A 2017 Travel Review

It’s the time of the year again at The Furious Panda where we go through and summarise the travels of the past year. I know it is only November, and there are still two months to go, but let’s just get on with the post, since I’m feeling inspired.

Before that, a look at 2017’s travel resolutions. There weren’t many and they weren’t well planned out if I’m being honest. Possible destinations floated at the start of the year were Bhutan, Japan, Morocco, Tunisia, the Natuna Islands of Indonesia, and Ilocos Norte in the Philippines. Of these, I managed to make it to Natuna. However, my target was to go to 2 new countries, so the final tally of 6 new countries (7 if you count one unrecognized country) is an achievement. Throw in the fact that I have Sara travelling with me on some of this year’s trips, and the arrival of little Hana this September, 2017 went really well. Add to that all the work travel, making 2017 was a very good year.

Without further ado here is a summary of the places I visited in 2017.

January 2017

I made a trip over the New Year long weekend to Batam. Not very interesting, but it’s on this list because Sara at 7 months tagged along for her first fast ferry trip and first visit to Indonesia!

February 2017 – Jakarta

I was in Jakarta for work, making it two years in a row that I have visited the capital. This time round, I did not do much walking around, and the best photo I have is one of these GoJek motorcycles. With the crazy traffic jams in Jakarta, getting around on hired motorcycles is a viable choice. Think Uber, but instead of cars, you book motorbikes through the GoJek app. Grab is the other big player here, and they too have GrabBikes on the roads.

1 GoJek. I should have tried it while there!

March 2017 – Hong Kong

Another work trip, this time passing through Hong Kong. I walked down the Tsim Sha Tsui district, and basically thought of the last time I was back here way back in 2011 as I passed by Chungking Mansions, my really cramped residence back then. The city doesn’t sleep, this scene below was taken at 1am!

2 Hong Kong, the city that never sleeps.

May 2017 – Natuna Islands, Indonesia

My first solo travel of the year, and this was to Natuna Islands. Part of the Riau Islands province in Indonesia, and grouped together with Batam, Bintan and Karimun. Though if you google these places on the map, you will find that they are nowhere near Natuna. I made it a destination, seeing that it is at the northern edge of Indonesian waters, and is often mentioned in the news when Indonesia asserts sovereignty over Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

It was worth the hassle of getting to Batam and flying from there to Natuna. The highlights were undoubtedly the natural stone formations of Alif Stone Park, and visiting a traditional kampung on stilts in Pulau Tiga. I even met royal descendants of Riau kings, and chatted officials at the holding area for Vietnamese fishermen caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters.

3 Alif Stone Park, steps have been cut into the stones and wooden planks join them together.

4 The peaceful village of Desa Pulau Tiga. Natuna, Indonesia.

May 2017 – London, Paris, Luxembourg

A major trip of 2017, with family. Bringing an 11-month-old baby in a stroller and having to carry that up and down multiple flights of steps is no easy task (Paris and London metro are not baby stroller friendly). But we persevered, and I completed my maiden visit to the UK and France before I turned 40. Sara the Explorer on the other hand, travelled there before she turned 1.

London

We visited most of the major tourist landmarks. Actually, it became a game of delicate positioning of Sara and her stroller for photo ops. Sara in front of the Tower Bridge? Check. Sara in front of Westminster Abbey? Check.

5 Sara in front of Buckingham Palace? Check.

6 This was taken in the British Museum. Having seen a couple of the Lewis chess pieces when the British Museum loaned some of their artefacts at our local Singapore museum – it’s great to see the rest of them on display here.

7 Sara the Explorer on the quintessential London bus ride.

Paris

The Eurostar train makes getting from London to Paris very easy. In Paris, we visited the Notre Dame Cathedral (Sara at site, check!), the Sacre Coeur Basilica and wandered quite a bit around the 10th arrondissement at the pretty Canal St Martin area. Not enough, but as an introduction to Paris, it will have to do. Oh yes, we also had the best ice-cream in Paris at Berthillon.

8 Sacre Coeur on a pretty summer day.

9 Sara the Explorer in front of Notre Dame. Check. Sara the Explorer covered by pigeons in front of Notre Dame? Even better.

We even managed to squeeze in a day trip to Luxembourg, where my highlight was a tram tour around the Bock Casemates. Sara’s highlight however was undoubtedly the carousel at Luxembourg’s summer fair.

10 One more round, mama!

June 2017 – Hangzhou

There is this Chinese saying that goes “上有天堂,下有蘇杭”. Translated, it means “There is heaven above and there is Suzhou and Hangzhou below”, alluding to the beauty of these two cities. I have been to Suzhou back in 2012, so it has always bothered me that I have yet to go to Hangzhou. When the opportunity arose to visit Hangzhou for a work trip, I was elated. Visiting the UNESCO listed West Lake did not disappoint, despite the inevitable crowd.

11 In contemplation when looking out to the waters of West Lake. Actually it’s more probable that she’s looking at her phone, but where’s the romanticism in that.

In the same trip, I was also in Ningbo, and spent a time in the spruced up old town pedestrian area.

12 Ningbo old town has some creative murals. Note the yellow Ofo bikes parked in the front, looks like a scene out of Singapore!

July – Guangzhou

Work travel brings me back to China. In Guangzhou, last visited in 2012. I went to tranquil Shamian Island, where the British and French Concession were once located. It was a welcome respite from the bustle of Guangzhou.

13 Statues like these depicting life on Shamian in the 19th centre can be found all over the island.

August 2017 – Ukraine, Moldova, Transnistria, Belarus

This was the other big trip this year, this time by myself. Easing of visa restrictions this year meant that it was possible to get visa on arrivals, and visa free entry to these countries, previously the bane of Singaporeans seeking to travel there.

My first stop was Dubai, UAE. I realised that all my previous visits to Dubai have been in the cool winter months. Well, Dubai weather in August is a b*tch. I ended up hiding inside malls the two days I was there.

14 This was taken outside Deira City Centre shopping mall, just after the sun set. I could still feel the heat in the air.

Ukraine.

Ukraine was a surprise, much friendlier and more pleasant than I had imagined it to be. I visited Kyiv, Lviv and Odessa, all three of which were vastly difference from each other. First was Kyiv the capital. Prices were cheap, and it could have been the summer, but people were just easy-going and ready to chill. The other fascinating thing about Kiev are the metro stations. I posted a 4 and a half minute video of me just ascending from the station to ground level on the escalator.

15 It was 9pm, and the summer sun was only setting. Everyone was still out there relaxing along the main drag, closed to traffic on weekend evenings. Performances, street dancing and wannabe karaoke artists put on their best acts.

16 Of note too are the wonderfully designed interiors of the metro stations in Kyiv. This is one of the interchange stations.

From Kyiv, I joined a 1-day tour of the Chernobyl nuclear accident exclusion zone. Now a safe and well touristed area, the levels of radiation there remain higher than normal at certain spots.

17 “Pripyat 1970”. Pripyat was the town most affected when the nuclear accident occurred in 1986.

18 Scenes like this one taken in Middle School no. 3, within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

19 Geiger Counters like this one were used to measure the radioactivity in the area.

20 Proving once and for all that Pokemon exist in Chernobyl.

Next up was the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Very different from the capital, Lviv has more of a Central European city vibe about it. It has a town square, a city hall with belltower and many dining restaurants about town. My highlight was however the sprawling necropolis for the wealthy deceased of Lviv, the Lychakiv Cemetery, located just outside of the city centre.

21 An overhead view from the bell tower in the middle of the Lviv city square.

22 If there was ever any doubt… the difference between varenekis, mantis, pelmenis and khinkalis, this restaurant in Lviv will educate you!

23 Mourning over the dead in Lychakiv cemetery.

Odessa is a fun seaside city, even more so in summer. Everybody was at the beach, or they strolling along the promenade. I made it to the Potemkin Stairs, a giant stairway named for the battleship Potemkin, whose crew rebelled in 1905 and influenced the events leading to the Russian Revolution.

24 An optical illusion meant that when viewed from the base of the Potemkin Stairs, you could only see the stairs, and from the top, you could only see the flat landing. This would have been intimidating for attackers landing at the foot of the steps.

25 Another famous optical illusion in Odessa (they love these, don’t they), this building seems to be 2-dimensional. The Witch’s House as it is called is actually triangular, like a cake slice.

Moldova

A bit of an enigma for me, until I researched before the trip. But Chisinau the capital has much to offer, including an easily walkable main drag, their own version of the Arc de Triomphe, and parks galore.

26 A statue of Modovan hero Stefan cek Mare (Stephen the Great) in Chisinau. #nofilter

27 I stayed in Hotel Cosmos, an old Soviet era hotel in Chisinau. Think dimly lit, dank musty corridors.

Transnistria

Officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, this country is actually a sliver of land belonging to Moldova that declared independence in 1990. This was however not recognized and today the Republic is only recognized by 3 other non-entities. I had wanted to go since 2013 when I was in the region, so finally being able to visit is super.

28Alexander Suvorov on a horse, in the foreground as the flags on Tiraspol and Transnistria fly.

29 A giant statue of Vladimir Lenin still stands here in Tiraspol. The tour group is in hot soup as one of the members had just pulled out a drone, leaving his tour guide to talk to the two police officers.

Belarus

Next and final stop in this Eastern European adventure was Minsk, Belarus. Probably the most Soviet of the three countries, my passport at the airport was scrutinised using a magnifier, twice. Within the capital itself was the KGB was still called the KGB, and an exhibition proudly displays “Symbols of the Soviet Era”.

30 A heady mix of capitalism, Soviet worker’s party murals, and law enforcers policing the streets.

31 Tank monument in Minsk, Belarus

32 Weeping angel on the Island of Tears, a memorial area set in the middle of Minsk in remembrance of Belarussian soldiers who fought for the then USSR against Afghanistan.

August 2017 – Shanghai

At the end of August, I visited Shanghai for work. My last visit was back in 2012, and I went to the same areas. I re-visited the la mian noodle stall from 5 years ago. And I think the kid has grown up!

33 The beef noodles broth is delicious. Order more bowls!

September 2017

No travels this month. Baby Hana joins the family!

November 2017 – Guangzhou

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November 2017 – Beijing

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December 2017 – Penang

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And that’s that for 2017. I am leaving some space here to include another upcoming (leisure this time) trip to Guangzhou. That should be about it. I am thankful for the opportunity to go to so many places, and the varied experiences. Next year is exciting, with trips to Eritrea, Bahrain and the US territories of Guam and Saipan already planned. Watch this space!

A Winter Hike in Kazbegi

 

I made the trip up north following the Georgian Military Highway, from Tblisi to Stepantsminda.  Stepandsminda, or more commonly known by its old name Kazbegi, is a small town with few visitors in winter. The highlight of the area is the Gergeti Trinity Church, a small but formidable church high up the mountains, overlooking the town.

This was in February 2013, at an elevation of around 2000 metres. And the area looks like this.

Kazbegi town from above

From the capital of Georgia, Tblisi, is it a 3 hour ride by marshrutka from the Didube bus station. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I decided to make the trip out to Stepantsminda. When I arrived, the whole valley landscape was covered in white.

A marshrutka in Kazbegi

A marshrutka very similar to this one brought me to Stepantsminda. Along the way, I was remarking to myself how many Georgian men, the driver in this case, have gruff sounding voices. The driver could probably do a very impressive rendition of Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World.

A sign pointing to Gergeti Church

The sign points to Gergeti, written in English and in the Georgian script, Mkhedruli. In summer, I read that many tourists visit as the area is good for hikes, and even horse-riding, as evident on this sign. But right now, in the thick of winter, I could very well have been the only tourist in town on that day.

Main street in Kazbegi

It is a small town really. This is the main street, and not many people are out walking, even though it was a relatively nice and sunny afternoon.

Bridge over Tergi River

Stepantsminda is located on the eastern bank of the Tergi River. The main road crosses the river once in the middle of town and continues north towards the Russian border, about 15 km away. On the other side of the river, is an even smaller settlement, Gergeti Village, which is more like an extension of Stepantsminda. This was where I stayed. Beyond Gergeti Village, is the trail that would lead to the church.

This was my basic room in the house, but one I was thankful for. Warmth. I was the only one there, so the owner was nice enough to set the heating going, just for one person. And this involved burning wood and putting it into the stove. With a grateful “gmadlobt” I proceeded to unpack and warm myself up.

Keeping the tap running

One interesting thing was that I was told to leave the tap running, even when I left the house. This was presumably to keep the water pipes from freezing. It is altogether different from back home, where we are constantly reminded not to waste water.

Alexander Kazbegi Statue

There was still light, so I decided to have a gander around town. First up is the statue of Alexander Kazbegi. He was a local Georgian writer, whose work was to be  a major influence on Stalin later on. Before Stepantsminda, the town was called Kazbegi, named after his grandfather, who had helped the Russians keep control of the area after a revolt. But now, the town is called Stepantsminda, since 2006, after Saint Stephan a Georgian orthodox monk.

Kazbegi Museum

This was the front facade of the unfortunately closed Kazbegi Museum, photo taken through the grills. I thought it would be open based on the opening times. Maybe it was a “closed for winter” thing, or maybe it was just during a really bad snowed in period, and they declared the museum closed. Whatever it was, I didn’t get to visit the museum.

I ventured even further into the residential areas of town, and got rewarded with a group of cows. I am not entirely sure of why the pipes are running so  high above ground. Possibly to keep them from freezing.

Cow and icicles

This handsome cow had 4 little icicles dangling off its mouth. It was that cold!

Bridge in Kazbegi

There was a foot bridge spanning the river. This one did not look too safe, and I was not sure if it was even still in use.

A map of Stepantsminda

I took a photo of this useful map of Stepantsminda, for anyone who might be interested.

Gergeti in the distance

And here is the view from Stepantsminda, looking up toward the Gergeti Trinity Church. The church and its bell tower are two separate structures. In the foreground, Tergi Bridge crosses the river, and a road branches off after the bridge to the west going through Gergeti Village. The highest peak is the 5000m Mount Kazbeg.

Icicle in Kazbegi

Icicles greeted me the next morning on the clothesline outside my room. I packed some food and water, preparing for the hike to the church. It was a 2 to 3 hour hike, I read. And driving up was possible too. Some time ago, the Soviets built a cable car station at the top that linked the church to the town. Apparently the locals were not too happy about making their holy church a place for mass tourism, and they proceeded to tear down the cable car. Hence, driving or hiking are the only two ways up.

Road leading up to Gergeti

The next morning, I took breakfast and made my way uphill along the main track to the Gergeti church. Ten minutes into the walk, I turned around and had this view, scanning the entire town of Stepantsminda down below. So far so good.

Open street map Kazbegi

Soon after, the main track ended off, and with the aid of the Maps Me app, I began following the trailhead. Above is a map of the area, taken from OpenStreetMap. It’s all in Mkhedruli, so let me try to orientate you to the map. The River Tergi runs through the centre. And the main populated area on the right of the river is Stepantsminda. The other path of grey is the village of Gergeti, and the road continues west and uphill towards the Gergeti Trinity Church which is on the leftmost part of the map. The dotted black line is the former Soviet cable car line which started Stepantsminda and ended at the church. My trail followed mostly the road (I think), but I might have gone off the trail quite a bit, since there was nothing to distinguish the trail from the non-trail areas. it was all white!

Now where's the trail?

I did not meet anyone else throughout the entire hike. And the visible road soon gave way to the all white landscape, which left me quite unsure of where I was going.

Looking down on Stepantsminda

This was taken halfway up the trail, before the zig-zagging portion. I could see both Stepantsminda in the background and Gergeti Village to the left in the foreground.

The zig-zag road leading up

The road soon widened and became more visible, a respite from trying to guess where the trail was. This was the zig-zagging portion of the road, built in this way for vehicles to climb up the slope. Since I was on foot, I simply bypassed the road and bashed straight up.

Exhausting trudging in the snow

Carrying on, I made a beeline for the church, instead of following the vehicular track which looped west and around back to the church. This area was tough, since I was thigh deep in the snow. At one point, I just needed a break, and took this selfie in the process.

All snow

From then on, there were some tracks, so some other hikers must have made their way here recently.

Through the trees

I cut through the wooded area….

An opening, means reaching soon

…before the “trail” opened up and the treeline began to clear. I was reaching the summit.

Desolation and a bag

Here’s a photo I like. I placed my backpack for perspective, and took a photo of the surroundings. Another break, so I was fiddling around with the items in my bag, and to my delight, found the last remaining bit of chocolate I had bought and eaten a couple of days ago. You cannot imagine the thrill you can get upon finding that you still have that last piece of chocolate! Energized, I carried on in good spirits.

Wide view of Gergeti Church

I was rewarded with this view, and the last stretch to the church.

Going towards the church

Picking up the pace, I hurried towards the church.

At the base of the church

The last bit, looking up before arriving.

Close up of the church

And finally, reaching the Gergeti Trinity Church. I was the only one there on the day. It was worth it!

The belltower building

The standalone belltower. It was locked, as was the church. I am sure that in the summer, there are people manning the area.

A sign in Gergeti

A helpful sign. If you are headed there, do note that you need to be covered up when accessing the church.

The main church

The main entrance, inaccessible to me. No photographs allowed inside.

Donation for church

Here is a donation box, in case anyone is curious how Donation For Church is written in the Georgian languange.

Looking through the grills

I took a peek through grills into a small chamber on the other side of the main entrance and saw some benches. A  waiting area perhaps.

The Virgin and baby Jesus

A representation of the Virgin and Child. As is in most of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Georgian Orthodox Church is big on iconography, and paintings and pictures like these are common.

Solar panel above the monk's quarters

Just below the main church, there is another small building. This is a photo of the roof of that building, complete with solar panel. This would be where the monks rest. Right now though, there isn’t anyone else here.

Drinking fountain

There is an elaborate water fountain about 50 meters away from the church.

Cable car

 

From this photo, the water fountain is straight ahead. But look to the left and you see some unfinished construction. I suspect it was part of the cable car station that was dismantled. A little further back there are some installations and an unused shack which I was pretty sure was part of the cable car station.

Remains of the cable car, maybe

A close up of the “construction”

Ending

Here’s a panoramic view of the surroundings from the church. After that, I made my way down. Coming down was quick, and adrenaline was high. Partly because I was half rolling down the slope and not getting injured doing so as the ground was thick with snow! I reached the base in half and hour before packing up and taking the marshrutka back to Tblisi.

Deep in snow

Here’s me ending off with some advice. Definitely make the trip to Stepantsminda (Kazbegi) if you are in Georgia. If you do have to go in winter, make sure you are relatively fit, as the hike can be tiring. Also bring some waterproof pants and hiking shoes, don’t be like me!

A 2016 Travel Review

As is tradition on this blog,  I go through the favourite places I have traveled to each year, as a form of giving thanks, and a little summary for myself to look back on.

The year 2016 was a relatively muted one from a travel perspective. No fantastical round-the-world trips, no overly exotic destinations and no crazy travel incidents that make people go “Red, you must be absolute nutters to go there!” Let’s just say  having a new baby curtails your travel plans quite a bit. 🙂

I still managed my fair share of travelling though. Two new countries, and re-visits to places I have previously been to. Below is a summary of the highlights of the past year.

Bogor, Indonesia (Feb’16)
Travelled with the wife to Jakarta to check out the common tourist sights. Took a day trip to the nearby city of Bogor, where I had a wander in the Bogor Botanical Gardens. Within the garden is the Istana Bogor, the residence of the Sir Stamford Raffles when he was Lieutenant-Governor of Bogor.

Chap Go Meh, Singkawang, Indonesia (Feb’16)
The city of Singkawang is on the east coast of Kalimantan. I flew into Pontianak airport and took public transport up to Singkawang. This was the site of big Chap Go Meh celebrations. The festival, which takes place on the 15th day of Chinese New Year, is extra special here. It is celebrated by both the local Chinese and Dayak community. A procession of devotees, many with their faces and bodies pierced with sharp objects, parade across town in a trance, seemingly oblivious to the watching crowd. The guy here is holding on to a chicken, whose unfortunate head had been ripped off.

Porto & Lisbon, Portugal (Mar’16)
One of two new countries visited this year, we just managed to visit Porto and Lisbon. The highlight for most would have to be Belem, where the Tower of Belem and the Jeronimos Monastery are located. For me though, the highlight is the food, specifically Polvo a Lagareiro, or octopus cooked portuguese style. Delicioso!

Santiago de Compostela, Spain (Mar’16)
From Portugal, we took a detour north to the Galicia part of Spain. Visited the famed pilgrim’s destination town of Santiago de Compostela. The town marks the end point of the El Camino Santiago, the walk that leads to the shrine of the apostle St James. We also visited A Coruna, and climbed the Tower of Hercules, a UNESCO listed Heritage Site.

Yogyakarta, Indonesia (Sep’16)
A revisit, this time with the wife, to the Kratons of Yogyakarta, a stay in the Manohara Hotel to catch the sunrise at Borobudur, and a day excursion to Prambanan. Indonesia is still my destination of choice, despite so many previous visits.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival, Thailand (Oct’16)
The beaches of Phuket are a draw for most, but I was here for the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. The festival happens in Phuket Town. Devotees would walk in their processions, often pierced and in a trance-like state, as onlookers stand by. Sounds like the Chap Goh Meh in Singkawang earlier? Yes, it is very similar. Relative to that festival, the Vegetarian festival is a more staid affair, though first time visitors will still be overwhelmed by sheer noise and colours surrounding them. Oh, and firecrackers exploding all around you is the norm.

Ayutthaya, Thailand (Nov’16)
The first of many trips with the little one, 5 month old at the time. While Bangkok is all shopping and food, I took a little side-trip by myself to see the ruins of Ayutthaya. The rich, ancient Kingdom of Ayutthaya was the second major Thai kingdom in history, after Sukothai. Easily reachable from Bangkok, the ruins consists of temples, statues and walled forts and one highlight, a tree with the Budhha’s visage.

Kuching, Malaysia (Dec’16)
Again another revisit, but I was glad to go back to Kuching. The laid back city is a food haven. Highlights are the Sarawak Cultural Village, and a visit to see orang-utans in Semenggoh Nature Reserve. Unfortunately, no orang-utan appeared to feed in the time we were there, but it was a good opportunity to do a little nature hike, with the little one and the missus.

And that’s not all the trips in 2016. There was plenty of work-related travel around the region, to Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia as well. 2017 is going to be another great year, one with more fantastic destinations.

A Palembang Walkthrough

19-22 Feb 2015. Palembang, Indonesia

I trooped off to another flash travelling destination over the Lunar New Year holidays. This time round to Palembang, Indonesia. Not your typical destination, but then again, I’ve never been a typical destination kind of person. So what exactly is there to see in Palembang?

Palembang is the second largest city in Sumatra, Indonesia. The Musi River cuts through the city, bisecting it into two. Linking northern and southern Palembang is the majestic Ampera Bridge. This is one of the largest bridges in Indonesia, and is a distinctive landmark. The Ampera Bridge is also what you see on every postcard, fridge magnet or keychain from Palembang.

Northern Bank – Seberang Ilir

City life is at its most bustling and exciting at the area around the northern bank of the Ampera Bridge. The large area under the bridge houses an open air street market, selling mainly clothing. There is also a TransMusi stop underneath the bridge. The TransMusi is perhaps the easiest way for a tourist to get around by public transport. These buses ply routes around the city, and for just 5500 Rupiah, you can travel around without difficulty. The alternative is taking the angkutan kota, the city vans but these require a bit more savvy, since there are no clear route maps you can find online, unlike the TransMusi network.

I did take a few of these vans to get from place to place, and being able to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia helps of course. Look out for your bags though. “There are pickpockets”. This was advice from more than one local. I did not encounter any incidents though, other than a near accident when my bajaj (those three wheeler tuk-tuks) almost crashed into the rear of a stationary car that was double parked in the middle of the road.

To the west of the bridge, a slew of waterfront restaurants and eateries line up along the waterfront. These include a KFC and a J.Co Donuts outlet, with seats overlooking the river, allowing for some spectacular views of the Ampera Bridge. Further down, the pretty waterfront promenade is where everyone goes to in the late afternoon. It is a bit of a party atmosphere here, with balloon sellers, and food vendors setting up their own mobile stalls, complete with stoves and short stools for their customers. I had myself a “telor kerak” made out of crispy slightly burnt eggs scraped off the bottom of a wok, and would have eaten from one of the many Mie Tek Tek stalls had I not been so full.

Still along the northern bank, and on the east side of the bridge is an indoor market known as Pasar 16 Ilir. A maze of alleys to get lost in, with vendors calling out to you from left and right. Each stall sells colourful garments but the highlight would be the gold threaded fabric known as songket. The gold thread, sometimes also in silver, enhances the base cloth and creates very desirable clothing pieces. The good quality hand-woven pieces could cost hundreds of Singapore dollars. Machine sewn ones would be cheaper, but still more expensive than normal cloth. I shopped around and learnt a little about the fabric.

Just immediately north of the bridge are a cluster of tourist sites which, together with the bridge, make up the heart of Palembang. First is a massive fountain, in the middle of a roundabout. Just further down the road is the grand Masjid Agung, a place of worship constructed in 1738 and today the grandest mosque in the city.

Nearby is the Monpera, helpfully abbreviated from Monument Ampera. This giant grey building in the shape of a flower was erected to honour the dead who fought against their Dutch colonists. Inside the building is a rather dismal museum, with photos of war heroes and paraphernalia. The best part of Monpera was climbing up 8 flights of stairs to reach the open roof, where young couples sit and scribble declarations of love on the surface of the roof. Just behind the monument is the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum, a more slightly more impressive collection of the history of Palembang.

Most people end up taking a boat cruise down the Musi river. The main attraction is Kemaro Island, around 5 kilometres downriver. The Chinese temple on the island in the middle of the river is where the local Chinese would go during festivals like Chap Goh Meh.

Food & Malls

One of the main hangouts for shopping is the Palembang Indah Mall. Like most large Indonesian cities, there is a surge of new shopping malls, where the affluent and trendy would hang out. For m, the most impressive thing about the mall is the state of the art Cineplex, which surpasses the mediocre cinemas back home. Over here, the cinema experience is a grand affair, with plushy seats and attendants who greet you with palms together. Even the area around the ticket counter looks like an airport VIP lounge. And might I add that the price is less than half of what we pay back in Singapore.

The newest mall is the Palembang Icon, fancy and with a layout mimicking the malls back home. However, I preferred the mall just next to it, Palembang Square which, although shabbier, has a better mix of tenants.

My affinity for Indonesian cuisine makes this next section very biased. Padang cuisine can be found in chains like Sederhana or Pagi Sore. Both restaurants will have waiters serving you as astounding number of dishes, leaving you flabbergasted if it’s your first time visiting. How it works is that you pick out only the dishes you want, and leave the rest. They will charge you accordingly. The specialty in Palembang is pempek, a chewy fish cake dough made out of fish and tapioca. It is kind of similar to the keropok lekor found in Malaysia. The Palembang version is eaten with cuko, a sweet vinegary black sauce that makes the pempek delicious. Pempek is sold everywhere and local tourists travelling to Palembang would pack large boxes to bring back home.

Southern Bank – Seberang Ulu

I spent a fair bit of time on the southern bank of the Musi River too. Crossing the Ampera bridge, and flagging an angkut, I reached the Palembang Cheng Ho Mosque. Cheng Ho, or Zheng He, is the Hui Chinese admiral born into a Muslim family, who in the 15th century made 7 expeditions from China to the rest of the world, visiting 37 countries in the process. He stopped by Palembang multiple times on his journeys and at one point helped the locals ward off seafaring bandits. The Cheng Ho mosque is named after him. The mosque itself is new, built in 2008, and has oriental architecture atypical of normal mosques there. Near the mosque is the Jakabaring stadium where the 2011 SEA games was held.

Getting on a bajaj, the helpful driver took me to the Kapitan’s House. This 500 year old house located at the southern bank of the Musi near the Ampera bridge, is still lived in by descendants of the Kapitan. The Kapitan was a local Chinese appointed by the authorities when Palembang was under Dutch rule, to be the representative of the Chinese community. He was the one the Dutch would have dealings with. And the Kapitan’s house is one of three still remaining in the area. Inside the house is a prayer shrine, as well as many portraits on the walls, each one showing an ancestor or a current member of the family. Immediately to the right of the house is another house, this one also 500 years old, but not lived in. Instead it is used as an ancestral shrine.

Outside Central Palembang

Additionally, I visited a couple of museums outside of the city centre. The Sriwijaya Museum lies outside the city. It is on the grounds of ancient Sriwijaya ruins which are long gone. In its place now is a pleasant park, with waterways and a lake that was dug up during the Sriwijaya period. The museum itself has a collection of artefacts from the Sriwijaya empire (7th to 13th CE). Sriwijaya was the center of Buddhism in the region, and the museum features Buddhist deities and inscriptions. Within the hinterlands of Sriwijaya, Hinduism flourished and the museum displays a selection of Hinduism-related artefacts from Bumiayu temple ruins. Getting to the remote Sriwijaya Museum on public transport is tough, so you might want to hire a taxi. Remember to get the driver to wait for you at the parking lot of the museum while you explore.

The other big museum is the Balaputradewa Museum. More accessible than the previous museum and thus considerably more touristed, the Balaputradewa has several galleries that chronologically trace the history of South Sumatra. The most interesting section for me though is the display on the megalithic culture of South Sumatra. 2000 year old carved rock specimens in the shape of humans and animals have been found in South Sumatra, near the Lahat and Pagar Alam districts. Some of the collected rock specimens are on display here at the Balaputradewa Museum. Getting there by public transport is possible. Just take the angkut that shuttles from Ampera to KM5. Ask to stop outside the museum.

Getting to Palembang.

Updated Oct’17: Silkair has transfered their Palembang service to Scoot. Jetstar also goes to Palembang. Previously, both services were unavailable, so we took a fast ferry from Singapore to Batam, and then flew from Batam’s Hang Nadim Airport to Palembang on Citilink Air, an Indonesian low cost carrier.

 

The Churches of Iloilo

Iloilo City – Iloilo Province – Panay – Visayas – Philippines

While on a short little trip up to the Philippines city of Iloilo back in January for the colourfully fantastic Dinagyang festival, I took the opportunity to see the Spanish era churches of Iloilo Province. These century old churches can be found in all the towns, and I visited 5.

1) Miagao Church

Also known as the The Church of Saint Thomas of Villanova, the church in Miagao town is listed as a UNESCO protected heritage site under the entry “Baroque Churches of the Philippines”. Originally built in 1797 in the local interpretation of the Baroque architectural style, the church served as a fortress against Muslim Moro raiders.

Grand facade of the Miagao church, includes two bell towers on either side.

Giant buttresses support the thick walls of the church. More fortress than church, definitely.

The pediment has a distinctly botanical motif. An interesting mix of east and west. St. Christopher carrying the child Christ under a coconut tree, with a papaya tree to his left.

The interior of the church. The ceiling is low compared to how large it looks outside.

2) The San Joaquin Church

This was my favourite church visited. Despite being less famous than the Miagao church, the 1869-built San Joaquin Church has an equally, if not more, outstanding pediment. This one features a busy scene of horse-riding soldiers in battle with the beleaguered Moro fighters, during the battle of Tetuan. To the right is a three storey attached bell-tower.

The pediment of the San Joaquin church. The reddish colour comes from the limestone and coral that makes up the church.

Compared to the exterior, the interior is tiled, with clean lines.

Also, the town of San Joaquin is very pretty, with trishaws and motorbikes with sidecars ferrying passengers up and down the main road.

3) Jaro Cathedral

Much closer is the Jaro Cathedral, located in the Jaro district of Iloilo city. Unlike the other churches on this list, it is a cathedral. Yes there is a difference. Built in 1864, it is known for its 400 year old image of the Lady of Candles. Encased in glass in front of the cathedral, accessible via a flight of steps, the Marian image of the Virgin is the site of an annual festival every 2nd Feb.

The Pope John Paul II himself visited the cathedral on Feb 21, 1981 and declared the Lady of Candles the Patron of Western Visayas.

An unusual feature of the cathedral is the bell-tower, which stands separated from the main church, across the road.

The rear interior of the cathedral

The interior of the Jaro Cathedral is simple, with male saints lined on either side of the nave.

4) Molo Church

The Molo Church, also located in Iloilo City, is commonly known as the female church. This is because the saints lined along the nave are all female. Looking at first glance more like a medieval castle than a church, this gothic structure was built in 1831.

Located in the district of Molo, Iloilo City is the Church of St. Anne, better known as the Molo Church.

The sharp pointy spires of the Molo Church stands out from the surroundings buildings.

The interior of the Molo church.

The altar of the Molo Church. I especially like the dove scene on the ceiling.

Stained glass painting of the Virgin and Child.

5) The Arevalo Church

Compared to the previous churches on the list, the Arevalo Church lacks their grandeur. But this modern looking church, located in the Villa Arevalo district of Iloilo City, has its own star attraction. The third oldest image of the Santo Nino can be found here. The 1581 Santo Nino de Arevalo is kept in a glass casing, flanked by two angels.

The exterior of the Arevalo Church.

The image of the Santo Nino de Arevalo.

A close up

The outer section of the church has a row of saints in white. The grills behind lead into the church, which has an open concept, with the grills replacing walls.

Getting There: For Singaporeans eager to pop down to Iloilo City to check out these churches, Cebu Pacific flies direct from Singapore. Yes, a direct flight to Iloilo City. If you are headed there, you could also time your visit to catch the colourful Dinagyang Festival in January.

A 2014 Travel Review

It is December again and time for the annual travel review here at The Furious Panda. Every year around this time, I look back to the previous year’s travel and basically give thanks for all the opportunities I’ve had to travel.

You can take a look at past years’ travel review at these links: 2011 review, 2012 review, 2013 review.

The theme for 2014 was travelling with friends, and visiting festivals in the region. I managed the former OK I think, almost half of the year’s trips were with friends. The festivals bit not so much, but not for lack of trying. Considering I was not on an extended year’s break like in 2012-2013, I think the past year has been a pretty decent year of travelling. Many micro-adventures around the region. Let’s take a look at what was accomplished in 204.

Jan – Indonesia (Medan) – A solo trip. There is a distinct focus on cultural and historical places for this year’s trips. Medan of course, is a common Indonesian city to visit. But I also visited the Batak region of Sumatra, around Lake Toba. A highlight was the largest Batak museum in the little visited town of Balige.

April – Malaysia (Tioman) – This must be my third visit to Tioman for diving. Just a weekender, but a fun trip nevertheless, with colleagues and friends.

April – Indonesia (Jakarta) – Indonesia is my happy hunting ground. My destination of choice whenever I need a getaway. But I’ve yet to spend any time in the capital. So Jakarta visiting a friend means a proper introduction to Indonesian lingo. And food, especially food.

May – Thailand (Sukothai) – One of my favourite solo trips this year. Thailand was my go to place back then (Five trips to various parts of Thailand from 2003 to 2008). So it is a pleasant return to the Land of Smiles. The Buddhist temples of Sukothai are wonderful. Even more wonderful are the obscure satellite towns of Kamphaeng Phet and Si Satchanalai, both sites of the ancient Sukothai kingdom.

May – Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) – Everyone knows KL, but my little tour of the Seven Wonders of KL, is a pleasant diversion from the usual exploratory trips this year. I got to visit parts of KL I would never have visited on my own.

Aug – Indonesia (Tana Toraja, Ambon “The Spice Islands”) – This is one of two highlight trips this year. The elaborate funeral festival of the Toraja people has always been on my bucket list. To be able to see an actual Toraja funeral up close is a treat. The icing is the impromptu decision to fly to Ambon, one of the Spice Islands of the Moluccas.

Aug – Taiwan (Taipei) – Not so much a personal trip, I nevertheless spent a morning spotting Taipei’s major tourist sites during this work trip.

Oct – Lebanon (Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, Tyre, Baalbek) -The other highlight trip of 2014 and the only one this year out of South-east Asia (not counting Taiwan). After plans to visit Iraqi Kurdistan got canned (no thanks to ISIL!), I decided to go to Lebanon. The return to the Middle East and the welcome return to familiarity: the falafels, the language, the people – made the long journey there worthwhile.

Oct – UAE (Dubai), Oman (Ras Musandam Peninsula) – Together with Lebanon, I met up with a friend and we went on a road trip to the Ras Musandam strip, that little sliver of Oman separated from the rest of the country. It was my second visit to Oman, but the first to this region.

Nov – Indonesia (Batam) – A weekend trip to nearby Batam, for the foodie in me.

Dec – Myanmar (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay) – To close off the year, I went up to Myanmar to see the famed pagodas of Bagan. And broke my collarbone in an electric bike accident.

In summary, it was a pretty eventful year, despite not going too far out of Singapore. I managed one new country (Lebanon) and many revisits to once familiar countries. 10 trips out, with only 2 of them being solo trips.

2015 is going to be a very exciting year for me. It looks like I’m going to have a permanent travel buddy. 🙂

Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan

“Welcome, welcome! I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long, please have a seat.” said the man before me as he removed his cap and coat. Hayat was a middle-aged man with a designer stubble that would make George Clooney proud. He had cheery wrinkled eyes and gold teeth that winked out to me when he smiled.

“How long have you been in Kyrgyzstan?” he asked.

“Almost two weeks now,” was my reply. “But I spent most of my time in the city and up north horse-trekking near the lakes.”

“Then you are going to love Arslanbob. Here we have walnut forests, waterfalls and long, lovely hikes through the countryside. Come now, let’s take a look at where you will be staying.”

Community Based Tourism

Hayat is the local coordinator of the Community Based Tourism program, CBT for short. What is CBT? It is an excellent network of sustainable tourism initiatives set up in Kyrgyzstan. Instead of staying in hotels, tourists are put up in the homes of local people. In each town or village, a local CBT office exists where the coordinator would liaise with arriving tourists and accommodate them in homes. The whole process is professionally done. Prices for lodging and food are fixed no matter which house you stay. Additionally, local activities like trekking and horse-riding led by experienced guides can be organised for reasonable prices. As a result, everyone ends up with a positive experience: The local people benefit from the additional income source, and tourists get an authentic introduction to Kyrgyz life.

Hayat motioned me to the opposite side of his sparse office, where pictures of various locals’ homes have been put up on the wall. Each one showed the interior of a local villager’s house. Some were labeled 1 star, others 2 stars. The distance of the home from the office was indicated. I was to pick from one of these 18 houses and stay there for the next couple of nights. But which?

He noticed my hesitation and came to the rescue: “Houses number 3 and 8 are near the trailhead to the waterfalls, the owner of house no.10 speaks German. The two star homes are slightly more expensive, but they have banyas.”  Banyas? I looked at him blankly.

“Russian saunas”, he helpfully added. I shrugged.

“Or how about house 14? The wife is a very good cook.”  Good food? Yes please. I may be ten months and five thousand kilometers away from home, but the Singaporean in me still gets excited at the mention of good food.

And so I ended up in the Nazigul family home for the next couple of nights. My room was simple but clean, luxurious by Kyrgyz standards. The family spoke little English, but were determined to ensure I had a good stay. I was introduced to Nazigul’s adorable young son, and she prepared a light welcome lunch for me, before I set off to explore the area.

Arslanbob, the largest walnut forest on earth

Arslanbob is a small town nestled at the foot of the Ferghana Mountains, in southern Kyrgyzstan. The word ‘Arslan’ translates to lion and indeed a statue of a lion sits in the town center.  Arslanbob’s population of 1500 are mostly ethnic Uzbeks. Its main claim to fame is that at its doorstep is the largest single walnut forest in the world, at around 600 square kilometers, which is huge! Compare that to the size of Singapore, around 700 square kilometres. Alexander the Great was said to have travelled to this very region and brought the walnuts back to Europe. Every September, locals would come out to gather walnuts, a social and carnival atmosphere set on the 1600 metre high slopes of the valley.

I wandered around Arslanbob town and followed the trail leading into the nearest walnut grove, carrying with me a rough hand-drawn map and instructions from Hayat telling me how to get there. Looking out for signs indicating the way, the only one I saw was a crude drawing of a deer with the words “водапад” scrawled in Russian above it. I later found out it translates to “Waterfall”. Kyrgyzstan was part of the former Soviet Republic and many people speak Russian as the second language. Even the Kirgiz language is written using the cyrillic alphabet.

I need not worry about getting lost though. Walking past houses on the outskirts of town, the occupants helpfully pointed out the way. And it was clear when I reached the walnut grove. The trees spread out over a huge expanse, reaching up to 30 meters into the sky and extending their branches to create a shady forest canopy, creating a fairy-tale like atmosphere. They grow for up to 1000 years, and provide ample walnuts and wood for Kyrgyzstan.

Beyond the walnut grove the trail led to the waterfall that the sign mentioned. There are actually two waterfalls around Arslanbob, locally known as Small Waterfall and Big Waterfall. They are said to have magical healing powers and give the visitor blessings. I visited both the 23 meter high Small Waterfall and the much larger 80 meter Big Waterfall. Truth be told, the waterfalls while spectacular were not the highlights of hiking in Arslanbob. It was the rolling hills with grazing horses, the up-close encounter with a calf feeding as its mother looks on, the meeting with donkey-riding villagers on their way home who insisted on having their pictures taken with you. All simple moments that make the hike enjoyable.  And I did get lost on the hikes on the second day, several times in fact. But the scenery was so beautiful that each time I was hardly bothered. I simply retraced my steps after admiring the scenery.

The way to experience Arslanbob is to sit back, enjoy the fresh air and sunny weather amid snow-capped mountains, and just soak in the surroundings. Indeed, what Hayat said when I first met him had come true. I was in love with Arslanbob.

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines, Emirates,China Southern and Turkish Airlines offer flights (with one stopover) from Singapore to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

Arslanbob is easily accessible by bus or taxi from the nearby cities of Osh and Jalalabad. If taking a bus, you will need to change buses at Bazar Korgon.

TRAVELLER’S TIPS

■ Kyrgyzstan is visa free for most nationalities, including Singaporeans. Some parts of the country are more conservative than others. In Arslanbob, the village is mainly a traditional Uzbek community, so dressing conservatively is a good idea.

■  There are 17 CBT offices throughout Kyrgyzstan. The one in the Bishkek is particularly helpful to get you started with your travels in Kyrgyzstan. They will helpfully provide advice and brochures of places of interest. CBT’s website is http://www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg

■ The hikes around Arslanbob are easy and can be done on your own. The Big Waterfall hike is a four hour return trip from town. If you have more time, you can organise 4 day guided treks with CBT to the Holy Lake, a beautiful alpine lake that lies over mountain passes.

■ Go to Arslanbob during walnut season in September to mingle to with local people as they collect the harvest. You will find your pockets full of walnuts offered by locals. Or you can try going during the winter months when the local CBT offers skiing on the slopes as an activity.

An Albanian Oddysey

The Albanian Riviera, the Albanian Alps, medieval castles, Ottoman mosques, Orthodox churches, Mediterranean villages, ancient Roman cities. Want more? How about beach resorts, mountain ski slopes, cities with vibrant nightlife and a captivating history? Albania has all these and at a fraction of the cost you find elsewhere in Europe, it is one of the most underrated places you can travel to.

Not many tourists go to Albania. The country’s relative anonymity as a travel destination is due to its socialist past. Albania opened up to the rest of the world only recently after decades of isolation by the communist regime that ran the country for almost half a century.

I arrived in Tirana, the capital of Albania without much expectation. It was the last leg of my trip through the Balkans, and I thought there would be little of interest to see here. How wrong I was.

Tirana

Tirana is a bustling, lively city of contrasts, displaying aspects of the country’s socialist and Ottoman past. You can find drab, grey utilitarian buildings side-by-side with patriotic murals loudly proclaiming Albanian identity and independence. There are bustling roadside open-air markets, crumbling buildings and green open spaces. The centre of the city is Skanderbeg Square, a large boulevard in the shape of a roundabout named after the 15th century Albanian national hero who fought against the Ottoman invasion. A statue of him astride a horse is found in the middle of the square, alongside the red double-headed eagle flag of Albania.

In the southern part of Tirana, just across the river, is more evidence of its communist past. A pyramid had been built in the city centre, originally as a museum to Enver Hoxha, the communist leader of Albania who ruled for 44 years. He famously declared Albania the world’s first atheist state. After the downfall of communism, the pyramid was abandoned and today is a graffiti-laden disused landmark.

Beyond the pyramid, there is an upmarket section of the city known as Blloku. Formerly this was the residential district of the elite of the communist regime, including Enver Hoxha. Until the fall of the regime in 1991, the public was not allowed entry to this area. Today however, it is a colourful section of town with trendy cafes, restaurants and shopping boutiques. I wandered around this area with two friends I met, and we had coffee in the Sky Tower Bar, a rotating restaurant on the 17th floor which allowed for panoramic 360-degree views of Tirana. Considering it was one of the fancier places to go to in town, the prices were very reasonable.

But Albania is not just the chaos and bustle of Tirana. To the north of the capital lie the Albanian Alps, part of the mountain range that runs through the Balkans. This is where one could go hiking and skiing. However, I decided to go south instead, heading for the three UNESCO listed sites in Albania. First stop, Berat.

Berat

Berat is known as the “Town of a Thousand Windows”. And it was easy to see why. As soon as my bus arrived in town, I was greeted by multi-windowed Ottoman-era houses that were piled up against the slope of a hill. For over 400 years, Albania came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and today, there are many Ottoman houses built in the local style dotting the Albanian countryside. However, only here in Berat were they arranged in such a visually arresting manner.

A medieval citadel caps the hilltop. What is amazing is that within the medieval citadel is a fully lived-in neighbourhood. Behind crumbling, white-washed fortress walls, there are homes fronted by cars in garages and children playing kick-ball. There are also mosques and churches, including one Orthodox church that has been converted into a museum of Christian iconography.

Gjirokastër

Along with Berat, Gjirokastër is the other major Ottoman-influenced draw in central Albania. If Berat was the ‘Town of a Thousand Windows’, then Gjirokastër is the ‘City of Stone’. The old town of Gjirokastër is located high up halfway along the slopes of a plateau. Climbing up to the town involves following steep cobblestoned pathways until you reach the stone houses of Gjirokastër. These multi-storeyed houses are constructed out of stone, and their most defining feature are the shale roofs that cover every single house, giving rise to the town’s nickname.

From the top of Gjirokastër Castle, I could see down below to the stone roofs that panned out as far as the eye can see. The castle, itself located on the plateau, is a museum with remains of WWII cannons, tanks and even a plane. Within the castle, I wandered around the ramparts, abandoned rooms and marvelled at the still intact clock tower. Every five years, Gjirokastër Castle hosts the Albanian Folklore Festival, where traditional Albanian folk singing and dancing takes place. The next festival is scheduled for 2014.

Sarandë

The city of Sarandë sits on the southern coastline of Albania, known as the Albanian Riviera. With a mediterranean climate, numerous beaches and cheap seafood, it is definitely a place to relax on a beach holiday.

The highlight of Sarandë for me however is the nearby ancient Greek and Roman ruins of Butrint. Situated on an island linked to the mainland by a peninsula, the ruins of Butrint comprise all the structures normally found in a Roman city: a Roman theatre, an agora, a basilica, Roman baths and residential homes. Additionally, there were also later structures like Venetian defence towers, built to defend against Ottoman incursions. All these were within the Butrint National Park, a protected wetlands area. It was surreal walking around the ruins by myself. In the trees around me I could hear wild birds. I would walk along a path through the forest, and when the trees parted before me there would be more ruins. To me, it was like walking through the wetlands in Pulau Ubin’s Chek Jawa and suddenly seeing old Roman buildings.

I only managed six days in Albania, which is not enough to see everything the country has to offer. With so many things to see and do, tourists are slowly beginning to discover this underrated gem of a country. It is only a matter of time until Albania loses its ‘under the radar’ status, opening its doors to independent travellers and holidaymakers alike.

GETTING THERE

Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, and British Airways offer flights (with one stopover) from Singapore to Tirana. By land, there are buses from neighbouring Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece. By sea, ferries from the Greek island of Corfu go to Sarandë.

TRAVELLER’S TIPS

■  Albania is visa free for Singaporeans for up to 90 days. If travelling in the region, it is a good idea to include nearby Kosovo and Macedonia in your itinerary. Both countries have significant ethnic Albanian populations and would allow you to better understand the culture and history of the region.

■  The currency is the Albanian lekë. Outside the country it is difficult to exchange your lekë so spend your remaining money before you leave.

■  Visit Ksamil village, located between Sarandë and Butrint for clear blue beaches and chance to swim from island to island.

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