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Bhutan is no ordinary place. It is the last great Himalayan kingdom, shrouded in mystery and magic, where a traditional Buddhist culture carefully embraces global developments.
Low Volume, High Value Tourism
The Bhutanese pride themselves on a sustainable approach to tourism in line with the philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Foreign visitors famously pay a minimum tariff of US$250 per day, making it seem one of the world's more expensive destinations. However, this fee is all-inclusive – accommodation, food, transport and an official guide are all provided, so it's not a bad deal. You don't have to travel in a large group and you can arrange your own itinerary. What you won't find is budget independent travel.
Bhutan is like nowhere else. This is a country where the rice is red and where chillies aren't just a seasoning but the main ingredient. It's also a deeply Buddhist land, where monks check their smartphones after performing a divination, and where giant protective penises are painted at the entrance to many houses. Yet while it proudly prioritises its Buddhist traditions, Bhutan is not a land frozen in time. You will find the Bhutanese well educated, fun loving and very well informed about the world around them. It's this blending of the ancient and modern that makes Bhutan endlessly fascinating.
The Last Shangri-La?
So why spend your hard-earned money to come here? Firstly, there is the pristine eastern Himalayan landscape, where snow-capped peaks rise above primeval forests and beautiful traditional villages. To this picture-book landscape add majestic fortress-like dzongs and monasteries, many of which act as a stage for spectacular tsechus (dance festivals) attended by an almost medieval-looking audience. Then there are the textiles and handicrafts, outrageous archery competitions, high-altitude trekking trails, and stunning flora and fauna. If it's not 'Shangri-La', it's as close as it gets.
An Environmental Model
Environmental protection goes hand in hand with cultural preservation in Bhutan. By law, at least 60% of the country must remain forested for all future generations; it currently stands above 70%. Not only is Bhutan carbon neutral, but it actually absorbs more carbon than it emits! For the visitor, this translates into lovely forest hikes and superb birding across a chain of national parks. Whether you are spotting takins or blue poppies, trekking beneath 7000m peaks or strolling across hillsides ablaze with spring rhododendron blooms, Bhutan offers one of the last pristine pockets in the entire Himalaya.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Bhutan.
Punakha Dzong is arguably the most beautiful dzong in the country, especially in spring when the lilac-coloured jacaranda trees bring a lush sensuality to the dzong's characteristically towering whitewashed walls. This dzong was the second to be built in Bhutan and it served as the capital and seat of government until the mid-1950s. All of Bhutan's kings have been crowned here. The dzong is still the winter residence of the dratshang (official monk body). Guru Rinpoche foretold the construction of Punakha Dzong, predicting that a person named Namgyal would arrive at a hill that looked like an elephant. When the Zhabdrung visited Punakha he chose the tip of the trunk of the sleeping elephant at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu as the place to build a dzong. A smaller building called Dzong Chung (Small Dzong) housed a statue of the Buddha here as early as 1326. Construction on the current dzong began in 1637 and was completed the following year, when the building was christened Pungthang Dechen Phodrang (Palace of Great Happiness). Later embellishments included the construction of a chapel to commemorate the victory over the Tibetans in 1639. The arms captured during the battle are preserved in the dzong. The Zhabdrung established a monk body here with 600 monks from Cheri Goemba. Punakha Dzong is 180m long and 72m wide and the utse (central tower) is six storeys high. The gold dome on the utse was built in 1676 by local ruler Gyaltsen Tenzin Rabgye. Many of the dzong's features were added between 1744 and 1763 during the reign of the 13th desi (secular ruler), Sherab Wangchuk. One item he donated was the chenmo (great) thondrol, a large thangka (painted or embroidered religious picture) that depicts the Zhabdrung and is exhibited to the public once a year during the tsechu festival. A brass roof for the dzong was a gift of the seventh Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso. Frequent fires (the latest in 1986) have damaged the dzong, as did the severe 1897 earthquake. In 1994 a glacial lake burst on the Pho Chhu, causing damage to the dzong that has since been repaired. Access to the dzong is across the Bazam bridge, which was rebuilt in 2008 after the original 17th-century bridge was washed away in floods in 1958. The room above the bridge entrance has displays on the renovations and on Bhutanese cantilevered bridge architecture. In addition to its strategic position at the river confluence, the dzong has several other features to protect it against invasion. The steep wooden entry stairs are designed to be pulled up, and there is a heavy wooden door that is still closed at night. The dzong is unusual in that it has three docheys (courtyards) instead of the usual two. The first (northern) courtyard is for administrative functions and houses a huge white Victory Chorten and bodhi tree. In the far left corner is a collection of stones and a shrine to the Tsochen, queen of the naga (snake spirits), whose image is to the side. The second courtyard houses the monastic quarters and is separated from the first by the utse. In this courtyard there are two halls, one of which was used when Ugyen Wangchuck, later the first king, was presented with the Order of Knight Commander of the Indian empire by John Claude White in 1905. In the southernmost courtyard is the temple where the remains of the terton, Pema Lingpa, and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal are preserved. The Zhabdrung died in Punakha Dzong, and his body is still preserved in the Machey Lhakhang ( machey means 'sacred embalmed body'), which was rebuilt in 1995. The casket is sealed and may not be opened. Other than two guardian lamas, only the king and Je Khenpo may enter this room. Both come to take blessings before they take up their offices. At the south end is the kunrey, or 'hundred-pillar' assembly hall (which actually has only 54 pillars). The exceptional murals, which were commissioned by the second Druk Desi, depict the life of Buddha. The massive gold statues of the Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and the Zhabdrung date back to the mid-18th century, and there are some fine gold panels on the pillars. The elaborately painted gold, red and black carved woods here add to the artistic lightness of touch, despite the massive scale of the dzong. This is the only chapel that is reliably open to visitors. Bhutan's most treasured possession is the Rangjung ('Self-Created') Kharsapani, an image of Chenresig that is kept in the Tse Lhakhang in the utse of the Punakha Dzong. It was brought to Bhutan from Tibet by the Zhabdrung and features heavily in Punakha's famous dromchoe festival. It is closed to the public. After you exit the dzong from the north you can visit the dzong chung and get a blessing from a wish-fulfilling statue of Sakyamuni. The building marks the site of the original dzong. North of the dzong is a cremation ground, marked by a large chorten, and to the east is a royal palace.
This splendid dzong, north of the city on the west bank of the Wang Chhu, dominates the valley, looking out over a cascade of terraced fields. It's Thimphu's grandest building by far, and served as the official seat of the Druk Desi, the head of the secular government that shared power with the religious authorities, from the 18th to the 19th centuries. The dzong was the site of the lavish formal coronation of the fifth king in 2008. The building you see today is actually not the original Thimphu dzong. The first fortress – the Dho-Ngen Dzong (Blue Stone Dzong) – was erected in 1216 on the hillside where Dechen Phodrang now stands, and it was adopted as the seat of Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo, who brought the Drukpa Kagyu lineage to Bhutan. The fort was renamed Trashi Chho Dzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion) when it passed from the descendants of Lama Phajo to Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1641. The Zhabdrung planned to house both monks and civil officials in the dzong, but it was too small, so he built a new dzong lower down in the valley for the civil officials, and this soon become the focus of attention. The upper dzong was eventually destroyed by fire in 1771 and the lower dzong was expanded before also suffering a devastating fire in 1866. Such setbacks are not unusual in the history of a dzong, and the lower dzong was rebuilt, before suffering damage in two further fires and the deadly earthquake of 1897. When King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck moved his capital to Thimphu in 1962, he began a five-year project to renovate and enlarge the dzong. The royal architect left the utse (central tower) untouched, along with the imposing chapel and assembly hall in the courtyard, but the rest of the compound was rebuilt in traditional fashion, without nails or architectural plans. The dzong once housed the National Assembly and now houses the secretariat, the throne room, and offices of the king and the ministries of home affairs and finance. The courtyard to the north of the assembly hall hosts Thimphu's biggest annual bash, the colourful tsechu festivities. The dzong's whitewashed perimeter walls are guarded by three-storey towers at the four corners, capped by red-and-gold, triple-tiered roofs. The only way to enter the fort is via one of two gateways on the eastern side of the structure. The southern entrance leads to the administrative section (off-limits to visitors), while the northern entrance leads to the monastic quarter, the summer residence of the dratshang (central monk body). Entering the dzong via the northern entrance after a thorough security check, visitors are greeted by depictions of the four guardian kings, while the steps are flanked by images of Drukpa Kunley, Thangtong Gyelpo and Togden Pajo (the founder of nearby Phajoding Monastery). Beyond is the vast, flagstone dochey (courtyard) and the utse. It's hard not to be humbled by the dramatic proportions of the architecture, and the enclosed silence broken only by the flight of pigeons, the shuffle of feet and the whir of prayer wheels. The northern part of the compound, which visitors are free to explore, contains the towering utse, accessed via a steep wooden stairway. If you're allowed in, look for the 3rd-floor funeral chorten of the 69th Je Khenpo, where pilgrims receive the blessing of betel nut from his nut container. If this intrigues you, head next door to visit the toilet of the Zhabdrung in his former living room. Nearby in the courtyard is the Lhakhang Sarp, a small chapel with handsome mythical beasts supporting its beams. The original dukhang (assembly hall) on the edge of the square enshrines a huge statue of Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha) and the thrones of the current king, past king and Je Khenpo. Look to the ceiling for fine mandala paintings. Northeast of the dzong is an excellent example of a traditional cantilever bridge. To the southeast is the unassuming residence of the current king, while across the river you can see the impressive, step-roofed National Assembly. The small Neykhang Lhakhang, west of the dzong, houses the local protective deities Gyenyen Jagpa Melen and Dorji Daktshen, and is off-limits to visitors. The large open-air courtyard on the north side of the dzong hosts the dances of the annual tsechu festival in September. The dzong's huge Sangay Tsokhorsum Thondrol (painted/embroidered religious picture) is unfurled here at the climax of the tsechu.
The 'Tiger's Nest Monastery' is one of the Himalaya's most incredible sights, miraculously perched on the side of a sheer cliff 900m above the floor of the Paro valley. Visiting is the goal of most visitors to Bhutan and while getting there involves a bit of uphill legwork, it's well worth the effort. The monastery is a sacred site, so act with respect, removing your shoes and hat before entering any chapels. Bags, phones and cameras have to be deposited at the entrance, where your guide will register with the army. As you enter the complex you pass underneath images of the Rigsum Goempo (Jampelyang, Chenresig and Chana Dorje). Turn to the right and look for the relic stone; Bhutanese stand on the starting line, close their eyes and try to put their thumb into a small hole in the rock as a form of karmic test. Most groups then visit the Drubkhang (Pelphu Lhakhang), the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months. Outside the cave is a statue of Dorje Drolo, the manifestation the Guru assumed to fly to Taktshang on a tigress. The inner cave is sealed off behind a spectacularly gilded door and is said to hold the phurba (ritual dagger) of the Guru. Murals of the Guru Tsengye, or eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, decorate the walls. Behind you, sitting above the inside of the main entrance, is a mural of Thangtong Gyalpo holding his iron chains. From here ascend to the Guru Sungjonma Lhakhang, which has a central image of Pema Jungme, another of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. This statue incorporates the ashes of a famous 'talking' image that was lost in the 1998 fire. Various demonic animal-headed deities and manifestations of the deity Phurba decorate the walls alongside the 25 disciples of Guru Rinpoche, while outside is an image of the long-life protector Tseringma riding a snow lion. Passing a small prayer hall, the Langchen Pelgye Sengye Lhakhang on the left has connections to Dorje Phagmo, with a rock image of the goddess's crown hidden in a hole in the floor. The inner chorten belongs to Langchen Pelgye Sengye, a 9th-century disciple of Guru Rinpoche, who meditated in the cave. Behind the chorten is a holy spring. Further on inside the complex to the left is the Dorje Drolo Lhakhang, where the monks sometimes sell blessed lockets, while to the right is the Guru Tsengye Lhakhang, which features an image of the monastery's 17th-century founder, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye. Look down through the glass into the bowels of a sacred cave. Further up is a butter-lamp chapel (light one for a donation). You can climb down into the original Tiger's Nest cave just above the chapel, but take care as it's a dusty path down a hairy series of wooden ladders to descend into a giant slice of the cliff face. After visiting the Tiger's Nest and reascending to the previous viewpoint, it is possible to take a signed side trail uphill for 15 minutes to the charming Machig-phu Lhakhang, where Bhutanese pilgrims come to pray for children. Head to the cave behind the chapel and select the image of the Tibetan saint Machig Labdron on the right (for a baby girl), or the penis print on the cave wall to the left (for a boy). The main statues inside the chapel are of Machig and her husband Padampa Sangye.
Kyichu Lhakhang is one of Bhutan's oldest and most beautiful temples. The main chapel has roots as far back as the 7th century, with additional buildings and a golden roof added in 1839 by the penlop (governor) of Paro and the 25th Je Khenpo. Elderly pilgrims constantly shuffle around the temple spinning its many prayer wheels, making this one of the most charming spots in the Paro valley. Entry is free to foreign tourists since they are paying their daily tariff. As you enter the intimate inner courtyard of this historic chapel, you'll see to the right of the doorway a mural of King Gesar of Ling, the popular Tibetan warrior-king, whose epic poem is said to be the world's longest. The third king's wife, Ashi Kesang Wangchuck, sponsored the construction of the Guru Lhakhang in 1968. It contains a 5m-high statue of Guru Rinpoche and another of Kurukulla (Red Tara), holding a bow and arrow made of flowers. To the right of Guru Rinpoche is a chorten containing the ashes of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the revered Nyingma Buddhist master and spiritual teacher of the Queen Mother, who passed away and was cremated nearby in 1991. There is a statue of him to the left, as well as some old photos of the fourth king's grandmother and the first king of Bhutan. The ornately carved wooden pillars are superb, as are the snow lions that support the flower pots. The inner hall of the fantastically atmospheric main Jowo Lhakhang conceals the valley's greatest treasure, an original 7th-century statue of Jowo Sakyamuni, said to have been cast at the same time as the famous statue in Lhasa. In front of the statue you can see the grooves that generations of prostrators have worn into the wooden floor. King Songtsen Gampo himself lurks up in the upper left niche of the outer room. The main door is superbly gilded with images of curling dragons. The former quarters (zimchung) of Dilgo Khyentse are in a room to the left and still hold his bed and throne.
This traditional Bhutanese temple perched like a fortress on a ridge above central Thimphu hums with pilgrim activity. It was established in the 12th century on a site chosen by Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo, originally from Ralung in Tibet. Parents come here to get auspicious names for their newborns or blessings for their young children from the protector deity Tamdrin (to the left in the grilled inner sanctum). Children are blessed by a phurba (ritual dagger) and given a sacred thread. The interior murals are particularly fine. Give the resident astrologer your birth date and he will consult divination charts to decide what kind of protective prayer flags will benefit you. Don't leave without checking out the shrine to the tshomen (mermaid) in the central courtyard and then taking in the excellent view from the kora (circumambulation) path around the compound. Come early in the morning, before groups arrive, to enjoy Changangkha at its most peaceful.
Thimphu's best museum is part of the Royal Textile Academy. It features a stunning display of ancient and modern textiles, and explores the rich traditions of Bhutan's national arts of thagzo (weaving) and tshemzo (embroidery). The ground floor focuses on royal gho s, including the wedding clothes worn by the fourth king and his four wives. The upper floor introduces the major weaving techniques, styles of local dress and types of textiles made by women and men. No photography is allowed. The museum shop offers some interesting books and fine textiles. Across the courtyard is the Royal Textile Academy conservation centre, where you can watch a small group of weavers working their looms.
Paro Dzong ranks as a high point of Bhutanese architecture. The massive buttressed walls that tower over the town are visible throughout the valley, especially when floodlit at night. It was formerly the meeting hall for the National Assembly and now, like most dzongs, houses both the monastic body and district government offices, including the local courts. Most of the chapels are closed to tourists but it's worth a visit for its stunning architecture and views. The dzong courtyard is open daily, but on weekends the offices are deserted. Foreign visitors should wear long sleeves and long trousers and remove their hats when entering. Citizens from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries are charged an entry fee but foreign tourists are not, since they pay a daily minimum tariff that includes most entry fees. The dzong's formal name, Rinchen Pung Dzong (usually shortened to Rinpung Dzong), means 'Fortress on a Heap of Jewels'. In 1644 Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal ordered the construction of the dzong on the foundation of a monastery built by Guru Rinpoche. The fort was used on numerous occasions to defend the Paro valley from invasions by Tibet. The British political officer John Claude White reported that in 1905 there were old catapults for throwing great stones stored in the rafters of the dzong's veranda. The dzong survived a 1897 earthquake but was severely damaged by fire in 1907. The dzong is built on a steep hillside, and the front courtyard of the administrative section is 6m higher than the courtyard of the monastic portion. The road to the National Museum branches down to the dzong's northeastern entrance, which leads into the dochey (courtyard). The utse (central tower) inside the dochey is five storeys tall and was built in the time of the first penlop (governor) of Paro in 1649. The richly carved wood, painted in gold, black and ochres, and the towering whitewashed walls reinforce the sense of established power and wealth. A stairway leads down to the monastic quarter, which houses about 200 monks. The kunrey, which functions as the monks' classroom, is on the southern side (to the left) and centred around an image of Buddha aged 16. Look left of the exterior vestibule for the mural of the 'mystic spiral', a uniquely Bhutanese variation on the mandala. Other murals here depict Mt Meru, the legendary centre of the universe, surrounded by seven mountain ranges and four continents. The large dukhang (prayer hall) opposite has lovely exterior murals depicting the life of Tibet's poet-saint Milarepa. The first day of the spring Paro tsechu is held in this courtyard, which fills to bursting point. The views from the courtyard's far windows are superb. Outside the dzong, to the northeast of the entrance, is a stone-paved festival ground where masked dancers perform the main dances of the tsechu. A thondrol – a huge thangka (painted or embroidered religious picture) of Guru Rinpoche of more than 18 sq metres, is unfurled shortly after dawn on the final day of the tsechu – you can see the huge rail upon which it is hung. It was commissioned in the 18th century by the eighth desi (secular ruler of Bhutan), also known as Druk Desi, Chhogyel Sherab Wangchuck. Below the dzong, a traditional wooden covered bridge called Nyamai Zam spans the Paro Chhu. This is a reconstruction of the original bridge, which was washed away in a flood in 1969. Earlier versions of this bridge were removed in times of war to protect the dzong. The most picturesque photos of Paro Dzong are taken from the west bank of the river, just downstream from the bridge. An interesting side note: scenes from Bernardo Bertolucci's 1993 film Little Buddha were filmed here.
An extraordinarily picturesque temple, Gom Kora is located 13km north of Chazam. The lush green fields, the monks' red robes and the temple's yellow roof combine with colourful Buddhist carvings and the rushing river to create an idyllic scene. The correct name for the site is Gomphu Kora. Gomphu denotes a sacred meditation site of Guru Rinpoche and kora means 'circumambulation'. The Guru meditated here and left a body impression on a rock, similar to that in Kurjey Lhakhang in Bumthang. The central figure in the temple is Guru Rinpoche. To the right is Chenresig, in his 1000-armed aspect. To the far right is an image of the snake demon Gangan Yonga Choephel, who holds a golden mirror in his right hand. The wall murals to the far right are believed to date from the 15th century. There are numerous sacred objects locked in a glass cabinet that either miraculously appeared here or were brought by the Guru. The largest item is a garuda egg, which is a very heavy, perfectly shaped, egg-like stone. Other relics include the traditional boot print of the Guru, the footprint of his consort Yeshe Tsogyal (aged eight), the hoof print of Guru Rinpoche's horse and a phallus-shaped rock belonging to Pema Lingpa. Gom Kora's celebrated old thondrol, unique because it is painted, not appliquéd, is either kept in the box here or in Chorten Kora, depending on which source you believe. Gom Kora has a 'new' thondrol, which is displayed at the tsechu on the 10th day of the second lunar month (March/April). This festival is different from most other tsechus in that pilgrims circumambulate the goemba and sacred rock throughout the night. Behind the goemba is a fantastical large black rock. It is said that Guru Rinpoche was meditating in a small cave near the bottom of the rock when a demon in the shape of a cobra suddenly appeared. The Guru, alarmed, stood up quickly, leaving the impression of his pointed hat at the top of the cave, and then transformed himself into a garuda, leaving the imprint of his wings nearby. The Guru then made an agreement with the demon to stay away until the end of his meditation. The contract was sealed with thumbprints, which are still visible on the rock. The serpent also left a light-coloured print, with his hood at the top of the rock. A small sin-testing passageway leads from the cave to an exit to the side of the rock – one successful participant reported that you must indeed move like a snake to get through the cave. Visitors also test their sin levels and rock-climbing skills by trying to climb up the side of the rock (the 'stairway of the dakinis '; female celestial beings) – only the virtuous can make it. On certain auspicious days, holy water, believed to be the Guru's nectar of immortality, flows down from a crevice in the rock and pilgrims line up to spoon it into bottles. You may also see childless women carrying a hefty holy stone around the kora path to boost their chances of conceiving. Gom Kora has no accommodation, but is only a 45-minute (22km) drive from Trashigang, the best place to eat and sleep in the area. To get here from Trashigang, drive the 9km (15 minutes) to Chazam and take the turn-off towards Trashi Yangtse; after 13km you will see the yellow roof of Gom Kora below the road. There is a parking area but this is woefully inadequate during festival time.
About 5km south of Thimphu on the old road to Paro and Phuentsholing, the handsomely proportioned Simtokha Dzong was built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The site is said to mark the spot where a demon vanished into a rocky outcrop, hence the name Simtokha, from simmo (demoness) and do (stone). The site was also a vitally strategic location from which to protect the Thimphu valley and the passage east to the Dochu La and eastern Bhutan. Officially known as Sangak Zabdhon Phodrang (Palace of the Profound Meaning of Secret Mantras), Simtokha is often said to be the first dzong built in Bhutan. In fact, there were dzongs in Bhutan as early as 1153, but this was the first dzong built by the Zhabdrung, and was the first structure to incorporate both monastic and administrative facilities. It is also the oldest dzong to have survived as a complete structure. Just above the dzong is Bhutan's Institute for Language and Culture Studies. During its construction Simtokha Dzong was attacked by an alliance of Tibetans and five Bhutanese lamas from rival Buddhist schools who were opposed to the Zhabdrung's rule. The attack was repelled and the leader of the coalition, Palden Lama, was killed. In 1630 the Tibetans attacked again and took the dzong, but the Zhabdrung regained control when the main building caught fire and the roof collapsed, killing the invaders. Descriptions of the original buildings at Simtokha Dzong were provided by two Portuguese Jesuit priests who visited in 1629 on their way to Tibet. The fortress was restored and expanded by the third desi (secular ruler), Mingyur Tenpa, in the 1670s, and it has been enlarged and modified many times since. The fine murals inside have been restored by experts from Japan. The squat, whitewashed dzong looks more fortress-like than most, and the only gate is on the south side (though the original gate was on the west wall). As you enter, note the murals of the four guardian kings – Vaishravana (north), Dhritarashtra (east), Virudhaka (south) and Virupaksha (west) – protecting the four cardinal directions, and the jewel-vomiting mongoose in the hand of the yellow King of the North. The utse (central tower) is three storeys high, and prayer wheels around the courtyard are backed by more than 300 slate carvings depicting saints and philosophers. The large central figure in the central lhakhang is of Sakyamuni, flanked by the eight bodhisattvas, and the ceiling is hung with an incredible array of dhvaja (victory banners) in brightly coloured silk. The dark murals inside this lhakhang are some of the oldest and most beautiful in Bhutan and the walls are adorned with embroidered thangkas (religious pictures). In the western chapel are statues of Chenresig, green and white Taras, and an early painting of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. Check out the tigers' tails and guns hanging from the pillars in the eastern goenkhang, a protector chapel dedicated to the guardians of Bhutan, Yeshe Goenpo (Mahakala) and Pelden Lhamo.
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