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Silk Road Delights IRT Guests

16 May

The oasis of Crescent Lake at Dunhuang, China.

Spanning five countries – China, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia – on two trains — the first-class Shangri-La Express and the luxury Golden Eagle — the Silk Road always seems to electrify our travelers.

“The trip was fabulous!!” one guest gushed, following this year’s trip in April. “I would recommend it to anyone…

“The guides were great about letting me and some of the other oldsters keep up,” said another. “Too many highlights to describe…

“Jeff and I agreed there really was no bad day. Thanks for making everything so easy.”

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IRT traveler David Minnerly enjoying the Golden Eagle’s dining car. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

(We’d like to make it easy for you too. Contact us to book either Silk Road journey in 2020 — one in April, the other in October.)

Meanwhile, how does the Society of IRT rate these trains?

Here’s our president, Eleanor Hardy, who traveled the Silk Road several years ago:

The Shangri-La Express: “Hands-down the best train in China. We do not consider this a luxury train, but the food, service and entire experience were considerably upgraded since the last time we’d ridden it.

“And since then, the sleeping cars have been upgraded again. Diamond Class cabins now have private en-suite shower and toilet.

“There is no better way to see these out-of-the-way destinations. ”

The Golden Eagle: “The Imperial Suites – three to a train – are worthy of their name. Staff is exceedingly accommodating, friendly, and some are bilingual.”

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One of three Imperial Suites on the Golden Eagle. Bonus: these spacious accommodations also include private English-speaking guide. Photo by Golden Eagle.

 

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Family picnics on the shores of Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

  • BEIJING: “The sprawling Summer Palace grounds are populated by friendly picnicking Beijinger families — large clusters of grownups surrounding one or two “Little Emperors” or “Empresses.” This is a major tourist attraction that still maintains a distinctly local flavor.”

    The Mogao Thousand Buddha Complex. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • DUNHUANG: “The Mogao Thousand Buddha Cave Complex is a must-see. The wildly colorful frescoes and massive statuary are visually stunning — and are important reminders of the vital role the Silk Road trade route played in spreading culture and religion in addition to fine cloth and spices.”
  • SAMARKAND: “You have to visit Registan Square at least twice – once by day and  again by night. The blues in the architecture here are magnificent, and the way the Square lights up after dark is spectacular!”

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    IRT travelers in front of the “Genghis Hole” of Merv. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • MERV: “Unbelievably well-preserved evidence of 12th-century warfare: huge holes in the sides of the fortress wall where Genghis Khan aimed his catapults. Close by, the house where the king’s daughters jumped to their deaths to escape the approaching horde.”

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    Textiles in the markets of Khiva. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • KHIVA: “Stunning madrasas, minarets, and bazaars. The markets here made for excellent shopping: richly embroidered textiles, colorful pottery, and ornate jewelry were plentiful.”
  • MOSCOW: “Tours of the Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil’s were thrilling – but we all agreed that our night at the Bolshoi Ballet was THE experience we would always remember from Moscow.”

2020 Dates: April 13-May 3 (Beijing-Moscow), October 1-21 (Beijing-Moscow)

Note: Already been to China, or short on time? A 13-day trip covering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Russia is available. For more info, click here. Tour runs twice in 2020.

Also note: Can’t wait until next year? An 8-day trip covering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan runs this year (2019). Dates are Oct. 2-9. For more info, click here.

Did we mention?

The Silk Road adventure is more popular than ever, and space fills up fast. To book yours, call us at (800) 478-4881, +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada, or e-mail us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

IRT Annual Group Tour: From Mighty Mountains to Stunning Seashores on Rovos Rail’s “Pride of Africa”

5 Apr
Rovos Rail

The Pride of Africa’s wood-paneled bar car boasts comfortable seating, a convivial atmosphere and – best of all – a large, rear outdoor deck, perfect for viewing the wild African landscape. IRT Photo by Nels Freeman

South Africa’s 15-day Cape Town – Dar es Salaam “luxury adventure” ranks among the top five rail trips for many IRT travelers.

But for Alicia Taljaard, sales and marketing executive for South Africa’s Rovos Rail, the shorter African Collage is her hands-down favorite.

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We rolled out the red carpet for Alicia Taljaard, sales & marketing executive for S. Africa’s Rovos Rail recently. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

We so trust Alicia’s judgement, we sent IRT’s Rachel Hardy and Angela Walker to South Africa to see for themselves.

The result?

We’ve made Rovos Rail’s 9-day African Collage between Pretoria and Cape Town the centerpiece of this year’s special group tour:  South African Spectacular.

Running just once —Oct. 27-Nov. 12—our exclusive 17-day extravaganza includes many safari days. We have room for just 16 guests. It will be hosted by IRT’s wonderful Angela Walker and includes many exclusive experiences.

The African Collage is “our most scenic trip,” says Alicia, a longtime Rovos Rail veteran who recently visited us here in Louisville. (We were so thrilled to see her, we popped champagne and commissioned a special cake baked in her and Rovos Rail’s honor—see below.)

“It’s perfect for the safari enthusiast, and the scenery on that trip is unbeatable,” Alicia says.

South Africa's Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

South Africa’s Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, ranging from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

“You have the mountain passes. And the Garden Route, a very lush, beautiful area along the coastline of the eastern to western Cape.

“Then there’s the vineyards and the ocean…”

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Spotted on safari: an Indian Roller. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Continue reading

IRT Founder’s Ardent Wish? Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Vienna Next Year with Golden Eagle Danube Express

28 Dec
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Viennese dancers on New Year’s Eve at the Rathaus, Vienna’s lovely City Hall.

We sat down with The Society of International Railway Travelers’ founder and CEO, Mr. Owen Hardy, to discuss his ardent desire to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Vienna with the Golden Eagle Danube Express. Tour dates are December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for itinerary details.

Mr. Hardy, please tell us why you “simply must” go on the “New Year in Vienna” trip on the Golden Eagle Danube Express?

Officially, I have four reasons: Budapest, Vienna, Prague and the Viennese New Year celebration.

Unofficially, movies. Specifically, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Orson Welles’ “The Third Man.”

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Pictured left: diners enjoy New Year’s Eve gala dinner at Rathaus City Hall in Vienna.         Pictured right: a festive, snow-capped Vienna.

 

Say that again? These films aren’t your typical happy tourist fare.

I know, I know. But they exude a delicious atmosphere of romance, love and artistic grit that I project onto their respective cities.

Plus, I love music of all kinds, especially classical, and these cities overflow with it – even on the street corners.

And I love Vienna’s Secessionist or Wiener Werkstaette art movement, examples of which can be found not only in Vienna but also in Budapest and Prague.

What about the train itself?

In my student years, I crisscrossed Europe with a Eurailpass, sleeping next to strangers in couchettes night after night. But these days, I like my creature comforts.

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Brand-new Superior Deluxe cabins aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express feature a private bathroom and shower with all the amenities, large double bed, and sitting area. Not pictured: private Wi-Fi that comes with every Superior Deluxe cabin.

A Superior Deluxe cabin (click here for full cabin details) with large double bed, fully en-suite bathroom and shower, and sitting area would do quite nicely — and the three included nights at Budapest’s palatial Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace would not disappoint, either. (Tip: don’t miss the top-notch spa at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace.)

Another highlight from the itinerary, in your opinion?

Prague! I love Prague because it overflows with stunning architecture. My last tour guide in Prague said she’d lived her whole life in the city but had only scraped the surface of its wonders. I believe her.

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Prague’s Charles Bridge at dawn.

 

More thoughts?

Already seen Schönbrunn Palace? Try a joy ride on Vienna’s trams instead. It’s a great way to meet people and — if you have time — to visit Vienna Central Cemetery, whose “honored guests” include Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Johann Strauss II.

So what should our guests do now?

Call us (if you’re a Luddite like me) at (800) 478-4881  — +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada. Everyone else, please email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Anything else you want to say (and make it short!)?

Life is short. Old age creeps up on you. Go waltzing in Vienna at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

I guarantee you won’t regret it!


Owen C. Hardy is the CEO, founder, and co-owner of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

The New Year’s in Vienna tour runs December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for full itinerary details and pricing. Click here for details of the Golden Eagle Danube Express train.

To book your space on the New Year’s in Vienna tour, call (800) 478-4881 or +1 502-897-1725, or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

Exotic Luxury Train Tour: A Caspian Odyssey with Angela

28 Sep
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Photo courtesy of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.

Mt. Ararat (above), reputed resting place of Noah’s Ark, towers over Yerevan, Armenia. It’s the jumping-off point for the Caspian Odyssey Along the Ancient Silk Road tour.

The 16-day tour visits Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan — and includes a ferry crossing of the Caspian Sea.

It’s one of the Golden Eagle luxury train’s most exotic tours.

IRT’s Angela Walker, Vice President for Operations, accompanied a group of our travelers on the Caspian Odyssey several years ago.

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Photo courtesy of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.

Below, we present a few of Angela’s photos and impressions:

The Golden Eagle — with its young staff —was a comfortable home for our journey through six countries and cultures. It provided all the comforts of home — and plenty of vodka!

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IRT Photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

My fellow travelers were high-spirited and great fun. Here we are in Samarkand, wearing traditional Uzbek hats during a local fashion show.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

I snapped this photo of a darling little girl during a serendipitous moment in Ashkabat, Turkmenistan.

During a regular tour stop, a wedding party suddenly pulled up honking in several decorated cars. Dressed in colorful costumes, they danced and celebrated as they happily welcomed us to join in. It was wonderful to interact with the locals in such a special way.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

In Almaty, Kazakhstan, next to the WWII memorial, I spied these adorable children mimicking the marching soldiers.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

In the hills outside of Almaty, we were greeted by men in traditional costumes showing how they use their birds for hunting.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

These four delightful ladies in our group were friends from Peru and Argentina. Here, they enjoy the train’s lounge car—especially its lively pianist, who entertained nightly.

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IRT Photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

Here I am visiting “The Door to Hell” — a gigantic gas crater in the middle of Uzbekistan’s Kara Kum desert, which has been burning for over 40 years.

It was so exciting to drive out to the Darvaza gas crater, in the pitch-black night, to see this site — essentially, a giant hole of fire burning in the middle of nowhere.

And to know that it’s been burning since 1971 — I don’t think there’s anything like it in the world!

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IRT photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

Home, sweet home. After a day of touring along the Caspian Odyssey’s incredible path, it was always great to return to the Golden Eagle and my private, en-suite quarters.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Time for a refreshing drink! In this case, a sampling of one of the Golden Eagle’s special vodkas.

• • •

The 16-day, escorted tour operates just once a year. Next year’s dates are Sept. 19 – Oct. 4. In 2020, the tour runs Sept. 24 – Oct. 9.  If you book the 2020 journey before Dec. 31 this year, enjoy 2019 pricing.  

To see the complete itinerary, click here. For prices, click here.

To book, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us.

We look forward to welcoming you aboard!

Angela Walker is Vice President, Operations and senior luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers. This is Ms. Walker’s 20th year with IRT, and she has traveled on most of the World’s Top 25 Trains.

 

IRT On Tour: VSOE Grand Suites, Rovos Rail, Shongololo Express, more

8 Mar
Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

IRT’s Angela Walker and Rachel Hardy are about to embark on a three-week
learning tour spanning two continents to investigate the newest developments in
luxury rail travel.

We checked in with them while they were furiously packing to ask: What about your upcoming study tour has you most excited?

Angela: I am eager to experience Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa after helping IRT travelers take the train for many years – especially knowing how beloved it is by past guests. I especially look forward to meals in the beautiful dining cars and watching the scenery roll by from the open-air observation deck.

I’ll also be testing out Rovos Rail’s new sister train – Shongololo Express – on an
in-depth 15-day tour of South Africa.

The Pride of Africa has been a World’s Top 25 Train since the beginning, and
Shongololo Express may be awarded this elite honor after we’ve tested it. Stay tuned!

Grand Suite 'Venice' on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.

Grand Suite ‘Venice’ on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.

Rachel: I can’t wait to see the three brand-new, super-exclusive Grand Suites on
the Venice Simplon-Orient- Express. I’ll be among a very small group to see the
Suites on their inaugural trip from Venice to London. Pictures and full report to
follow.

I’m also excited to test out the services of our great travel partners who are arranging crucial trip elements — in Europe and in South Africa — such as VIP Meet & Greet airport transfers, private guided sightseeing, unique dining and more.

Angela and I will also be visiting a host of 5-star Virtuoso properties:

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Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg

Cape Town-
Cape Grace Hotel
Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel

Johannesburg-

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Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice.

Saxon Hotel
Fairlawns Hotel

London-
The Milestone Hotel

Venice-
Belmond Hotel Cipriani
Baglioni Hotel Luna

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Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

Check in with Angela and Rachel on IRT’s Facebook page for updates throughout their travels, and look out for posts on IRT’s Track 25 blog after they return in mid-April.

If you have burning questions for them about any of the trains or
hotels they’ll be visiting, e-mail IRT’s main inbox at:
tourdesk@irtsociety.com. They’ll do their best to get an answer for you!

Ready to book your own luxury rail adventure?

Call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada) or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Angela Walker is Vice President, Operations and a luxury travel advisor. This is her 2oth year with The Society of International Railway Travelers. Read all about Angela here.  Rachel Hardy, Vice President, Sales & Marketing and luxury travel advisor is celebrating her 3rd anniversary with IRT. Read all about Rachel here. 

Murder on the Orient Express: Stunning Outside, Blah Inside

4 Dec
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20th Century Fox photo

Our phones are ringing off the hook.

Much of it’s due to the film remake of Agatha Christie’s 1934 who-done-it, “Murder on the Orient Express.” It opened in U.S. theaters Nov. 10.

The movie has been thoroughly reviewed by the general press, with major critics less than thrilled. If I were still a newspaper critic (which I was in a past life), I’d begin by saying it’s too long by at least 15-20 minutes.

The film is brilliant when the train exterior is center stage in the “mountains of Eastern Europe” (It was, in fact, shot entirely at a film studio outside London).

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

IRT Travelers on the Train of Kings, the King of Trains.

Pulled by a magnificent steam engine, the train is bathed in blue and white moonlight, with the camera soaring down one mountain peak and up another, as if carried by an eagle (or a drone).

The film’s Orient Express glides around mountains, beset by flashing lightning bursts and menacing clouds, clinging precariously to cliffs, seemingly thousands of feet above steep gorges.

These panoramic scenes show luxury trains at their best—as almost otherworldly experiences, whose train-window views are incomparable and life-changing.

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Taking the perfect photo on the Belmond Royal Scotsman’s outdoor rear platform — another of our World’s Top 25 Trains. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

But inside—and unlike the real luxury trains we represent —the movie Orient Express falls flat. There’s hardly any fancy furniture or gleaming brass; no discernible marquetry. The cutlery looks utilitarian; the china and crystal are uninspiring.

While there are some Art Deco accents—vaguely “Lalique-ish” sconces resembling ice sculptures adorn the movie-train walls; along with convincingly retro luggage racks—the overall color scheme ranges from dull tweed to brown.

Conversely, you can’t beat the star-studded cast. Convincingly dressed in period costume, with Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” in the background, they are brash, mysterious, gaudy, sexy — and thoroughly awash in “guilty” looks.

But there isn’t much for them to do when Poirot’s not grilling them, aside from glancing suspiciously at one another. Mostly, they just look bored. (C’mon, folks, have some fun. You’re on a luxury train!)

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Ecuador’s Tren Crucero also boasts a rear, outdoor viewing platform. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

And as far as accuracy goes, I’m dubious. In my 35 years of working in the luxury train world, I’ve never heard of a rear, open platform* on the original Orient Express in any of its iterations, as it’s shown in the film. (Please email me if you know otherwise.).

So go see “Murder on the Orient Express.” The “outdoor” train scenes alone are worth the price of admission.

But don’t commit the crime of not trying out a luxury train for yourself.

Check our list of The World’s Top 25 Trains, then  email us, or give us a call: (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.

*We at IRT love open, outdoor platforms. Among our “World’s Top 25 Trains®,” open-air platforms are available on Rovos Rail’s “The Pride of Africa,” the “Belmond Royal Scotsman,” the Bangkok-Singapore “Eastern & Oriental Express” (also a Belmond train), the “Rocky Mountaineer” in Canada, Peru’s “Belmond Andean Explorer” and “Belmond Hiram Bingham” and Ecuador’s “Tren Crucero.”

 

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Goes Big in 2018

15 Sep

Want to travel on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) next year?

You’re not alone.

This fall, the latest “Murder on the Orient Express” film debuts.

And next year, the VSOE celebrates the 20th anniversary of its annual Paris-Istanbul journey, says its operator, Belmond.

Three brand-new Grand Suites will be on all VSOE departures beginning in 2018.

Three brand-new Grand Suites will be on all VSOE departures beginning in 2018. Shown above: Grand Suite Venice.

The train is celebrating its milestone year with a host of improvements to the train and its itineraries. New for 2018:

Grand Suites: Currently under construction, the VSOE’s Grand Suites will offer guests over-the-top accommodations, including double bed, sitting room, and private shower, sink and toilet — a first for the 1920s-vintage train.

Grand Suites are sold out for next year’s 6-day, 5-night annual Paris-Istanbul / Istanbul-Paris journeys. (Contact us now to get on the 2019 Grand Suite wait list for either of these annual journeys.)

Limited Grand Suite space remains on the VSOE’s 2018 trips to Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Berlin. For more on the Grand Suites, click here.

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

Steam Engine: The VSOE’s Venice-Budapest trips will be hauled by a Hungarian MAV 424.247 steam locomotive for the last half-hour of its three 2018 journeys in May, September and October.

The powerful locomotive was built in Budapest’s MÁVAG factory after the Second World War.

“The noise, the smell, the evocative imagery… conjuring up Agatha Christie and the movies,” says VSOE general manager Pascal Deyrolle. “It’s everybody’s dream when it comes to travelling on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.”

The MAVs were nicknamed bivaly (buffalo) by the railway workers and, according to Deyrolle, you can see why.

“The engine is massive! It’s quite a shock when you first see it. We forget how huge this machinery was. A wheel is as high as a man! It’s an impressive beast.”

The VSOE in Gothard, Switzerland. Photo by Belmond.

The VSOE in Gothard, Switzerland. Photo by Belmond.

More Mountains: New, earlier departure times — 2 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. — on VSOE trips departing from Venice to Prague, Vienna and Budapest mean more time on the train and spectacular mountain scenery, Belmond says.

Grand Tour: Really want to do it up big? The 8-day “Grand Tour” of Europe begins with an overnight trip on the VSOE from London or Paris to Venice. After two days in the “Floating City,” continue on the train to Prague, Vienna or Budapest, before re-joining the train once again for your return overnight trip to Paris or London. Contact us for details.

1930s Berlin: VSOE specialist Lucy Clark describes the train’s annual London/Paris-Berlin journeys as “edgy.”

dsc_0273-vsoe-lamp“On board, it feels a bit different,” from the typical VSOE excursion, she says. “We get more culturally curious passengers. Maybe it’s the jazz band we have on board, or the different uniforms the staff wears.”

Whatever it is, the trip is unique, she says.

“The stretch along the 120 kilometers of the Rhineland gorge is absolutely beautiful. The vineyard-covered cliffs, the castles…and of course, Cologne, with its magnificent cathedral…it offers a unique charm.”

For more information, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers®. US & Canada, call (800) 478-4881; everywhere else, call (502) 897-1725. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

To submit a booking request online, click here.

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