slowly ticks away outside the window. During this time, everything in the carriage just seems to become more familiar – even our fellow passengers. It might be the vodka or maybe just the fact that most people here have been on the train for more than two days.

Babysitting

Babysitting

But incidence comes and go, in which everybody just seems like one big family. At some point a women leaves her baby with us, while she’s off to the restroom. A rather bold move on her behalf, if I might say so, since we are well into the second bottle of vodka, and have begun to wash it down with beer. Nonetheless the baby survives, seemingly happy to be able to throw around with some of our stuff.
Not surprisingly is the rate and intensity of all this vodka drinking a little higher than I’m used to, even though I’m drinking the lesser sized drinks. I – obviously – insist that the vodka has nothing to do with it, and it’s purely a matter of me boarding the train very late, but during the late afternoon do I retire to my bunk for a nap.

Siberian taiga

Siberian taiga

For the second time that day, I wake up to a white bread and canned fish. And roasted chicken, someone brought in return for some vodka. It is no big surprise that the vodka drinking have continued through my nap, and I pick it up where I left it: with yet another toast to international friendship. As a matter of fact doesn’t the drinking seize till German-speaking bus drive vomits in a plastic bag and falls asleep around midnight.

Average train temp. 25 Celsius

Average train temp. 25 Celsius

Brave as he is, this doesn’t stop him from continuing the next morning at 10 a.m. More people have joined us, and now we are a whole little party of 6-7 people sitting around the bottles. I finally pitch in buy a bottle of vodka at one of the stations, but am going even slower that yesterday. Not that anyone notices, but since I’m getting off during the afternoon, it might be best not to get too drunk. “Not a problem”, the lawyer remarks when my little drinking is finally notices, “you’ll just take a coffee before you leave.” I make it to my destination only half drunk, but do indeed finish on a cup of coffee generously poured by my new friends.
Everybody on the trains seems to be excited about a foreigner boarding. It might just be because it’s a welcoming change on a long, otherwise fairly boring, journey – the outcome is no matter the same: Overwhelming generosity and hospitality.

Arrival at Tomsk

Arrival at Tomsk

No until I offer to buy the next bottle of vodka have I should worry about anything. I’ve been fed faster that I could get hungry, haven’t eaten any of my own supplies with exception of some fruit I tried to share, but they all made up polite excuses not to eat my food. This attitude towards foreigners or guests seems to be common everywhere on the Trans-Siberian no matter if vodka is included into the mix or not!

Posted by askgudmundsen 00:45 Archived in Russia Tagged fish train trans-siberian vodka hospitality Comments (0)

Last Minute Visa

Dissatisfactions, mostly self-inflicted, about my visa-situation scribbled down at 4 am during a very frustrated and sleepless night.

semi-overcast -5 °C
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I’ve messed up. Twice! Avoidable mistakes that are keeping me awake for the second night in a row. The first mistake was committed back home, weeks before I left Denmark. I deliberately applied for a Russian visa lasting longer than the period I planned to stay, since I usually get delayed during my travels.
What I didn’t check was which additional days I’d give myself as buffer. It is a Saturday and a Sunday. Never end your visas on the weekend! Days that can’t be used as a buffer since consulates are closed, there’s less transportation options and what’s available fill up quickly because of the weekend. The second fuck-up happened in Tomsk when I missed my train, postponing my arrival in Irkutsk by 12 hours.

Mongolian Consulate

Mongolian Consulate

Two mistakes keep me awake why? Because it’s the night between Wednesday and Thursday, because my Russian visa expires on Sunday, and because I yet have to pay a visit to the Mongolian consulate to arrange my onwards visa.
And I should make the following clear: It is impossible to extent a Russian tourist visas, which is the kind of visa I’ve got. I definitely don’t wanna try my luck with Russian Immigration overstaying my visa. There is no Chinese consulate in Irkutsk and China and Mongolia are the only two countries within reachable distance (nearest other countries are North Korea and Kazakhstan both more than 2200 kilometers away).

Plenty of sightseeing time

Plenty of sightseeing time

Research suggests it should be possible to get a next-day express-visa for Mongolia in Irkutks, but I am in no way sure of this and ‘should’ doesn’t always apply for consulates far from the actual embassy (in Moscow)!
Had I just gotten on board on that train in Tomsk had I arrived here Tuesday morning, making it possible to go straight to the consulate, which then would have four whole days to arrange the visa – standard time for Mongolian visas.
Instead I arrive Tuesday night after hours, and which day is the consulate closed for visa applications? Right, on Wednesdays… Not checking up on this before leaving Tomsk could be considered a third mistake – but since that knowledge definitely would have made me arrive at the train station in decent time, I count it with the whole missing-the-train-for-no-good-reason mistake.
My current options are thus very limited if the consulate won’t or can’t make a visa within the 48 hours there’s left before the weekend. And it is here my failure to arrange a workable buffer days becomes important – for that extra working day or two could have saved me in the end. It would at least make me able to sleep – right now am I just too worried.

View across the Lake Baikal

View across the Lake Baikal

Only alternative – my single backup plan* – is a flight at some time Friday, between Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia over Beijing. And that isn’t save either. I might need a transit visa to change planes in Beijing, something I don’t have and can’t get. I might need a letter of invitation form a tour company to get the Mongolian visa on arrival, something I don’t have, but might be able to arrange Thursday. And I might not have the right nationality to be allegeable for a visa in the airport at all – something the consulate may or may not be able to tell me.

This might give you an idea why I do I consider travelling a lot tougher than university or student jobs. When you’re slacking off out here you’ll end in situations like this on. Fucking travel…
*It might have been possible to reach Vladivostok and board a ferry to Japan before Sunday at midnight, but I honestly did consider this a real option.

Epilogue: I did manage to get my express visa before the weekend. Setting me back around 105 dollars (instead of 35 a visa normally costs).The kind ladies at the consulate gave me a 30 days Mongolian visa. Trains out of Russia were still scares, but I manage to get to the border towns of Naushki (Russia) and Sükhbaater (Mongolia) during Saturday morning. Whether I’ll be able to actually cross the border or get further than Sükh was still an open question. I eventually manage to get a night trail to Ulaanbaatar.

The Mongolian Visa

The Mongolian Visa

Most frustrating about all this has, in retrospective, been that I’ve been missing out on a few highlighted sights because of all this. Most noteworthy was I not able to pass by Lake Baikal in daylight, missing the best scenery on the entire Trans-Siberian. Other stuff I’ve missed out on have been a traditional Russia sauna at the lakeside and Russia’s most important Buddhist temple, build by no other than Stalin (which is a bit of a surprise since he spend most of his time destroying religious sanctuaries.

Posted by askgudmundsen 05:56 Archived in Russia Tagged visa trans-siberian mongolia irkutsk Comments (2)

Making it in the Gobi Desert

Adventures at what feels like the worlds end

sunny 14 °C
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The driver steps even harder on the gas pedal. No matter that we’re driving on a dirt track in the middle of the desert, or that we’re racing alongside a hill tilting the bus in a 20 degree angle. A good guess is that we’re reaching 80 or so km/h.
A few minutes ago, we spotted another minibus driving south through the Gobi Desert and our driver was eager to catch up with it. This has clearly challenged the other driver into a suicidal competition between the two, about who’s Mongolia’s best (bus) rally driver.

Our bus

Our bus

Our bus has left the main dirt track in the effort to overtake the other bus, something that seems to pay off… until a sudden bump sends the bus airborne. Not just a little, the entire bus is mid-air – still in a 20 degree angle. We land on two wheels only and for a split second the bus dangerously balances on those two wheels, continuing its fast forward motion, before finally deciding to stabilise on all four wheels instead of its right side.

Gobi Desert

Gobi Desert


After a few rather unadventurous days in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar I’m on a more action-packed 15-hour bus ride south, 550 km into the Gobi Desert. Destination: the South Gobi capital of Dalanzadgad (DZ).
Just an hour into the ride did the bus puncture, four hours in did the first elderly people throw up because of driving sickness, and now – about half way through – we were nothing more than share luck from flipping the bus over. And I absolutely love this ride - honestly!
The day I don’t will be the day I stop travelling. It’s dangerous and miserably. At the end of it all one’s internal organs have been shaken into a human smoothie by all the bumps and my spine has been rearranged several times. But it’s the only means of transportation for the locals and the backpackers alike.
It’s worth it, not only because of the awe-inspiring views of the endless desert, but more so because of the camel milk, Chinese sniffing tobacco and the experiences of the ride you share with the locals along the way. All of whom absolutely loved that I’ve brought Marco Polo’s book, Travels, with me to kill time. Obviously it was to bumpy to get any reading done, but passing it around to my fellow passengers and receiving big smiles and thumps up, made it all the more than worth it!

Pit stop food

Pit stop food

Arriving in DZ the search for a place to sleep and some cheap wheels to take further into the Gobi began. Despite being surrounded by some of Mongolia’s biggest tourist attractions the DZ has no tourist infrastructure whatsoever. A bunch of hotels, mostly addressed to mining big-shorts, no western styled cafés, no tourist information and no tour companies. The city is thus a welcoming challenge for anyone on a budget.

My driver, Tumee

My driver, Tumee

It gives the independent traveller two choices: Being proactive, asking around for the stuff you need or sit around and hope the stuff you need, will find you. The asking around often gets stranded in misunderstandings. E.g. if I ask for a cheap place to sleep they’ll point me to the nicest hotel in town because western tourists usually stay there. However if you just hang around the bus station, market or jeep-stand looking like the confused white guy you most likely are – someone with a little bit of English, knowledge of the most visited sights and the hope of doing a bit of business will show up. Often sooner rather than later.
And sure thing, at right next to the market a taxi driver stops and asks if he can take me to the nearest place of awesomeness; Yolun Am – an ice valley squeezed inside a mountain range running through the desert.

Yolun Am Ice Valley

Yolun Am Ice Valley

I’m still more concerned about my sleeping arrangements and ask if he knows any cheap hotels. Not surprisingly, he rather wanna talk about him driving me to the valley. I fend him off by getting his telephone number and say I’ll call him tomorrow if I find some people to share the costs with. I should note that this is a good trick not only to fend sellers off, but also to make them quote a reasonable price, because they don’t want somebody else to make you a better offer later on.

Typical city-ger

Typical city-ger

He then happily starts calling up someone, when we resume to the topic of where I’m going to spend the night. After talking in Mongolian for a bit he hands me the phone. On the other end is an American Peace Corps volunteer named Joe who tells me that the driver doesn’t know any really cheap places, but that I’m welcome to sleep at his place for 10,000 Tögrög (6 dollars) if I can’t find anything else. So I waved goodbye to the driver and instantly stopped my search for a bed – homestays are way more interesting than shitty hotel rooms.
I spend the rest of the day doing nothing*, and doing this I accidentally run into Joe. I’ll end up hanging out with him for a while, only interrupted by me spending an hour and a half waiting for the bus from UB to see if there are any other travellers I can share my costs with. There aren’t.

Inside Joe's ger

Inside Joe's ger

Dusk arrives and for better or worse Joe, I and a couple of the Mongolians go out for a few cold ones. When we finally try calling the driver there’s no responds, but Joe is quick to offer me the spare bed in his ger (traditional Mongolian tent) and I happily accept. Things just magically tend to work out when you’re travelling around alone.

I went with Tumee (the driver) to the ice valley the next day, which were indeed awesome, for an unheard of 40 $ (tourists tend to pay around the double); spending another night in the ger; helping out with an English conversation club the Peace Corps runs for locals interested in learning English; and finally made my way to the north-Gobi town of Mandalgov where more awesome Peace Corps volunteers have taken me in.

On top

On top

*"Doing nothing" in a Gobi city of 14.000 consists of hanging around in the park (when the dust storm settles down), visiting the mall or the internet café, drinking tea or eating at the small eateries, watching some kids practicing a performance at a local theatre and playing ping pong with some locals (running into Joe).

Posted by askgudmundsen 04:15 Archived in Mongolia Tagged gobi_desert yolun_am peace-corps dalanzadgad Comments (0)

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