We’ve moved to a new site!

We decided to move the blog so we could post large photos and use plugins and stuff (come see the lightbox images! the galleries! the BIG photos!) , so…


Go there. Enjoy!

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Jaisalmer: The Camel Safari

A quick note: For those of you who are have been following the blog – please note that I updated the previous post to include our haveli visits.

So, the camel safari. One of the most recommended excursions for any trip to Jaisalmer. It was one of the few trips we didn’t arrange in advance, so we decided to ask our hotel if they offered a safari. The owner said that they did, and he quoted us 1700 Rs each (a lot!!) for a “non-touristic, music and dance safari”. It was a lot more than we were expecting, especially since our guidebook said it should only be around 1000 Rs. We negotiated down to 1500 Rs (ok, we aren’t the best negotiators), and the deal was done.

However, we weren’t entirely sure what we had signed up for. All we knew was that we were leaving at around 3pm, and that at some point we would ride a camel, and watch the sun set over the dunes.

A couple from Australia had also signed up for the safari that day, so we all got into the back of a small jeep and the driver took off. It was very dusty and thankfully we stopped after about 30 minutes to look at some cenotaphs. We didn’t expect to see a wind farm in the middle of the desert!

The site was pretty much deserted, except for a goat herder…

…and a few children begging. After we got the beggars to leave us alone, we enjoyed a few minutes of peacefulness while taking pictures of the monuments.

There didn’t seem to be any efforts made to preserve the site (as was the case with most, if not all, of the historical sites in India). Some of the structures were falling apart, or had been vandalized.

When we finished, we all got back in the jeep and drove for another 30 minutes or so to the next historical site, an abandoned desert village.

It wasn’t terribly exciting and we were glad to get back in the jeep. Little did we know we had another 45 min on the dusty roads before we would reach our destination. The “non-tourist” safari that we were on did not go to the famous Sam Sand Dunes. Instead we were to visit some less impressive, but ostensibly less crowded dunes. Hence, the “non-tourist” part of the safari.

When we finally reached the tent camp where the safari started, the scrub along the sides of the road was still thick and there was plenty of grass around.

Tent complex in the "dunes"

We were led to some chairs in a large concrete area, and we waited for what seemed like forever (but it was only 20 minutes or so). As soon as our camels arrived, we went to pick out our steeds. I think we both tried to pick the least cantankerous one – but it was hard, because all the camels were pretty cranky. Getting up on the camels was an adventure in itself – you really have to hold on tight. There weren’t any stirrups on our saddles, so riding the camels was pretty uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure it’s always uncomfortable, though.

Shana's camel from behind

The camels were completely covered with fleas. Ugh. It was really gross, but the 7 and 8-yr old kids who were leading our camels were friendly and distracting. Rob’s camel was not cooperative, so one of the handlers tied the nose of his camel to the butt of Shana’s camel. We didn’t think too much about it until some funny rumbling noises came out of Shana’s camel – from the wrong end. Luckily it was just air, but it happened a lot (and kept us laughing)!

The little kids led us on along a path for what seemed like an eternity, as we watched the sun getting lower and lower. We were supposed to watch the sunset from the dunes, so we wondered where we were going. Finally we all realized that the kids were leading us to a small village in the distance. We convinced the kids to skip the village and take us to the dunes right away so we could see the sunset.

The dunes were beautiful, though small, and we did make it there in time to rest a little and enjoy a nice sunset.

The kids and our camels

Our camels, resting

After the sun set, we headed back to the tent camp on our camels. In the center of the camp, there were a few dozen chairs set up in a semi-circle on the concrete floor. There were also a few flood lamps, which unfortunately attracted a small army of flying, biting insects. Some musicians and dancers came out and started to perform for us.

 They were ok. At this point we were quite hungry, but it would be another hour before the food was brought out. In the meantime we swatted at bugs and tried to enjoy the show. When the food was finally ready, a long buffet was set up with lots of different dishes. Our hotel owner, who had arranged the safari, had said something earlier about cooking the food before we left and then reheating it in the evening. Shana was nervous about that, so she stuck to the Cliff Bars she had brought (and some chapati). Rob tried everything (and survived – he didn’t get sick at all).

The trip home seemed especially long, because it was so dark and dusty. We passed several military trucks and a few motorbikes, but luckily there was very little traffic. It had been a long day, and we were relieved when we finally arrived back at the hotel at around 10pm or so. We wished we had skipped the camel safari, although at least now we can say we did it! After that, we were ready to leave Jaisalmer and head back to Jodhpur – our last stop before leaving the state of Rajasthan.

Next: our trip to Jodhpur, and then on to Agra (via Delhi)!

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Jaisalmer: Fort and city sightseeing

Jaisalmer Fort, just outside the entrance

The Jaisalmer Fort is one of the largest in India, with a yellow sandstone exterior that helps to camouflage the fort in the evening when the sun sets. It is the only living fort in India, and at least 2,000 people live and work there. Sadly, the fort walls are crumbling and it is suspected that the poorly built sewage system, overloaded by tourists and residents, is to blame. The fort in Jaisalmer still has some strategic importance for India since it so close to the border with Pakistan, and on our drive to Jaisalmer we saw many military trucks and caravans.

We decided to take the audio tour of the fort, which is supposed to be one of the best in India – and it was indeed very good. When we first walked into the fort, we found ourselves in a small city, not sure where to go next.

Inside Jaisalmer Fort, standing in front of the museum without realizing it!

After a few minutes of walking around, and noting the usual chai stands, street vendors, hotel signs, and stray cows and dogs, we figured out that we were supposed to start our tour in the Jaisalmer Fort Museum.

Closer look at the Jaisalmer Fort Museum

There weren’t many other tourists there, but there was a large group of Indian schoolchildren on a field trip. We let them pass us by so that we could take our time in each area of the museum.

Inner chamber in the lower part of the fort

The exhibits were fairly austere, and we mostly enjoyed just looking at the architecture of the old fort.

Gallery of Jaisalmer's rulers

Closer look at the portraits of the past rulers

Exhibit featuring several Hindu deities

Deity and painting. The room was very dim so it's hard to see, but the clothes on this figure sparkled with gold flecks

As we started to climb the stairs upwards, there were many excellent views of the hustle and bustle in the streets of the fort below us.

View from the Museum, looking down at a busy plaza inside the fort

Looking through one of the windows in the fort museum at the city below

There were even better views of the fort walls, and the city outisde the fort.

Rooftops of other buildings inside Jaisalmer fort

As we climbed higher and higher to the top of the fort museum, the views got even better, and soon we could see almost the entire side of the fort walls.

When we were finished at the museum, we spent a few hours wandering around the streets of the fort. We visited some Jain temples, where we were required to take off our shoes and leave them outside. We paid a shoe attendant a few rupees to keep an eye on them while we looked around inside the temple. Most of the people there were Jain worshipers or Indian tourists, and we didn’t see many westerners.

Inside one of the seven Jain temples in Jaisalmer Fort

Temple ceiling

Carvings on a temple wall

Workers restoring columns inside one of the temples

After we finished sightseeing in the fort, we went down to the city below to have lunch at Saffron restaurant (where we had dinner the night before). It was not very busy at lunchtime, and we made the mistake of ordering a tandoori non-veg platter, which was pretty gross. The paneer was ok, but the vegetable kofta and the meat pieces looked so unappetizing that we decided not to touch them. It was to be one of the last (if not the very last) time that we ordered meat in India. We ordered a pot of veg curry and some naan to tide us over, which was good as always.

When we finished lunch, we set out to find Patwa-ki-Haveli, an old haveli (a private mansion) that was mentioned in our guidebook. We had a bit of trouble finding it down a windy side street, but an Austrian tour group pointed us in the right direction. When we got to the haveli, it turned out that there were actually two havelis: a government-run one, and a private one with the same name. The touts outside the private haveli were really annoying, and we thought that the government one must be the right one so we bought a ticket and went inside.

The government run Patwa-ki-haveli

The inside was dark, dank, and empty, except for the dozens (or hundreds?) of bats that hung from the ceilings.

Inside the government haveli

Even more bats! Rob didn't like the bats, and I thought they smelled terrible.

Every room was the same… empty except for the bats. We were pretty unimpressed, and we decided to go across the street and pay another 150 Rs each to check out the privately run haveli.

Gazing up at the floors in the private haveli from the inner courtyard

Mirrored room in the center of the haveli, where we started our tour

Needless to say, the private haveli was much nicer, and much more interesting. Every room was decorated and had interesting objects or art inside.

Room/exhibit in the private haveli

Dining/tea room

Kitchen with old cooking pots

There was even an excellent view of the street below.

Looking out at the street in front of the haveli

When we finished looking at the havelis, we decided to go back to our hotel to rest before our camel safari. We walked down a few of the worst-smelling streets we had encountered to date, with open sewers on both sides of the road. The sewers, the piles of trash, and the numerous cow patties were hard to take. When we finally reached the main plaza, we were only too happy to jump in the hotel’s rickshaw and head out of town.

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Our drive to Jaisalmer was very similar to our drive from Udaipur to Jodhpur: a simple two lane road with lots of trucks, rickshaws, and the occasional cow or herd of goats. As we got farther west, we noticed that the grass thinned out, the ponds and lakes disappeared, and the trees were replaced by scrub bush. Jaisalmer is in the midst of the Thar Desert on the west side of India, close to the border between India and Pakistan.

About halfway through our trip, we stopped at the Manvar Desert Resort for lunch, which was recommended by our guidebooks. When we first walked into the outer courtyard/dining area, we noticed a strong manure odor and then saw two women shaping patties out of an enormous pile of cow dung. We decided to eat in the inner dining room, which was very nice and smelled a lot better!

Manvar Desert Resort courtyard

The inner dining room

Rob ordered curry and rice, which was pretty good. Shana ordered chicken pakoras, which were excellent – like Chicken McNuggets with a spicy batter. She also tried to order eggs with no milk or butter, but they came filled with thick cheese! It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid dairy in India. Dairy products are used in virtually every dish. Also, it doesn’t seem like there are any lactose intolerant Indians at all, so it’s hard to explain. Luckily the main cooking oil is ghee (clarified butter), which usually doesn’t contain any lactose. India is definitely a difficult place for vegans.

Anyway, our lunch was good enough and we were soon back on the road. Along the drive we stopped to take pictures of a herd of camels on the side of the road. We saw a lot of camels on our road trip, although this was the largest group we saw accompanied by a camel-herder.

Camels on the side of the road

After another few hours of driving, we arrived in Jaisalmer. We went straight to the hotel (Jasmin Haveli), and then realized that we had nothing to do for the next few hours before dinner. Our hotel was pretty far away from the main part of town, and we thought we were stranded until we found out that the hotel has a rickshaw on call. The hotel’s location wasn’t ideal, but our room was well-decorated and spacious.

Our room at Jasmin Haveli

The hotel outside our room

Cow walking down the street in front of our hotel

For dinner, we decided to take a trip into town to eat at Saffron restaurant (at Nachana Haveli). The town had a fair amount of traffic, but it was relatively calm in the market area compared to the other cities we had visited. There were a lot of cows, though.

Cows sitting together in the middle of the street

We were too early for dinner, so we had a beer at the Mandir Palace next door. We had the rooftop to ourselves, and we enjoyed excellent views of the Jaisalmer Fort. The Jaisalmer Fort is the only “living” fort in India, and approximately 2000 people live and work there. It’s also one of the largest forts in the world.

At Mandir Haveli

We spent a while on the roof at Mandir Haveli, taking pictures of the rooftops and buildings nearby.

View from the rooftop at Mandir Haveli

Close up of the cupola at Mandir Haveli

Another view of the fort, and some rooftops

When it started to get dark, we headed to Saffron, which turned out to be on a rooftop too (rooftop restaurants are quite popular in India). The candlelit tables were very romantic, but it was pretty difficult to see in the dark. We decided to just order two vegetarian thali dinners so we could try a few different dishes.

Thali at Saffron restaurant, Jaisalmer

The food was ok, but it didn’t live up to the hype in the guidebook. Still, the atmosphere was nice and we had a good view of the fort. After dinner, we went back to our hotel and tried to get a good night’s sleep since we had a full day of sightseeing ahead.

The next morning we had breakfast at our hotel’s rooftop restaurant, which also had great views of the fort (if you’re on a rooftop in Jaisalmer, you probably have a great view of the fort).

Rooftop restaurant at Hotel Fifu/Jasmin Haveli

View of the fort from our table

We took the hotel’s rickshaw into town, and then up, up, up a narrow winding street through the markets… almost all the way to the fort’s gate.

We didn’t stop to take too many pictures on the walk into the fort, because we were accosted by several beggars (and it was very hot).

Coming next: our visit to Jaisalmer Fort!

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Part II: Jodhpur, the Blue City

After a busy morning of sightseeing and lunch at Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, we headed down the winding road to the city to explore Sadar Market. Sadar Market is a large open market and collection of shops where you can find vegetables, spices, cloth, and lots of crafts. Although the locals come here to buy vegetables and spices, the majority of the shops cater to tourists and sell poor-quality clothes, trinkets, and wood-carved deities. We enjoyed the sights and sounds of the market, although it could be quite chaotic at times with motorbikes and cars speeding around.

Clock Tower at Sadar Market

We wandered around the markets for a while, and then stopped for a special saffron lassi (yogurt drink) at the lassi shop called Shri Mishrilal in the clock tower. It was an interesting place: the tiny little shop was lined with seating and some tables, and a waiter walked around with several lassis for anyone who wanted one. There was no menu, just one kind of lassi. The shop was extremely popular so Rob decided to try one. It was topped with whipped cream, which made him a little nervous, but we decided that the place had such high turnover that it was probably ok (and it was recommended quite highly by our guidebooks).

After that we walked up and down the nearby streets, popping into stores to look at the wares and trying to avoid the hawkers that lined the sidewalks. At some point we found our driver, who followed us into a store or two. We asked him to go away because drivers get a commission for bringing tourists into shops, and we would get charged 30-40% more on anything we bought. We knew this already from reading the guidebooks, but a few shop owners took it upon themselves to let us know that this was indeed the case.

The markets were a little disappointing because the quality of the goods (even the spices and tea) didn’t seem very high, so we didn’t buy anything. We decided to go back to our hotel for a tea break before heading out again to see the Umaid Bhawan Palace.

Tea break by the pool at our hotel

Another view of the pool

We felt a little funny about sitting by the side of the pool on our India vacation – it seemed like a terrible touristy thing to do – but we enjoyed the break from the chaos of the markets and the hot sun. When we had recovered a little, we headed to the Umaid Bhawan Palace to see a small museum on the palace grounds before dinner. The museum was only a few rooms, and it was pretty lame as far as museums in India go.

Umaid Bhawan Palace

Umaid Bhawan Palace is a 347-room palace that was completed in 1943, and which has served as the principal residence of the Jodhpur royal family. As of 2005, it was acquired by the Taj hotel chain and it is now a very, very expensive luxury hotel (rooms start at around $1000/night). Non-guests are not allowed in the hotel unless they have a dinner reservation – which we did. Although it was a bit early for dinner, we convinced our driver to drop us off at the palace hotel so we could look around and relax a little. He didn’t think they would let us in early, but they did!

View of the palace from the gardens outside

The palace was amazingly luxurious on the inside, and the air conditioning felt great. We wandered around for a while and admired the opulence of the main rotunda.

The main rotunda in the hotel

The staff thought we were guests there, so we got a tour of the spa and indoor pool (which had gorgeous tiling), and the gym. We walked around the extensive gardens outside and admired the size and beauty of the palace. In the middle of the gardens, a private dinner for some VIP was taking place with several servants in attendance, and we had to be careful not to walk to close since they were guarded. We also found a guest services room where there was a Mac (!!!) with pretty fast internet. It was the only computer like this we were to find in India. We were very glad we had come over early for dinner.

While we were waiting for the restaurant to open, we spent some time relaxing in the bar, drinking wine and eating mezze (middle eastern tapas plate). When the restaurant, Risala, opened at 7pm or so (restaurants open late in India), we went immediately to get started on what was to be our most expensive dinner in India, nearly $200.

The service at dinner was excellent, which was in part because we were one of two tables that were dining at that time. The hotel seemed awfully deserted in general, and we saw few other people while we were there. The presentation of the food was quite nice but it actually wasn’t that good. We started with a pea cake appetizer, which tasted a lot like the Dr. Praeger’s veggie burgers that we buy at home. Then we had a lamb laal maas curry dish (their speciality). It was ok, but the lamb was a little tough. The naan was ok, and I vaguely remember some kind of chocolate dessert. All in all, it was mediocre, and we paid mostly for the luxury of the hotel.

While we were dining, fireworks went off outside. We rushed to the window to look, and we were told that the VIP we had seen outside had arranged the fireworks for his special dinner.

When we were done eating, our driver came to pick us up and take us back to our hotel. We were a little sad to leave the luxury of the hotel, especially the computer with the fast internet.

Leaving the palace, the car waiting area outside

We went to bed relatively early, since we were leaving the next morning to drive to Jaisalmer city, which is about 5-6 hours from Jodhpur. We’d seen pretty much everything there is to see (for tourists) in Jodhpur, and we were excited about heading far west to the desert.

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Part I: Jodhpur, the Blue City

View of Jodhpur City from the Mehrangarh Fort

We arrived in Jodhpur in the evening after a long car ride. Jodhpur is known as the “Blue City” because many of the buildings are painted blue. It’s not clear why there is a tradition of blue buildings in the city, but we heard that it was started by the Brahmins (upper-caste people) who used to live there.

When we first got into Jodhpur, it was nighttime, so we decided to go straight to dinner. We intended to catch a rickshaw into town, but when we wandered outside our hotel we ran straight into our driver, who was parked by the side of the road where he was planning to sleep in the car. He offered to give us a ride which we accepted. On the way, we stopped to take a picture of the clock tower, a landmark in the center of town where the open markets were. It was night, but the markets were still open so it was quite chaotic.

Clock Tower in Sadar Market, Jodhpur

For dinner we headed to Pal Haveli, a heritage hotel right in the center of town which has a good tourist rooftop restaurant called Indique. We had an amazing view of Mehrangarh Fort (the big attraction in town) from our table.

View of the Fort from Indique restaurant

I call it a “tourist restaurant” because it was one of those restaurants that was recommended first in all the guidebooks, with tourist prices and some continental items. Many of the restaurants recommended in the guidebooks were popular with both locals and tourists, but there were a few (like Indique) where we only saw Americans and Europeans. The food was reasonably good if a little too mild for our taste. We complained to the manager that the aloo (potatoes) were too bland, and he apologized and said it was just for foreigners. The tandoori chicken was good though – one of the better meat experiences we had in India.

Tandoori chicken and aloo at Indique

After dinner we briefly considered walking around the markets, but the crowds, speeding motorbikes, and large cow patties (in the dark!) were a little too much for us. We went back to our hotel, Ratan Vilas, to get a good night’s sleep. Ratan Vilas is a heritage hotel (old haveli) that is popular with tourists. We had a large, clean room with AC and a TV, and an enormous bathroom (with separate shower in a large marble bath) which seemed quite luxurious after our cramped space in Udaipur.

Ratan Vilas Hotel in Jodhpur

Our room at Ratan Vilas

In the morning we had our usual breakfast of tea, toast, and eggs at the hotel and then we set off to see the main attraction: Mehrangarh Fort. (Note: we stuck to a western breakfast at most hotels, because the alternative was usually a slightly scary buffet of Indian food that had been sitting out for hours).

Mehrangarh Fort is an amazing sight to see, a majestic fort about 400 ft above the city with thick walls and a winding road that leads to the city below.

Mehrangarh Fort

The road that leads to the fort

The main gate into the Fort

Walking into the Fort

We had opted for the audio tour, which turned out to be quite good. We had a good time wandering all over the Fort, taking pictures of anything that caught our eye.

Musician demonstration in the Fort

The architecture of the Fort was the most interesting part, but inside some of the rooms there were also exhibits.

Some of the rooms were also beautifully decorated, though hard to take pictures of because of the low light.

The views from the top were amazing, and we could see the entire city below.

After we walked through the entire Fort, we stopped for lunch at the only restaurant around – the one in the Fort (Mehran Terrace). Rob was adventurous and ordered a thali (set meal that comes on a tray), but I stuck with eggs and toast again. The restaurant wasn’t all that great, but it didn’t cause any problems later. Any meal that doesn’t upset your stomach in India is a good meal!

When we finished lunch, we had our driver take us a few km down the road to see Jaswant Thada, a centotaph (“empty tomb” built to honor someone). Jaswant Thada has memorials in white marble which commemorate Jaswant Singh II and successive rulers of Marwar. It was beautiful and there were not very many other tourists around when we got there.

Jaswant Thada

Small temple or memorial on the side of Jaswant Thada

The main building

It was quite hot that day, but we had finished with the main sightseeing so we decided to head down to the city to explore the markets, and visit the Umaid Bhawan Palace – see the next post for more about our trip to Jodhpur.

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Ranakpur, on our way to Jodhpur

We left for Jodhpur early in the morning so that we could stop midway to see the Jain temples of Ranakpur. It takes 5.5 hrs to drive from Udaipur to Jodhpur, and we were glad we had arranged a nicer car (Toyota Innova) for the trip. The car was almost new and had seatbelts, which are pretty hard to find in India. One of the weirdest things we noticed in India is that in every taxi we got into the seatbelts and headrests had been removed (or hidden). Many people tried to convince us that it’s safer without seatbelts, and whenever we insisted on a car with seatbelts, people seemed to think we were completely crazy.

The road from Udaipur to Jodhpur was only two lanes, one in each direction. Cars on both sides pass constantly, so we often found ourselves staring at a large truck or car barreling directly towards us in our lane, wondering if it would get back over on the other side in time to avoid a head on collision. There were also plenty of rickshaws, motorbikes, and cows, and even the occasional herd of goats crossing the road.

We saw many motorbikes carrying entire families. We also saw women riding sidesaddle on motorbikes and holding babies, which seemed terribly dangerous in any circumstance, but especially so on these roads. We felt pretty safe in our larger car, and our driver was good so we didn’t find the drive particularly hair-raising… until we reached a very hilly area where the road had many switchbacks.

As we climbed through the hills, our driver pointed out some monkeys on the side of the road, so we asked him to stopped the car. Much to our surprise, several of them climbed on the car! One even refused to get off, until we started moving – you could really see the panic in the poor little guy’s eyes.

Monkeys on the side of the road

One of the monkeys that climbed on the car

Another fellow posing for us

We reached Ranakpur around midday to tour some well-known Jain temples before lunch. The main Jain temple in Ranakpur is very famous, and it has over 1400 exquisitely carved pillars on the inside. First we stopped at a smaller temple, where a guard insisted on taking our picture and then demanded money (a common occurrence in India, which we indulged occasionally).

In front of a smaller Jain temple at Ranakpur

The smaller temple from the outside

The smaller temple on the inside

Then we headed over to the large temple, which was quite impressive. There were a few tourists around, but most of the people there were Jain worshippers.

Jain temple at Ranakpur

The inside of the temple was amazing, with beautiful carved ceilings and pillars. We took so many photographs, but no one picture could capture the whole area.

Amazing detail on the ceiling

Another ceiling shot

Offerings at the temple

Leaving the temple

View of the temple from the side

Pretty flowers outside the temple

After visiting the temples, we drove a few kilometers further to Maharani Bagh, which is a tourist resort with a highly recommended restaurant. We weren’t sure what to expect, but the restaurant turned out to be wonderful (and there were even clean western bathrooms!). We ate in a large thatch hut with nice tables while a ravanhasta (Indian folk fiddle) player performed on the side. A large group of German tourists was already there, and the waitstaff were very attentive, so we could tell they were used to getting a lot of tourists.

Restaurant at Maharani Bagh

The food was excellent – pea and mushroom curry, a paneer korma, and the very best roti we were to have on the entire trip. They had three different kinds of roti: maize, millet, and whole grain, all of which were so tasty we ordered seconds. Also, the ravanhasta player let Shana play his instrument. It was surprisingly difficult, though, and it took a few minutes just to master Frere Jacques.

Ravanhasta player at the restaurant

After a very satisfying lunch we continued on the road to Jodhpur. The drive was pretty uneventful – which is a good thing in India – and we arrived in Jodhpur in the late afternoon.

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