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Archive for category Mongolia

Major Mongolian Sports

The Naadam festival is the biggest festival of the year for Mongolians. Usually occurring in July, it runs for three days in all parts of the country and highlights the greatest athletes in horse racing, archery, and wrestling: Mongolia’s most popular sports. Women participate in all but the wrestling category. The word Naadam means game or competition in Mongolian. Competitions take place on the first two days, and merry-making is reserved for the third.

This festival has been held for centuries as a form of memorial celebration, as an annual sacrificial ritual honoring various mountain gods or to celebrate a community endeavor.

soldiers participate in the opening ceremony in Ulaan Bataar

soldiers participate in the opening ceremony in Ulaan Bataar

The festivities kick off with a colorful parade of athletes, monks, soldiers marching in perfect uniformity, musicians performing powerful military tunes, and Mongolians dressed in Chinggis-style warrior uniforms.

HORSE RACING

Mongolians have a high regard for horses, which they have relied on for centuries for transport, sustenance, and companionship. During the races, up to 1,000 horses can be chosen to compete. The horse races are broken down into six categories based on the age of the horses. For example, two-year-old horses race for 10 miles and seven-year-olds for 17 miles. The race is conducted on the open grasslands with no set track or course. Children from the ages of 5 to 13 are chosen as jockeys, because this guarantees that the race tests the horses’ skill and not the riders.

18 mile race, no saddles, jockeys all under 13 years old

18 mile race, no saddles, jockeys all under 13 years old

The small size of the jockeys also increases the horses’ endurance. Even still, jockeys train for months before Naadam, and the horses are given a special diet. The winning jockey is praised with the title tumny ekh or “leader of ten thousand” and the five winning horses are talked about and revered in poetry and music. The losing two-year-old horse is also alloted special attention by being serenaded with a song. Music is very important before the race too, as the audience sings traditional songs and the the jockeys sing a pre-race song called a gingo.

Eating and drinking is the other “sport” during the Naadam festival. The horse races are held in the steppes, behind people who stop to drink tea and airag, fermented mares’ milk, cold meat pancakes, and other popular festival foods.

WRESTLING

The wrestling competitions begin around noon on the first day of the festival and end on the second day. They are quite unlike American wrestling matches in form, and they have two other important differences. First, there are no weight divisions. A small wrestler can be pitted against someone two times his weight. This can lead to some very interesting matches. Second, there are no time limits.

The loser of a match is the wrestler who falls first. A fall is when any part of a wrestler’s body, except his hands or feet, touches the ground.

colorful and traditional wrestling at Naadam

colorful and traditional wrestling at Naadam

Titles are given to winners of a number of rounds: Falcon to those winning five rounds, Elephant for seven rounds, and Lion to the one winning the whole tournament.

One elite wrestler was once given the title “Eye-Pleasing Nationally Famous Mighty and Invincible Giant.” Wrestlers honor the judges and their attendants with a dance called devekh, or eagle dance. The winner also performs the eagle dance after the loser of the bout takes off his jacket and walks under the winner’s arm. Wrestlers wear small, over-the-shoulder vests called zodog, and snug shorts called shuudag. The heavy, traditional Mongolian boots are called gutuls.

ARCHERY

The sport of archery originated around the 11th century. Contestants dress in traditional costumes and use a bent bow constructed of horn, bark, and wood. The arrows, made from willow branches and vulture feathers are shot at round, leather targets with grey, yellow or red rings. Men must stand 75 meters and women 60 meters from the target. Judges, standing near the targets, assess each shot with a cry, called a uukhai, and a raised hand. The winning archer, or mergen, is the one who hits the targets the most times. As close as the judges stand to the targets, none of them appears to ever be hit by an arrow.

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Incidentally one of the advantages the Mongols had during their conquests is that their double-curved bows were made of many components and different materials and could launch an arrow farther (500 yards), faster and more powerfully (can penetrate steel armor) than the famous single-curved, English longbow (350 yards) used by other cultures. This meant they could decimate their enemies without risking a response. The Mongol bow is harder to draw, so men had to develop upper-body strength from boyhood. They also learned how to shoot from a horse in any direction, even facing backwards.

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Mongol Meat Diet Helped Them Conquor Pasta Eaters

The second secret weapon of the Mongols was that they lived off their horses: the meat, the milk, cheese and the blood, if they needed. This high protein diet gave them much more energy than their Chinese and European enemies who were “falling asleep on their diet of rice, pasta and porridge. Of course these pasta-eaters were easy prey for the meat-eating Mongols,” according to one of the authors I read.

This is definitely food for thought today. How do vegetarians compare in healthfulness to those who eat meat? Do they have as much energy as their carnivorous friends? I have actually felt more energized, since giving up red meat/veal/pork decades ago. But maybe my protein intake from fowl and fish gives me more than enough protein.

Here is the section on the Mongol warrior’s diet from a different book…including the origin of steak tartar!

“A Mongol warrior ate large quantities of meat, milk and yogurt. Thanks to this high-protein diet, they were robust men with healthy teeth and strong bones.

“According to Marco Polo, each Mongol warrior traveled with a supply of dried meat and dried curd that made lighting a cooking fire unnecessary—he could eat these rations while riding. In addition, every warrior had 10 pounds of milk dried down to a paste. By mixing a handful with water, he had a high-protein meal that could sustain him all day.

“Polo also tells us that if a Mongol were lucky enough to get fresh meat, but had no opportunity to cook it, he placed it under his saddle to tenderize it for eating later. This is said to be the origin of steak Tartar (Tartar being a name the Europeans used interchangeably for the Mongols.)

“The peasant conscripts who fought for the Chinese on the other hand, lived almost entirely on a carbohydrate diet of various types of grains usually boiled down to a soupy gruel. The lack of protein stunted their growth, weakened their bones, rotted their teeth, sapped their energy and made them susceptible to illness.

“An adult metabolism burns through carbohyrates quickly, and an army of infantry on the move even more so. If a Chinese infantryman had to go without rations, within a day or two he would be weak from hunger. The protein-fed Mongol on the other hand, could fast for a day or two with his strength barely diminished. If necessary he would renew his strength by making a small incision in his horse’s neck and drinking its blood.”

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Surprising Mongol Empire Accomplishments

over five times the size of the Roman Empire

over five times the size of the Roman Empire

One of the best benefits of my trip to Mongolia was reading three books about the country and the 13th Century expansion of the Mongol Empire. I had only known about how barbaric the Mongol hordes were. In fact they supposedly killed 40 million people during their conquests. Their empire ended up encompassing five times the area of the Roman Empire and just slightly less than the British Empire, which was the largest of all the world’s empires. The Mongols ruled one-fourth of the the world’s population at that time, from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. This is larger than North America, including the United States, Mexico, Canada, Central America and the islands of the Caribbean…about the size of the African continent! Not bad for an illiterate outcast who was left to die on the steppes.

But Genghis, his sons and especially grandson Kublai Khan created an amazing civilization in the 13th Century with numerous positive achievements: expanded trade (which aristocrats in other cultures thought historically was undignified, immoral and beneath them), cross fertilized Europe, Middle East, India and China with new ideas (helped lead to the Renaissance), technologies, the first international postal system (pony express), best of medicines and healing from all cultures, paper money, one new calendar (each culture formerly had its own), abolished torture and accepted religious freedom (Mongols were shamanists), when Europe was increasing torture and killing the non-believing heretics during the Inquisitions. Genghis also established laws that EVERYONE (including leaders and nobles) had to obey, created a meritocracy, so that any peasant with talent could rise to be a general or top administrator (not the case in other civilizations), pushed printing and paper over scribes and vellum, not imposing their language, religion or culture on the conquered, etc, etc. Who’d of thought it!

Fabulous military strategists though they were, they made no technological breakthroughs, wrote few books, gave the world no new crops or methods of agriculture. Their own craftsmen could not weave cloth, cast metal, make pottery or even bake bread. They manufactured neither porcelain nor pottery, painted no pictures, and built no buildings—they did build bridges for their army. And they collected and passed on all the skills from one civilization they conquered to the next.

They had two secret “weapons.” They practically lived on their horses…each warrior had 3-5 each. This meant they did not need long supply lines and also could move faster than their opponents who relied mostly on plodding infantry or larger, elegant but much slower armored horses with knights in heavy armor.

The second advantage is their diet. The subject of my next post…

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Mongolian Muscle Boy

Mongol boy flexes muscles in his ger

Mongol boy flexes muscles in his ger

Inside his mushroom-shaped, one-room house with no privacy, called a ger, this little boy posed for a photo. His brothers had been outside beating long lengths of hide cut into narrow strips against a rock to soften them up for use as leather ropes. I saw their dad the night before on his motorcycle rounding up his herd of horses and flocks of sheep and goats. Their nomadic life on the grassland steppes is hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old. And their love of some sports is the subject of another post.

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Mongolian Folk Dancing

fresh from the field and showers and ready to watch folk dancing in the Ulaan Baatar  concert hall

fresh from the field and showers and ready to watch folk dancing in the Ulaan Baatar concert hall

After returning to Mongolia’s capital from a week of camping, we had only an hour to clean up and change quickly in the hotel, so we could attend a dance performance at the State Opera House. I stripped right away to shower, but only then discovered there were no towels in the room. Bummer. Hard to order towels, when the staff doesn’t speak English. I had to dress and go downstairs, and then took my shower anyway…though I was the last of our group in the lobby, we made it to the performance on time.

Many years ago I went to Brazil to study capoeira, the very deadly martial art that the slaves there disguised as a dance with musical instruments and songs to fool their 18-19th Century masters. The subtle moves in grimy, sweaty practice halls were nothing like the colorfully costumed, public renditions seen by uninformed tourists in nightclubs. But who knew.

I enjoyed many of the choreographed dances I saw in Ulaan Baatar that night, and have looked at over 100 videos on youtube to select some for you. But I have the impression now that what I saw in Mongolia was a commercial production for tourists, just as the capoeira presentations for night club acts in Brazil was not so authentic. One of the scientists on our trip told me the costumes are not traditional, and I gather now that many of the original dances were done inside gers, so there is almost no space to prance around.

Nevertheless. Here are some peppier selections I like with comments underneath.

Start at 1:20. This was one of my favorites actually performed by this same group. The announcer at the concert said the cups on their heads were supposed to be filled to the brim with mare’s milk and not one drop is allowed to be spilled.

this clip above shows many of the shoulder and arm movements that I saw in the concert hall performance.

go to 6:30—7:00 to see flexible hand dance segment. Then 12:15 to end to hear four different kinds of world-famous Mongolian throat singing.

3:20—3:50 shows the shoulder movements that might help my tennis swinging

a contortionist at the Opera House program was astonishing…supported her whole body weight with just her mouth. check out 3:10—3:40 and tell me how this young lady does it

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Chasing Chicks In Mongolia

crane chick to be banded

crane chick to be banded

The most fun—and the most exercise—I had in Mongolia was running after crane chicks that couldn’t yet fly and that the scientists wanted to capture, weigh, measure and band with colored,identifying leg rings and in some cases radio transmitters. They did this for about 42 birds, most before my group arrived, and it was quite an experience.

weighing swaddled, blindfolded chick

weighing swaddled, blindfolded chick

To understand the importance of this work, it may help to know how few cranes there are world wide for some of the species we saw. Although there are 500,000 Common cranes and 300,000 Demoiselle cranes, there are only 11,000 Hooded cranes, 3500 Siberian cranes, and 5000 of the White-naped cranes that we were banding. Seven of the remaining 10 species only number 8-30,000 each, another two thriving at 150,000 (Brolga) and 600,000 (Sandhill) each, and the Whooping up to 600. The last two are the only wild ones in America, and I have seen them both during their annual migration through Nebraska. All 15 are at George’s foundation HQ in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

releasing crane with leg bands and transmitter

releasing crane with leg bands and transmitter

OK here is how you catch a crane. One scientist stood on the roof of the van with a 40-power telescope on a tripod to follow the birds—adults and chicks. He had a walkie talkie that communicated with one of the Mongolian men—all three in their 20’s—who would do the chasing. The runners were either barefoot or wearing a rubber sock, like fly fishermen wear to give them traction and stability in the water. This is because the wetland, where the birds live and eat, is really a swamp of grass about 12 inches high in water 3-8 inches deep on top of soil that is all mud. Perfect crane habitat. Terrible for running: it’s soft, squooshy, and you sink in with every step.

calmed with black sock, banded, and unswaddled

calmed with black sock, banded, and unswaddled

You also don’t know with each step how deeply you will sink, or how deep the water is…you can’t see it, and you are running as fast as you can. I know this, because I did it a couple of times. Very exciting. Of course I couldn’t run as fast at first as Itra, Batra and Chuka, especially in my tennis shoes (size 14) and wool socks, but I was able to keep up with them for much of the chase. The second time I took their advice and just ran in socks, and that was much easier. We ran about a mile non-stop as fast as possible.

just a few more measurements

just a few more measurements

As soon as the family is spotted, we start running. The parents see us early on and walk away with the chick…then fly away a few hundred feet. The only defense the chick has is to keep running and periodically hunker down in the grass to evade predators like raptors, foxes and humans! The man with the telescope on the van tries to keep the chick located and lets the runner know via walkie talkie, where to run. None of the four of us can see the chick. We are just trying to bump into it in the grass. I may have been useful the second time in rounding the bird toward the runners who were ahead of me and sweeping back in my direction

I caught up to the group in maybe 10 seconds. They had found and caught the chick and were swaddling it in a fitted diaper with velcro fasteners. A black sock on its head calms all the cranes for some reason.

George and the three women in our group had walked into the swamp for a closer look when all the runners took off. Jennifer the scientist in her 30’s is training for 5k races, and she was with me for a few hundred yards and then stopped running. George was looking at wildflowers and plants with his binoculars and laughed a lot later about how he was watching me run at one point, “And then he totally disappeared!” This was because I suddenly stepped into some water that was really a stream, and I sank 3-4 feet deep, up past mid-thigh. That was a surprise. Fortunately I wasn’t hurt, but walking on the way back, I saw that there was no way to avoid the crossing hidden in the grass, and I stepped into the deep water again. I am very proud that Itra kept saying how fast I ran and that I kept up with the other runners. Hours on the tennis court seemed to pay off in the steppes.

this chick was calm without the sock blindfold

this chick was calm without the sock blindfold

Back at the vehicles with the bird, a lot of measurements are taken after the bands are attached to the bird’s leg: height, weight, wing span, beak size, leg length, etc. Then the bird is released back to its anxious parents in the hopes that a colleague in some other country thousands of miles away will let them know that it has passed through or arrived.

I remain amazed that two of the scientists have visited these countless wetlands spread over hundreds of miles so often that they not only know each one of them, not only know which of the hundreds of forks in the trail they need to take to get back to them, but also know how many pairs are at each wetland, which ones have chicks or not that year, how many chicks (one or two or none–they “failed”) and whether or not they have already banded that chick. I think it’s astonishing. The trails are not marked, and they all look almost the same to me.

Also impressive was to learn that Nimba, the scientist who studied raptors in his early years(late ’90’s), was familiar with all the raptors in the valley we went to, knew where all the nests were, befriended the nomads whose gers we visited and ate in, and was instrumental in having the government designate that area as a preserve that cannot be developed and disturb the birds’ habitat. But it was mind-boggling to also discover that he climbed up or down mountains and cliffs to go to every nest, and that the Black vultures came to know him so comfortably that they would perch just a few yards away, while he went into their nests and measured and weighed their nestlings who couldn’t yet fly!!!

free again and looking for momma

free again and looking for momma

What kind of dedicated people devote their lives to obtaining these facts and measurements? Scientists spent decades discovering where the birds breed and migrate to. Those are detective stories in their own right. Apparently there is still more to learn about the habits of these beautiful creatures. Let’s hope the Georges and Nimbas and others as dedicated can save much of the habitat—and therefore many of the birds—before humans dominate and destroy their habitat or kill the birds for food and decorative feathers…

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Stuck In Mongolia

Pull, pull, pull

Pull, pull, pull

On the way to visit Chinggis Khan’s birthplace, the main trail/road was washed out, so our caravan had to cross a stream that was mostly mud. At the narrowest point, there was already a blue truck with two horses in the back that was buried deep in the mud. Nearby farmers were making money by charging vehicles for tows, but after many attempts, not even two tractors pulling simultaneously could move the truck six inches. Our two SUV’s had made it across, and they gave it a try from either end. But broken cables and great frustration were the only result.

stuck-in-the-mud trucks

stuck-in-the-mud trucks

For some reason I never understood, our cook van attempted to cross right next to the blue truck. But it failed to make it, and then the driver kept giving the van gas, so the wheels could spin and dig themselves deeper into the mud. DON’T SPIN YOUR WHEELS IN MUD, SNOW OR SAND IS ONE OF THE BASIC RULES OF DRIVING. Now both vehicles were stuck, and two tractors and two SUV’s couldn’t move our van either.

a muddy ford is no problem for a horse!

a muddy ford is no problem for a horse!

What to do, what to do. I eventually suggested that the horses should come out of the blue truck to lighten the load. That did the trick…although I can’t be sure that anyone really listened to my advice. The cook van also had to be emptied of its load, so out came the tents, stove, chairs, food…almost everything…and we had a picnic lunch, while pure manpower with shovels first took away some of the dirt and grass. Cleverly, there was a rubber, inflatable “jack” that was used to then help raise the van about a foot higher. And it used exhaust fumes from an SUV to fill up this red balloon.

patience is essential in Mongolia

patience is essential in Mongolia

After 2 1/2 hours, the lighter van was also liberated by two SUV’s doing the towing. Once all the supplies were repacked, we were finally on our way. But this was just another example of life on the steppes, when there are no tow trucks you can call with your AAA card. And for some reason, I was pretty calm, enjoying the view, the food and the experience. George’s perfect attitude was having its effect.

BTW When we returned to this spot on the way back, two 15-foot-long boards were used to drive on under the water surface, but above the mud. That prevented spinning and digging in, and we traversed the ford in seconds. It was our secret, hidden “bridge,” which we left for other vehicles…

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The Perfect Attitude

1–the cow crossed first

1–the cow crossed first

Our first river crossing in Mongolia was pretty tense…I couldn’t believe we were going to attempt it—the water looked pretty high to me. But the lead car made it first, followed by the second one. Finally it was the van’s turn, and it almost made it…until the engine died. Was it flooded with water? How were we going to move it to shore? No one else was around. No trucks or tractors to help us pull it.

At that moment, when I was concerned and puzzled, our fearless tour leader, George Archibald, yelled out, “Whiskered Tern, whiskered tern.” He had sighted a bird and wanted us all to grab our binoculars and relish its beauty. He was totally into the bird. He did not give the van and its passengers in the water a drop of attention.

Forget the binocs. I was worried about the van. The driver—who was also a terrific mechanic—kept cranking the starter, but the engine wouldn’t catch. Flooded? Not enough air? Under water? Start, start, start…crank, crank, crank. After about five minutes, it turned over and started. What a relief. Slowly the van inched its way to our bank…

Then I looked at George and asked him how he could be focusing on the tern, when our group was in such dire straits? “I can’t do anything about the engine, so I don’t fret about things I can’t fix. The mechanic was responsible for keeping the cars functioning…I had to let everyone know about the birds.”

Now that is what I call being smart. Not becoming anxious or ruffled by situations that are out of your control. George is a very rare bird himself!

2-then we forded the river

2-then we forded the river

3-next the other SUV began its crossing

3-next the other SUV began its crossing

4-don’t make any engine-flooding waves

4-don’t make any engine-flooding waves

5-finally the cook van followed

5-finally the cook van followed

6-and the engine died in midstream

6-and the engine died in midstream

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My Summer Vacation In Mongolia

measuring crane with sock on head for calming, green transmitter and yellow/black banding "jewelry" on legs

measuring crane with sock on head for calming, green transmitter and yellow/black banding “jewelry” on legs

I just spent nine days camping in Mongolia plus two travel days via South Korea. I joined five scientists studying cranes and their habitat, which is wetlands on the steppes. The five species of cranes we saw are 4-4 1/2 feet tall, and one of the major objectives was banding 40 of them with colored leg bracelets (including six with satellite transmitters) to track their migration routes, which may end in India.

mosquitos attack

mosquitos attack

This was a very rough, tough, demanding trip that I wouldn’t recommend for anyone. Zillions of mosquitos, setting up/tearing down my one-man tent every night, 5-10 hours of daily driving on washed out, rutted dirt trails called roads that are flooded, washboarded and at 30 degree angles.

grand vistas from my front tent flap

grand vistas from my front tent flap

40 mph felt like a car chase in a cop movie. Strapped in and holding on. Sometimes we were completely off road climbing hills like you see in macho truck commercials that have small print warning you to not duplicate these rides by professional drivers. And the cook van was stuck in a river we crossed for 2 1/2 hours as we dug out the mud and grass underneath after our SUV’s and borrowed farm tractors failed to pull it out.

I am proud that I survived this adventure. I am proud that I did daily push ups or crunches on my air mattress. I am sure my quads strengthened with all the bending in-out of my small tent. I am thrilled that I didn’t fall off a 400-foot cliff, when I was urged to lean over the edge, while standing up, to see a black vulture chick in its nest that was still too young to fly.

only 400 feet to the bottom

only 400 feet to the bottom

But I was scared out of my mind when a 65-year-old woman who had also tagged along crawled to the edge of that cliff in her sun dress and sandals and stood up to take a look herself. She may have been calm, but I was terrified SHE might fall off!!!

What motivated me to go at all was George Archibald, the passionate and upbeat 67-year-old founder in 1973 of the International Crane Foundation (ICF). I joined George on a wildlife-viewing, non-camping trip in 2006 to Bhutan, where only 17,000 foreigners visited that year. George has devoted 40 years to saving cranes and their habitat, which is always under attack by mining companies, developers and agribusinesses. He saved the Whopping Crane in America from extinction, so that instead of the 15 left in 1973, there are now 600.

George on a main "road" on which we encountered six cars in eight hours of driving

George on a main "road" on which we encountered six cars in eight hours of driving

He has set up and supported through his ICF fundraising a network of like-minded ornithologists in remote areas all over the world, including Africa, North Korea, Middle East, India, Mongolia, Siberia, etc etc. Crane migrations can sometimes traverse 11 countries, and if one of them is Iran or Afghanistan, the cranes are indifferent to political hostilities.

portable nomad gers can have satellite dish and solar panels for TV

portable nomad gers can have satellite dish and solar panels for TV

after feeding dried dung to fire, she started kneading noodle dough without washing hands

after feeding dried dung to fire, she started kneading noodle dough without washing hands

This trip may not be an athletic achievement, but it was certainly a physical one…and the demands of the trip were much harder than I am used to. It was surely my last-ever camping experience, although I did eventually take in stride not bathing for eight days, not changing clothes, not washing even my hands with soap, and having just four small sardines on a slice of bread for dinner–the easy way to lose five pounds in a week. I was definitely the wuss of the group: the only one to bring a bug net for my face and head, and the only one to bring insect repellent on the 6 am bird walks before breakfast. Two of the scientists had gone three weeks without washing. It’s a world that is very foreign to me. God bless them, every one.

a black vulture poses with his owner at a tourist site

a black vulture poses with his owner at a tourist site

none of the scientists like Robert used bug nets

none of the scientists like Robert used bug nets

the steppes are grasslands without trees or desert but with some washed out impassable trail-roads you can barely see in this photo

the steppes are grasslands without trees or desert but with some washed out impassable trail-roads you can barely see in this photo

One of the major benefits of the trip was learning about Chinggis (spelled Genghis by Persians) Khan and his grandson, Kublai Khan. I will talk later about their astonishing achievements. I also ate some local foods prepared without normal Western cleanliness and drank alcoholic fermented mare’s milk out of unwashed community bowls. So far not sick, but quite a change from everyday life in Connecticut!

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