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Saudi Arabia - a short (ish) résumé of our 13-day trip

An overview of a great trip

View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This is a short résumé of our journey through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in October 2022 for those who do not have the time to read my day-to-day blog.

A quick plug for our favourite tour operator before we get started.
The trip was arranged through Undiscovered Destination, a British tour operator and travel agent who organises private tours (as well as small groups) to some really interesting and unusual destinations. If you are keen to visit off-the-beaten-path places that rarely see another tourist, pop on over to their website to see the vast array of destinations they can offer.

We have travelled with them several times (Lake Turkana in Kenya, Moldova and Romania, Haiti, Oman, Comoros, São Tomé, Turkmenistan, and Brazil), always on a tailor-made tour, most of which I have personalised to suit our interests and capabilities, basing my plans on their group itinerary. As you can tell, we have been extremely pleased with their trips (we have several more trips in the pipeline with UD), and cannot recommend them enough for their exceptional customer service, attention to detail, ethical approach to travel, and the fascinating places they visit.

Back to Saudi Arabia. We flew on Saudia Airlines from Heathrow to Riyadh, the map below shows our journey through KSA.


Day 1 – The Edge of the World

Ali, our excellent and very caring guide, picks us up this afternoon to take us to the Edge of the World, the nickname given to Jebel Fihrayn. This spectacular cliff edge is part of the 800-km-long Tuwaiq Escarpment.

We stop on the way in a small town, where Ali buys a hot lunch from a restaurant, which we later consume as a picnic in the desert.


Our first stop is at Huraymila National Park where a small herd of Reem Deer has been reintroduced to the desert.


The escarpment is a very popular place for an afternoon excursion, especially on a weekend (today is Saturday). I didn't expect it to be quite so touristy, there is even an official (gravel) car park here! It is well worth it for the stunning view, though, and Ali adds to the atmosphere by posing in just the right place for me.


You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

Day 2 – Riyadh

Today we are exploring the modern capital city of Saudi Arabia: Riyadh.

Masmak Fort
This fort is not very old as forts go, dating back some 150 years. It does, however, hold a very special place in the history of Saudi Arabia, as it was here, in 1902, that King Abdulaziz captured the fortress and took control of Riyadh after having lived in exile in Kuwait. From here he conquered and united the different kingdoms and provinces that make up the Saudi nation as we know it today.


Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque
Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter this modern-looking mosque close to the fort, as is the case of most mosques in KSA.


Najd Village Restaurant
Najd Village is an authentic Arabian restaurant offering traditional cuisine from the Najd region of the country. We are the only western diners there, and see many curious locals exploring the building and taking photos.


As with most Arabic restaurants, this offers little seating areas, known as majils, which are enclosed by waist level high walls, and scattered with cushions around the wall for you to sit on while eating, with the low walls acting as backrests. The food is usually served on a mat in the middle of the area, with everyone helping themselves from the same bowls, using their hands to eat. Correction: using the right hand to eat with, as the left hand is considered dirty (this is the one used during 'absolutions'). As foreigners, we do get our own bowls, however.


Modern Riyadh
Unfortunately, Murabba Palace and the National Museum are both closed, due to something called Riyadh Season, an annual entertainment and sports festival. I am not entirely sure why that necessitates the closure of historical sites, but who am I to question why.

We head for the financial district instead, which is jam-packed with exciting, sexy, and innovative architecture, in various stages of completeness. The security guards in charge of the area are not keen on photographers, so I take pictures covertly from inside the car.


Kingdom Tower
This large, up-market complex houses the Four Seasons Hotel, and surprisingly, it is the only place we have seen any luxurious cars here in Riyadh, with a gorgeous bright yellow Mercedes sports car drawing David's attention. Our reason for being here, is the view from the 99th floor of the building affectionately known as the Bottle Opener, for obvious reasons. It's an impressive building, covered with 85,000 square metres of glass.



You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here

Day 3 – Riyadh – Ushayqer – Bureidah

Riyadh Camel Market
Most of the large pens are empty (the auction is not until this afternoon), but we see some male camels who are being sold for breeding purposes, as well as females. When looking for a camel stud, prospective buyers will assess the camels mainly on their physical appearance.


Another section of the market is reserved for accessories – no self-respecting camel would be seen without the right adornments.


Qasab Salt Flats
These are said to be the largest salt flats in Saudi Arabia, producing 200,000 tons of salt annually. It is the primary source of salt in Saudi Arabia, and has been famous since ancient times for its high quality. Large holes are dug in the ground and filled with water. As the water evaporates in the fierce desert heat, a crusty layer of salt is left behind.


Ushayqer Heritage Village
Initially settled by nomads 1500 years ago, the current buildings we see here are largely no more than 400 years old. The village is built in a traditional design, with outer walls (now mostly demolished), and an inner courtyard where the market would have been held. The village is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, shaded pathways, and timber-framed walkways, crossing between hundreds of houses made from wattle and daub mud bricks.


Restoration is still very much in progress, and bricks are still made the traditional way by digging out the mud, adding straw, and drying the bricks in the sun.


Fufalgiya Mosque
As with most mosques, women pray separately from men, behind the curtain you see on the left of the image, to allow them privacy. As Ali explains, the women do not want the men looking at their posteriors when they bend over in prayer.


Almassi Alref Restaurant
We take lunch just outside the old town in a modern restaurant accessed across a bridge over an artificial stream complete with some pretty large fish.


The upstairs part of the restaurant is a little more westernised, with some garish plastic flower decorations. There is a menu with pretty pictures, and we order chicken kebab, shish tawock and iced mocha. The kebabs are served atop fanciful bowls on stems filled with hot coals to keep the food hot.


It's all very tasty, and the iced mocha is delicious!

From here we continue our journey along straight smooth roads to Bureidah, our stop for the night.

You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

Day 4 – Bureidah – Qasim Camel Market - Ha’il

Qassim Camel Market
There are not just camels at this market, but also sheep and goats. I never knew there were so many different varieties! I have always found it difficult to differentiate between sheep and goats in some parts of the world, and here is no different.


We continue to the area selling camels. The large open area is full of hobbled camels, and the noise is deafening. The odd loose camel tries to run away, but none get very far before they are captured.


Prospective buyers mingle with their intended purchases, checking them out. There are three categories of camels, some of which are sold for breeding, judged by their looks, or destined for the cooking pot. Racing camels are not usually presented at the markets. Ali tells me that most of the camels in this area will become dinner at some point. Discussions then take place over a cup of Saudi Coffee, and a price is agreed upon. We too are given coffee and dates by the friendly traders.


Once the business deal has been settled, the camel is secured with a rope, and hoisted up into a waiting truck by a crane to be delivered to its new owner.


After returning to the hotel, where we are able to take a shower and have some breakfast, we say goodbye to Ali, our guide for the last couple of days before we continue our journey through the KSA, to Ha'il.

A'Arif Fort
We meet up with our new guide Abdulmajid at the fort. Dating from the 17th century, the fort is the oldest historical building in the town. Initially built for defense purposes, the fort was then used to signal the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan to the citizens of Hail. Following restoration, it has been opened to tourists as a museum.


From its lofty position atop a hill overlooking Ha'il, the fort offers a great view of the town below.


The Old Souq
While described as “old”, the market is surprisingly modern in my opinion, and I am sorry to say, not that exciting.


Butter mixed with date syrup is stored in animal skins – the smallest is that of a lizard, and the largest is from a camel. It tastes surprisingly good.


We get to try the best dates of this season, which I must admit are absolutely amazing. I am not really a fan of dates, but these are delicious – the best I've ever tasted!


You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

Day 5 – Ha’il – Jubbah - Sakaka


While there is still a settlement here in Jubbah, this was once a thriving oasis filled with people and wildlife, as documented in carvings on the rocks dating back 10,000 years. The carvings indicate that this area was once a savannah and home to numerous species of animals. The rock itself is made of sandstone, which I guess is reasonably easy to carve. It is thought that sharp pieces of basalt were used to make the inscriptions.


The petroglyphs here cover three distinct time periods, dating from 10,000 years ago, 5,000, and 2,000. It is like an ancient open-air library with its images and writing. They were such prolific carvers. I wonder why they all came to this particular place over the millennia? What drew them to these specific rocks?


Leaving Jubbah and Abduljamid behind, we continue on our journey north to Sakaka for overnight.

You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

Day 6 – Sakaka – Rajajil – Marid - Tabuk

Al Ta’leel Coffee House we meet our new local guide, Abdul for the most amazing breakfast spread! We are certainly not going to starve this morning, with an enormous offering containing khubooz flatbread, addas lentils, three different kinds of cheese including my favourite soft cheese: labneh (made from yogurt), hummus with meat, babaganoush (smokey aubergine dip), stuffed baby aubergines, plain omelette, plum jam, black and green olives, falafel and chips.


Zaabal Castle
The name of the castle is translated as “ribs”, and refers to the fortifications protecting the city like the ribs protect the heart in humans. Although the fort originated some 2000 years ago, the top has been added later. This was purely a military fort, used to defend the town below – it consists of only two rooms, no living quarters.


Sakaka Old Town
As old as the castle, the town at its base was abandoned some 65 years ago, when the lure of modern houses with electricity and running water became too tempting for its inhabitants.


The bright and modern museum close to the castle, has a few interesting artifacts.


Sisra Well
The nearby well is believed to be older than the fort, dating from the Thamudic period, some 2,500 years ago. It is an unusual design, in that it is dug out of the rock rather than into the soil. Collecting water that ran off from the nearby rocky outcrop, the well features a 6km long underground tunnel to irrigate local agricultural areas that had no water of their own. The well itself is deeper than the tunnel outlet, in order to collect any stones than were washed off from the hills. The steps provide access for removing those stones. Most of the tunnels have since collapsed, with the building of the foundations for the modern houses.


Affectionately known as “The Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia”, these ancient stone pillars are part of a collection of around 50 groups of standing stones dating back some 6,000 years – that's a whopping 1,000 years older than its namesakes in the UK. Each of the groups are arranged in an East-West direction, and just like Stonehenge, the rocks are not local, but have been brought from 160km away. This then triggers the question: how?

Historians are unsure about how or why these pillars were erected or what purpose they served. Numerous human remains have been found, leading to suggestions that this may have been a burial site. It is understood that they were all of a similar age when they died, idicating possible sacrifice or maybe battles similar to the Roman Gladiators. A landmark or 'road sign' on a popular caravan route, or maybe astronomical structures have all been suggested. Inscriptions on the stones are in the Thamudic language, which has not been fully studied yet.


Marid Castle
Excavations have revealed that the castle dates back to the Nabataean Period,
around the 1st century AD. The whole area was fortified with stone walls to repel attacks by invaders, while the fort itself was built on a strategic rocky outcrop overlooking the city.


We part ways with Abdul and continue our journey to Tabuk and our hotel for the night.

You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

Day 7 – Wadi Disah

Today is dedicated to an excursion to the magnificent canyon of Wadi Disah, with Bahil, a different driver. At the entrance to the canyon, we move over into a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the fun forage into the verdant canyon, so very different from anywhere else we have visited in this country.




At a bend in the track, with an elevated area, we stop, and Bahil gets out a cool box from his car, and spreads a carpet on the ground. Picnic time! There is so much food!


Tabuk Castle
Once we are back inside the city, the driver stops by what I assume is Tabuk Castle. The castle is closed, however, so we make do with seeing it from the outside, all lit up.


You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

Day 8 – Tabuk – Tayma – Al Ula

Another town, another guide, this time a young chap called Abdulatif.

Haddaj Well
The well is closed for restoration, so all we are permitted to do is to take photos from the outside. Constructed in the 6th century BC, this enormous well has a diameter of 18 metres and is one of the largest water wells in the world. 75 camels were used to draw water from the well – you can see some of the 40 pulley wheels in this picture.


Al Taqqa Palace
While this place is also undergoing restoration work, we are permitted to enter. It is just one big building site, and is a bit of a health and safety nightmare, especially for someone with a knee injury.


Sheikh Madi Altalaq Palace
We are invited to visit Abdulatif’s family palace, which is an extravagant affair. We are offered Arabic Coffee, of course.


In the small library, we are shown pictures hanging on the walls of famous people visiting this place. Abdullatif takes lots of pictures of us, promising to add them to the collection of VIPs.


The whole experience has been surreal as well as humbling – I never thought I would be invited to a sheik's palace here in Saudi Arabia!

After lunch we say goodbye to Abdulatif, and head further south to continue our journey. We enjoy a post-lunch snooze for the first few miles, but then try our best to stay away as the scenery becomes increasingly more rugged, with some fascinating rock formations.


Sahary Resort, Al Ula


Set in a flat sandy area, surrounded by steep cliffs outside the main town, the oasis-like resort is large, with our room made to look like a traditional Arabic nomad tent.


The interior, however, is anything but basic.


You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

Day 9 – Al Ula: Dadan, Jabel Ikmah, Hegra

Al Ula is the most touristy place we have encountered so far – not because there are great numbers of visitors, but all movements around the sites are strictly enforced and overly regulated by the government. The historic sites of this area can only be visited on a huge bus, arranged by the government, which I am afraid puts a huge dampener on the experience as far as I am concerned. We travel on private trips because we don’t want to be herded around with several other people, I like to take my time to make photographs, I write copious notes of what the guide tells us, and for someone like me, with walking difficulties, the whole thing is way too rushed and impersonal.

Dadan Rock tombs
From afar, these look like simple dark rectangles. A closer look reveals skilfully crafted funerary monuments, including the seated lion sculptures that mark the famous Lion Tombs. Lions symbolised power and protection and may have marked the burial of an elite member of society, perhaps even a member of royalty. These tombs are up to 50 metres above ground level, spurring the imagination of how they were carved without modern construction equipment. It is said that the reason for constructing them high above the ground was to ensure an easy passage to heaven by being part way there already.


Dadan Town
Dating back to between the late 9th and early 8th century BC, Dadan was one of the most developed 1st-millennium BCE cities in northern Arabia as a result of its proximity to the frankincense trade route. First mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel (27:20) in the Hebrew Bible, it was described as the “beating heart of the kingdom and a trading partner of the city of Tyre” (in modern-day Lebanon).


Jabal Ikmah
This whole area is described as an open library of inscriptions, with rock art and petroglyphs set in a stunning desert canyon. Messages and notes are left by those who lived here, as well as passing traders. Hundreds of inscriptions and carvings line the cliff faces and rocks, thought to date back as far as the 1st millennium BC, giving a glimpse into the daily lives of people in the Dadanite, Lihyanite, and other civilisations of AlUla.


Once a thriving international trade hub, the archaeological site of Hegra was an important trading place for the Nabataens between the 1st millennium BC and the 1st millennium AD, and was considered the sister-city to the much more famous Petra in nearby Jordan. Most of the remaining structures that can be seen today are part of a necropolis, such as Hegra’s largest tomb, measuring ca 70 feet tall.


Elephant Rock
One of the many awesome rock formations in this area.


You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

Day 10 – Maraya – Al Ula Old Town - Medina

This is the world’s largest mirrored building (Mataya means mirror or reflection in Arabic) with 9740 mirrored panels and is designed to blend into the desert landscape and rise from it like a mirage. The building features a restaurant, a concert auditorium, a wedding venue, a conference centre, and a place for art exhibitions to name a few.


Old Al Ula Town
It’s an extensive site and not much is left of the once-important city. It is said that Mohammed came through here on his way from Mecca and stayed for three days, which attracts a number of Muslims who come here to pray.


Al Anbariah Restaurant
On the outskirts of Medina, we stop at a traditional restaurant where we meet up with our local guide, another Ali, who orders a selection of dishes for our lunch. What a spread! The dishes just keep arriving, there must be enough food to feed around 20 people.


Medina is the second holiest city for Muslims after Mecca, and I am requested to wear an abaya and hejab as we tour the holy sites this afternoon.


The Prophet's Mosque
Along with thousands of other people, we head to the Grand Mosque in time for evening prayers. As non-Muslims, we are not permitted to enter the mosque, but Ali finds us the perfect viewpoint where we can observe the many different nationalities who have made their way here to pray, some of whom have come from afar.


Hejaz Railway Museum
The former railway station has been turned into a museum with artifacts from the age of the railways and earlier.


Quba Mosque
Built in 622AD as the Prophet Mohammed migrated from Meccas to Medina wher he made his home, is was the very first mosque to be constructed anywhere in the world. At the time, it had palm trees for pillars and leaves for the roof, and it was built by the Prophet himself and his companions. Over time, various caliphs have renovated and extended the mosque to the super-mosque we see today, with four minarets, 56 domes, and a capacity of 15,000 devotees.


Alia Al Madina Farm
No trip to Saudi Arabia is complete without a visit to a date farm. First, we are shown how seats are made from rope and palm leaves, but, of course, the main items produced here, are dates. There are so many different dates, and we are shown the best ones in the area.


Archer’s Hill
There is a lot of Islamic history tied to this hill, mostly because of the Battle of Uhud that took place here in the 7th century between the non-believers of Makkah, and the Muslims. In the battle, 50 archers were posted on Archers' Hill to protect the Muslim army from attack, under strict instructions from Mohammed to stay there. Some members of the army, however, wrongly believed the battle was over, and deserted their posts, which led to the Makkah army gaining an advantage resulting in a great loss of lives for the Muslims.


Martyr’s Cemetery
Many pilgrims come here to visit the sacred hill, as well as the cemetery next to it, where the bodies of 70 martyrs from the battle are buried. It serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of disobeying the Prophet Muhammed.


Sayyid al-Shudada Mosque
The mosque is named after Mohammed’s uncle, Hamzah (full name Sayed al-Shohada Hamzah ibn Abdul Muttalib), who was killed in the battle. The mosque is a recent structure, completed in 2017, but replaces another mosque structure that was attached to Hamzah’s tomb.


You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

Day 11 – Medina – Al Wahba Crater - Ta’if

Today is almost exclusively spent travelling, with just one stop on the way.

Al Wahba Crater

At 3,000 meters in diameter, and 380m deep, Al Wahba Crater is the largest in the country. The bottom of the crater is covered in a layer of salt. As with so many other places, there is a legend attached to how this crater was formed. One dark night, a lightning bolt illuminated the Oitn Mountain, revealing its magic beauty to the nearby mountain of Tamya. Promising eternal love, Tamya pledged to move herself to be nearer Qitn. As often happens in such love stories, a jealous mountain, Chliman, intercepted the move by shooting Tamya with an arrow. All that was left of the poor, unfortunate lover, was a great big hole in the ground.


With the visitors centre closed, we have a picnic in its shade instead.


You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

Day 12 – Taif – Jeddah

Shubra Palace
The building dates back to 1905 and was a royal residence until 1995, when it was turned into a museum. As with so many places of interest in Saudi Arabia, it is closed for restoration.


Al Shiokh Rose Plantation
Taif is famous for its roses, and we continue to a rose garden, where we meet our new guide, Abdul Aziz. The factory here is run as a collaboration between 25 local families, each owning a small plot of land. They have 32 big vats between them. Rosewater is used mainly in skin care products, but is also used in cooking (I have a half-used bottle in my cupboard at home), and as a health benefit to aid digestion, as eye drops, it has antibacterial properties to help heal wounds, or to soothe sore throats.

In each of these vats, 10kg of rose petals and 25l of water is placed, a fire is lit underneath with the steam helping to create the resulting rosewater. The whole process takes 2.5 hours.


Al Hada Upper Viewpoint
The view has the potential to be great on a clear day; however, today is not that day.


Hamadryas Baboons
The main attraction here today is not so much the view, but the baboons that hang around waiting to be fed. The tourists love them, the locals consider them a nuisance.


Al Shareef Museum
An excellent and well-laid-out museum, showing how life would have been like here in the past - including a small selection of vintage cars, all of which still work. Once a year, on their national day, the owner takes them out to take part in a parade.


Broken Air Conditioning
The air conditioning is blasting out hot air, and Bacha is unable to switch it off. He goes off to see if he can find a garage willing and able to repair the A/C on the spot, while we explore Ta’if in Abdul Aziz’s car.


After a couple of hours, Bacha rings to say that the air conditioning has been fixed, and the car is ready for collection.


We continue down from Ta’if on a collection of impressive hairpin bends that cling to the steep hillsides.


Passing Mecca on the way, we arrive at our final destination in Saudi: Jeddah.

You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

Day 13 - Jeddah

We have another guide today, the delightful Abir.

The Globe Roundabout.
This sculpture by the Spanish artist Julio La Fente, was created in 1971, and is placed in the middle of a road junction.


Jeddah Corniche
For 62 kilometres along the seafront, the seagull-themed promenade swirls around the bay and rocky shores, providing an area for walking, meeting friends, and taking selfies.


Outdoor Sculpture Museum
Like the globe, these works of art used to be displayed on a roundabout, but when the city was expanded, they were moved to a park on the corniche.


Al Ballad Old Town
This UNESCO-inscribed district of Jeddah is undergoing major restoration. The higgledy-piggledy buildings are affectionately known as ‘dancing houses’. The titling is a result of shallow foundations – mostly just around a metre deep.


Shafee Mosque
The mosque is said to be 1422 years old, but was renovated some 500 years ago. The minaret is a mere 820 years old. It is the only mosque in Saudi Arabia where we, as non-Muslims, have been allowed to enter. Abir contacts the Imam who opens it up, especially for us.


Old House
As the lights fade, we enter one of the old buildings that used to be a private home, but is now open to the public. In the living room we are offered dates and coffee, while Abir shows off some of the items left behind from the old days.



On our way to the hotel, we stop at the corniche again, in a different place this time, to see what is claimed to be the world’s highest fountain, at 320 metres.


Jeddah also boasts the world’s highest flag pole and the biggest LED billboard.


You can see more photos and read a more detailed description of what we saw on this day here.

The End

This completes our journey through Saudi Arabia. In conclusion: the country has a lot to offer, and the people are extremely friendly and very welcoming to tourists. Their plan is to find a place in the Top Ten tourist destinations by 2030, thus so many important sites being closed to visitors. It does at times (especially in Al Ula) feel like they are trying to run before they walk.

We have thoroughly enjoyed our time here, and if you appreciate places that see very few tourists, attractions are almost unheard of outside the country, and enjoy the feeling of pioneering travel, now is the time to discover Saudi, before mainstream tourists do (the way I understand it, is that they want to become another Dubai. Shudder.) If you are put off by the lack of western facilities and tourist infrastructure, and expect everything to run like clockwork, it may be wise to wait a couple of years before visiting.

I would like to say a huge thank you to Mark at Undiscovered Destinations, George, our local coordinator in KSA, Bacha, our trusted driver, the guides who showed us the historical, geographical, cultural, and architectural sites along the way, and the people of Saudi who welcomed us into their country with open arms.

Posted by Grete Howard 10:19 Archived in Saudi Arabia

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Awesome🙏🙏🙏 My fingers don't support me to write long and big comment as I had stroke on December 27,2021. I have recovered 90℅ but I will come back. In between I missed many things.

by Goutam Mitra

Thanks for the comprehensive description of your great journey... Your phorographs are simply marvellous... Keep well!

by Vic_IV

Goutam, I am so sorry to hear about your stroke, I had no idea. Glad to hear your recovery is going well. Much love to you.

by Grete Howard

Thank you so much for your kind comments Vic ♥

by Grete Howard

Thank you for this summary of your adventures in Saudi Arabia. I didn't get around to reading all your posts, although I enjoyed those I did read very much (as always) and was fascinated by your adventures. Based on our experience in Oman I can second your praise of Undiscovered Destinations :) We would certainly travel with them again and may well do so (Azerbaijan is hovering in the back of my mind as a possibility next year!)

by ToonSarah

Thanks, Sarah. Undiscovered Destinations proved their worth again on our last trip, of course. ♥

by Grete Howard

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