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Thailand’s “Death Railway”: Adventures on the Eastern & Oriental Express, Part I

4 Jun

The Kwai River Bridge. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Since its inception, The Eastern & Oriental Express has been on my bucket list of trains to ride. But it was IRT President Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog that finally made me book the trip. And as long as I was going halfway around the world, I decided to add the standard E&O four-day Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my trip.

Unlike their semi-annual one-week tours (ours was Epic Thailand), this route runs regularly during high season and continues on a less frequent schedule throughout the year. In fact, the journey is more like a scheduled train than a tour, as stops are made to entrain passengers at the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lampur and Butterworth.

The train is much more than “general transportation,” however, and is every bit as impressive as outlined in Ms. Hardy’s blog. The staff is top-notch – attentive but not overbearing. What I didn’t expect was to be greeted by name by bartender Andrek asking if I was ready for my iced tea! How did he know? Of course, preferences were indicated on the booking form, but those are often a formality soon forgotten.

The War Cemetary at Kanachanaburi. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Conductor on local train. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Off-train tours are offered in the colonial Malaysian city of Georgetown and to Kanchanaburi, site of the Kwai River bridge. I, however, had planned to venture out on my own, leaving the E&O at the Kwai River Station and continuing by local train to the end of the line, 45 miles north at Nam Tok.

This track is what’s left of the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” constructed by allied prisoners of World War II and made famous by the movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” The Allied War Cemetery at Kanchanaburi, with over 6,000 graves, lies in silent testament to the horror of what transpired there.

But all was not going according to plan. Would I make it to Bangkok in time, I wondered, to join the 19 other IRT travelers leaving on the Epic Thailand tour?

For part II of Bruce Anderson’s adventures in Thailand, please click here.

Royal Rajasthan: Great Food, Service, Tours; But Luxurious It Is Not (And Drop the Shopping)

22 Mar

Editor’s Note: Thank you for this great post by our traveler, Robert Shelton of Houston, TX., who traveled on this train in February, 2012.

Royal Rajasthan staff member welcomes travelers on board. IRT Photo by Robert Shelton

If you are searching for an efficient and comfortable tour of the sights surrounding Delhi, the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels‘ Classical India Journey may be your answer.   In seven days you can explore the numerous temples and forts, varied landscapes and diverse cultures throughout the colorful states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Also included are a fascinating exploration of the wonders of life along the holy Ganges River and a tour of the Taj Mahal.

Royal Rajasthan on Wheels cabins include private sink, toilet & shower. RROW Photo

On board the Royal Rajasthan you will find adequate accommodations for your trip, including two dining cars and a spa car. Though marketed as a new train, the Royal Rajasthan is at best “newly refurbished” with fresh paint, new linens and updated bathrooms.  Luxury and modern amenities, such as in-room entertainment and individual temperature controls, are notably absent.

The train's two diners serve Rajasthani, Indian, continental and Chinese cuisines. RROW Photo

The food on board is excellent, with multiple Continental and Indian offerings each day.  The service is equally as impressive.  The room attendants are at your beck and call 24/7. They’re also available to accompany you for most memorable jaunts outside the standard itinerary. The spa car has a treadmill and two stationary bikes.  Basic massages, facials and mani/pedis are very inexpensive; however, expect the ambiance and quality of a 2- or 3-star spa.

The itinerary is varied and packed full. However, too much time is dedicated to “forced shopping” in overpriced boutiques with merchandise that is widely available back home.  Seasoned travelers will be highly annoyed with the train managers’ excuses and insistence on visiting these shops.  If you wish to avoid them, insist on an early return to the train and then promptly collect your room attendant for a “tuck-tuck” adventure to local markets and other off-the-beaten-path sights.

Regardless of the train’s shortcomings, the Royal Rajasthan does provide a broad exposure to some of Northern India’s best historical and cultural sights.  Just make sure luxury is not your top criteria.

Vic Falls’ Steam Dinner Train Delights Cape-Dar Traveler

2 Dec
Victoria Falls Dinner Train

Dining Car Wembley, built in 1926. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

Victoria Falls is one of the great natural wonders of the world. I’ve seen it four times and never tire of the magnificent views.

But while the Falls has been called “the smoke that thunders,” few are aware that smoke of another kind can be found just across the bridge from the Victoria Falls Hotel in Zambia.

Steam Engine Class 12 of the Royal Livingstone Dinner Train

Steam engine 12th class 204, built by Northern British Locomotive works in the 1930. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

Nestled in a remote corner of town next to the Livingstone Railway Museum is the Royal Livingstone Express, a true throwback to the days of Rhodesian Railways’ passenger services. I had a chance to sample this vision of the past during my recent Rovos Rail trip to Dar Es Salaam with the Society of International Railway Travelers®. The Cape Town – Dar itinerary includes a overnight stop at the Falls.

Rovos groups stay at the Victoria Falls Hotel, on the Zimbabwe side. The hotel is beautiful, but it makes the trek to the dinner train a bit problematic. Getting there — one-way— included two van rides, the purchase of a double-entry visa at the Zimbabwe-Zambia border and a six-mile bus ride. But the trouble and expense are well worth it.

It is indeed quite a train.

Its five cars all have been either restored by or purchased from Rovos Rail. They include a kitchen car and two dining saloons, one of which was the unique, pillared diner “Wembly,” built in 1926. Rounding out the consist are a lounge and, bringing up the rear, an open-platform observation car.

The Royal Livingstone Express Dinner Train

The Royal Livingstone Express Dinner Train. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

The train’s route first took us through Livingstone, where the entire township seemed on hand to wave, with the younger set chasing after us as well. We spent the rest of our time spotting elephants as we chugged through Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. True, most of our journey was in winter darkness. But the real attraction was what was happening inside the train.

The train’s two chefs turned out a five-course, freshly prepared meal worthy of a fine dining restaurant. It was served while the train was stopped at the far end of its five-and-a-half-mile run. Our entrée, lamb shoulder, was delicious, with the meat just about falling off the bone. A vegetarian option also was available.

After dinner, drinks were served in the two lounges during the train’s return to Livingstone. Train enthusiasts in our group were treated to the sounds and smell of a Class 12 steam locomotive. For the return trip, it ran tender first, coupled to the back of the train’s observation car. It was just about the closest one can get to a working steam locomotive without actually being on the foot plate.

Cost for the train including transfers (but excluding visas) is $160 U.S. and can be booked through The Society of IRT. Dinner runs usually are made Wednesdays and Saturdays with a minimum of 20 passengers required. Dress code is smart casual. I would highly recommend this unique experience, particularly for a second-time visitor, as I was, who has previously done some of the area’s more well-known tourist activities.

For more information on the Royal Livingstone Express, or on Rovos Rail’s Cape Town – Dar es Salaam tour, call (800) 478-4881 within the U.S. and Canada. Elsewhere, call (502) 897-1725.

2012: Lapping up Luxury as World’s Top 25 Trains Unveiled

18 Nov

When it comes to the World’s Top 25 Trains, luxury leads the way in 2012.

The Society of International Railway Travelers® is proud to announce its annual picks of the best of the best, and the trend towards true “five-star-hotel-on-wheels” status is unmistakable. Consider:

  • With its upgraded dining service and gigantic Imperial Suites, the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express now is truly golden—and so we’re thrilled to award it luxury status. Congratulations to GW Travel of the UK, its operator!
  • The Canadian is adding new, luxury-level deluxe class service summer 2012;
  • Despite rumors of its being on the auction block, South Africa’s Blue Train continues its decades-old tradition of top-notch service, food  and on-board amenities, now with three luxurious Botswana safari camp add-ons;
  • Queenslander Class on Australia’s Sunlander expands to three departures in each direction weekly, even as a modernized, new Sunlander prepares to take over in 2014.
  • Spain’s luxurious Al-Andalus is scheduled to return to the broad-gauge rails next year; if the past is any indication, it’s likely to be fantastic (we won’t know for sure until we review it next spring). But if Al-Andalus joins the “Top 25,” which train gets the boot? Stay tuned!

“The trend really does seem to be headed in the direction of ever greater luxury,” said Eleanor Hardy, president of The Society of International Railway Travelers®, which compiles the annual “Top 25 List” and has been evaluating the world’s great trains since 1983. “Congratulations to all the trains and their staffs for earning this well-deserved World’s Top 25 Trains medallion.” The award is based on frank reviews of owners, staff, editors and our travelers.

Read them in our publication, available for immediate download here.

Eleanor Hardy and Blue Train chef

Eleanor Hardy, president of the Society of IRT, shares a laugh with the chef on board Africa's Blue Train. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

“My associate Angela Walker (the Society’s Vice-President, Operations) just returned from northern Spain, where she was highly impressed by the El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, the new narrow-gauge luxury service running between Santiago and San Sebastien. Her suite occupied half a railroad car!”

These developments follow on the heels of last year’s introduction of the Maharajas’ Express in India. Its Presidential Suite, which occupies an entire train car, makes it the largest train accommodation in the world. Spend a mere $22,000 per person, and you too can enjoy two bedrooms, two bathrooms (the master includes a bathtub), and a large parlor with couch, table, chairs and desk.

India, in fact, leads the world with the greatest number of “Top 25 Trains,” totaling four. Besides the Maharajas’ Express, they include Rajasthan’s Palace on Wheels, the Delhi-Mumbai Deccan Odyssey and the tiny (and decidedly non-luxurious) Toy Train, which runs (occasionally) high into the foothills of the Himalayas to Darjeeling.

Another leader in the luxury train realm is the Orient-Express company, which is responsible for no less than six of the IRT Society’s “World’s Top 25 Trains” — five of them definitely luxurious:

  • The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, regularly running from Paris to Venice, less often to such gems as Prague, Vienna and Budapest and — once a year, if you book far enough in advance — all the way to Istanbul;
  • The Royal Scotsman, with room for just 36 passengers, offering an intimate, panoramic taste of the best its namesake country has to offer;
  • The British Pullman,whose 1920s-vintage cars ferry passengers to the continent between London and Folkesone; it also offers day outings with historical, culinary, wine, murder mystery — even steam locomotives — as themes

    Girl in red dress on the Eastern & Oriental Express rear open-air car

    The Eastern & Oriental Express' rear open-air lounge car is a favorite photo spot for passengers. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

  • the Eastern & Oriental Express, normally running between Bangkok and Singapore, but occasionally making week-long trips throughout Thailand and beyond (one of which — “Epic Thailand” — is next year’s Society group tour;
  • the Hiram Bingham, making the three-hour trip in style between Cusco and Machu Picchu in Peru;

N. America has just one appearance on the “World’s Top 25″ list, but it’s a stunner: the Royal Canadian Pacific, based in Calgary and operating on a very limited basis—just three trips in 2012.

Bianca Vos on Rovos Rail

Bianca Vos, daughter of Rovos Rail founder Rohan Vos, works full time for her dad. Here she is on the IRT Society's 'Owners' Choice' Cape Town-Dar es Salaam tour last July. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Last but far from luxurious least is South Africa’s Pride of Africa, run by Rovos Rail, which offers probably the world’s most incredible luxury-rail experiences. Operating all over S. Africa as well as, occasionally, to Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, the train overcomes inhospitable climate, lack of infrastructure and a maze of red tape to offer an almost seamless product. Once you’ve ridden with Rovos Rail (which, with 25 IRT Society members, Eleanor and I did last July from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam) you won’t want to see Africa any other way.

The emphasis on luxury in no way denigrates the others on the “Top 25″ list. The Budapest-Istanbul Danube Express, Switzerland’s Glacier and Bernina Expresses and Norway’s tiny Flåm Railway all are not-to-miss European railroad experiences.

China’s Shangri-La Express can’t be called a luxury train. But it sure beats riding a regular Chinese train and likely will continue to do so until the much-vaunted Chinese Tangula Express luxury trains begin running (if ever).

Diners on Rocky Mountaineer

IRT Society travelers Gary and Joann Campbell dine aboard the Rocky Mountaineer Goldleaf dome. IRT photo courtesy of Gary Campbell

Over in the Western Hemisphere, Peru’s Andean Explorer offers an unforgettable all-day ride, along the top of the world, from Cusco to Lake Titicaca; farther north, Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer offers a great, all-daylight ride (our advise: splurge for a spot in the GoldLeaf dome).

Half a world away, finally, great railway experiences can be had in Australia, the only continent that can boast two trans-continental trains: the Sydney-Perth Indian Pacific and the Adelaide-Alice Springs-Darwin Ghan. Platinum Service, introduced several years ago, makes the going even better.

So there you have it: the World’s Top 25 Trains for 2012. Again, to download our publication now, click here.

What’s that you say? You have a differing opinion? Please tell us. What are your “Top 25?” Now’s the time to join the conversation!

Gran Lujo Strikes Gold

15 Nov

The staff of the El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo welcome passengers aboard in Ferrol, Spain. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

The neatly uniformed staff snaps to attention as we approach El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo at Ferrol Station. As we settle into the lovely lounge car, the staff serves champagne all around.  Our tour manager, Barbara Callisto, with her charming, infectious smile, introduces the staff, explains the train layout and toasts the trip ahead, first in Spanish, then English.

This grand and intimate introduction would set the tone for my trip, which I enjoyed just two weeks ago. It lived up to some of my expectations and exceeded others. Its operator, FEVE, proved once again that its trains are firmly ensconced in the Society of IRT’s World’s Top 25 Trains list.

The Gran Lujo began service in May 2011 as an upgraded version of the El Transcantábrico Clásico, which I already knew was a fabulous train. I had high expectations.

The Gran Lujo comprises refurbished cars from the Clásico train set, with upgrades and improvements throughout. Seven sleeping cars from the Clásico were gutted and redone, doubling the size of the suites and alleviating one of the few complaints of the Clásico experience: cabins that are too small. Each Gran Lujo suite takes up half a train car.

My comfy suite on Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

My room is Suite Princess 6, one of the four twin-bedded suites on the Gran Lujo. First, I notice the layout—surprisingly spacious for  a narrow-gauge train—twin beds, two windows (which open), couch, table, two stools, wardrobe, chest of drawers, desk with computer and two television screens(!) Not to mention a full en-suite bathroom, complete with the most complicated shower I’ve ever encountered – functions for three shower types, hydro-massage and sauna.

The twin beds are side by side, separated by a narrow aisle. At the end of the one bed is a narrow wardrobe with eight hangers and three shelves; at the end of the other is a chest containing three drawers. I quickly unpack my things, easily fitting them into the storage space provided. (Note, however, that I am traveling alone. Couples booking a twin-bedded suite may end up fighting over the eight hangers. Double-bedded suites have a wardrobe twice the size of the original, extra hangers to match, but no chest.) Then I tuck my suitcase in a hidden compartment under the couch.

Watching the passing Northern Spain scenery from my suite window. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

I explore every bit of the suite, with distressed wood paneling, decorated in grays and browns. I discover a minibar, safe and several more clever places for storage, including the stools which open for an unexpected storage box. Technology has been successfully incorporated into the suites – there is digital climate control as well as a panel to operate the cabin “entertainment” — three channels of music and a fourth, which turns on the television screens. If the passing Northern Spain scenery and off-train tours are not enough for you, there are movies, news and weather available, as well as a computer with internet access. The train has wireless internet, but this does not work while the train is moving, and on my trip is not reliable the first few days, even when the train is stabled .

Each morning breakfast is served on board – a buffet including a variety of breads and sweets, cereal, fruit, yogurt, crackers, meats and cheeses, juices and Spanish tortilla. The biggest draw at breakfast quickly becomes the freshly carved Iberian ham. Delicious!

At breakfast, the efficient staff serves me freshly squeezed orange juice and offers me coffee. They also give me a

Fresh orange juice is served by the efficient staff of the El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

menu—in addition to the buffet, there is a full breakfast menu, with offerings such as crepes (with chocolate, strawberry, caramel or a variety of jams), caviar canapé, and made-to-order eggs, including omelets with your choice of ham, mushrooms, sausage, bacon and cheese. After a few days, the staff has memorized the coffee orders and delivers it without asking – in my case, café con leche.

One dining car seats 16 and is decorated in gold and brown, with comfy plush chairs at tables for two. Beautifully latticed panels cover the lights. At each table is a lamp by the window.

The other dining car seats 10 at tables for two and is decorated in red and light brown. There’s a bar at the end of this car, where the morning coffee is brewed and drinks are served throughout the day. Walking through this dining car offers a glimpse of your week ahead: the walls are decorated with paintings of sightseeing along the route, such as Playa de Catedral (Cathedral Beach), which we will walk along in a few days. Likewise, the beautifully painted panels above the windows colorfully depict stops along the way, as well as the train itself.

Tables for two in one of the Gran Lujo dining cars set for a four-course lunch on board. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

Table settings are complete with El Transcantábrico plates, cups and glasses. Other than breakfast, we take our meals off the train in restaurants to sample the local cuisine. However, lunch is served on board the last day, giving us a chance to enjoy the service and watch the passing scenery.

It is also the perfect time to enjoy the lounge car, with a panel of panoramic windows, two cream couches, two armchairs and three tables, each with three chairs, seating 17 in all. Many of my fellow passengers linger here after breakfast, reading the numerous newspapers provided daily.

There is also a “disco car” in the consist, where live music is performed several nights during the journey. This has two big couches, two smaller couches and a dance floor, as well as a bar – and stays open and lively until the last person retires. The last night there’s a farewell party in the disco car, where the staff cheers everyone and crowns a “Mr. & Ms. Transcantabrico,” all in good fun.

Breakfast crepes were just one of many offerings on Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker

The staff are not many, but they’re efficient. There are five serving and two engineers, and the driver, as well as the train manager, Paula. And of course, there is our ever-upbeat, energetic and helpful Barbara, who speaks five languages and happily explains everything in Spanish and English. Our diverse group includes 18 Spanish-speakers from Spain and Mexico and five English-speakers, hailing from Australia, the U.S., England and Switzerland. Our train, running in late October, is the last of the season. Carrying just 23 passengers, it’s not full, making for an even more intimate experience.

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo, one of the World's Top 25 Trains. Photo by Angela Walker.

The Gran Lujo is, without a doubt, an upgrade from the Clásico El Transcantábrico, and well deserves a place among the world’s great luxury trains. The design is well thought-out, making the most of the narrow-gauge space. The staff is efficient and experienced, and the cabins are attractive, large and comfortable.

Besides the train, the touring and food (so much food!) were highlights, which require separate blog posts of their own. Have you been on board the new train? Please let us know your impressions!

(IRT’s Angela Walker, who has reviewed many of the World’s Top 25 Trains for IRT,  just returned from her eight-day journey across Northern Spain on Gran Lujo, traveling from Santiago to San Sebastian. This is the first of several posts. To see more of her photos, please click here.)

Society Wins 4 Top Awards

21 Oct
Society of IRT 2011 Tour Book

Gold Award winner. Society President Eleanor Hardy appears on cover of the IRT Society's Best-Loved Railway Journeys 2011. Mrs. Hardy is dining aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

The Society of International Railway Travelers®, in business for 28 years selling deluxe and luxury rail travel world-wide, has garnered four top national marketing awards for 2011.

The Society won three Gold Magellan Awards and one Silver Magellan Award, a prestigious travel industry honor sponsored by Travel Weekly, a trade publication and travel media company. The Society of IRT is the only rail specialist to win a Magellan award.

“It’s great news, especially considering the travel industry giants we were up against,” including American Express Travel, Vacations.com and Expedia, said Eleanor Hardy, President. “I am proud that we have produced inspiring publications that encourage people to travel on beautiful trains.”

Gold Awards were announced for the Society’s website (www.irtsociety.com); Track 25, the Society’s blog (www.blog.irtsociety.com), and The IRT Society’s Best-Loved Railway Journeys 2011, a full-color, 60-page annual publication featuring luxury and deluxe rail tours world-wide. It features the World’s Top 25 Trains and the best journeys to take on them, and is full of first-hand reviews and reporting and photography from Society of IRT staff and members.

A full-page magazine ad promoting the Society’s World’s Top 25 Trains™ won a Silver award.

IRT Society web site

Gold Award Winner: Society of IRT website

Owen Hardy is the publisher of all IRT publications in print and on the web. Angela Walker, Vice President of Operations, is Associate Editor. Stephen Sebree, owner of Moonlight Graphic Works, is the graphic artist and designer for all print publications, ads and IRT logos. All live in Louisville, Kentucky in the United States. The rest of the Society of IRT team includes Mrs. Hardy, managing tour operations, and Margaret Langner, assisting in all areas of IRT operations, including setting up our blog.

Started in 1983 by Owen Hardy, a former Courier-Journal arts critic, the Society was one of the world’s first agencies specializing in international, high-end rail travel. The Society’s World’s Top 25 Trains™ list, begun in 2006, sets an international standard for luxury rail.

The Society’s list includes iconic names, such as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, as well as newcomers, such as India’s Maharajas’ Express.

Owen and Eleanor Hardy on the Blue Train

Owen and Eleanor Hardy on the Blue Train. IRT Photo

“We pride ourselves in having direct experience with the rail journeys we sell,” said Mrs. Hardy, who has personally ridden 20 of the Society’s World’s Top 25 Trains.

In recent years, the Society’s marketing truly has gone global, with new customers from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, China, the Philippines, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates.

We thank you so much for your support — and your news and feedback about your train trips.  That’s what really makes this happen.

For more information on the Society, please call toll-free (800) 478-4881 in the U.S. and Canada; (502) 454-0277 elsewhere, or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com. To see the complete list of 2011 Magellan Award winners, go to www.travelweeklyawards.com

Spain’s Luxury Al-Andalus Resumes Operation in 2012

17 Oct
Al-AndalusSouthern Spain’s opulent, broad-gauge Al-Andalus is scheduled to return to the rails May, 2012, with its 1920s-era cars newly renovated. The train cancelled departures in May, 2005, following problems with its operator, Iberrail. It has been inactive since that time.

“We’re thrilled Al-Andalus is back on the rails,” said Eleanor Hardy, president of The Society of International Railway Travelers®. The Society is a world-wide booking agent for Al-Andalus, whose amenities include a bar, tea room and two dining cars, as well as all-en suite cabins.

The six-day, five-night tour will begin/end in Seville, with stops in Córdoba, Granada, Cádiz and Jerez. The train’s itinerary combines fine dining and wine with visits to iconic Spanish tourist sites, many of whom have won UNESCO World Heritage status.

Tour highlights include visits to the famed Alhambra, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, and Doñana Natural Park, largest of its kind in Europe. Owned by RENFE, operator of Spain’s broad-gauge and high-speed services, Al-Andalus will be run by FEVE, the public authority responsible for narrow-
gauge services in N. Spain.
“Al Andalus couldn’t be in better hands,” said Hardy. “Since 1983, FEVE has run the popular luxury train El Transbantábrico with great success. This year it introduced the new luxury service El Transbantábrico Gran Lujo. They’re very experienced in the business of running high-end rail tours.”
Al-Andalus
Al-Andalus prices start at €2,500 (about $3,500 U.S.) per person, double, standard class; €2,950 (about $4,100 U.S.) per person, double, superior class. IRT will review the train soon after its seasons begins next spring.  We’re confident it will be a huge success because IRT guests who took this train before it ceased operation are still talking about it; others have asked about it for years. To book, please call (800) 478-4881 in the U.S. and Canada; elsewhere, please call (502) 454-0277. To see a detailed itinerary, please click here.
Will it be a World’s Top 25 Train? What do you think?
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