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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

The road to Shangri-La

December 18, 2007,
United Kingdom

According to Tibetan Buddhist teachings, paradise exists in the shape of
Shambhala, a lost kingdom somewhere in central Asia. Armed with directions

gleaned from ancient texts and Google Earth, Patrick Symmes embarked on
a quest to find it. Photograph by Seamus Murphy

I won't tell you where it is. But in order to reach Shambhala, you need
a mixture of merit and dumb luck, and at first the dumb part seemed to
be working. On

the road to this mythical city, a paradise lost somewhere in the
mountains of Asia, you are enjoined to stop and get advice from wise
monks. And on the

overnight train out of New Delhi, the first night of a two-month journey
across Tibet and far beyond, a venerable Buddhist monk was assigned to
the bunk

below mine. After midnight, when the monk had finished rubbing menthol
all over himself, he listened to my plan. I was setting out on the
ancient pilgrimage

route to Shambhala, a place that may or may not exist. I told him I
would be gone for months, in strange lands. Did he have any advice for me?
Approaching the Lake of Compassion, on the holy mountain of Kailas in
Tibet. Walking around the base of the mountain is said to bring merit to
pilgrims to

the sacred site

'Shambhala is lama nonsense,' he said. He told me there was no such
place, even though it is central to the Kalachakra teachings of Tibetan
Buddhism, and

Shambhala's location is spelt out in Asian religions as diverse as
Hinduism and Taoism. The road to Shambhala is mapped in detail on
everything from the

embroideries hanging in Mongolian monasteries to murals in the Dalai
Lama's private apartments. Legend and doctrine indicate that it can be

physically, under some circumstances. But everyone, from learned
scholars of Buddhism to this crafty monk in saffron robes, was telling
me to give it a rest, to

stay home, to meditate more on an inner journey to Shambhala, and not to
travel in search of a real, historical, archaeological one. 'Don't go,'
the monk said,

and went to sleep.

For the next few weeks, crossing Nepal, following ancient texts that
begin at the Buddha's birthplace, and continuing through a pilgrimage
stop in

Kathmandu, I had time to contemplate just why it was that everyone was
so discouraging of my attempt to find Shambhala. The Dalai Lama has
insisted that

'the same moon shines on us as on Shambhala'. But the kingdom is hidden,
and it was only after climbing to the Tibet plateau at 11,000ft,
crossing to Lhasa

by 4x4, that I began to see why my rainy journey through grey mountains
was so threatening to the idea of Shambhala. On the second afternoon in

travelling with the photographer Seamus Murphy, we drove down a main
road, past a sign for an airport, through heavy machinery dealerships,
and the

driver began shouting, 'Potala! Potala!' All I could see were billboards
for mobile phone companies and the Bank of China. My guidebook insisted
that this

first sighting of the legendary palace would take my breath away, but
the altitude had done that already, and all I could see was a sliver of
dirty white wall

between advertising.

Patrick French, the author of the brilliantly un­romantic Tibet, Tibet,
describes this Lhasa as another Chinese provincial capital of bath-tile
constructions and

strutting businessmen. The temples were those of Adidas and Nike; tanks
paraded through the streets; Beijing had sent its usual gift of vast

avenues and a train service. The new rail line to Lhasa had just opened,
bringing 300 or more people a day into the city, once thought to be the

isolated place on earth. That night two Spaniards in a restaurant hissed
out what I had been feeling: 'Somos triste,' one said. We are sad. 'We
hate it,' the

other admitted.

It is always disappointing to arrive. To the extent that we idealise a
place, we impoverish it, reducing reality to a list of shortcomings.
Every visitor to Lhasa

unpacks what the British diplomat Hugh Morris called 'the mind's Tibet'
- and must substitute, painfully, a Tibet-as-is. Tibet as an
incorporated province of

China, a colony, an already deeply Sinicised culture, drunk on first
money, a land of dirty-robed knife fighters and vexed young people
fixated on Chinese pop

stars, where everything from the great monasteries to the secret police
was run by old Tibetan quislings from the Cultural Revolution. A new
governor was

installed, fresh from crushing religious and cultural separatism in
neighbouring Qinghai province. That was Tibet as I found it: filth, old
and new. And now I

understood why the monk, and so many others, had told me not to go to
Shambhala. If I did ever reach it, and find my own Shambhala, I would
probably be

more crushed than the Spaniards.

Shambhala is the oldest Asian vision of enlightenment. First mentioned
in the Mahabharata, picked up and transformed by Tibetans, Chinese and

the story always tells of a great and just principality, lost somewhere
in the northern mountains of Asia. Shambhala is hidden in plain sight,
invisible to

ordinary people, yet reachable by supreme effort and various methods.
The greatest Bodhisattvas of Tibetan Buddhism, the Taoist Immortals, the
30 wisest

Hindu princes, are all said to be alive in Shambhala today, waiting for
a great king on a white horse to defeat materialism and selfishness,
creating an

apocalypse - the 'Age of Kalki' - and, simultaneously, the birth of a
new golden era. Shambhala, in that sense, is the story human beings need
to tell

themselves: that beyond this world, there is another, a paradise of
eternal life and the restoration of hope.
Tibetan monks, the most active guardians of a Shambhala mythology today,
dispersed this doctrine into Nepal, Sikkim, Mongolia, Ladakh and as far
afield as

Beijing. They filled their holy books with descriptions of the place,
even detailed instructions on how many days of travel, how many camels,
how many river

crossings and prayers will be necessary to find the lost land. I had
those guides in my backpack, but other than that, I had little idea what
I was in for.

Shambhala can't be found, I would discover, just once. It is a moving
target, and I would have to fight for two months to pin it down to one
particular set of

brick-strewn ruins, on the one patch of central Asia that I had in mind.

I had help picking my target from the scholar Edwin Bernbaum. In his
1979 book The Way to Shambhala Bernbaum put his thumb on a map of
western China

and argued persuasively that a forgotten Buddhist kingdom there had
inspired the Tibetans, giving them their esoteric Kalachakra doctrines
and their belief

in Shambhala. When that thriving central Asian city was destroyed in
war, and swallowed by the deserts, Tibetans preserved a dim recollection
of its location

and nature in their books and commentaries. There was a 1,000-year-old
passage describing a route that pointed that way in the original
Tengyur, part of

the Tibetan canon; a 13th-century lama described the route, mentioning
casually that he himself had made the trip to Shambhala; a florid 1770s

by the third Panchen Lama, Palden Yeshe, encrusted these earlier
accounts with symbolic geography and mental challenges, but still
offered the same

geographical route. But the most affecting of the guides was a desperate
letter, called 'The Knowledge-Bearing Messenger', written in about 1560
by a

Tibetan prince, Rinpungpa, who included instructions for the messenger
carrying his letter to the secret land: 'Take this message and go to my
father in

Shambhala. May my words of truth, conquering the mountains of dualism,
guide you along the way and help you to overcome the obstacles that lie


According to Bernbaum, Rinpungpa warned of everything from starvation to
forests of knives to rivers so cold they killed at first touch. Adding
in the Panchen

Lama's instructions, and those from the Mahabharata, it pretty much
boiled down to the same thing. From the lowland Indian river valley
where the Lord

Buddha lived, crossing Tibet westward, via the sacred mountain of
Kailas, then north, over an 'outer ring' of sky-high ice mountains, down
through a vicious

desert, into unknown vistas. All the while you must appease dozens of
gods, accumulate merit and fend off monsters, suppress the demons of
delusion and

transcend mere existence, recite 99 million mantras and fly through the
sky on a fire chariot, only to reach a second 'inner ring' of snow
mountains. Beyond

there, you must choose rightly among high valleys and low cities, having
the good sense to know Shambhala when you reach it.

Using the ancient texts, and Google Earth, I calculated this at 3,400
miles. Rinpungpa's letter would lead me through three countries, a dozen

past the world's highest mountains and down into the bottom of the
lowest desert in Asia.

In a Kathmandu supermarket, I had bought $45 worth of dehydrated soup,
Snickers bars, cheese, peanut butter, honey, tuna, sugar, Nescafé, orzo,

balloons, books, cashews, burgundy, and Diamox for altitude. I had taken
up daily meditation. So we were good to go.

Six more weeks, I told my wife over the phone from Lhasa, six weeks to
heaven and then home.

Lhasa still has some Lhasa, of course. The great Jokhang temple, in the
heart of the Tibetan quarter, was a magnificent whirlwind of prostrating

chanting toddlers and Chinese tourists in Che Guevara T-shirts making
clandestine mobile phone checks. Brutish dob-dob monks, the security,
used knotted

cords to lash the legs of women in short skirts. A happy mob circled
clockwise, beneath a chipped, dimly lit fresco of Shambhala. I could see
the circular

kingdom, hidden deep inside the two rings of snow mountains mentioned in
prophecies. The armies of Shambhala were crushing hordes of barbarians; an

elephant scythed the ranks of the deluded materialists.

In the warm and airy summer palace - which the Dalai Lama had fled in
1959 disguised as a common Tibetan soldier to escape Chinese troops, before

crossing to India and setting up his government in exile - there was
another round painting of Shambhala, directly across from his final
throne (although, in

his private bedroom, the young man preferred a lithograph of three cute

And finally, in the frigid and dark Potala, the winter palace, a monk
led me to a dirty wall painting of the kingdom, partly hidden by a chest
of drawers that

might have held the DL's socks and undies. Here the army of Shambhala
was a huge array of horse archers, riding out to destroy some enemy
hiding behind

the dresser.

The Dalai Lama is an unprecedented populariser of the Shambhala
prophecy, teaching Kalachakra doctrines to tens of thousands in mass
initiations all over

the globe. A world weary of synthetic Shangri-La has responded, giving
the ancient legend New Age life. We had checked into the House of
Shambhala, a

boutique hotel full of red draperies and hot-stone massage therapy. The
owner was a lean American financier named Laurence Brahm, who had left
behind a

Hong Kong career to write a book on Shambhala and open chic hotels. By
his accounting, our present times will become the Age of Kalki, the end
of the

world. Waving the latest casualty counts from Iraq, he referred me to
the Mahabharata: 'Property will alone confer rank. Wealth will be the
only source of

devotion. Passion will be the sole bond of union between sexes.
Falsehood will be the only means of success in litigation.' That did
sound familiar.

Brahm was part of a noble tradition of Westerners seeking revelation in
Shambhala, one that ran back to the 1620s, when Jesuit missionaries
climbed up

from India, chasing reports of a powerful kingdom they called 'Xambala'.
By 1880 the seekers had hit New York, in the person of Madame Helena
Blavatsky, a

Russian spiritualist claiming to be in secret communication with the
kings of Shambhala. Her disciple Nicholas Roerich, an eccentric painter,
went looking for

Shambhala in the 1920s and 1930s, driving up from India, training in
from Mongolia, spotting UFOs, and eventually declaring a mountain in
Kazakhstan to be


It didn't matter what all these seekers believed in, for they all
believed in the one thing. Everybody declared Shambhala was somewhere
just beyond the

known, over a horizon that receded as we moved towards it.

We rolled west through Shigatse, along the last paved roads we would see
until the Kunlun Shan, the range on Tibet's northern edge, almost a
month later.

Shigatse was the original source of Prince Rinpungpa's letter. If you
understood that his flying demons, fire chariots and million-mantra
exercises were non-

literal, symbols of internal conquests, then the road instructions were
clear: 'Turn to the north and west and take the high plateau to the
sacred mountain of

Kailas… From Kailas continue northwest to Ladakh… wind north through a
maze of treacherous mountains… come out in the land of the Paksik, horsemen

who wear white turbans and quilted robes filled with cotton… a barren
desert devoid of water will stretch away before you like the desolate
paths of

suffering that run through this world of illusion.'

That's about how it went. We had a Land Cruiser and driver, and Tibet
swallowed us, day after day spent pounding west towards Mount Kailas,
over steep

ridges or icy plains. It was August, and the nomads, with their black
tents and colourful costumes, had vanished to the highest pastures. I
counted fewer

than 10 horses in 10 days.

Finally we entered a wider, higher plain, a naked landscape of parched
beauty, the dry, crystalline grandeur of the west. Everywhere were
endless gangs of

road workers, China's new money tearing up the plateau for roads,
bridges, mines and security posts. In one dumpy garrison town of thin
air, karaoke bars

and 'beauty parlours', I stopped in a phone shop to chat with a pretty
Englishwoman, about 40, who said she was a 'healer' back home. 'It's
horrible really,

just awful, it's just been a huge disappointment,' she said of Tibet.
'The guide is terrible, all he does is sleep, or lie to us. Everyone is
trying to rip us off.' She

was studying the route to India, wondering if she could make it tonight.
'I can't wait to get out of here.'

Tibetan tourism is undergoing a sleazy, get-rich-quick phase, the old
values unhinged by the soaring wealth of Chinese capitalism. On day 30
of the trip,

1,300 miles in and well behind schedule, we were approaching the holy
mountain of Kailas when we saw another victim, a Japanese woman standing
in the

road, tears streaming down her face. Circling Kailas is supposed to
bring great merit, but it hadn't worked for the girl, named Ona. She had
been dumped by

her boyfriend and then robbed at a hotel while trying to hitchhike back
to Lhasa. She had lost her passport, her money, and her faith. Some
Hindu pilgrims

were feeding her. When we drove her back to the hotel, the housemaids
denied everything, called her a whore, and then threw fistfuls of
pebbles at her.

We dropped Ona at a police station and, as we pulled away, I gave her
$200 in an envelope, with my return address. The way to Shambhala is
'born from

your store of merit', Rinpungpa says.

Our oxygen intake was at 68 per cent of normal when we finally reached
Darchen, the ugly town at 15,090ft that serves as base camp for the

three-day kora, or pilgrimage, around Kailas. (Walking the kora is an
essential detour on the road to Shambhala; Ringpungpa and other guides
urged me to

accumulate merit here.) Leaving our driver and picking up a teenage
porter, we hiked the 32-mile route clockwise, around the black,
snow-stained mountain.

Traffic was light; our first day, we saw only a few ragged Buddhist
pilgrims, one group of orange-clad Hindus on horseback, four Americans
in tents, and a

single, mute Western woman, gleefully spinning a prayer wheel. We slept
in a monastery of the Nyingma, or Ancient Ones, the original Buddhists
of Tibet.

Like the monk on the train, the abbot, a high re-incarnation,
discouraged me from trying to reach Shambhala in a 4x4. Meditate more,
he said, feeding me

balls of yak butter mixed with tsampa, or barley flour, from his own
fingertips. 'Think only of others and you may reach Shambhala some day.'
I wanted some

outright encouragement, but when I pressed, the abbot burst into song.

We hiked that second day in the company of the wildest creatures we
would see in Tibet: five tall, handsome nomads in brocaded robes,
leading packhorses

covered with bells. The women had braided their hair with cockle shells,
coral, jade and silver. The men wore sheepskin coats, laughed easily and
had no

idea what a dried apricot was. We were all shy, each party awed by the

Together we crossed the notorious 18,370ft Dolma La pass, a place of
symbolic rebirth. A lammergeier, one of the immense carrion birds found
at Tibetan sky

burials, glided overhead, mocking our heaving lungs as Seamus and I,
ignoring the warning that powerful demons guarded the pass, sat down to
a meal of

Danish luncheon meat and Nepali cheese. The nomads went on, their horses
jingling; lower down, by the greenish Lakes of Compassion, we would pass

them taking tea. One long day downhill, through ice fields and under
rainbows, another night with the Ancient Ones, and after three days we
were back

among the massage parlours and rancid hotels of Darchen.

We had slain the demons of desire with our swords of wisdom, laid
ignorance low with our overwhelming compassion, and achieved the special
knowledge of

wet feet. We celebrated in a restaurant with good whisky and a memorable
array of Sino-Tibetan specialities: Qancakes, Hide the Meal, Wood Ear Meat

Thread, Big Disk Chicken, Amorous Feelings Beef Tenderloin.

Sic! But the joke was on me. That evening, my money belt disappeared,
probably as I dozed near the iron stove. The holy mountain seemed to
mock people

like me, unserious materialists who were merely passing by. That said,
it works, this karma thing. A month after the trip was over, I received
a Japanese

postal order for $200. If I had given Ona all of my money, I would still
have it today.

At Kailas, we left the tourist route, heading north where the others
turned east, back towards Lhasa. Our journey had barely begun. For days
we rolled

through long valleys, over the soda plains of highest, remotest Tibet,
towards the Kunlun Shan, where the plateau fell into China's Central
Asian deserts.

This was the Aksai Chin, one of the least-known places on earth, an
immense and uninhabited grassland at 11,000ft. Nanda Devi, at 25,645ft,
stood out

brilliant orange at sunset, perhaps 60 miles away. Ladakh, a must-see
moment on the road to Shambhala, was just visible across the plains. We
passed K2,

hidden by closer peaks. The view was still impressive, a sky-long chain
of jagged mountains under perfect blue skies. Pay no attention to those
who say the

world is shrinking.

The Aksai Chin is, however, a closed military zone. Still claimed by
India, the territory is firmly in Chinese control, as we discovered one
snowbound dawn

when an entire Chinese infantry division appeared: 3,000 men, at least,
in a convoy of trucks, pulling howitzers and anti-aircraft guns, and
escorted front and

back by scores of SUVs containing suspicious officers. For the next two
days we tangled with this army convoy, passing parts of it, getting
turned back,

overtaking it again, driving through open desert to flank the troops,
and then being turned back yet again. Finally we caught the entire
convoy eating lunch

and, relying on our store of merit and blazing smiles, drove right
through a host of screaming MPs. The 16-hour road marathons and sudden

rubbed us raw and lean, into that state of curiously mixed numbness and
heightened senses. It is the perfect condition for revelation: a single
late sunset,

that narrow ribbon of blood orange dividing a black range of peaks from
the even darker night above, can begin to seem more important than
thoughts of

home. Reduced to transitory essentials, pounded this way for thousands
of miles now, we could almost smell the ancient and alien journey laid
out by

Rinpungpa and others: 'To get to Shambhala you still have a long road

Ed Bernbaum argued that the Kunlun Shan could be the 'outer ring' of
snow mountains that conceal Shambhala, the last barrier to the great desert

mentioned in texts. Round like Shambhala, this desert contained scores
of Silk Road principalities, some clearly identified in the ancient
guides. We followed

switchbacks up through valleys no wider than a Frisbee toss, beneath a
great ice-covered scabbard of black rock and white snow, a despairing
sight even in

the age of the SUV. It was hard to take such a mountain as mere
metaphor, as some interior peak of the soul.

We crossed three ranges and then, just as abruptly as we had climbed up
on to the Tibetan Plateau, we fell off it. Between two peaks, I saw a
long, brutal

vista of endless waves of dunes, each giving a snake of sand to the
fierce winds. This was the Taklimakan, the western extension of the Gobi
in China's

Xinjiang province, and by reputation the fiercest desert on earth. It
wasn't an idle reputation: 18 years before, I had spent a month in
Xinjiang with a Danish

woman, scouring archaeological sights. The heat, the electrified dust
storms, the bad food and rough travel, the skin-cracking aridity, had
been bearable only

because I was blindly in love. In Uighur, the language of the Muslims
here, Taklimakan means 'Go in, don't come out'.

At dusk, out on the plains, we saw the first oil rigs, topped by flaming
beacons, and wove the Land Cruiser through our first herd of camels.
These were

double-humped bactrians, Silk Road beasts with summer coats and clear
eyes. The temperature had risen 40 degrees. In the Tengyur guide, you
are advised

at this point to join a caravan to continue north. Eight centuries
later, the third Panchen Lama warned, 'You will cross a place without
water or people… It is

desert… go for 21 days.'

The 13th-century lama Manlungpa wrote of passing through the Kingdom of
Li, famous for its jade. That was not hard to identify: the ancient jade
markets of

India, Nepal and Tibet were all supplied by a single source, a riverbed
outside modern Hotan. Mud walls were all that remained of Li, but
hundreds of men,

mostly Uighurs, were still working the riverbed for jade. They are the
descendants of the Paksik mentioned by Rinpungpa, the horsemen in
quilted cotton

jackets and white turbans. The Uighurs have seen better days: today they
face much of the same religious and economic isolation as Tibetans,
without the

romantic figure of a Dalai Lama to give them a voice abroad. But in the
late first millennium they were wealthy Buddhists, who generated the

doctrines - influenced by Christianity, Islam, Manicheism - that became
Tibet's Kalachakra teachings. Somewhere among the Uighurs was the Tibetan


Our trusty Tibetan driver had gone back to his homeland and we hired a
taxi to sprint north, to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The road
straight through the

desert was new, built by oil companies since my 1980s visit, and the
fearsome Taklimakan yielded in 11 hours, not 21 days. On its northern
edge, we came

to marshland and finally the great cleaving river, the Tarim.

If the Kunlun Shan doesn't look to you like the 'outer ring' of snow
mountains, and the jade kingdom of Li leaves you unconvinced, and the
circular shape of

this desert basin doesn't reflect the lotus-like geography of Shambhala,
and you somehow doubt the Taklimakan is the great spiritual desert that

must cross, still you must acknowledge the river. In all ancient
accounts, the river that protects Shambhala flows east; the Tarim is the
only major river in

central Asia that flows east. The kingdom lay north of this river. We
now left behind all maps.

I've said before that I'm not going to tell you where it is. That's easy
enough. Even when you have been there, you can't say where you were,
just as the

third Panchen Lama predicted: 'A person who travels the world looking
for Shambhala cannot find it. But that does not mean it cannot be found.'

The place itself - Ed Bernbaum's historical prototype, the kingdom that
Tibetans thought was Shambhala - sits out in the plain desert, at the
very bottom of

Asia, beneath sea level, in a heat sink that had melted me 18 years
before. But it was cool and overcast when Seamus and I finally soared
out of Urumqi,

squeezed into a shared taxi with three drunk Uighurs. In a town that
shall remain nameless, we switched transport, heading either south-west,
or north-

east, or some other direction, depending. Find your own way.

The kingdom provided a number of shocks when we finally reached it. It
was the size of it that stunned us first. The city had been the richest
city in Asia in its

heyday, and looked it: the enormous curtain walls of the outer fortress
ran out through the haze for miles in a giant circle. Hundreds of
buildings were still

standing. Once packed with wealthy Buddhist monasteries, the city was
converted to Islam in the 13th century, sacked by Mongols, then buried
for ever by

the European sailing ships that bypassed the Silk Road.

Now nothing lived here, not even rats. We had wandered a whole long day
in those ruins, in and out of palaces, through ancient gates, but only
as we

turned to leave at sunset did I have my second surprise. I had
recognised nothing in this region, not even the nearest towns, but when
I walked into the old

central palace and looked up at the ceiling of the round reception room,
my knees buckled. I knew at once that I had stood right here, in 1988.
Never having

heard of Shambhala, I had gone there anyway. I had already made this
pilgrimage before. In the desert, a set of ruins, an entire kingdom, a
moment in your

life, could all disappear, and come again. The hidden was still present.
An idea, like Shambhala, could wink in and out of legend, setting down
roots in a real

place. For nomads, villages, waterholes and guideposts vanished and
reappeared, as if created by memory, by stories written or retold. On
that kind of map,

there always had to be a perfect place, a Shambhala.

In falling darkness I found the southern gate of the city, slipped into
a tunnelled staircase and came out atop the city walls. Digging in a
hidden spot, I buried

Rinpungpa's letter. 'Take this message and go to my father in
Shambhala.' I tapped down the loose sand. Only now, at the end, did the
other journey begin.

In those ancient times, the Dane and I had ridden into the mountains, up
past a lake, to the high summer pastures where the nomads lived. My
horse was

called Slowpoke, and hers Farter. That is the August I will be thinking
about as you shovel me into my grave.

It was another year now, another life, and not even August any longer.
Seven weeks on the road, we packed light and went on foot into the long,

range of the Tian Shan that runs from Kazakhstan into western China.
These mountains might be the inner ring guarding Shambhala. For 18
years, I had

needed to go back, to go beyond memory, to see that one imagined valley
beyond what I had known, the impossible beyond the possible. Rinpungpa

me on: 'Although you feel exhausted and sick from the rigours of the
journey, hold on to your aim and continue.'

We passed the same lake I remembered from 1988, up towards the glaciers,
crossing into the narrow valleys where the nomads had been camped on my

first visit. But the nomads were gone. Rings in the grass showed where
their round tents had pressed down all summer. Ashes in their fire pits

undisturbed. We had missed them by a day at most, perhaps only a few
hours. In these high September peaks, snow was already in the air.

On a distant pass, we saw two men in dark clothes. They looked back at
us, briefly, and then went over.

I tell you, I was there.
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