Iran; ancient cities and Persian powder

After all my travels there is one obvious region I haven’t visited; the Middle East. One country in this region stands out in terms of variety it has to offer. The Silk Road and Islamic buildings offer some impressive architecture. Multiple deserts and mountains identify its landscape and make for interesting excursions. And, finally, the Trans Asia Express train ride offers a great alternative for the much more touristy Trans Siberia Express. This country of course is Iran.

In order to explain why I wanted to visit Iran, more than just to have an insight in daily life in the Middle East and to find out about the huge contrast between the image created in the media and the true image of the country, it’s best to quote Andreas Fransson, one of the leading big mountain skiers in the world, based out of Chamonix:

“For a project to become a real adventure it has to have some amount of uncertainty. If I know I will succeed from the start, it will be a mechanical venture. It can be awesomely amazing anyway, but I will not sense the thrill of adventure that only comes when I don’t know how a venture will end. It doesn’t have to be big and risky though. It could be a local ski in Chamonix when I don’t really know the snow conditions or it could be hitchhiking to London. The uncertainty is the spice that brings rock ‘n roll to any action.”

Traveling around in South East Asia and even in South America has become really easy. Many tourists have gone there before, many guidebooks are available, accommodation and activities can be arranged online. In a way it becomes a mechanical venture to use Andreas Fransson’s words. To add some amount of uncertainty to my travels I had to visit a less traveled country. Iran would hopefully bring some rock ‘n roll to my trip around the world!

My rock ‘n roll started in Tehran or actually back in Kashmir, in February 2013, where I met Gary and Annette, an Australian couple. They went to Iran afterwards where they met a local, named Pouya. He showed them around and they put me in contact with him as soon as they found out about my plans to travel to the Islamic country of Iran. One email later Pouya offered to pick me up from the airport and to stay at his place in town. Completely new to this kind of hospitality, I was a bit hesitant at first. However, since the Aussies were positive, I decided to give it a go. After a great flight from Istanbul and an easy routine at immigration, Pouya was there to pick me up. Still a bit uncertain about the situation, I asked him why he did all this for someone he didn’t know, his answer: “Since traveling to Iran, especially in the current situation, is not so easy I want you to have a good time.” Less than two hours later we were having tea in his parents’ apartment where I would stay the next couple of days. He took care of me like I was his best friend!

My plan in Iran was to start with a couple of days in the capital before heading to the mountains to get my skilegs going once again. Next, I planned to explore some culture by visiting the central part of the country where a lot of historic sights are located. The final stage of the trip should be the Trans Asia Express, or the “Train of hope” as it is referred to. A warning, this post is quite extensive simply because there is too much to tell…

the Grand Bazaar is a bustling place in the center of Tehran

the Grand Bazaar is a bustling place in the center of Tehran

In the capital city Pouya and I explored the Grand Bazaar together before having a traditional lunch. The Bazaar is an indoor market as you can find in many countries. However, there is one big difference: in other countries these markets are mainly catered towards tourists where shopowners can be quite aggressive, here I didn’t see another tourist and shopowners were remarkably relaxed. Keep in mind that the Bazaar is one of the main tourist attractions of the city…

Lunch was spent in a local place in the center of town, named Tilit. They only served “Dizy”, a traditional stew with a couple of side dishes. After a nice meal, Pouya had to leave for some appointments and I visited the Golestan Palace. I took a great motorbike-taxi through the rather chaotic center to Imam Khomeini square where the palace is roughly located. Once inside the palace, I seemed to be just as interesting as the palace itself. Everybody wanted to know where I was from and why I was visiting Iran. Next, they all asked me to please spread the message that Iran is a great country to visit instead of the message spread by the media. Many people invited me for dinner and one girl, joined by her father, almost proposed! A planned one hour visit turned into a couple of hours…

After visiting some sights in the South, I checked out the Northern area of Tehran the next day. There is a big difference between the two parts. The South is more hectic and old-fashioned with relatively traditional and poor people who follow the guidelines pointed out by Islam whereas the North is much more developed and modern with the middle / upper class who are religious only by law and seem to have access to most things forbidden by the Quran. A popular spot in the North is Tajrish square. Adjacent to a small bazaar, one will find a beautiful mosque, the Saleb Holy Shrine. The Friday prayer, according to some locals just a show directed by the government, was in full swing and many people were having a picnic at the square outside. I could walk around being completely ignored, great. After visiting the Saadabad Palace it was time to head to the mountains. The ski resort of Dizin would be my home for the next 6 days…

the Saleb Holy Shrine in the North of Tehran

the Saleb Holy Shrine in the North of Tehran

The weekend in Iran is on Thursday and Friday and especially Friday is a really busy day in Dizin. Therefore the government has decided to turn the road from Dizin to Tehran into one-way traffic providing the big crowd a comfortable return to their homes after a long day on the slopes. Since I decided to travel to Dizin on a Friday evening (to optimize my time on the weekdays…), I faced the closure of the road. The first taxi brought me to a restaurant in Karaj where I had to wait for five hours for the road to open…at midnight!

After eating a kabab (yes, this meal is written with two a’s in Iran), editing photos and watching The Big Bang Theory on my laptop and sitting around with my ski equipment in a traditional restaurant where Farsi was the only language spoken, I finally met my second taxi driver. In the middle of the night we started the journey to the snow, but only after I got beaten in a game of Fifa on the playstation (Iran – Holland 5-0…). At 3 am I checked in at the Hotel Dizin 2. The resort consists of two hotels, guess what the name of the other hotel is…

The first morning I was still exhausted from the day before and therefore decided not to ski. In my hotel the only foreigners were from the Ukraine, they had timed it right to escape the country. However, their English was as good as my Ukrainian which made communicating a bit difficult. In the other hotel, the only foreigner was an Italian guy who seemed to be there to manage an upcoming race event. So, I decided to ski on my own. The conditions were pretty bad but I decided to make the most of it for a day or two…

After exploring some off-piste, I suddenly met a group of five very nice Austrians who had just arrived. We skied the final run together before calling it a day. The next morning I had no idea it had snowed overnight but when we, the Austrians and myself, went up with the gondola, it soon became clear Dizin had transformed into a potential paradise. We hiked up to the peak in order to ski all the way to Darbandsar, another ski resort located in the next valley. A huge area with untouched powder snow was our playground for the days to come. I directly realized I had to extend my stay with at least a couple of days…

endless untouched Persian powder...

endless untouched Persian powder…

Once in Darbandsar, a taxi would drive us back to Dizin. Skis through the windows, loud music, a crazy driver and excited skiers turned every ride into a fun adventure. Since we were almost the only foreigners and locals don’t venture off-piste, our tracks were the only ones, even after days. For three days in a row, we started the day by skiing to Darbandsar where we were greeted by the owner of the restaurant!

The second day we all noticed a peak in the distance that simply begged to be skied. We all agreed that Tuesday would be a good day to attempt a climb and ski from the summit. We started with another beautiful descent to Darbandsar and took a taxi to Shemshak, another nearby located ski resort. There we took an old chairlift to the top where we started to hike. After about 30 minutes hiking, we attached the skins to our skis and splitboard to start the ascent of Abak peak (3610 m). A couple of hours later we reached the summit one by one. We were all very excited as we were very well aware of what was about to come, yet another long descent in untouched Persian powder snow!

Once we had all made our second signature (a ski run in fresh snow without crossing any other track) of the day, time had come to go back. All satisfied but very hungry after the exercise, we paid a visit to restaurant Couple in Shemshak for a delicious treat. Around 6 pm a taxi delivered us at the top of Dizin where we skied down in the twilight. What a day…

on the summit of Abak peak (3610 m)

on the summit of Abak peak (3610 m)

The skiing had been great so far but I still had one specific run in my mind. From the parking near the hotel, I had spotted a great line on the first day. I simply had to check it out before leaving the mountains. The following day started with the usual routine; 8 am breakfast followed by one of the first gondolas up to the top to ski all the way to Darbandsar in powder snow. Once the taxi had brought us back, I decided to go for the line I had spotted. A 30-minute hike was required to reach the top of Pey Kamar. A traverse on the ridge led me to the start of the run, a very playful chute with Dizin in the background. I guess the run was about 35 degrees with great snow almost all the way down. A great way to finish my skiing in Dizin. Thanks to the Austrians the skiing in Iran turned into a great adventure. On my way back to Tehran I got a ride from former Olympic athlete Akbar Kalili, he finished 58th on the downhill in Innsbruck in 1976. He’s a very proud and friendly man and loves to talk about his adventures back in the days, preferably in French. It was the perfect ending to the skiing.

Now the skiing was over, I started my cultural journey by exploring the central part of Iran. Esfahan and Shiraz offer a lot of history whereas Yazd, being located in the desert, has some very interesting architecture as well. On the way back, a visit to the mountainous village of Abyaneh would give some insight in old customs and traditions. Having left my skis behind in Tehran (thanks Pouya!), I started the journey by taking a 7 hour VIP (very important passenger…) bus to Esfahan. Esfahan is the third largest city of Iran and used to be the Persian capital. The city was once one of the largest cities in the world and flourished particularly in the 16th century. Nowadays Tehran has a population of over 8 million whereas Esfahan houses nearly 2 million people. Things have changed over the years…

the Imam Mosque on the Naqsh-e Jahan square by night

the Imam Mosque on the Naqsh-e Jahan square by night

However, the city still retains much of its past glory. It is famous for its Islamic architecture, with many beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques, and minarets. This led to the saying “Esfahan is half of the world”. In the center of the city one will find the Naqsh-e Jahan square, one of the largest squares in the world. It is designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Site. The square is surrounded by two mosques, a private and a public one, a bazaar and a palace. This way Shah Abbas, the greatest ruler of the Safavid era (one of the most significant ruling dynasties) had the three main components of power in his own backyard; the power of the clergy, represented by the public Imam Mosque, the power of the merchants, represented by the Imperial Bazaar, and of course, the power of the Shah himself, residing in the Palace. The first day I visited the Imam Mosque in the afternoon and I returned that same evening to check out the square in the dark.

The next day I went to the other side of the river, to Jolfa, the Armenian quarter. When thinking about Iran, churches might not be top of mind but because of many Armenian immigrants the country definitely has a few. In Esfahan there is actually a real beauty, the Vank church. Interesting architecture, a combination of European, Armenian and Iranian style created a special church with mosaic tiles and paintings all over the place. The Armenian quarter is a relaxed area to walk around. I was the only Western foreigner but people completely ignored me. On the other side of the river, around the earlier mentioned square, this is different. Especially young people, both women and men, don’t seem to know how to behave towards Western tourists. Their staring and giggling start as fun but, after a while, soon end up to become quite annoying. The older generation has seen Western tourists before the revolution in 1979, for the younger ones it’s still a novelty…

the Vank church in the Armenian quarter (Jolfa) in Esfahan

the Vank church in the Armenian quarter (Jolfa) in Esfahan

Time to leave the city and try a new destination. I took another VIP bus, this time to the city of Shiraz. The bus was full this time and amongst the passengers was an Australian couple traveling with their ten-year-old son Joseph. He was a future intellectual being interested in ancient history at his age. During the lunch break he made a very fitting comment by saying it would be nice if we spoke Farsi. He simply referred to the movie just shown in the bus he wanted to understand but of course, with the locals being so curious and interested in foreigners, the experience of traveling in Iran would be much richer with better communication. I finished yet another kabab and a couple of hours later I arrived in the fifth city of Iran, in terms of population that is.

Shiraz is a famous city in many ways. It’s known for literature, wine (yes, this is where the famous wine originates from) and gardens. It used to be the Persian capital halfway the 18th century and nowadays, it has a strong academic community. It’s also a good base to visit the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of what was the Achaemenid Empire (the largest empire in ancient history) which encompassed almost all of Asia and parts of Europe around 2500 years ago. After spending the first day in Shiraz (visiting more mosques and bazaars), I visited the ruins the next day…

the ruins of Persepolis

the ruins of Persepolis

The ruins have an enormous historical value but nowadays there is not much to see. A couple of columns and the entrance gate are most of the remains. One really has to use his or her immagination and put things in a historical timeframe to realize the significance of where you are. Like many ancient buildings reliefs are part of the decoration. Since this empire was so large many nations were involved and they all played their role in the gallery of reliefs. It was impressive and overwhelming in terms of information. The sight was uncrowded, especially when taking its significance into account. However, there were a couple of schoolgroups and they, of course, found us more interesting than the ruins. The giggling, laughing and staring continued…

We returned early afternoon in Shiraz where I enjoyed a good lunch together with a Dutch couple I met on the tour. The restaurant was really nice with interesting live music, but unfortunately with the same old menu; kababs, kababs and more kababs. After lunch, we visited Mahdi, a traditional ice cream parlour, to buy ourselves a Bastani (a very creamy Iranian ice cream). Not a bad way to finish the meal. The following day I would continue my trip by traveling to Yazd, the driest major city located in the Kavir-e-Lut desert. Temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celcius with no humidity easily in summer, in late winter though it’s very comfortable…

the people of Shiraz

the people of Shiraz

Yazd is an architecturally unique city located in the desert about 270 km Southeast of Esfahan with roughly 400 thousand inhabitants. Because of its climate, it has one of the largest networks of so-called qanats (typical irrigation system) in the world. To deal with the extremely hot summers, many old buildings in Yazd have magnificent bâdgirs (windcatchers), and large underground areas. The windcatchers can create a cool airflow in combination with the qanats. To keep the rooms cool in summer the roofs also consist of many little domes. In the morning and late afternoon, when the sun is not too high, these domes create a shadow on the roof leading to lower temperatures inside. It’s a fascinating sight from a rooftop. The city is also home to prime examples of yakhchals, which were used to store water, or even ice, retrieved from glaciers in the nearby mountains. Together with the cool airflow, some sort of a natural fridge was created. Finally, Yazd is one of the largest cities built almost entirely out of adobe (material made from sand, clay, water and some kind of organic material) resulting in beautiful colors when the sun is low.

During my days in this fascinating city, I wanted to get a better feel of the architecture both in Yazd as well as in its surroundings where an ancient castle and some caravanserais (more about this in a minute) are located. After all, I always wanted to become an architect when I was playing with Lego in my younger days, somehow though I became an econometrician. Even as an econometrician, I don’t see the correlation here…

The most popular hotel was fully booked, just like in Shiraz but I easily found another place to stay. Since my first full day was a Friday, I thought it would be nice to visit a Friday prayer. Yazd is known to be a traditional city, so I expected many people for this event. When asking for directions to the mosque I found out many locals do not like the Friday prayer. In fact, they do not like Islam at all. It turns out many people rebel against the government and they see the prayer only as a show and are not religious at all, even in this traditional part of the country. Who had though that… The actual gathering was a bit disappointing. As a non-Moslim, one is officially not allowed to enter the mosque during the Friday prayer and there were not enough people to create a beautiful scene outside. The propaganda through the speakers was still fascinating…

Next, I visited the Dowlat Abad Garden, where the highest bâdgir (remember, the windcatcher…) of the world is located. The garden was in terrible state this time of year but the windcatcher was very interesting. I experienced a strong airflow underneath the tower, even though it wasn’t windy at all. It is on top of a beautiful building in the shape of an octagon with lots of stained glass. Afterwards, I went to a viewpoint for a good panoramic view of the city. At the towers of silence (related to zoroastrianism, once a state religion in this region too) the view was good but not the one I was looking for. I had to extend my stay with another day in order to get a good view of the sunset…

from a rooftop one will have a beautiful sunset view of the historical part of Yazd

from a rooftop one will have a beautiful sunset view of the historical part of Yazd

Before climbing the rooftop in the historic part of Yazd to take the photo shown above, I visited Saryazd, a small village which used to be the gateway to Yazd. I took a local bus to Mehriz, where a taxi took to me to the final destination: Saryazd castle. On arrival the manager was outside which turned out to be very useful. Normally the castle is closed and he has to open it for tourists. Together with an Iranian couple, I went back in time and explored the 1500-year-old castle which is still in a good state. Back in the days it was used as some sort of a bank. People stored their valuables like jewelry and gold. Of course, the castle also acted as a hiding-place in case of an attack.

Next to the castle, a so-called caravanserai named Robat-e Noh, is located. A caravanserai was a roadside inn where travelers could rest and recover from the day’s journey. At the time of the Silk Road, they were used to accommodate merchants and their servants, animals and merchandise. Nowadays they accommodate tourists. As a traveler I found it great to see some Silk Road architecture and to imagine how life must have been back then. When I wanted to make my way back to Yazd, it turned out the manager was really lonely. He had no tourists to talk to and staff was not present in big numbers either. First he offered tea, next he wanted to talk about politics in the Middle East. When I started to get really hungry, it was 2:30 pm, he asked my help to manage his page on TripAdvisor. He was very friendly but, as a traveler, I do have my plans for the day too…

left: inside the Robat-e Noh caravanserai, right: the Saryazd castle

left: inside the Robat-e Noh caravanserai, right: the Saryazd castle

The overwhelming amount of history and culture was already too much to process but I still had to visit Abyaneh, a village I somehow wanted to see even before I traveled to Iran. After the VIP buses it was time for a change, so this time I took a train. About four hours a desert landscape passed by before I arrived in Kashan. In the meantime my neighbour in the train offered me his breakfast and bought me a coffee. Just because he wanted to. In Kashan I had some trouble getting a taxi when suddenly a man, named Ali, interrupted his working day and offered me a ride to the busterminal. He also helped me buying my busticket to Natanz, where the junction towards Abyaneh is located. He either had homosexual feelings or was simply very hospitable…

The bus dropped me off next to a nuclear facility (do not take photos here if suicide is not what you’re after!), from where I took a taxi for the final leg of the journey. Abyaneh is one of the oldest villages in Iran, dating back from at least as far as the Sassanid era (224 – 651 AD) and has only a couple hundred inhabitants. Due to the mountainous nature of Abyaneh and its remote location, its people have lived in seclusion for centuries and therefore maintained many of their traditional customs such as their ancient language and clothing. This clothing consists of ordinary shirts and long, loose, black pants for men, and flowery white-background scarfs, and flowery dresses with pleated skirts for women. The architecture is fascinating as well. All houses are made of red clay where the roof of one house is the yard of another. To summarize, Abyaneh is of great historical value and is simply a photographer’s heaven…

the ancient village of Abyaneh

the ancient village of Abyaneh

Since Abyaneh is not really a metropolis with its handful of inhabitants, I left the next day and made my way back to Tehran via Kashan. Back in the capital, I was confronted with its infrastructural limitations. It rained, which is very rare, and traffic was impossible. After a final lunch with Pouya at Kenzo, a fantastic Asian restaurant, I had to go from the Northern part to the trainstation. Only two hours later (yes, you read that correctly!) I arrived at the starting point of the Trans Asia Express. Tickets all the way to Ankara were sold out, making Van in Turkey my final destination of the trainride. My huge amount of luggage was no problem at all, I was good to go. Only one other Western tourist boarded the train so it was meant to be an authentic experience. I was more interested in stories from Iranian people than in the trainride itself.

The “Train of hope” used to be a journey to freedom, but was that still the case? That’s what I wanted to find out. Unfortunately food was served in the compartments instead of in a seperate wagon making it more difficult to meet people other than the ones in your compartment. However, every now and then we could leave the train. For example at the bordercrossing there was a good opportunity to exchange some stories. It turned out many people were traveling to Kayseri. Apparently many Iranian refugees go to Turkey, where Kayseri is a cheaper alternative to the major cities, to finally get assigned a new country by the United Nations after 18 to 24 months. Many people on the train were visiting their relatives who were in the middle of this process. There is also supposed to be a significant group of people escaping Iran because of their sexual preference. Same-sex activity leads to the death penalty in Iran. Understandably, no one on the train gave this reason for visiting Turkey…

The trainride itself was not too bad, although it must have been the most inefficient one I’ve ever been on. The roughly 1100 km journey took about 22 hours, mainly because of the bordercrossing. During six hours people were just wondering what was about to happen. Well, not much. Onboard, the food was good and the compartment was just like one on every other train. My ‘roommates’ were very nice. Johannes was the only other Western tourist. He lives near Dresden and traveled to Iran for the third time. He was fascinated by Islamic countries. The other two guys (of course, there were no mixed compartments other than for families) were Iranians from the Caspian sea. Farshid was a laidback friendly guy. Hadi however, needed some attention but all was meant in a good way. An interesting journey, but I was quite happy to arrive in my hotel room.

the Trans Asia Express from Tehran to Ankara

the Trans Asia Express from Tehran to Ankara

My trip to Iran ended in Van (Turkey) where I met an Iranian family on the way to the Airport. After taking a couple of photos with the stranger from the Netherlands, we started talking a bit more. Mum and dad with their two daughters were visiting relatives in Ankara. They were abroad for the first time. A lack of money made it impossible to travel more often. There I was on my 17 month trip. I simply couldn’t tell them about it…

Time to sum things up, I guess you’ll agree. My experience in Iran was very special. Did it bring the “rock ‘n roll” I was looking for? I guess it did. Traveling in Iran is remarkably easy so that didn’t bring any extra excitement but being in a country less traveled plus the fact that the image of the country is completely out of line with the reality made it special. That not many Westerners have been here before is noticeable by the reaction of the locals. Don’t be surprised when everybody stares at you and start giggling while traveling around in Iran. This becomes a bit annoying after a while, the conversations however are always interesting. About the contrast, I’ve never been to a country which appears to be so different than I initially thought it would be. For example, not everybody in this country is a terrorist (I didn’t really think that but some people unfortunately do…). Many local people joke about it though. From all countries I have visited so far, Iran felt as one of the safest whereas most people outside Iran expect to be killed here on day one. Another interesting fact is that Iran has the highest rate of nose jobs in the world. Women are not allowed to seek attention with a beautiful figure because of the hijab (the dresscode) and therefore they try to optimize their faces with a lot of make-up and some corrections here and there. Some of them, unfortunately, really don’t succeed in my opinion, at times it’s so bad you look into a completely transformed woman in a chador (cloak worn by Iranian women). Overcompensation is the word in these cases…

The people are extremely hospitable and want to talk about the image of the country. “Please tell the true story when you get home”, is the summary of most conversations. I do have to realize that the people I talked to most likely do not represent the average Iranian person since they were either relatively educated (speaking English) or were middle / upper class. People on the countryside or the nomads might have a different view. Besides real conversations almost everybody salutes you and wants to know where you’re from. “Ah, Holland, country of flowers”, is a very refreshing reply compared to the reply of most backpackers (“Oh dude, you must smoke weed all day!”). Traveling in Iran is probably the closest I will ever come to feeling like a celebrity because of all the salutes and shouts from the street and even out of cars (“Hello mister!” and “We love you!” are not uncommon, from both sexes…). Now I fully understand that some famous people would like to go back into anonymity…

The current political situation is complicated and the history of the country is extremely rich. To understand all of it, you’ll have to study for at least a couple of years. I appreciated the sights, architecture and history and feel to have only scratched the surface of what Iran has to offer. Nevertheless, I feel very fortunate to have visited this country in its current state because it made my experience much more intense. The skiing was much better than expected, due to a nice layer of fresh snow and the fact I met the group of Austrians to venture into the backcountry in a safe way. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to ski Tochal or attempt to ski from the summit of Mount Damavand. Tehran and Yazd where my favourite cities and the mountain village of Abyaneh is definitely worth a visit too if you’d ask me. The other cities might have more or better sights but with that, come the negative consequences. Esfahan and Shiraz are not yet as touristy as other places in the world but locals start to realize that tourists have some money. It also felt in those cities as if I was a guy walking around with six breasts, twelve arms and three heads facing backwards. Everybody was giggling and staring at me…

So, in case you’re after some adventure and want to add some “rock & roll” to your travels, visit Iran. I have to admit I was a bit anxious when boarding the plane from Istanbul to Tehran not knowing what to expect. However, I can honestly tell you there is absolutely no reason to have any doubts or fear to visit this beautiful country. Visit Iran and you won’t be disappointed!

Finally, I have a short clip about the great skiing I had from Dizin to Darbandsar (thanks Daniel for the footage!):

 

Time has come to write the final chapter of my 17 month trip. For me, there is no better way to finish this trip than to ski the runs of my dreams. Skiing is the theme of the trip and it has been the one thing that made me truly happy during these 17 months. Also, in order to ski the lines I want to ski, time is needed for the right conditions. To ski these lines on a regular holiday is therefore not so easy. I still have time left, so there is no better timing than right now. I’ll start with some objectives in the Dolomites before moving to France where la Grave and Chamonix will be the crime scene. Hopefully I can reduce my bucketlist of steepskiing runs so, in case I’ll ever have to sit behind a desk again, I can be satisfied. One thought of any of these runs will create a smile on my face regardless of the crazyness any office will create!

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Iran!

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