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Laibach and think of Slovenia

rain 8 °C

One of the worst things about travelling is the blisters. They are unavoidable; well, at least with my style of travel that includes lots of public transport and walking. I know from experience that the blisters soon become sturdy calluses, but until then, they are excruciatingly uncomfortable.

I was also rather tired from the mammoth five-train extravaganza the day before. So I decided to have a quiet day walking - no, ambling - no no no, dawdling - around the fair city of Ljubljana.

I stepped outside to a cloudy, drizzly day. On my way out I was greeted by Maria, Eva's mother who owns the umbrella repair shop downstairs. She welcomed me to Slovenia, asked if everything was OK, gave me lots of tips of things to do and see, made me feel at home.

It was a cool, gentle European rain that renews the spirit and fills my heart with joy. It wasn't the sticky, clammy rain of Sydney that makes the humidity even worse. I put on my rain jacket and beanie and went for a wander.

There is probably no better city in Europe to do so. Ljubljana is a compact little city where motor traffic is strictly controlled. There is a wide long main street, Slovenske cesta, that is a bus mall which is also pedestrian friendly. The walker bounces from square to cosy square, lane to cobblestone lane, and finds something to catch their eye at every corner.

After a hearty breakfast platter of pršut (like Italian prosciutto ham but even better), olives, pickled tomatoes, cheese and bread, I decided to attend to practical matters first. There was that bottle of Hungarian wine I wanted to send my mother. I entered Ljubljana's general post office, a marvellous little building in the same fin de siècle style you often see in Vienna, with a rounded corner facade and a cute cupola. I went into the post office, all polished marble and brass, and was served by a competent, courteous and efficient employee who provided me with the required box, bubble wrap and postage I required to send a bottle of wine to Australia. See, Magyar Posta, it isn't that hard, you bunch of utter morons!

I walled around Kongresni Trg, the largest square - more like a park, really - in Ljubljana, and then checked out the National Museum of Slovenia nearby. This isn't one of the world's most notable museums. It only occupied one and a half floors of a modest building, and concentrates solely upon the ethnographic history of Slovenia only as late as the Middle Ages - a fairly esoteric niche subject. That being said, it is one of the most fantastic museums I have visited.

Why? Because unlike most museums, the National Museum of Slovenia takes the trouble to explain everything! Every single artifact on display, no matter how small, came with explanatory text in simple layperson's language informing the visitor about the significance of that necklace or this sickle blade. There was also an entire gallery full of Roman monuments - tombstones and public building inscriptions and statue plinths and the like - and every single bit of Latin text was translated into Slovene and English. Would that all museums did this! Being able to see a two thousand year old tombstone from the days when Ljubljana was a Roman provincial capital called Emona and read that the inscription says it was dedicated to a seventeen-year-old girl mourned by her parents - well, I could easily see in my mind's eye those parents in their best togas sobbing, convulsive with grief, and the assembled mourners praying to Roman gods and goddesses for the safety of the girl's soul in the afterlife. Great explanatory text makes all the difference.

There were other interesting items too - a wooden deer trap from the early Middle Ages that still looked like it could snag Bambi, Celtic swords from the pre-Roman times bent in an S shape (a common Celtic habit was to so bend swords and bury them with the dead warrior who owned the sword), a three thousand year old situla, a bucket decorated with friezes depicting the life of a Celtic ruler, and the world's oldest musical instrument (unfortunately only a replica was shown due to renovations): a fifty thousand year old Neanderthal flute. Slovenia also has the world's oldest wheel. It's safe to say that Slovenes are innovative people.

Near the museum was Slovenia's parliament building, a bland grey 1950s office block, but nevertheless it surely wins the prize for gratuitous nudity. The friezes beside and above the front doors were full of naked people, virile men and full-bosomed women, in various poses, and I am at a complete loss to explain how these nude figures are even remotely relevant to the legislative process.

I dawdled across the river to Old Town on the other side. I then took my only rail transport for the day - a funicular railway up to Ljubljana Castle. There has been a castle on this hill overlooking the town and the Ljubljanica River for a thousand years, but after various fires and reconstructions, much of it now dates from the fifteenth century or later.

There are some interesting little museums in the castle, one with a whole bunch of mediaeval armour and weapons, and another excellent little museum about Slovenia's history from the pre-Roman era until the modern post-Yugoslav independence period. There is a watchtower with a very steep and narrow spiral staircase with excellent views over Ljubljana in all directions from the top. There's a small church, St George's Chapel, with beauitful frescoes on the ceiling depicting various coat-of-arms of duchies in this part of the Habsburg empire in the days when this city was known by its German name, Laibach. There are casements and parapets and old prison cells to explore too.

It was early evening when I took the funicular back down the hill to the Old Town. I splashed out on a three-course meal at the excellent Druga Violina restaurant which serves traditional Slovenian fare. I started off with another platter of pršut, olives and dried fruit; had buckwheat and mushroom porridge for the main course (much nicer than it sounds), and finished off with gibanica, Slovenia's most famous dessert - a moist layer cake with ground walnuts and cottage cheese and poppy seeds and raisins. Slovenian cuisine is great and deserves to be better known. It is a perfectly balanced amalgam of German/Austrian, Italian, Hungarian and Balkan/Ottoman traditions as well as Slovenia's own innovations. I should start a Slovenian restaurant in Sydney and make a fortune.

Ljubljana general post office

Ljubljana general post office

Nude friezes on the Slovenian Parliament

Nude friezes on the Slovenian Parliament

Roman municipal boundary marker for municipality of Emona

Roman municipal boundary marker for municipality of Emona

Vači situla at National Museum of Slovenia

Vači situla at National Museum of Slovenia

Bronze statue of young politician from Roman town of Emona

Bronze statue of young politician from Roman town of Emona

Mediaeval deer trap at National Museum of Slovenia

Mediaeval deer trap at National Museum of Slovenia

Ljubljanica River

Ljubljanica River

Ljubljana Castle

Ljubljana Castle

Ljubljana Castle

Ljubljana Castle

View of the city from Ljubljana Castle

View of the city from Ljubljana Castle

St George’s Chapel in Ljubljana Castle

St George’s Chapel in Ljubljana Castle

Ljubljana Castle at night

Ljubljana Castle at night

View of the city from Ljubljana Castle at night

View of the city from Ljubljana Castle at night

Posted by urbanreverie 14:25 Archived in Slovenia Tagged museum castle ljubljana post_office Comments (0)

Base Qatar

35 °C
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

Qatar Airways has been judged the world's best airline by Skytrax five times, and I concur with their judgment. The seats are comfortable, the service was professional, the interior was decorated in tasteful maroons and restrained creams, nothing went wrong. I can certainly recommend flying with Qatar.

One thing surprised me though - just how generic and international Qatar Airways is. I knew that a large proportion of their crew were expatriates, but I wasn't expecting all of them to be. Asians, Africans, Europeans, Australians - but not a single Arab was to be seen among the cabin crew. Much the same can be said for the menu - penne pasta with Mediterranean vegetables, omelettes, focaccias, chocolate mousse, sausages; all decent enough but scarcely a window into Qatari culture. I admire how many airlines are essentially an introduction to their country's culture. Think of AirAsia's nasi lemak or Asiana's bulgogi or Qantas's Aboriginal dot-painting uniforms or KLM's safety video produced using stop motion photography of Delft blue chinaware.

As pleasant as Qatar Airways' A380 was, fifteen and a half hours is far too long to sit in one seat. I am jealous of people who sleep easily on aeroplanes; I only got about three and a half hours of extremely interrupted sleep. I was hoping that I would sleep far longer as I only got about three hours sleep the night before with my eye trouble.

It was with great relief that I left the plane at Hamad International Airport shortly before six in the morning, a very nice and nearly brand new airport. Even though there were only five people in front of me at my immigration counter, I still had to wait forever. It wasn't because the immigration officers were lazy and inefficient, but because they are extremely strict and thorough. As an Australian citizen I had it easy but they still demanded to know every last detail of my stay and I had to show my hotel booking. In front of me were some Chinese citizens and the officer was putting them in the star chamber.

I withdrew some Qatari riyals from an ATM and caught a nearly empty bus to my hotel. You need to buy a fare smart card for ten riyals (note: one riyal equals forty Australian cents) and add as many more riyals for a balance to pay your fare (in my case, the fare was three riyals). Luckily there is a smart card purchasing machine in the airport bus terminal.

While I was waiting for my route 747 bus (747 bus? To the airport? Geddit? Hahaha), I saw an unusual pedestrian crossing sign. It featured a woman wearing a long dress. I've never seen women represented on road signs before. I never knew that Qatar was such a paragon of gender inclusiveness. I took a photo and a security guard went crazy, he said all photography was strictly forbidden. He didn't make me delete it, so you get to see it for your enjoyment.

I was hoping that the Concorde Hotel would give me an early check-in at eight o'clock, but no such joy. I had to come back after two. This is probably a good thing - if I had gone to sleep at eight, my body clock would be out of whack for days afterward. So I started exploring. My hotel is right next to al-Doha al-Jadeda station on the brand new Doha Metro, the most bizarre public transport system I have ever encountered.

There are significant similarities betwen the Sydney Metro and the Doha Metro. They both opened in May 2019 (though Doha's is eighteen days older) and they both consist of driverless trains operating along a single partially completed line.

That's where the similarities end. So how bizarre is the Doha Metro? Let's see. There are three classes of travel - Gold, Family and Standard. Three classes for a metro line with only thirteen stations. At most stations the railway staff outnumbered the passengers by orders of magnitude. I know it's a Saturday but it was uncanny just how empty the trains and stations were. The entire system stank of hospital-grade disinfectant, the kind of stuff the World Health Organisation would use at a field hospital in the Congo after an Ebola outbreak. The security was extremely officious and intrusive, and they are everywhere. At one station I was feeling a little hungry and I saw a nearly empty vending machine in an alcove in a distant corner. I walked over to the vending machine and a security guard intercepted me to ask what I was doing. I said I wanted to buy a snack and he insisted on standing with me and watching like a hawk as I decided to decline to buy a pack of peanuts, the only product on offer.

The trains are tiny little three-car things, but the stations are six cars long so provision has been made for the day when people actually use the trains. Of the three carriages, two carriages are Standard class, half of one carriage is Family (for families and lone women only) and the other half is Gold class. I bought a 30 riyal daily Gold class ticket and I was the only Gold passenger on every train I took. The station staff are so numerous and so bored that all you have to do is look slightly puzzled and you will have a crowd of polite yet smothering employees asking if they can help you.

I rode the entire length of the red line and back, and then went to the Museum of Islamic Art. A bus took me part of the way from Msherieb metro station and I walked the rest of the way along the Corniche, a waterfront boulevard and parkland that hugs Doha Bay. It was hard work. It is extremely hot and humid here. Today was 35 °C. I was expecting it to be hot, Qatar is desert, but I was not expecting humidity. I have never heard of a humid desert before. I don't understand how the air can have so much moisture but it never falls as rain. There is no vegetation in Qatar at all; the view of the countryside from the outskirts of Doha presents a bleak prospect of nothing but bleached sand stretching to the horizon.

I had a good view while I was walking. The new Doha city centre, West Bay, is on the other side of the bay. I have never seen a more impressive skyline. Not even Singapore comes close. A collection of dozens of super-tall skyscrapers clustered along the bayfront as if they were competing against one another to be the tallest and most ostentatiously extravagant. I fail to see how a country with a population of two million can generate such an amazing skyline. Brisbane has a population of two million but doesn't have a skyline one tenth as dense.

The hard walk in the torrid heat was worth it. The Emir of Qatar is a keen art collector and has put part of his collection from the Muslim world into a museum open to the public. The museum is housed in a large octagonal palace jutting out into Doha Bay with tinkling fountains inside and out. It was a majestic building for a majestic collection. Calligraphy, jewellery, ceramics, utensils, scientific instruments, some over a thousand years old and showing the most exquisitely intricate handiwork. You couldn't buy jewellery half as good at Angus & Coote nowadays.

White nationalists and some conservatives claim that Islam is an inherently backward religion incapable of innovation. Let them come to Doha. Islamic civilisation gave the world a wealth of scientific knowledge. Modern psychiatry, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry owe a great deal of debt to the Islamic Golden Age.

By the time I finished with the museum, it was almost time for me to check into my hotel. It wasn't that far, about three kilometres, and by the time I found a bus stop and waited for a bus I could have walked there. The heat and humidity toned down a bit in the early afternoon so I resolved to leg it.

I set off on my way. After about a kilometre I reached a construction site that was blocking the footpath. So I crossed the busy four-lane arterial road but the other footpath was also blocked by a construction site. The road was too busy to walk on, so I walked along the median strip, only to find that the median strip was also blocked by a construction site a few hundred metres down the road. So I had to double back along the median and find a detour. Every detour was also blocked by construction. I ended up taking twice the time I expected to get back to my hotel.

I checked into the hotel, rested for a while and got hungry so I decided to head out in the early evening to grab a bite to eat. It is curiously difficult to find a place to eat in Doha. I had imagined that due to the presence of hundreds of thousands of South Asian expatriates that there would be yummy biryani restaurants on every street corner. Perhaps those places do exist, but they were hidden away, because on my travels through Doha so far places to eat are conspicuous through their absence.

I didn't feel like paying fifty Australian dollars at my hotel's restaurant so I headed for West Bay, Doha's brand new central business district north of the old city centre. I got off the metro at DECC station and found myself in a forest of skyscrapers lit up in a discotheque of dancing colours. There were plenty of people around, and people need to eat, so I reasoned that there must be restaurants in the area. I saw a shopping mall across a major multi-lane highway with a restaurant on an upper floor, but there was simply no way to cross the road. No pedestrian crossing, no traffic lights, no subway, no footbridge.

I decided to follow all the other people to see where they were going. Many were crossing this side street that led to a car park entrance. They were walking through the car park into another shopping mall. The City Centre mall was doing a roaring trade, every shop was still open at 7pm on a Saturday and the place echoed with the plaintive cries of hundreds of babies and toddlers being pushed around in strollers. So this is how Qatari families spend their spare time. I am rapidly reaching the conclusion that Doha is Desert Singapore.

I ended up buying dinner from Arby's, an American fast food chain that specialises in roast beef rolls of astounding blandness, and for dessert I tried disgustingly cloying doughnuts from Tim Horton's, a famous Canadian chain that thankfully has not yet reached Australia.

I left the City Centre mall by another entrance and got lost. I found myself on streets where it was impossible to cross the road. Footpaths would end forcing me to return the way I came or walk on busy highways. A couple of times I had to walk on garden beds. It is obvious that the huge numers of highly paid town planners and civil engineers who designed West Bay never stopped to consider that people might need to walk two blocks and cross the roads while doing so. At least I got to admire all the dizzying colourdd lights on all the buildings while I attempted to find my way back to the metro station so I could have a well-deserved sleep in my hotel.

The Forbidden Sign at the airport

The Forbidden Sign at the airport


Gold class on Doha Metro

Gold class on Doha Metro

Train on the Doha Metro

Train on the Doha Metro

Museum of Islamic Art

Museum of Islamic Art

Arabic calligraphy at Museum of Islamic Art

Arabic calligraphy at Museum of Islamic Art

Mediaeval jewellery from Syria

Mediaeval jewellery from Syria

Battle standard with Arabic calligraphy

Battle standard with Arabic calligraphy

Doha skyline

Doha skyline

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

Posted by urbanreverie 02:10 Archived in Qatar Tagged metro public_transport museum qatar airways doha Comments (0)

How I learned to stop worrying and love the tuk-tuk


View Urban Reverie 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

Colombo, Sri Lanka
Friday, 1 February 2019

On previous overseas holidays, I have rushed around from place to place like a madman. On this holiday I intend to slow the pace a few notches on my locomotive throttle. So I spent much of the morning in my hotel room updating my blog and searching for accommodation a few destinations hence.

Whenever I travel I pack a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.3 that I bought in 2014 before my trip to Malaysia, Taiwan and Korea. To call this tablet a buggy, glitchy, crashy, laggy unadulterated piece of crap would be a charitable statement. Programs crash constantly, both web browsers freeze, the tablet refuses to charge when I plug it into the wall or my power brick, whenever I switch between apps it forgets everything I did in the first app so browser fields are cleared or unsaved edits are deleted, and the only reason why I bought this Samsung tablet was because it has an SD card slot that makes it easier to upload photos. But now that my camera screen is busted and I am just using my iPhone to take photos and videos, I don't even need the SD card slot anymore.

I had fallen behind on my blog and I was tired after yesterday's massive public transport adventure so I decided just to chill out and update my blog and book some hotels. But the Samsung Galaxy Tab refused to cooperate. I do believe the whole of Kollupitiya may have heard me scream sundry obscenities at the blasted thing. This stupid piece of dog poo is so bad that I am considering just using a pen and a notebook to record my adventures which I will type up when I get home.

In the end I gave up and went to search for brunch. As much as I love spice, I am still a Westerner and therefore my gastro-intestinal tract does need a break from time to time. There is a Burger King close at hand on the other side of Galle Road, a roaring, shadeless four-lane one-way traffic sewer where the stream of buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks is ceaseless. Galle Road has even less charm than Parramatta Road in Sydney, and that is saying something.

I eventually managed to cross the road by finding a clump of people also desiring to participate in the simple act of getting to the other side, and I crossed with them at a time when the traffic was thinner and consisted mostly of tuk-tuks that can go around everyone. I went into the Burger King and ordered my Whopper with cheese value meal with Pepsi for the drink.

"I'm sorry, we don't have Pepsi, only 7-Up and Mirinda," the girl at the counter said.

"But I see Pepsi on the post-mix machine there."

"Sorry, but we don't have it. Only 7-Up and Mirinda."

"OK then, I'll just have a Mirinda then."

"OK." And just as she was dispensing my cup of Mirinda, the customer at the cash register next to me ordered a Pepsi, and his server went to the post-mix machine and poured forth a gushing brown stream of delicious, caffeinated Pepsi into the other customer's cup. This kind of thing happens a lot in Sri Lanka. It feels as though nobody in this country is capable of giving a direct, honest answer or accurate advice about anything. Nothing, NOTHING, makes sense here.

After eating my brunch without the caffeine hit I so desperately needed, I took the plunge and did something I had promised myself I wouldn't do. I hailed a tuk-tuk. These things are basically motorbikes with two rear wheels and a boxy shell-like cover covering the driver and the passenger who sits on the rear seat. There are no seat belts and there are no railings to keep you inside the shell in the event of an accident. The tuk-tuk drivers are also absolutely fearless and reckless. These buzzing little fart machines swarm everywhere like mosquitoes with wheels, and any white person who walks along a road will soon encounter a tuk-tuk stopping every thirty seconds with the driver beckoning you to get on board.

The reason why I chose to take a tuk-tuk was because I was going to the National Museum, about half an hour's walk away. I am not averse to walking, but Colombo is hot and very, very humid. It isn't much worse than Sydney this time of year, if anything it is a litle bit more bearable here because the sunlight isn't so oppressively harsh, but it is still unplessant and sweaty to walk around in Colombo even in flat terrain. Also, finding maps and timetables for the bus system is impossible and I have no idea which buses will get me to the museum. So I hailed a tuk-tuk.

Oh my goodness, what a scary adventure. The tuk-tuk driver darted down the narrow interstices between moving buses, weaved at speed through throngs of pedestrians crossing the road both ways, and a thousand other things that in Australia would see his driver's license suspended for decades. I found that the world took on an ethereal dream-like quality, like I was watching a movie or imagining something that another person was talking to me about. Psychiatrists have a word for this experience - "derealisation", and it is apparently a common defence mechanism the brain produces when in traumatic life-threatening situations.

The tuk-tuk cost about Rs. 60 - about fifty Australian cents - and I disembarked only to find that the tuk-tuk driver had delivered me to the street behind the museum, not in front of it. It was still a good half a kilometre via a circuitous detour to get to the front of the National Museum.

At least there was plenty to look at. All along the road running behind the museum, Green Path, dozens of local artists had set up stalls selling their paintings. Some of it was talented stuff and I would have bought one or two of the paintings if it weren't for the practical troubles of how to get them home to Australia.

The National Museum is an imposing alabaster-white palace in Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo's most elite suburb full of spacious parks and embassies and important cultural institutions. I paid my Rs. 1,000 admittance and went into the cool, dark exhibition halls. The National Museum is concerned chiefly with Sri Lankan archaeology and the halls are full of statues, figurines, bas-reliefs, agricultural implements and shards of broken earthenware accompanied by dense, dry, earnest interpretative texts intelligible only to those few people who have written PhD theses in Oriental Studies. I found the texts incomprehensible being so unfortunate as to only have an Honours degree in surveying and mapping so I got rather bored.

There were some highlights though. Pride of place is taken by the Royal Throne of the Kingdom of Kandy, Sri Lanka's last indigenous kingdom. The Portuguese had only colonised the coastal areas, and when the Dutch kicked the Portuguese out they didn't expand too much into the interior, leaving the Kingdom of Kandy in the hilly inland regions largely intact. It was only after the Dutch were kicked out by the British during the Napoleonic Wars in 1796 that the Kingdom of Kandy was finally conquered by the Redcoats in 1815, subjugating the whole of Sri Lanka to European colonial rule for the first time.

The golden throne along with the Kandian crown and royal sceptre is reverently displayed in a glass cube. The throne was donated to the Kingdom of Kandy in the seventeenth century by the Dutch United East Indian Company in a spectacular act of diplomatic brown-nosing. It is still a wonderful sight.

I also enjoyed the working models of the irrigation systems developed by the Anuradhapura Kingdom in the first millennium AD. The Sri Lankans were world pioneers in irrigation, even today the countryside is dotted with dams called "tanks" built in the Anuradhapura period. Palaces, temples, cohesive bureaucracies, giant irrigation networks spanning the entire island - the Sri Lankans had an advanced civilisation at a time when my Britannic ancestors were presumably chewing on wooly mammoth bones in a freezing cave while communicating with each other using monosyllabic grunts.

After two hours at the National Museum I ambled past the modern Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa zThestre, an imposing entertainment venue shaped like a scalloped flying saucer, and then through Viharamahadevi Park, a large dusty park with patches of welcome shade under sprawling fig trees. There is a golden Buddha statue in the park opposite Colombo City Hall, a large white domed palace built in 1927 that could easily be relocsted tl Washington D.C. and not look out of place.

Another tuk-tuk ride with another episode of derealisation brought me to Fort, the historic commercial centre of Colombo that dates to the Portuguese era. There are many stately Edwardian buildings dating from the British era in the early twentieth century; department stores, shipping offices and the faded grandeur of the Grand Oriental Hotel. This place must have been amazing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Ceylon, with its commanding position off the southern tip of India, was the linchpin of the British Empire. All shipping routes and submarine telegraph cables connecting Britain with its Pacific and Far Eastern possessions passed through Colombo. Generations of immigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia passed through Colombo.

The southern portion of Fort has less historic buildings and more modern architecture such as the striking Bank of Ceylon tower, a soaring white cylinder. I headed west to the Galle Buck Lighthouse which at a distance looks like an ancient stone beacon but in reality is a cement aggregate tower built in 1950. I climbed the small knoll up to the base of the lighthouse which is soon going to be pretty useless as it is now stranded inland by a gargantuan land reclamation project currently underway. When it is finished, Colombo will be extended several kilometres seaward.

All that walking made me a little exhausted and sweaty. I went to the Dutch Hospital, built as a healthcare facility for Dutch colonists in the seventeenth century but now a restaurant and entertainment complex oriented towards tourists. Its courtyards and colonnades were full of Western tourists enjoying themselves and I joined them. I grabbed a pizza and a few Lion beers at a sports bar with satisfyingly frigid air conditioning. The icy air was delivered through small vents in the floor that looked like bath drains. I pulled up a seat at the bar, strategically placed the seat adjacent to one of the vents so that the cold blast went right up my shirt, and enjoed a few restorative brews while watching Qatar cream Japan in the Asian Cup football final. Beer snobs might look down on pale light lagers - I should know, I am a beer snob much to the disgust of my late father - but let me tell you that such lagers like Lion are made hand-in-glove for countries with humid tropical climates and spicy food.

A few hours later and I tumbled out into the stifling evening air and into the warm embrace of a waiting tuk-tuk.

Posted by urbanreverie 08:04 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged parks architecture beer fort museum sri_lanka colombo tuk-tuks Comments (0)

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