A Travellerspoint blog

Krakow

By Amy

We arrived in Krakow, Poland via the overnight train from Prague. (We’ll post a separate blog entry soon on the pleasures of overnight train travel.). Krakow used to be Poland’s capital city until about 400 years ago. But it is still the number one Poland destination for tourists worldwide. And it’s easy to see why.

Krakow is one of the least touristy “big” cities that we’ve visited. Many people who do a tour through Europe or even Eastern Europe seem to leave this city off their itinerary. While Kevin and I enjoyed the fact that it didn’t feel overly touristy, we don’t imagine that it will last long. More and more tourists are hearing how great this city is and adding it to their itinerary (like we did). So we are glad that we got to visit Krakow before it becomes the “next Prague”.

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The heart, soul, and life of Krakow lives in its Old Town, which is a very cool downtown center that is easily walkable and filled with cobblestone streets, museums, old cathedrals, theaters, shops, restaurants, and the famous castle. Many of the streets are pedestrian-only streets, which makes it so much fun to wander around aimlessly and stop in the many cafes or street vendors for a quick bite or drink.

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The food in Krakow did not disappoint. It is very similar to the food we have enjoyed in other parts of Eastern Europe, most notably the Czech Republic. We really enjoyed the doughy, bagel-like roll offered from the street vendors at every corner (you couldn’t find a street that didn’t have some vendor selling these, not that you would want to). Other favorites included their soups (like borscht or zurek) and pierogi (ravioli-like dumplings with various fillings inside).

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As we have been experiencing elsewhere in Europe, Krakow is not exactly cheap. But, probably due to not being as popular as other places we’ve visited (and also not being on the euro), it did provide a bit of a price break compared to Prague and Amsterdam. (Again, we are still in a bit of price shock in general after spending so long in Southeast Asia)!

One day during our stay we rented bicycles and rode out into the country-side, leaving Krakow behind for the day. It was a gorgeous ride along secluded bike paths the entire time. Our destination? An ancient monastery.

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We spent three full days in Krakow---and would have spent another day if our small hotel had rooms available for another night. Considering how much we liked Krakow, we’re a little bummed we didn’t get to spend more time in Poland. We met some guys who had just travelled through the small Polish town of Poznan, which they raved and raved about. (Maybe next time…)

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You can check out all of our Krakow pictures by clicking right here. From Krakow, we are visiting the nearby Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps and then taking night train to Budapest. More posts soon!

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Posted by amyandkev 11:55 Archived in Poland Comments (1)

More from the Czech Republic: Cesky Krumlov!

By Amy & Kevin

Ahoy! (That's "hello" in Czech.). We spent two days in the small Czech town of Cesky Krumlov, which we enjoyed immensely. But we almost didn’t make it there. Travelling to or within the Czech Republic has not exactly been easy for us. First, we almost didn’t make our flight to Prague when we didn’t know that the clocks had moved forward one hour that night—and, as a result, we came within a hair of missing our flight from Amsterdam. (We realized upon arriving at the train station in Amsterdam that the station’s clocks were an hour faster than what our watches said, which led to disbelief and then panic—and then lots and lots of running. We ran through the train station and then through the airport, making it to our flight with only minutes to spare.)

For our very trip next trip (a three-hour bus ride from Prague to Cesky Krumlov), drama returned yet again. We arrived at the bus station in Prague only be told, in broken English, that all buses that day to Cesky Krumlov were totally booked. Seemingly without any way to get there, we toyed with the idea of ditching Cesky Krumlov altogether and just catching the train to Krakow instead. But, first, Kevin decided to see if he could find a different ticket window that could somehow find us another way there. While waiting in line, Kevin struck up a conversation with a native Czech named Martin who spoke good English. Martin agreed to talk to the lady at the ticket window for us (in Czech this time) and learned that, while all buses were indeed booked from that station, we could catch a bus from a different station in Prague that left in just a few hours. Great! Martin helped us buy the bus tickets and even showed us exactly how to get to the other bus station via the metro. (Martin: If you’re reading this, a huge thank you again…)

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So we ended up making it to Cesky Krumlov after all… and we’re so glad that we did. Cesky Krumlov is a town in southern Czech Republic with an extremely well-preserved medieval center and a huge thirteenth century castle. A very, very cool place. Wandering the narrow, cobblestone streets amidst row-after-row of renaissance and baroque buildings, it’s easy to get lost in roughly 750 years of history and feel like time has stopped here.

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The month of April in Cesky Krumlov is definitely a low period for tourists. At first, we were a bit bummed by our timing, since many of the restaurants are closed and some of the activities we wanted to do (such as floating down the river) are not available yet. But we quickly became thankful for the lack of crowds. Wandering near-empty medieval streets is far more captivating than when the streets are filled with hordes of tourists. (Our experiences in both Prague and Cesky Krumlov would have probably been much different in high tourist season.) Plus, we signed up for the night walking tour, and we were the only ones to show up for the our---so we essentially had our own private guide to show us around the town (which was fantastic).

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You can see all of our Cesky Krumlov photos here. After two nights in Cesky Krumlov, we caught the bus back to Prague (no problems this time!) and immediately got on the night train to Krakow. More soon…

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Posted by amyandkev 14:03 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (1)

Prague

By Kevin

Based on what other travelers had told us, we had high expectations for our four days in Prague---and it did not disappoint. (Good rule of thumb: If a city has a neighborhood known as “New Town” that dates back over 500 years, it’s probably going to be a very cool place…)

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Prague has a huge medieval center that, from one medieval neighborhood to the next, feels like a giant step back in time. The city is full of winding cobbled lanes, walled courtyards, huge cathedrals, countless spires, and a varied mix of stunning, ancient architecture. (Plus, it arguably has the best beer in the world… What’s not to love?)

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Whatever Prague lacks in blockbuster activities, it makes up for it with incredible ambience. We spent our days aimlessly wandering from one neighborhood to the next. From the Old Quarter to the Castle Quarter to the Little Quarter to the Jewish Quarter to the New Town---each neighborhood has its own unique character, history, architecture, and charm.

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You can check out all of our Prague photos right here. We’ve fallen a bit behind in our blog entries (sorry!), so we’ll try to catch up with several mini-entries in the next few days. Up next: Cesky Krumlov and Krakow.

Posted by amyandkev 14:09 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (2)

Amsterdam

by Amy

Our time in Asia finally came to an end as we caught our flight from Hong Kong to Amsterdam. I must say that I was sad to leave – Southeast Asia was an amazing experience – I loved the culture, the people, the climate, and the food. And what a great opportunity getting to experience cultures and countries so different than our own. But, unfortunately, we had run out of days and it was time to move onto the last leg of our trip: Europe. While we were sad to leave Southeast Asia, we were also looking forward to the new change of pace and culture that this new region would bring.

From the moment we stepped foot in Amsterdam, we were transfixed. It was shocking how different the city looked to anything we had seen yet (especially after coming from Southeast Asia). Amsterdam has stunning architecture and scenic canals that crisscross the city. And I’ve never seen buildings, let alone entire neighborhoods, as old as those in Amsterdam. In the U.S. a building is considered old if it was built a hundred years ago. Here, in much of Amsterdam, that would be considered relatively new. (Most of the architecture is dated 500 years ago, and many buildings are even older!)

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After the architecture, what probably hit us the hardest was the climate. During our stay in Amsterdam, it was generally in the low-to-mid 40’s. Coming from the tropical climate of Asia, it was definitely a bit of a shock. (And we had to buy warmer clothes.) We also were unlucky to have rain during our first two days, which definitely hampered our sight-seeing.

Some highlights of our visit to Amsterdam include:

    [*]The Anne Frank Haus – This is the house that contained the business Anne’s father ran, which later became her family’s hideout during the Holocaust. The house is open for tours of the “Secret Annex” (the secret attic rooms where her family and one other family lived for 2 years while they hid from the Nazis). I recommend anyone going on this tour re-reading her book as a refresher, as the tour itself doesn’t give much information.

    [*]Van Gogh Museum –An entire museum dedicated to Van Gogh and his life. It was incredibly informative and educational, and they have a enormous collection of Van Gogh’s works. Just getting to see the originals of some of his most famous paintings, such as The Starry Night and The Sunflowers, was worth the ticket price in itself.

    [*]Cycling the city on single gear beach cruisers – on our final day Kevin and I rented bikes for the day. No gears and no hand breaks – you stopped old-school style by pedaling backwards. Most of the locals seem to cycle in Amsterdam – it’s a common alternative to a car and most roads have separate bike lanes or even separate bike paths. This is probably the reason that helmets aren’t required for cyclists (of the thousand cyclists we must have seen, not one was wearing a helmet – in fact it wasn’t even an option from our rental agency). Cycling around town was easily the highlight of our trip.

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Amsterdam is probably most famous for two things: Its “coffeeshops” and the Red Light District. Coffeeshops are everywhere – and these aren’t any cafes that Starbucks will be putting its name on. (In fact, I’m not sure if they even sell coffee!) Coffeeshops in the Netherlands are pubs selling marijuana with display cases showing various joints or baggies for sale. The minimum age to purchase is 18 and coffeeshops can sell up to five grams of marijuana per person per day. Holland has a nationwide smoking ban – but the law pertains to tobacco smoke and not marijuana smoke. So as long as the coffeeshop is selling pure marijuana, they’re safe. We learned, however, that many shops mix their marijuana with tobacco, and when these shops get busted it’s because of the tobacco and not the marijuana! I did learn that the Dutch are not necessarily pro-marijuana, but that they believe that the outlawing of marijuana would cause more problems than it would solve. Statistics show that the Dutch have fewer hard drug problems than other countries. And shockingly, after 10 years, the Dutch have found that their drug policy does not result in more pot smoking – actually statistics show that Americans smoke twice as much pot as the Dutch, per capita.

The Red Light District is a fascinating (somewhat shocking) couple of blocks that literally lights up in red at night. Of course, the Red Light District is famous for the sex industry, where prostitution is legal. However, we read that there was an effort that began a few years ago to clean up this area, requiring permits for legal businesses, attracting new and trendy restaurants, and luxurious hotels and lodging options. This effort must have worked because our impression was a much cleaner, more sophisticated area than we had expected with theaters, shops, restaurants, and bars in addition to the sex businesses. That being said, it was quite the experience walking down the street and window-shopping the red-lighted windows in which scantily-clad women put themselves on display in order to solicit their services. It was a bit awkward-feeling, and I can definitely say that I never got used to that.

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All in all we were very pleased with Amsterdam and could have easily spent more time here. The city feels much smaller and relaxed than its true population, and—perhaps due to unfair preconceptions—Amsterdam is far more charming (and cleaner) than we had expected. I’m definitely excited for our remaining time in Europe. Our next stop is Prague!

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Amy earning her place in the local brewery tour

Posted by amyandkev 16:11 Archived in Netherlands Comments (1)

Tips for International Travel

By Kevin

After nearly three months of travelling abroad (and countless hours of pre-trip research), we have picked up various tips and tricks for international travel. Then again, we haven’t exactly earned the title of “saavy travelers” quite yet. Earlier this week, we came within a few minutes of missing our flight out of Amsterdam because we didn’t realize that the clocks had moved an hour forward that night. Oops. (Tip #1: Beware of Daylights Savings Time!)

Anyway, here are some notable tips and tricks for international travel:

Get a No-Fee Credit Card: Many credit cards charge a so-called “currency conversion” fee for international purchases, often set at 3 percent. Be mindful of the fee charged by your credit card and, ideally, find a card that does not charge such a fee, or charges a low fee. Capital One credit cards, for instance, charge no fee at all. (This is the credit card that we have used exclusively during our travels.)

Get a No-Fee or Low-Fee ATM Card: The same also holds true for ATM cards. Many banks charge a standard fee (often $5) plus a currency conversion fee for all ATM withdrawals. (This can add up fast.) Consider moving some money to a bank with lower fees, or no fee at all. After some research, E-Trade seems to offer one of the best combinations of high interest rates and low fees for international ATM withdrawals.

Budget Airlines: Travelers can save a lot of money by booking budget airlines for intra-region flights. Most of these airlines are not listed on Expedia or Travelocity, so you have to go direct to their websites to check out fares. We’ve found that a flight on a regular airlines can be double, or sometimes even triple, the cost of a budget airline flight. In Southeast Asia, we used AirAsia and JetStar several times. We used the budget option Virgin Blue in Australia, and we just recently flew on SkyEurope in Europe. (Europe has a slew of budget choices.)

Obtain Multiple Credit Cards & ATM Cards: While travelling in New Zealand, our E-Trade ATM card was deactivated due to so-called “suspicious activity.” (No idea why.) In order to get it reactivated, E-Trade required that I mail them a signed letter notarized by a notary public. Totally ridiculous. And next to impossible considering we were in the Middle of Nowhere, New Zealand at the time. Fortunately, we brought along a second ATM card (from a different bank) that we used until the E-Trade card was reactivated.

Call Your Bank and Credit Card Company Before You Leave. Make sure you tell them where you’re going to be, so they don’t deactivate your account once you start ringing up charges in strange countries.

Packing Cubes. We pack all of our clothes and items into several different packing cubes, which then fit easily into our suitcase. We'll never again take a trip without them.

Lonely Planet Guidebooks. We’ve purchased guidebooks for every place we’ve been, and they’ve been worth every cent. For New Zealand and Southeast Asia, the most popular (and revered) guidebooks seem to be Lonely Planet and the Rough Guides. But here’s a word of warning for using Lonely Planet in Southeast Asia: the books are great, but just about EVERYONE uses them throughout the region. So if there’s a hotel that Lonely Planet strongly recommends, it will probably be booked up. If there’s a restaurant they rave about, it will probably be packed and the prices will likely be jacked up. The books are definitely a bit too popular. (I have not used the Rough Guides before, but this reason alone would probably make me look strongly at using them instead.)

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On a related note, we’ve heard from a few of you that trips to New Zealand are now in the works. Very cool. We’ve had a blast everywhere so far, but our favorite overall spots have probably been New Zealand and also Vietnam. (Amy keeps raving and raving about Vietnam...)

Of the places that we didn’t go (but we wish did, if we had more time): In New Zealand, we heard good things about the Bay of Islands up on the North Island; and several people raved about whale watching and swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura. In Southeast Asia, we really wanted to go see Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia---but we ran out of time. We also heard people rave about the crystal clear waters and fantastic diving on the Perhentian Islands in Malayasia. (One person described the Perhentians as “like the Maldives, with less crowds and at a fraction of the cost.”) We also heard great things about Borneo, also in Malaysia. (Maybe next time…)

Anyway, we just spent the last week split between Amsterdam and Prague. More soon...

Posted by amyandkev 04:23 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Saigon & Hong Kong

By Kevin

Travelling from Dalat, Vietnam to Hong Kong (via Saigon) was not as simple as it should have been. The first leg was easy: an early-morning flight from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City (i.e., Saigon). No problem. But the next step was the difficult one. The earliest flight out of Dalat arrived too late to catch the flight from Saigon to Hong Kong on Vietnam Airlines (which, regardless, was extremely expensive at $370 per ticket). And all other direct flights from Saigon to Hong Kong, including Cathay Pacific and United Airlines, were way too expensive. (The cheapest: $465 per ticket. Yikes.)

So, here’s the crazy route we ended up choosing instead: After arriving in Saigon at 10:00 a.m., we had a 10-hour layover before catching an evening flight (in the opposite direction from Hong Kong) to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. ($90 per ticket). We stayed at an airport hotel in Kuala Lumpur before catching a very early flight to Hong Kong the next morning ($110 per ticket). Far from ideal, but it gave us most of a day to explore Saigon and saved us over $500.

While in Saigon, we weren’t sure exactly what to do with our luggage during our 10-hour layover while we explored the city. But, on our flight there, we met a fellow traveler who recommended a cheap, $15 hotel in downtown Saigon where we could drop off our bags for the day and get in a shower before our flight. (The temperature was over 90 degrees.) This worked out well and gave us plenty of time to check out the city. The streets of Saigon were even crazier than in Hanoi (the streets are an enormous, chaotic sea of motorbikes; we witnessed two motorbike accidents) and the vendors were even more aggressive (they would literally grab your arm and try to pull you into their stall). And, as we found all over Vietnam, the motorbike often doubled as the family mini-van:

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Neither of us were particularly thrilled with Saigon (we liked Hanoi much better), although the American War Museum in Saigon is fascinating (and a bit disturbing and depressing). Quite interesting to see Vietnam’s perspective on the Vietnam War, which they call the “American War."

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But, yes, we did finally make it to Hong Kong, although we had less than 48 hours there. We found it to be a terrific city, with a very Manhattan-like vibe. Hong Kong has a unique mix of past and present, modern and traditional, luxury and simple. Very cool. (And, day or night, the skyline is flat-out incredible…)

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Hong Kong has a unique array of transportation options. During our short stay there, we took ferries, buses, subway, and trams. But perhaps the most interesting form of transportation we took was the series of outdoor, covered escalators and moving walkways (the longest such system in the world, in fact, at over 800 meters long) that 45,000 Hong Kong residents use to get to work each day. The escalators run downhill during the morning rush hour. And then uphill in the late afternoon and evening to get them up the hill after work. (Wow, I need these in Seattle to get me up Madison Avenue each morning…)

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Hong Kong was our last stop in Southeast Asia. From there, we fly overnight to Amsterdam to begin our stretch through Europe. (You can find all of our Hong Kong and Saigon photos here.)

Posted by amyandkev 12:10 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (1)

Delightful Dalat!

by Amy

Okay, so it has been way too long since we’ve updated our blog! The last week has been incredibly busy for us….and we’ve seen some amazing sites. Hopefully we’ll be able to catch you up in the next couple days. Our last stay in Vietnam was an unplanned visit to a central mountain town called Dalat. Originally, we hadn’t planned on visiting this city (it’s not a widely-known tourist destination outside of the Vietnam citizens). But, while travelling in Laos, we might a fellow tourist who told us that Dalat was his favorite city in Vietnam. Remembering this, we decided at the last-minute to ditch our plans to see Sapa (another overnight trip from Hanoi) and instead catch the next flight to Dalat. And were we glad we did – Dalat was delightful!

Dalat is a mountain town of 188,000 people, popular among the Vietnamese as a weekend and holiday destination. Known for it’s cooler climate, as it’s a welcome reprieve for the locals to get away from the humidity and heat. This was evident when we arrived to see all the locals were wearing pants, long sleeves and coats. For Kevin and me, the climate was perfect – warm enough for tank tops and shorts, yet cool enough that we didn’t overheat as we did in other Vietnam cities.

The city itself isn’t that much different from other Vietnam cities we’d visited – motorbike traffic is still the preferred transportation method, although perhaps slightly less congested than other major cities. But it wasn’t the downtown city that made us fall in love with Dalat. It was the gems we found once you ventured past the urban walls into the countryside: lush green valleys, hills (mountains by Vietnam standards) and all the activities and sports that any outdoor enthusiast could want. We had four nights in Dalat and we didn’t waste any time filling them up and getting ourselves outside the city to where the real beauty lied.

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We had discovered in our research on Dalat that canyoning was offered there. After our introduction to canyoning in New Zealand (and based on how much we enjoyed it) we knew we would have to try it here in Dalat. And Dalat didn’t fail – it was so much fun! We weren’t sure how it would stack up to New Zealand’s -- but we found ourselves discussing afterwards which country had the better canyoning. In the end we couldn’t decide – they both were so much fun. One thing is for sure – Dalat offered the most challenging and tallest waterfalls that we rapelled. The largest being 82 feet and the water pressure unreal. We were literally rapelling down the waterfalls with the water crashing over us – it took everything we had in concentration, well-timed breaths (when we found an opportunity to grab a much-needed breath) and all our strength to fight the waterfall and make it down to the bottom. To say the least – it was exhilarating!

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Dalat is also well-known for its mountain biking. We decided to spend one of our days on a guided mountain bike tour. This turned out to be the most physically demanding activity we have completed so far on our trip. We ended up in a private group with just the two of us and two guides – Ming and Kahn. They were great, but I don’t think Kevin and I realized what we were getting ourselves into when we signed up for the “easy” tour. The ride was a full day that started with some city riding (which was a bit nerve-racking initially – remember the crazy motorbike traffic we’ve been telling you about? Well now imagine riding a bicycle in that traffic – and trying to cross intersections with no traffic lights. Scary!). Luckily, the city riding was minimal and very quickly we were riding through lazy country roads. The scenery was beautiful – mostly farmlands. However, this riding didn’t last long before we went off-road and into their single track mountain-riding. I’ve never rode through a more beautiful area, but there was nothing lazy about this style of riding. It was insanely difficult and challenging – we were true mountain bikers! (And whoever called this the “easy” ride had to be out of their minds!) At any rate, Kevin and I were exhausted by time we stopped for a much needed lunch break. After lunch we still had a couple hours of riding before we returned back to Dalat for the end. What a ride – I don’t think we’ve ever slept as well as we did that night.

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Finally, on our last full day in Dalat we decided to take a break and hire a couple “Easy Riders” for a motor-bike tour of the area. The Easy Riders are a group of 60 or so motorbike guides who offer tours of Dalat and the surrounding countryside to tourists. Our guides took us outside of the city and into the country. We got to visit some minority villages, meeting some of these locals, seeing where they live and visiting their schools. But the best part had to be riding on the back of the motorbike and seeing the beautiful mountains (and a gorgeous waterfall) of Dalat. It was great fun.

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After three quick days it was time for us to leave Dalat. Like the rest of Vietnam, we easily fell in love with this town. There was something very different about Dalat – it didn’t look like any other city in Vietnam – while mountain biking we felt like we could have been in central Orgeon; the farms and valleys could have been a scene from Europe. Yet there were the many similarities that made this country most certainly Vietnam – the motorbikes, the food, and the great people. Each new city that we visit in Vietnam reinforces for me how much I love this country. As our time in Vietnam comes to an end, I know that I’ll miss it. And yet, I know that Kevin and I will be back someday. This is a country in Asia that I definitely want to return.

You can see all of our Dalat picks here: Click Here

More soon (I promise!) on our remaining days in Southeast Asia.

Cheers!

Posted by amyandkev 12:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

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