Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Ending On An Odd Number Part XV

Check out Part XIV here

 

So was the trip worth it? Absolutely. It was also worth the whole two and a half weeks, and I was a bit sad by the fact that I had to travel back home. Another week of adventures would have certainly been more satisfactory but one can take only so much time off.
The last visit in the mountains, namely in Khazbegi was spectacular and I got to hang out for the last time with Manuel and a few other mates of mine. One-day trip to the North of Georgia was certainly more than enough (that is, of course, excluding all the hiking as the cars there can take you up to the viewpoint already for extra). Just see for yourself how picturesque it can get from up and down there.

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After the trip, I had spent another day hanging out with Manuel. He felt in the party mood on our second last day and we went back to the same “party houses” in the park in Tbilisi. I had met new people there too and they were all nudging me to go and party with them. However, I fell ill then and could not join along, so I was sipping water in the back. The next day Manuel saw me to the bus, which took me straight to the airport.
I could not help but think of those three countries as part of a family. Georgia felt like the mother – it was warm, inviting, caring and wanted to give you the most comforting welcome. Azerbaijan felt like the older brother – he wanted you to have a great deal of fun but not without the tricks that he had up its sleeves, and charge the unbeknownst tourists like us with a “surprise welcome tax”, and giggle at us. Armenia felt like the father – it was strict but fair, and made sure that no surprises from the older brother would come up again to ruin the hospitality. Visiting all of those three countries was definitely heaps of fun and loaded with adventure. We loved it.

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However, if you were to ask me, which of the three countries I would like to come back to, I would certainly tell that it would be Georgia. In fact, if you are considering to visit all three countries as well, I would do the following (and I’ve advised so to many of my friends): firstly, visit Georgia and follow the same route as we had, and add Botomi on your list as well. I heard it is a lovely place to visit in summer. Then, take a flight to Baku from Tbilisi, and travel north to see Quba and Khinaliq. Spend another day in Baku, and take the flight back to Tbilisi. Those flights operate daily (and can be easily found online) and are reasonably cheap (if you travel without checked-in luggage), in summer – last time we checked, they were about € 35 one way per person. Or else you can take an overnight train to Baku. From Tbilisi, take the minibus to Yerevan, and visit the same places as we had (you can even rent a car, or a car with a driver like we did). Then you can take the flight back home directly from Yerevan. If you like being active on the trip (without long stops), then this whole travel affair should easily squeeze into 14 – 20 days.

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I believe that if you consider to go on a serious hike and are not sure if that would be your piece of cake, then visiting Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are great places to start. That should give you a good idea whether you want to invest more money and time to go hiking elsewhere. Just bear in mind that a lot of things during the trip cannot be arranged in advance (e.g. bus tickets from Tbilisi to Armenia, car from Tbilisi to canyons, etc.), so you would need to play by ear and improvise quite a bit. Look at it as another fun part of your adventure and, potential, learning curve in managing another long trip. If you are an experienced driver, renting a car while in Georgia and Azerbaijan would be a great decision. In Armenia you can relax and entrust the wheel to a driver who would take you places and it should actually be even cheaper for you than renting a car on your own. As for other general costs – I would say that you can aim at roughly 10-15 Euros per stay and 5-10 Euros per meal per person, as it is quite inexpensive to travel in those three countries, so you won’t need to break the bank.

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Thanks for reading our adventures and hope that it has been a fun read, and that my tips have or will become useful to you. Next, my friend and I are travelling through the great Stans, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and I cannot wait to share our adventures soon! Until then!

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Roads That Cross Part XIV

Check out part XIII here

 

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Val and I had quite a few topics to cover while on the road and he was not shy tell anything. We talked about Armenia, people, their relationship towards the neighbouring countries, and their best (political) friends. Strangely enough, and from what I got from the conversation, Armenia did not really have close allies. I mean, the people or country that they can call their best buddy. It felt like they were, may be even deliberately, completely on their own, with a heavy burden of their past on the shoulders. But yet they did not want to isolate themselves. It was more of being unable to find someone who would really understand their struggle and look in the face of their old ghost, and say: “This looks familiar to me too”. Nevertheless, Armenians came across as a friendly folk and unlike in Azerbaijan, we were being treated like friends that time around. I simply told Val that Ben and I were looking forward to having fun and exploring the country and he said that he would be happy to make our time memorable. He sure did.
Our next stop was Areni and the nearby cave, where the wine was born. We dropped by a small shop, which had dozens of wines and home-made spirits for tourists to try. First four wine bottles were free of charge for anyone to try but for 1 Euro, one could taste a dozen of them, as well as cognac and other spirits. Before Ben and I were told anything else about the small exhibition, I put the money on the table and we proceeded to try our first wine, accompanied with some snacks, like lavash and cheese. As the drinks were being poured, the girls were telling us how each wine was made and what it was made from. It was pure joy! We both tried about a dozen of different wines, two kinds of cognac and vodka. All made in Armenia. After the tour, we had complementary tea and coffee.
I asked Val if it would be possible to do horse riding around the winery and he told me that it would be a bit of a challenge to find one around. Luckily though, Val spotted a passer-by and asked them for a contact number of a person, who would be able to help out. He called him, and said that there would be two people who would be interested in horse riding in Areni. The stranger gladly agreed and said that there would only be one horse. It would cost us about 15-20 Euros for the two of us for one hour. It was quite pricy, agree, but I had never ridden a horse, so I persuaded Ben to go for it. We waited for the guy to show up with a mighty horse and I was already envisioning myself sitting atop its muscular, strong back and riding against the wind in the wilderness of a small village of Armenia.

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By the time we had to meet the guy, I had built so much excitement that I was ready to pay him anything he’d ask for. After all, it would have been my first time riding the horse! We walked up one of the hills and stood there waiting for him. After a few or so minutes, two figures emerged from the distance and they were walking our direction. As they were approaching closer, I could see it was a middle-aged man with a huge belly, which was bigger than the horse itself. The man approached us and I could clearly see that it was not a horse…

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A f***ing pony! Come on! Well, it was too late to back down, so I told Ben to get on first. So he did. After cruising for about ten or so minutes, I approached him and got on the pony. I was still excited to ride a…pony, but unfortunately, it was too young, too slow. It felt like riding on an elephant. So yeah, lesson learnt – ask for a horse and say it if would be anything but the horse, there would not be a deal.
After that disappointing ride, we drove towards one of the caves. It was sadly going to close shortly but Val spoke to the staff and told that we’d be quick. One of the staff members reluctantly let us go up with him but after a few minutes, he brightened up and was giving us a small tour inside the cave. Yes, Ben and I are nice and friendly folk!
Our guide showed us the pots, where the wine was kept under the ground and sand for years and also the remains of people who were sacrificed (to the god of wine, of course). Hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, the wine was treated as the holy drink and not everyone was allowed to drink it – only those from wealthy, or known families. And one would not drink the whole litre bottle in a few hours (like I tend to do on Fridays) – it was one or few sips only.

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It was time for us to head back to our hostel. Ben and I found another one, close to the city centre. It was a Thai hostel, which was interesting. We picked it up because it was the cheapest that we could find, so we were looking forward to checking in.
I asked Val if he could take us down to Tsaghkadzor for a ropeway tour (the place that was closed on our first day) and even though Val did not have to do it, as our agreement was only for a two-day trip, he agreed nonetheless. We also wanted to visit Hankavan, a small village where one could go on a summer resort to but we decided to spend more time in the city instead. So our plan for the third day was to visit Tsaghkadzor, genocide memorial and see the city. On the fourth day, Ben would travel to Belarus for a few days before heading back home and I would head back to Georgia for a few days to go to Kazbegi and catch a flight back.
Val drove us back and just like with any cheap hostels, it took us about 10 minutes to find the door…or rather manage to call the owner and ask him to find us because we could not find the door. He was quite friendly and relaxed – he took us into a big hall and there we saw our room. The rooms were separated by, what looked like, plywood and the boards were about 2.5 meters tall, so they did not even touch the ceiling. Naturally, this was a recipe for a disastrous night sleep and boy was I right. I could easily hear someone whispering a few meters away from us, let alone snoring (that was loud and clear). Ben and I went grocery shopping and drank some peach vodka that we got on our first day. It still tasted amazing.
We were offered a Thai massage by an employee in the hostel and we politely rejected the offer. Mainly because it would cost about 15 Euros for an hour. I found it a bit too much in my books. After some more reasonable drinking we both went to sleep. Well, that’s Ben and I would wake up every few hours because of someone snoring. And I would wake up very early in the morning because our neighbours decided to have a chat in the hall.

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Val met us by the hostel and we drove towards Tsaghkadzor, which was not that far off the city. There were plenty of people there too, who wanted to go on a ropeway tour. We got in line and waited for our turn.
The tour was amazing. In about ten minutes we got on top of the hill and spent some time walking around. Naturally, we were approached by locals, who asked us if we wanted to get a ride on a barbie jeep. We learnt our lesson (the hard way) from Azerbaijan and asked how much it would cost. We were told that it would be around 40 Euros, which was the same as renting the car from Val for a day. Clearly, were being ripped off, so I told him to get lost. We resumed the walk and spent about an hour or so walking around, enjoying the view.

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And here is what the saw while going down on the ropeway.

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It looked stellar! Val was kind enough to also take us to the genocide memorial, where we spent a considerable amount of time in the museum. Val said that it would take us quite a while to see everything there, so we asked him what the average taxi fare was and went our merry way.
We spent about two hours in the museum and I am sure that one could spend there way more time if they read everything there was to read there. Ben and I took a taxi back to the city and went to a small restaurant, which served amazing falafel sandwiches for just 1.50 Euros. Once we’d filled our stomachs up with amazing lunch, we went to explore the city. We took a ride on the metro and went to the centre. I unfortunately did not take names of places we visited, as we were just simply walking where the road would lead us, but I did take some photos.

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And there was our trip to Armenia. Ben and I went back to hostel to get a good night sleep and look back at the fun we had had, and the places that we got to see.

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(red – 1st day, green – 2nd day)

We covered quite a few places in Armenia within three days and I would say that it was a good amount of time to spend in the country and more would have been an “overstay”, in my opinion.
The next day, as agreed, Val met to pick us up at the hostel. While we were driving towards the airport, I asked Val what on earth “jan” stood for and why Arthur called me “Timjan”, and not just Tim. Apparently, “jan” meant “sweet” in Armenian. It was a friendly way of adding that at the end of one’s name. How nice!
Ben got on the airplane, and I got on a minibus at the bus station and headed towards Tblisi for a few days. Ben was heading to Belarus, Minsk via Moscow and he texted me after a few hours to say that he was stuck in the airport. Apparently, he needed some sort of a transit visa for Russia, which was news to both of us. Neither of us would even think of such a thing and I don’t think that Ben was even given a proper explanation at the airport as to what kind of visa he actually needed. So Ben had to buy the flight tickets directly to his home instead, and cancel a short trip to Belarus. Sad that he did not decide to join me in Georgia. I was very much looking forward to coming back to Tblisi to meet Manuel and visit Khazbegi, before heading home. Once again I would see the mighty, tall mountains, before the trip would come to a conclusion.

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To continue to Part XV click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – One More To Go Part XIII

Check out Part XII here

 

One more country to go – that’s right! I could not believe how fast the time flew. A few more days and Ben and I had to leave hack home. All the great food, fun people and beautiful nature surrounded my hills and mountains – poof. Gone. Wicked!
Our next destination was Garni – one of the oldest temples in the country. It was used to worship the god of sun/fire back in the day. The views surrounding the temple were as interesting to look at.

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And that’s about it – we did not have anything else to explore there, so we came back to Val and proceeded to Geghard, a medieval monastery.
While on the road, Val asked Ben and me if we wanted to try out some local, home-made vodka and before I could say “yes”, I saw a few stands a few hundred metres away from us, which were surrounded by the baskets of fruits and vegetables. We stopped by one of the stands and Val asked for a few shots to taste. It was vodka made from peaches and it tasted great! We grabbed the bottle and went our way.
Geghard was most famous for housing ancient relics, such as the spear that pierced Jesus on the cross. I very much liked how raw and dark the churches and monasteries of Armenia were – a sight to behold!

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It looked somewhat gothic to me, in the form and share that the insides of the monastery were preserved. We explored the monastery, walked a bit more around the premises and got back to the car. The next destination was another monastery, Haghartsin Monastery.
We were lucky enough to witness a wedding there. Val told us that weddings in Armenia stretch for days, where family members and friends of both bride and groom bring tons of meat and alcohol and go wild. At that point I was thinking how amazing it would be to marry an Armenian woman!
We also saw old Armenian scripts and asked Val if he was still able to understand them but he unfortunately could not, as the writing of the language had changed so much over time. So we left that mystery, and happy young couple behind us for Dilijan, a small neat-looking town in the north of Armenia.
And next on our list was the Sevan lake – we were excited! Also, we met Arthur by the lake, who was taking care of his group of tourists. One guy got so hammered on the trip that he went swimming naked – his wife, to say the least, was embarrassed and had to calm him down (he would get a bit shouty every now and then). Ben and I found a few small boats by the coast and we approached the guy, who threw the rope over to park the boat. We asked him if he could get us onboard and for the mere 10-15 or so Euros for all three of us, he agreed to take us around. It was quite windy but the scenery was great!

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The only thing that was missing on board was alcohol but luckily, the boat trip was short so we did not feel too bad for too long. We got back to the shore and went up the hill to get another view over the land and the lake. It was beautiful.

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There were a few small churches up the hill – the country is plentiful of them. Similarly to Georgia, Armenia was also deeply religious and you would not want to joke about that over there either (unfortunately for Ben).
We descended the hill and told Val that we would not mind snacking some local food. He drove us to the restaurant nearby, called Collette It was quite popular and Val said that we would love it and we certainly did. They even had crayfish kebab on the menu! Wow – I really wanted to try it out.

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But unfortunately it was out of season so they could not serve it to us. Good to know they did not cook frozen food. We ordered some kebab, bread and local cognac, Ararat, which tasted wonderful. Since Ararat was, literally, everything to Armenians, they named a lot of thing after the great mountain. Man’s name, cigarette, food & alcohol brand and many more were things were called and branded as Ararat.
Val, in the meantime, grabbed a cup of coffee and waited for us in the car. The food and drinks were so great that we wanted to stay for longer, have some more and go party but we had one more place to visit for the day, which was Tsaghkadzor.
And we were too late! We arrived there at about 5.00 p.m. and the ropeway tours were unfortunately closed. I asked Val to take us there the next day and he politely nodded and said that if we had time, we would certainly go there.
He dropped us off at our hostel, where we did manage to keep the room for ourselves, so we stayed there another night. Ben and I armed ourselves with some cognac and spent the rest of the evening chatting and relaxing.

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The next day, it was finally time to visit the great mountain Ararat or rather, look at it from a distance, since it was on the Turkish border. The place that we started heading towards was Khor Virap, where a monastery lay with an outstanding view on the tall mountain.
When we arrived, Val nodded and said that he would wait us by the car as we proceeded to towards the stairs up the hill. As we were walking, a couple of locals approached Ben and me with four pigeons in their hands. They both literally shuffled pigeons into our hands and told us to hold them tight. “There, make a wish and then let them go!” they said. Ok, Ben and I wished of something irrelevant and let the birds go. Before we could make another move, the guys told us that it would cost us 10 Euros each.

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Naturally, we broke into an argument. “But oh well, you know, we raised the pigeons, fed them and now they will never come back!” was their argument and they would not let us go. Val stepped in and they started speaking Armenian. Ben and I exchanged angry stares. “Ok, Tim, Ben, just give those charlatans 6 Euros each and let’s go.” And we did. At least I felt good about the pigeons being released from those scammers for good, so it was worth paying in the end. Val interrupted my thought by saying that those guys trained pigeons to come back to them when released, so the poor birds could not escape their fate.

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We got to top of the hill to admire the scenery and take some great photos.

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We walked around some more and went back to Val to drive to one of the oldest wineries in the world and drink some in the village of Areni. Exciting!

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To continue to Part XIV click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Seat Belts Are Optional Part XII

Check out Part XI here

 

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We made it back to Tbilisi in one peace. Crossing and leaving Azerbaijani was a peace of cake – we were asked a few friendly questions and went our merry way back to the rocking beds of the train. As you can imagine, I did not get to sleep that much on the train, so I was looking forward to getting on a minibus, reaching Yerevan and burying myself in a bed. Luckily, our friend Manuel did help us with booking two seats on the minibus – our only other choice to get to Yerevan was on a train but it was much more expensive. Since Tblisi was far from being “digital”, Manuel made a few calls and reserved two places for us. If you do visit Georgia, you either need to call people to book bus tickets or go directly to where they sell them, and buy them on the spot. Yeah, I really missed Europe then and how easy it was to buy pretty much anything online.

When we arrived at the bus station, we still had around one hour to wander about. We got to a shop to buy some snacks and a giant shoti bread (I could not get enough of it in Mestia) and found a small, cozy restaurant close to the bus station. The prices, however, were not as welcoming but we decided to eat something anyway. When we were approached by the waiter, she immediately proceeded by telling me to take my hat off (it was rude) and I barked back at her to serve us something that could be prepared quickly. We waited…and waited…and were finally presented with some food, at long last. The longer I had to wait, the angrier I was growing – I did not want to miss the minibus. I picked up my hat and we rushed to get on the minibus.

Fortunately, getting to Yerevan was quick – about four-five hours, including the border check. Ben was most nervous about it as Turkey did not get along with Armenia and vice versa. We reached the border and Ben asked me if he could go in front of me in the queue. So he did and he crossed it sooner than I could take a third breath. I passed the passport control soon after him.

We still had no plan for Armenia and what places we wanted to see. We figured that since we would arrive to Yerevan later in the evening, we would sit down and explore at the map.

As we were driving towards the capital, I was admiring the country: it had heaps of hills, forests, some lakes and neat-looking villages. I liked it – much more than I did Azerbaijan. Yes, it was not as green and pristine (to an extent) as Georgia but it was good. Here, I managed to take a few photos while we were on the road.

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The city was…ok. Although, there was no interesting architecture – it looked kind of dull…It felt like it was one of the uninteresting districts of Berlin that you have to go through to get to some club to have fun, only that there were no clubs around for miles. Alright, it was not bad but it was certainly quite (even during other days when we stayed in the city).

Ben was particularly reluctant to rent a car in Armenia, even though he was getting better at driving in Azerbaijan.

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OK, just kidding. But he was indeed improving. Last thing that Ben wanted for him to happen was to sign a car rental contract and be pulled over by the police. Considering the political complications between the two countries, it was a wise decision to use 60 km/h guidance of the local buss network. However, if I had the driver’s license, I would have signed the car rental document. We kept on strolling around the city and it was actually looking much nicer in Northern Avenue and around the area. While we were casually looking around and taking photos, we noticed quite a few cars parked around and saw that some of them had banners or photos of the local sights attached to them. We walked closer to take a look at what it was and we were approached by a friendly-looking, elderly chap. He asked if we were tourists and wanted to have him drive us around the country. It looked, firstly, suspicious but then he gave us a neat price and Ben went with the flow of the conversation, so I knew it was a good sign. Basically, the offer was that he would take us around about 6-8 places during the next two days and on the third day, he would give us both a free lift to the airport and/or bus station. The price was around 45 Euros for the two of us and we would leave in the early morning and come back by the sunset, and spend as much time as we wanted at the sights. I took his phone number (let’s call him, Andy) and he bade me farewell. “Hope to hear back from you, Timjan!” Timjan? I just told him a few minutes ago I was Tim – why the “jan” (pronounced as “John”) at the end of my name? Weird.

I talked to Ben and we immediately checked the prices of renting a car in Yerevan and the cheapest that we could find was around 30 or so Euros. Considering that we also had to pay for the gas, put the deposit down, etc., it was a no-brainer that we would call Andy back to agree on the car trip. Still, we walked around and asked how much others charged for the comfort of being driven around. Unfortunately, there were only minibuses that would normally take about four-six people, so it made no sense to pay the price of the six while we were two, even though the drivers told us that they would be happy to take us.

Ben and I started heading back to the hostel and bought some wine and cheese on the way. We were rejoiced, to say the least, and once we had come back to the hostel (where the lights were back on!), we called Andy and said that we were down for the trip for two days and I tried to negotiate on the discount. “Timjan, unfortunately no, this is the lowest that we can ask for. We will take you to the bus station or airport after the trip, so that will save you quite a bit on the taxi!” Where on bloody earth was that “jan” coming from and why, I still could not get my head around. “Fine”, I said. “Let’s do it! Looking forward to our trip tomorrow”. “And also, Timjan, there will be one of my friends who will pick you up, as I sadly won’t be able to be there for two days with you. His name is Val – he is a really kind and friendly lad. You’ll have a blast with him!”

And so Ben and I opened a bottle of a fine local pomegranate wine and a box of cheese, pieces of which were individually wrapped in and sealed like a small money pouch bag. It was delightful. We were happy that we had to spend no time in organising the bus to drive us places, and think of what places to see during the next three days that we would spend in the country. Brilliant. We still looked up the sights that we would see in the next few days with Val and were excited about the trip.

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We woke up quite early the next day. We went down to the reception and asked if we could stay in the same room for another day. The lady told us that there could be reservation coming in soon, so she told us to wait a bit longer and give her a call back. Strange.

Val was waiting for us outside, sitting in a shiny sedan. We greeted him and put our rucksacks in the trunk. Val was a calm, middle-aged man (and quite friendly indeed), so right from the start I could feel that the trip would be fun and we would not get sick of him. He told us that the first place we would go to would be Garni, a small village with an ancient temple (as I am writing this, I am looking up pictures of the temple taken during a rainy autumn day and does it look gorgeous!). I put the seat belt on and Val said that I did not have to. “Timjan, just sit back and relax. Feel like you’re in the couch – the car has a lot of space”. He did not put his seat belt on either and we started driving through early morning’s traffic jam and onwards to our first sightseeing of Armenia. I could sense that it would be an awesome trip!

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To continue to Part XIII click here