Our experience of a ferry across the Caspian Sea

This is a description of our ferry crossing over the Caspian Sea from Baku to Aktau with the Beaut. We got into Baku at 10:30am on Sunday 13th September. We drove to the new port (on sat nav using NavFree open source maps). It is also exactly as described on caravanistan – on the road to the airport, past the red balconied supermarket on the left, past automarine on the right then turn first right.
At the end of the road there is an ATM on the right and a building with a grey metal door and some guards in front of a gate with anchors on. We got let through to customs (gomruk) which was round the back of the white building on the right, second door, where we met Saeed (with gold teeth). Very helpful and friendly despite us waking him up although he speaks no English. After about half an hour in his office he photocopied our documents and scanned the barcode on the customs form, and allowed us to bring the vehicle through the gates where we could leave it (overnight if needed). He rang Vika for us, and even drove us in his car to the old port (where Vika was) so we could talk to her ($10). Contact was made with Vika and she said to ring at 12 when she would know more info about the ferry, but she said that the ferry went “maybe today, 100% tmrw”. Rang her back and she said to ring tomorrow at 12.

Day 2:We rang Vika at 12, she said there was a ferry in port and she would ring us when she knew more info. She rang us at 3pm and asked us to come to her office in the old port to buy the tickets. Bought the tickets ($970 for 4 people and a 5m vehicle) and we told that the ferry would be leaving the next day (boarding time between 2-3pm) and we would be boarding in Alat. Interestingly, she also said that in recent months there had been a lot less frequent ferries to Aktau due to less NATO cargo being transported and they now normally only left every 7-10 days.

We drove to Alat where we spent the night in the huge empty new port, just camped in front of customs.

Day 3: 15:00 – Ferry steamed into sight and eventually we were called through the border posts (ironically which we’d already been regularly crossing to use their toilet, which was excellent!). Customs check and payment of bridging fee (10 Manat) followed before we drove on (after the trains had driven on!) at about 18:00. Ferry departed approx 21:00.

Day 4: Managed to get 2x 2 person cabins, both of which were basic but functional. The shower was of dubious quality but usually gave hot water. Toilet had a flush and was cleaner than it could have been! We cooked our own food outside on the top deck as they had tried to charge a Swiss couple who were also on board $20 for some chicken and potatoes the night before.

Day 5: Aktau! Anchored outside the port at about 0700 where we waited about half an hour before heading in where we docked at 08:30. Customs officials and border control then came on board. We sat in a waiting room on board whilst they searched the boat and (I’m assuming) checked some paperwork. We then had our passports stamped and we let off the boat – leaving the Beaut on board. Kat was still the driver as it was her name on the Bill of Loading, so she went back to get the vehicle after we’d had our passports checked by someone else. The next hour passed whilst she was shunted between official and official, trying to obtain the elusive stamp needed, whilst no-one spoke any English. Eventually we were reunited, with the Beaut depressingly within sight on the other side of the chain-link fence, and we worked out that the official we needed had just gone on their lunch break (12:30-13:30). Their return didn’t really speed things up however, as they were experts at the art of ignoring, and their photocopier was poor (and now jammed- thanks Jon!). We paid 4,300 tenge to get the vehicle released from customs and at 16:00 we were free! A long process that admittedly might have been easier if we spoke Russian.

Azerbaijan- A lesson on making assumptions

This is just a little bit about the fun we had in Azerbaijan, for a much more detailed overview of getting a ferry across the Caspian, see Tom’s blog post.

We entered Azerbaijan with, it’s fair to say, a slight sense of dread. This was the start of the unknown, of the logistical difficulties, of the tales of corruption and woe associated with a dodgy police force. We were bid farewell by this Georgian sign.

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Ominous

All this, was assumption. And assumption proved to be wrong in every way. The landscape was glorious, not barren. Baku is truely the pearl of the Caspian, with architecture and infrastructure worthy of the name. The people were truly friendly and helpful. We had no difficulty with any police or border guards (although we did spend our one camping night essentially under a underpass on the motorway, hiding from a police car which periodically drove past and hooted us in the middle of the night).

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A typical Baku scene

Logistically, the ferry business was challenging but fun and interesting at the same time. See the post by Tom for much more detailed info…

We found ourselves at the new port to start with and were ushered in to see the Customs Don (the word officer doesn’t do Said justice). He spoke no English but offered us tea, biscuits and sweets whilst he erroneously checked the Beaut though customs. He had a quick dance with the girls and spent the afternoon driving us (10 dollars each way, it turned out) to and from the Old port to try and find out about tickets for the ferry (Bilyet Parum – a useful phrase). We found the number for the ticket office, a very helpful lady called Vika and spent the next few days calling her once every hour or so.

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The indomitable Said

Another phrase you will hear repeated is “Not Today, I will call you”. Please do believe Vika when she says she will call you, it just maybe a few days after you speak to her. Essentially, the ferry to Aktau goes every 7 to 10 days dependent on how much freight there is.
With some time to kill awaiting the ferry, we thought we’d have a crack at changing the exhaust. We assumed this would be easy – again an assumption! We did this in the relative seclusion and quiet of the new port, behind the large government building. Generally speaking it was a huge success, we got the old one off with judicious use of loose juice and persistence. Then came the tricky bit, putting the new one on. We had, of course, offered the new one up prior to getting the old one off. It looked like all the correct mounting bits were there on the right hand side of the chassis as well as the left (the new exhaust tail pipe pokes out of the car on the right hand side, the old on the left). However what we understimated was the height off the ground required to successfully and forcefuly shnurttle (technical term) the new one around the (most cursed) anti roll bar and rear diff. This was, and I’m sorry to use such language, a unmitigated ball-ache. However, we got it on and it put an end to the gassing of the rear occupants of the Beaut.

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Tom exercising his spatial awareness

Finally we got the call and headed to the ticket office in the old port. Vika was there and we paid our dues and got our (phenomenally expensive) tickets. She noticed that we had already been checked out of customs, so promptly called up Said and shouted at him. He then stormed up in his Lada at a million miles an hour to defend himself infront of his boss with protestations of “But I gave them Chai!” In Azeri. All being eventually well we were sent on our way to Alat with vague assurances that it would be ok.

Contrary to our assumptions, it was.

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The good ship Akedemik Hesen Alyiev

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The beaut looking oddly small

Jon

Georgia- Part 2: Mountains, Exhaust(ion) and Cha Cha

Georgia was a complete delight in every way imaginable. It will be very difficult to give a full account of what we did and where we went in one post, so we’ve split it into two. For myself, I expected Georgia to be the start of the unknown – a gentle introduction to adventure – and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Part one had us visiting the Black Sea resort of Batumi (although sadly not its Dolphinarium…), the second city of Kutaisi (and it’s great Kebabary). We pick up our tale on the road to Kazbegi with some time on our hands, having decided that our exhaust was a gnats whisker from falling off and gassing us terminally, whilst we waited for a new exhaust to turn up in Tblisi. We had thought about what to do with our time and decided that the Georgian Military Highway needed driving. This glorious Soviet road takes one from the outskirts of Tblisi to Kazbegi in the Great Caucusus. The road was bumpy and slow, but took us through some wonderful scenery, with one of my favourite camping spots so far. Kazbegi was stunning, a small town at the base of a classic alpine peak (not unlike the Matterhorn in appearance) but with the added appeal of the church of Tsminda Sameba perched high above the town, on a shoulder of the range. We found a small cafe and increased the Kachapuri Count (by now somewhere in the high teens) and pondered how to spend our time.

We camped above the town, thinking we might be able to drive the beaut up to the church. As we started on the track we were perplexed by every 4 x 4 taxi in the world hooting and gesticulating at us. We soon discovered why. The road was a nightmare and our first experience of having to use low range: I’m pretty sure we nearly rolled her. As it was we stopped half way up at a little car park and made camp. We headed up to the church in the early evening and I must say we were suitably impressed. The church is small and perfectly formed, and against the backdrop of these stunning mountains it is a truely special place.

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Not a bad drop of church…

After an eventful evening involving a friendly drunk who gave us a very large bottle of the local brew, then came back to give some of us a gentle grope, we went to bed a prepared for the ascent of Mount Kazbegi. Well, sort of ascent, we resolved to walk most of the way up this behemoth on a moderately taxing track to the glacier. It’s safe to say we all felt that our fitness had been somewhat hampered by a month in a metal box, the walk was moderately more challenging than I’d anticipated.

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Smiles mask the pain

We got to the col before the glacier and split up, myself and Cobes decided to attempt to get to 3000m and the base of the glacier. We crossed a small river (Coby:1 Rivers:0) and struck up the hill. We got to the glacier and had a little glacier selfie, then headed back down to one of the most navigationly perplexing decents ever.

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Leaving the mountains behind we headed back down the military highway (passing and ogling at Georgia’s best Ski Resort) and arrived promptly in Tblisi. We had arranged for the exhaust to be delivered to the Why Not? self proclaimed “legend hostel”, so checked in and stayed the night. The hostel was very friendly and cosy, if somwhat like a sauna. We got taken out to a great traditional Georgian restaurant by a chap called Quentin who, very helpfully, seemed to be some kind of Linguistic Jedi. We decided to move to different hostels after this, and await the exhaust by spending a few days chilling in the gloriousness that is Tblisi. Cue excessive quantities of wine, shashlik and cheesy bread (Katachpuri count now in the low hundreds). All that can be said for Tblisi is simply; Go there. It’s a friendly, exciting and relaxing place to be and its variety of things to do is very representative of Georgia on the whole. We went to old Castles, outdoor art galleries, and rode a roller coaster whilst Tom and Kat investigated the wine region around Telavi and had one of their favourite meals of the trip. We also saw the open air museum of ethnology, which contained houses and artefacts from every region of Georgia- including a working wine making set up with vinyard, press and associated paraphernalia. It really is an amazing place and has a great restaurant close by at the top of the hill.

N.b. On Georgian Wine: Try the Saperavi, the drier the better, it’s fabulous.

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We picked up our exhaust after only really waiting five days for it, found that it was different from the one we had already, and lobbed it into the back of the car endeavouring to forget about it until we had time to fit it. On leaving Tblisi we all had mixed feelings of apprehension for Azerbaijan and sadness that we had to finish what had become a real holiday for us. However, Georgia wasn’t done with us quite yet. On the last night in country we parked up outside a farm close to the border. Out came Ellio and Nellie, who greeted us with mild confusion turning quickly into a hospitality of such warmth that it left us stunned, and savagely hungover. They insisted that we have some of their home made bread and cheese, but that it be washed down with their equally home made Cha Cha (Georgian Grappa). This stuff is deadly, especially as Ellio poured “shots” of it that, to my addled memory, seemed to be about equal to a glass of wine. The net result was that Tom and I were distinctly and definitely drunk when the mother of all thunderstorms hit the car in the middle of the night. The violence of this cannot be understated- it blew the tent poles out of place and myself and Coby spent a short while convinced of our impending grizzly end. Turns out we were fine but it did take some days to dry out the deck shoes… In all we were very impressed with the robustness of our roof tent, as we spent the next few hours dodging fallen trees and power lines on the road to the Azeri border.

Jon

Georgia Part 1

Georgia Part 2

Batumi – Beaches, beer and botanical gardens

The guide book suggested that the Georgia border crossing would be our first real test. We would be searched, our medications would be confiscated and both men and women would need to dress conservatively. We were not searched, no mention was made of medication and our first glimse of Georgia showed long stretches of beach with many gentlemen in budgie smugglers.

Our entry to Batumi (a very upmarket Blackpool) was made on empty stomachs, and four hangry people looking for a hostel that doesn’t exist proved challenging. A few somewhat stressed hours later we found the Hoek of Holland hostel and the wine cellar next door…….

Tuesday morning began with much ringing of land rover garages and land rover part maufacturers in an attempt to find a new silencer. (We had been gassed by our broken silencer for the last few days). Once a part was ordered from the UK we started to explore Batumi. Feeling insipred by a French couple we met in our hostel who had cycled from the Alps, Jon and I hired bikes and cycled 9 km to the Botanical Gardens. We were forced to leave our bikes with a chap at the gate who had an eagle on his shoulder. We waved goodbye to the bikes, very thankful we had payed no deposit for them and expected a long walk home. The gardens were separated into 9 or more phyto-geographical departments. The most stunning were the Japanese, with a beautiful water garden, and the elegant Bamboo Forest. The most spectacular aspect of the park however was the location – positioned high on a sheer cliff above the Black Sea we were able to gaze out at the calm water and Batumi in the distance. A couple of hours later we returned to the chap and his eagle, collected our bikes (felt very ashamed at our lack of faith) and negotiated the busy duel carriage way back to the centre of town. Batumi has everything you could hope for in a seaside resort. Long beaches, (stone, not sand) many places to sample the insanely cheap beer, and a charming mix of beautifully maintained 19th Century buildings and wacky modern structures. We settled ourselves on the pier to watch the sun go down. Multiple pints of Kazbegi beer, our first taste of Katchipuri (bread, pizza sized, filled with cheese) and some truly classic tunes blaring out made for a magical evening.

Kutaisi and the Doner Hatch

I shall keep this brief and uncultured. We saw the Bagrati Cathedral (beautifully reconstructed) and the Sataplia Nature Reserve (dinosaur footprints, Sataplia Caves and Panoramic view point). We stayed at the Sun Hostel (the true meaning of a friendly family run business). We ate at the Doner Hatch. We ate at the Doner Hatch 4 times in 1 and a half days. We tried every version of fast food the smiling Mr Doner Hatch man provided. It was excellent.

Lots of dirty Doner love

Coby Xx

Cappadocia

Having slowed things down appreciably from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul by stopping in the glorious Safranbolu, we eventually arrived in the region of Cappadocia, which seemed to have acquired near mystical status with us over the last few days from conversations with other tourists and locals alike.

We drove in from the north via Ankara, or more properly, via Ankaras massive ring road. We knew that  wild camping was a no no in this area (national park…) so we aimed for one of two campsites in what seemed to be the hub of things round here, Goreme (a small village near Nevshehir). The camp site we found blew us away, after our slightly cramped experiences in Italy and Montenegro this place had it all: space, laundry, good showers, kitchen, a pool and, (most astonishingly of all) the best view I think I’ve ever seen form a campsite.So having found a little piece of camping nirvana the boys set to work making the most of it, by getting greasy and swearing at the Landrover for three hours.

The following day we decided to explore this wonderous locale and headed for the Goreme Open Air museum, literally just down the road. We were greete with a vista that can only be described as somewhere  between a folk tale and that planet what Luke was born on in Star Wars. For the last three thousand years various peoples have been carving a their homes, workplaces and churches from the soft volcanic rock which nature has formed into some of the strangest formations imaginable. The open air museum is a great example of this, a small steep valley in which appear towers of rock tapered by the winds of millennia. These towers are known as Fairy Chimmneys and range in size from small ( a one window home) to large ( a fully fledged nunnery)…

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The museum of Goreme was principally a monastic complex, created as a refuge during various times of difficulty for the Christian population of Asia Minor, before and after Byzantium. The murals within the various chapels are truly stunning although most of the pictures of important religious folk seem to have had their faces scratched off.

After the museum we explored the town and decided to make our way, with much sweating and difficulty, to the famous Pidgeon Valley. This winding, steep and lush valley leads to the next village up the road and proved to be a proper adventure. With silly hats firmly on our heads we spent a wonderful few hours playing Indiana jones, trying to scale the vertical sides of the valley to enter the small windows in the rock face, denoting a veritable  city cut into the Rock.

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Sadly it was all to no avail and we had to make fairly quick progress of the return journey to make our booking at the Top Deck Restaurant that evening. After a cracking meze we headed back to camp, only to awake the next morning to this…

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After the quite serenity of early morning hot air balloons we hit the road and set about on a mission to find the magnificent and highly humorous rock formations of Love Valley. Our mission accomplished, we proceeded to giggle inanely for a good hour or so. Words can’t really describe this, so I shall leave it to a picture:

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All in all, Cappadocia was one of the most marvellous places I think I’ve seen.

Jon

Crossing the Bosphorous

We crossed the Bosphorous at 1400 hrs on the 22nd of august – we had made it to Asia! Woooooop! Having heard horror stories about driving in Istanbul we parked the beaut at sabia goken havanalani (Turkeys equivalent of luton) and crossed back to Europe entering Istanbul as one should – via boat. It’s difficult to describe the magnificent of the first sighting of the Istanbul and the surreal feeling of crossing between two continents within the same city. This can only be said for the three of us, Jon was too busy staring through the camera lense – filthy finger twitcher.
At the dock, the couples divideed. What follows is the account of Jon and Coby:

Saturday Evening:

16.00: arrive at rapunzele hostel, breath a sigh of relief that it’s not a rundown half build Algeria ruin (in an attempt to save money we Googled “budget hostel Istanbul” and accepted the first room offered to us)

19.00: invited up to the hostels roof terrace for drinks, gorgeous canapés and antipodean company.

20.30: arrive for our 20.00 booking at the local British Prison (Galata House)for some stunning Georgian cuisine and stimulating political conversation with the owner.

22.30: wondered around the neighbourhood to marvel at the Galata Tower and understand why our hostel has its name. It’s like something out of a fairy tale. Jon finger twitches.

23.30: collapse into bed, vowing to take it slow for the next few days

Sunday

0700: up for a cheeky run to Taksim Square. Realise how much fitness we’ve lost as we die on the cobbled hills

0715: stagger into hostel, tail between our legs

0900: hearty breakfast and cracking conversation with Nik and Michelle – thank you for all the recommendations, Top Deck was amazing!

10.00: watch the rain come down, hard. Dither for an hour before heading out armed with brollies.

11.00: make a bee line for Hagia Sophia, opinion is divided! Though both love the viking graffiti – “Halvdan was here c970” Jon finger twitches.

13.00: visited the Blue Mosque, distinctly more impressed with the decor. Appreciated a deeper sense of spirituality. Jon finger twitches. Coby gently requests for some camera battery to be saved for the Grand Bazaar on Monday.

15.00: explored the Bascillica Cisterns, built by the Romans, blown away. Nice Medusa heads. Jon finger twitches hard. Camera runs out of battery. Coby doesn’t speak to Jon for 10 minutes.

17.00: Pootle back towards our hostel,via free watermelon from a hopeful restauranteur. Have an afternoon nap.

20.00: dinner at Karakoy Lokantasi ordered meze – marinated fish, salted fish, grilled calamari and veal brain. Jon surprised when veal brain look like veal brain. Jon gets a bit squeamish. Coby smears the veal brains on bread – like a bovine Hannibal Lector. Chianti replaced with Effes.

23.00: bottle of champagne enjoyed on the Hostel roof terrace, Baclava count: Jon 1, Coby 3, Budget: blown.

Monday

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0900: hearty breakfast and swift check out (would like to take this opportunity to say how wonderful the Rapunsel Hostel is, the staff are so friendly and helpful and the place has a real homespun feel as it it run by 4 friends. Thank You, thank you, thank you!)

10.00: Topkapi Palace, amazing building, beautiful artifacts, iron sword claimed to be bronze age. slightly dubious stick (4 thousand years old, really). Top tip: visit the Harem Appartments.

13.00: arrive for 1230 appointment with Tom and Kat. Genders divide.

1400-1700 Gentlemen

Jon and Tom are shaved – Turkish style. (Inclusive of ear abuse, seriously, is the boiling hot wax really necessary? Will their ears grown back hairier?) Search for chess set successful.

1400-1700 Ladies

Visit the Grand Bazaar, stayed for 10 manic minutes before heading to the Arasta Bazaar ( a condensed version of the Grand Bazaar , perfect for the indecisive jewellery hunter. Flirted our way to a significant discount off a beautiful silver ring and bracelet. Contemplate adding an extra seat to the beaut to take our hunky jeweller with us. Wonder around the spice and pet market, medicinal leaches anyone?

1800-2200 genders reconvene for beer, then separate for more shopping/food. Ladies buy crazy travelling trousers. Gentlemen burn down restaurant (Chip pan fire, 6 minute response from Turkish fire brigade, 4 fire engines needed) We blame Tom’s Dolmas. Despite attempting to pay grief strike owner boys get free meal.

2300: Boat back to Asia. We were treated to a turkish taxi ride back to the airport. We clung to the doors, seats and each other as he hurtled down the motor way. Tom calmy pointed out that our driver had not strayed above 70 miles an hour. Happily we found our beaut where we had left her, fully intact and starting first time on the key!

0000: We headed out of Istanbul to a truck stop, were we enjoyed a sleepless night of dropped tire irons, head lights and 18 wheelers coming in for a spoon.

Coby and Jon

Gallipoli

Having based ourselves at Boomerang Bar for a couple of nights, we spent a day exploring the Gallipoli Peninsular, with the obvious focus of its particularly bloody history.

Strategically vital throughout history, the 60km long and 18km wide narrow peninsular forms the northwest side of the Dardanelles, which links the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. It was particularly important during the First World War, forming part of the Ottoman Empire. Allied control of the Dardanelles would allow them to attack the Ottoman Empire from the south, hence opening up a new front, and relieving pressure on the Western Front where the Allies were very much on the defensive. Additionally, it would allow an all year round shipping lane through which aid could be given to the struggling Russian Empire. After two failed attempts to force the straights open by naval bombardment, the Allies landed troops on the peninsular on April 25th 1915. First, ANZAC troops landed at Kabatepe beach (now renamed ANZAC cove), followed by British, French on the southern tip of the peninsular, and an additional New Zealand force later in the day.

Being based in Eceabat, we started the day by looking at the reconstructed trench system showing the closeness of the battlefield, as in some sections of the front lines, the trenches were only 8m apart. This was accompanied by a memorial depicting the heroism of the Turkish gunners, and their supposed chivalry in helping wounded Allied soldiers.

The village of Kilitbahir is a short drive down the coast from Eceabat and is the site of two major historical interests. The first is a huge 15th Century castle, and the second is a major network of artillery bunkers and shore battery gun emplacements, used up until the 1960s, but most notably as part of the Ottoman defence system against the Allied fleet in 1915.

On the southern tip of the peninsular where the British landed, is the huge Cape Helles Memorial, which pays tribute to the 264,000 British (including a significant contingent of Indian and Gurkha troops), who either have no known resting point, or who lost their lives at sea. Inscribed on its white walls are also the names of the numerous Allied Naval vessels sunk in these waters during the war.

We were particularly struck by the difference in feel between the Allied and the Turkish cemeteries that we visited. The Turkish cemeteries seemed to be much more of a celebration of their dead rather than a memorial, with huge Turkish flags flying, and inscriptions and statues depicting the courage shown by the ‘outgunned valiant Turkish troops as they fought of the Allied invaders’. The battles on the Gallipoli Peninsular are portrayed (arguably correctly) as the final successful defence of the ailing Ottoman Empire, and the birth of ‘modern’ Turkey.

Our final stop was at Anzac cove, where there is a memorial right on the coast where the ANZAC troops landed on April 25th (now known as ANZAC day – which has as much significance as our Armistice Day). You can clearly still see the key features of the battlefield such as the ‘Sphinx’, ‘Dead-man’s Ridge’ and ‘Shrapnel Alley’.

The coastline is beautiful, and the sea inviting, so true to form, we jumped in a respectful few kilometres away from ANZAC cove. Giant skimming stones were found (most effective technique was as if throwing a discus), before we returned to Boomerang Bar for some minor mechanics and Coby’s stuffed peppers.

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