Korea – Overlanding in your own backyard

This is going to be a long post…we could have broken it up in two, too late now.

Last time Hyein visited her parents in September right before we left for this whole drive around the world thing. She came over to Seoul unannounced to her parents as a birthday surprise for her Dad’s 60th anniversary. This time we got lucky and ended up in Seoul on Parent’s day, which we gladly spent with Hyein’s mom and dad.


Headed over to Kyongbok palace to check out the crowds, show ourselves…you know the deal. Because of the holiday the entrance to the palace during daytime hours was free.


At night the number of people was strictly limited so that you could enjoy the beautiful lighting installations without the crowds. The catch is that you had to buy a ticket online for this…we rarely plan ahead, checked online and they were all sold out. But…the museum dedicated a small portion of tickets to foreigners ONLY. So here I am, only 5th time in the country, can barely speak the language and I AM getting tickets for Hyein and her parents who lived here all their life! It was my pleasure to be actually useful as a foreigner, instead of just tagging along for stuff.


At night, the palace is even more majestic. We got a tripod so we could take some really pretty night photos…all for you guys.


The finale for the day was a great laser show…projection show? not sure of the name, but the main entrance of the palace was transformed into an animated masterpiece, set to awesome music. If not for the rain and would have enjoyed this moment even more.


When visiting the “Herb Island” park, we didn’t miss a chance to push some Korean modesty boundaries. In this photo studio set are supposed to take a picture of calmly sleeping…

We couldn’t ask our parents to take the photo and had to find the just the right person who would be willing to partake in this R-rate scene. Luckily, found some college student who not without laughs took a few photos.


Enjoying a bit of reading…my Korean language knowledge is very uneven. I would be stretching it if I say i’m anything about a beginner in conversation, but reading is at the lowest level. Yes, i know how to read…just takes me forever. But at least it provided some fun for the family. There is a video of it somewhere…that i’m not willing to share just yet.


Btw, this is the Seoul Forest…a city park. We happened to visit during an event day and even though i can barely communicate in Korea, that didn’t stop me from joining some quiz game. Hyein had to tag along as my translator.


Oh…there is also writing part to knowing a language. Well…that one sucks too. I was taking the game too seriously and just copied the answers from Hyein.  Since we were sitting face to face, i was reading her answers upside-down and wrote some of my letters upside down as well…not too smart.


I felt great, round after round we were getting all the right answers and by we, i mean Hyein. But our glory didn’t last long, in a single multiple choice question that after Hyein’s translation i just guessed on my own and got it wrong. Unfortunately, so did she and just like that we were done.


As a consolation prize we got these sweet bandanas….And yes, we were going for that Eastern European grandmother look.


I told you we got a tripod right? That means we can take some seriously cool night photos. Climbed up to the Namsan Tower to take the photo of Myoungdong…somewhere down in those buildings is the church we got married 3 years ago. We showed this picture to Hyein’s friend and her first reaction was not how beautiful this photo is…but how sad it is.


She said: ” You see, every one of those office windows with the lights on is someone working overtime….and its very bright poor people. The darker the building the better the company to work for.”

Korean work culture is insane, people work from 9 am to 10 pm…and that’s a good day. Sometimes they stay on way past midnight. And if you think that you are done when you walk out of the office, you are wrong. After work you have to go and get dinner and drinks with your coworkers. This means that you don’t see your family until the weekend.

Crazy, right? A lot of people hate this culture and are voting with their feet by leaving to companies that treat their employees with some sort of decency.

I think that just about concludes our Seoul section.

We now have to go to Busan and get our Hodori out and onto the roads.

game of thrones

I’m not sure if i’ve mentioned the story behind it.

Back in San Diego we were feverishly planning the trip and tried to decide on a name for our car. Me being a wise-ass as usual I proposed “Hodor” from Game of Thrones. If you don’t know what Game of Thrones is…i actually don’t even know how you are reading this blog then…


Anyway, my logic for the name is all good. Hodor is big, loyal and carries Bran. The only downside is that he is not that smart and can only say one word “Hodor”, which i think came from “HOld the DOoR”.


Our Land Cruiser is also big, heavy, loyal and will carry us around the world.

Hyein wasn’t pleased to be riding around the world in a dumb car…so she politely vetoed the idea.


Not willing to give up on it just yet, i thought that there is some world in Korean that is very similar.

Me: “Hyein…how do you say tiger in Korean”?

Hyein: “Horangi.”

Me: “No, thats not it. Isn’t there some tiger characted that sounds like Hodor?”

Hyein: “Hodori (1988 Korean Olympic Games mascot)…omg, you are amazing Ivan..how did you know…this is the best name ever.” (i’m paraphrasing a bit).

So we took the best of both worlds: the strong, loyal, reliable Hodor and the smart, sexy, fast Hodori.


Here comes the hard part…and i dont mean just getting our car from the Korean customs.

The night before going to Busan to figure out our car situation we spend celebrating with Hyein’s cousins. The celebration was so fun, that when we woke up at 5 am to take a shower and get ready for the bus ride to Busan, we were still quite tipsy. This kind of thing hasn’t happened since college.


So, why are you going to Busan…and where is that? Although there are a bunch of ports in South Korea, the main shipping port and one of the busiest in the world is located in Busan, about 4 hours by bus South from Seoul. Also, it is the only port in the country that has the customs office for temporary car import when coming in a container.

I will post a separate guide for all the steps necessary to get the car out of customs for everyone to enjoy.


There is not a whole lot of information about overlanding in Korea or how to temporarily import your car in a container. The PanAmerican community is very large and very organized. There are a ton of step-by-step guides of how to ship your car across the Darien gap or in/out of South America. The story is very different when it comes to overlanding in Asia. Much less info, not as well put together.

As luck would have it Karin and Coen of LandCruising Adventures went through the whole ordeal of getting their car imported just a month before ours. We contacted them through our mutual friend Jin and they kindly sent us their write-up guide of how to get the car out of the port and onto the roads.

We followed their advice and did everything we could in Seoul, before heading out to Busan.

Imagine this, a bit hungover…tired from waking up too early and being stuck on a bus for 4 hours … we finally get to the customs. According to Karin and Coen’s guide the customs officers went with them to their container and got the car out. In our case it didn’t work that way and we were told in no uncertain terms that we had to truck the container from another terminal to the customs. This extra step costs more money and time…so being in not in the best of moods I didn’t take that too well.


During this ordeal, Hyein was pretending to be just my translator and nothing more. This way we could blame everything on me being a foreigner and hopefully smooth out any issues.

She heroically spent the next 5 hours trying to figure out the trucking company and all the steps required to move the container over. Honestly, if people on the other side were a bit more familiar with overlanding, this would have not take more than 1 hour.


With everything settled and paid for, we were scheduled to have our container delivered the following morning at 9 am. Tired but happy, we grabbed some food and headed for the nearest jimjilbang, a Korean sauna where you can also spend the night for about $8USD per person. Perfect!


Maybe because this is Korea, but our container arrived at exactly 9 am and we got a call at 9:01 am that we need to get here and get our shit out.


Unlike the previous day of confusion and bad mood, today everyone was smiling and happy to see us. Maybe it was the weather or maybe we just knew what we were doing for once.


You get through the security gate, walk back to the container handling area where they already know about you. Make sure the seal is the same one you put on in Uruguay and tell them to open it up.


This is the moment of truth…did i pack the car correctly? Did i put on enough tension on the tie-downs?

YEAAAAAHHH! Our Hodori is in the same position that we left him!!!


Just need to reconnect the battery (when shipping make sure to disconnect your battery terminals and wrap up the cable ends with electrical tape) and hope Hodori comes to life.


Started without a problem, but blew out a bunch of shit from the exhaust. I think it was just a bunch of rust coming from the exhaust pipe that rusted because of spending a month and a half out in the salty sea air. Wait, but isn’t the container sealed? I thought so too, but I guess there are some leaks.

The undercarriage is a bit more rusty then i remember in Uruguay and when trying to drive out of the container our rear left wheel locked up for some reason. Turns out there was huge chunk of rust that help the brake pad to the rotor…a bit of gas and we broke that sucker free.


Hodori is alive and moving!


Now go over to the inspection. This is the only reason that you need to truck your container to this area from Busan New Container Terminal. Only in this area the customs have the necessary equipment to inspect the bottom of your car and most importantly record it with a camera. All your other stuff from the car goes through an airport style x-ray machine.

The customs guys were joking that we so many borders crossed such a thorough inspection is nothing new to us. Actually, no…this is and Chile Food Nazi Police are the most thorough.

I swear if i had a kilo of coke, i could have easily transported it to any country so far. I’m pretty sure when we get to the states they will label us as dangerous types and will search every single crevice of the car.


Making sure to connect up the auxiliary battery so that we can boot up the on-board computer and get our navigation to work. Amazingly enough, I thought ahead and pre-loaded all the maps for pretty much all of the world…except Africa. And Australia….okay, no New Zealand either.


Got our paperwork, clean bill of no drugs or contraband and smiles all around. The whole process in the morning took less than 2 hours. Fast and efficient.


Excited to finally be reunited with Hodori we said our good-byes and got the hell out of the port. Drove to the city and had some food.

Busan is known for its amazing selection of seafood and fresh seafood markets – Jagalchi market. We’ve already been to Busan, visited the market and did all the touristy things required of us.


But we couldn’t miss the chance to take some pretty photos next to the famous Haeundae beach and all the high-rises.

It was a weird feeling, without Hodori we felt fine hanging out in the city, but as soon as we were reunited we felt the urge to get on the road and go somewhere.


Our destination for the day was the city Ulsan, where we would meet up with Hyein’s high school friend Young, her husband and kids. Even though they got married literally the day after us they already have 2 kids and the husband, Minsang, is an assistant professor. Meanwhile, we are the same age, homeless and jobless. Makes question for just a slight moment if you are REALLY doing the right thing…will there be TERRIBLE consequences when we get back?


But then you get back out on the open road and realize…whatever the consequences…this was worth it.

You are probably going to laugh when you realize just how different is overlanding in Korea when compared to South America.

First, the distances are tiny. What we covered in a single day in Argentina would be enough to cross the whole country from South to North. When we drove from Busan to Ulsan to see Young and Minsang, we put in the GPS coordinates and laughed…32 miles. Thats what some people in US count as their daily commute to work.

Second, the country is very developed and feel very safe. So you can literally drive anywhere you want, stop anywhere and sleep. Make sure just not to drive TOO far North, i hear they are not as nice over there.


Third, the cost of eating out at the restaurant is relatively low, while the quality of the food is amazing. You can also grab some kimbap and snack on those all day, all for less than $1/snack.


After visiting with Young and Minsang and catching up on all the latest gossip, we headed out for the day. Next destination is Gyeongju, this time even closer – 20 miles away.

I am not complaining at all, the boring roads of Argentina is not what i consider to be perfect overlanding. Too much driving and too little to see.


In Korea, its quite the opposite you can hit up a new and interesting place in less than an hour’s drive. For example, our destination – Gyeongju was the capital of an ancient Silla kingdom and rule over 2/3 of the entire Korean peninsula (source: wiki and wife).  That means this place was more import than Seoul and Pyongyang combine in the 7th to 9th centuries.


And what is left of this once important city? Not much…a few temples, which have recently been restored. The japanese did not care much for preserving Korean heritage when they were in charge over here.


Here we have the Bulguksa buddhist temple, besides being one of the most important buddhist temples in the country it also has the two little towers. And one of them has been immortalized in the Korean 10 won coin. But thats a bit of a joke. Since 1000 won is about 1 usd, that makes 10 won worth less than a penny and no one uses them.


A little piggy…i’m still not sure why its there. I’m going to assume that it is for luck…since its shiny and there was a whole bunch of people furiously polishing it with their grabby little tourist hands.


I’m better than you guys…i’ll just stand next to it and look all smug, while secretly touching it with one finger, hoping that the luck would be indifferent to the amount of contact.


Nothing special in this photo, just wanted to climb up the hill and give you guys a sense of how Korean temples and the surrounding forest look like.

Can’t even imagine how amazing this would look in winter time with a bunch of snow on the roofs and trees…


Only 15 minutes by car is another Buddhist temple…no…shrine.

Whats the difference? Maybe one is for scholars and the other one for religious folks to come and pay respects? Anyway, the name is Seokguram.


Drive up the mountain, park the car, walk for 15 minutes while enjoying these ground squirrels and you get to the shrine – a large Buddha statue in a little cave.

We dont have any photos of the Buddha, because no photography was allowed and in Korea we follow rules! Hyein also pointed out how much has changed in the last 20 years. When she was here in her childhood you could walk up to the Buddha and pay your respects and now due to a million tourists the Buddha solemnly sits behind a thick glass.


If you really care for a Buddha picture, then look back to our Thailand posts, there is all kinds of Buddha’s there. Just remember, Buddha is not for decoration.

But our Hodori is definitely up for being a decoration. Here he is, posing in front of a beautiful Korean Pagoda.


Hahaha, we have missed him so much, that we just can’t stop taking pictures of him. It doesn’t hurt to have a beautiful setting of spring flowers, sunset and bright green leaves.


We drove down the mountain and looked for a place to sleep. There are a few options in Korea, obviously the hotels/motels are bit more expensive than what we have in mind. Next up is a jimjilbang at $10/head is not bad but still not ideal, but then we have to leave the car on the street somewhere. We drove around for a bit and found a huge parking lot next to a History Museum, saw some big rigs setting up for the night…always a good sign. Found a spot, popped the tent and went looking for food. Turns out that there is also a 24-hour bathroom…man this is already awesome.


We didn’t have to walk far from the parking lot to find other interesting places to explore. Just on the other side of the road there are traditional gardens, pagodas and ponds.

Check this out, its around 9pm, dark and this whole place is filled with school kids. There are literally thousands of them. Gyeongju is a popular destination for school field trips.

These guys are like locusts, they move around in tour buses from one historical location to the next.

One moment it is nice and peaceful and next thing you know you are surrounded by 12-year-olds shouting “Whegugin (Foreigner)” and waving their little hands at you.


Unlike the field trips i remember from my high-school days, the Koreans seem a bit more organized…as usual. The instructors have microphones with loud-speakers, special uniforms and led wands for directing the flow of human bodies. The kids walk in organized, 1+1 pattern. Instead of yelling the instructions, the group leader tells the kids to pass on the message to the next row behind them.

On top of that add the myriad of high school girls posing in as large of group as they possibly can…you know for that “pretty girl group effect”…all with their own selfie sticks.

You would think that each day there would be kids reported missing to the police or brought into the hospital with multiple stab wounds by a long metal object.


But, no. Just like the sounds of their voice, the kids disappear onto the bus and move on to the next spot. There is no trash, no sign that just a minute ago we could barely walk without bumping into people. Only the buzzing in your ears is there to remind you that you just experienced a school field trip.

Shout out to all the teachers out there who have to deal with this on daily basis. How do you even think straight?


Just down the street from the gardens is this thing….First of all, what is it? It looks like a stove or a chimney…is it?

Nope, its an observatory. One of the oldest in Asia actually.

Okay, so we are all smart people here, lets try to figure out this thing, because i’m not quite sure how it works and what it does, if anything.

According to the description the inside is hollow from the little window all the way to the top. So you would climb in and sit there looking up at the sky.

If they were trying to avoid light pollution, then the window was a mistake, plus how much pollution was here in the 7-9th centuries?

And if they were trying to get “closer” to the stars, well there are big hills around here you could have just walk up.

This leaves me very confused why this is an observatory and why they needed to build it. If you can figure it out, let me know.


Moving right on. After a few visits to Korea you start to understand the following few facts. Its a very small country, smaller than just Southern California, while having a population of about 50 million people. Lets put a bit more in perspective, imagine that 1/6th of the US population would live in an area the size of Los Angeles + San Diego.

This means that you don’t have to go far, just the next town over and you will find a different, local food specialty. Its kinda crazy, every region in the country is known for some sort of specific food. For example, Gyeongju is famous for their breads. Besides the unoriginal name of “Gyeongju bread”, these little breads are crazy good. Made from wheat dough with a sweet red bean filling, they are especially delicious right out of the oven.


Sold in large quantities for all the people to bring it back home from their trip to Gyeongju, we had to ask a few shops if they would just sell us a few to enjoy right away.


So instead of sitting around of car at night, twiddling our thumbs or washing the dishes. Here in Korea, you can park you car for free then at night just walk around the city taken in the sights. Such a big difference from the beginning of our trip. We will see how we feel in Russia, but it just feels good overlanding in Korea, safe and relaxing.


Too lazy to cook breakfast in the morning, we didn’t even think of buy groceries, we went to the local kimbap crack dealer. Here you can see her meticulously making the “Blue Ice” of korean food. This is also a perfect dish for overlanding, you can store them for a day without a fridge, easily eat them while driving and they are cheap and delicious. Man, i’m going to miss them when we leave Korea.


Not really important for this post, mostly for other travelers who think of coming to Korea, this is what a temporary import permit looks like (flags not included).


On the way to Gwangju, skipping a much larger town of Daegu, to go see the town where Hyein’s dad went to school. Yup, our trip through Korea is mostly visiting friends and place that Hyein holds dear in her memory.

Ever since we got the car, i have been listening for any problems that could have happened while being shipped. For some reason our fridge and computer would erratically turn off. At first i thought it was a battery problem, no worries we can replace it. Still while driving i was going through every possible cause and settled on a loose connection as the highest possibility. Pulled over, opened the hood and instantly saw that the ground cable was not connected.

Huuuhhhh, all my house electronics (carputer, fridge, amp, lights) run from a dedicated circuit with a dedicated ground cable returning back to the auxiliary battery. It was completely disconnected, how did it even work at all? Still confusing me to this day. At least the fix was easy 🙂


Hyein’s dad’s high school. We went in, took some photos, did our duty.


You see what i’m talking about? We are like an hour away from the previous town and we already got some new delicacies to fill up on. Okay, lets see here…duck soup…yes, Songjeong Short Ribs…definitely, even if i dont know what Songjeong is. I’m not sure what Hanjeongsik so we will skip that.


Decided on the duck soup. I’ve never had a bad duck…and this place didn’t disappoint. After the dinner, we went back to the car and drove to the nearest rest stop.

Not only do the Korean rest stop have a safe place to park your car for the night, 24 hour clean bathrooms….but they also have amazingly fast, FREE wi-fi. That is overlanding with class and comfort. Take that Argentina. On the down side there are no glaciers or Iguazu falls here.


Some rest stop even have free showers and sleeping quarters. These are design in mind for the truck drivers, but i’m sure if you are a guy you could spend the night there. I just took a shower.

If you are a girl, then you are SOL, there is nothing for you. I guess even Korea can’t be just perfect.

No worries, plenty of public saunas to take a quick shower.


You guys are not going to believe me…our next destination for the day is a whopping 20 miles away…the famous city of Jeonju.

Oh a quick side note further proving just small is Korea. So we posted on the Korean overlanding site that we got our car in Busan and ready to take on Korea. The community welcomed us with open arms and suggest more things that we could possibly do in a year. The amazing this is that while driving Hodori you notice that he stands out among the Kia’s and Hyundai’s. So a random person saw us on the freeway near Daegu, decide to check the overlanding blog to see if Hodori is part of that community…then saw our post and said hello. In the next couple of days we would get random people chiming and saying that they saw us here or there.

Lesson learned if you are trying to do some illegal shit in Korea don’t drive a car like our Hodori.


Anyway, back to Jeonju. This place is important to us for two reasons: first, it’s Hyein’s mom’s hometown and second, it has a large traditional Korean village, called Hanok Maul.

Although very touristy in a very Korean way. If you are lucky you can see and participate in a demonstration of making a traditional Korean snack – ddeok. Made by beating a rice flour paste until it becomes sticky with large wooden mallets. Not gonna lie, i had the opportunity to take out some stress, but overlanding in Korea got me all chilled out…plus it was too hot to be swinging a hammer in the sun. These kids look like they got in under control.


The ladies in charge of the operation sprinkles some brown powder on the sticky paste and cut it with a bowl. Maybe it was the placebo effects or the sweat of these little kids, but this ddeok was delicious.


So what is a Traditional Korean Village? You are probably thinking, its somewhere off in the country side where goats roam in the front yard and old people sit on the door stoop yelling at the little kids running around everywhere.

That would be just a village…and definitely not in Korea. This is one of the most developed countries…their cell-phone internet is faster than our broadband. And their traditional village is a major tourist attraction, situation right in the middle of a large city. There are two main streets that you walk through, lined on the sides with houses built in traditional style. Not sure, but i’m going to say that these were recently built to only look like traditional houses. This doesn’t take away from the quaint feel of an old-school place.


There is a million and one store selling the latest trendy foods. This season its the “honey grape beer”. To all my IPA loving friends out there….this might sound like a bad idea…until you try it. Think of this as a Korean sweet version of the michelada, nice and refreshing on a hot summer day.


Korea is a very trendy country…once there is a trend the WHOLE country knows about it and EVERYONE participates. This includes clothing, car styles, accessories, phone accessories, haircuts, food and drinks.


The latest food craze is the grilled octopus with spicy red-pepper sauce. Even though i look like i just swallowed a bug…probably didn’t sleep well…i actually dont know why i look like shit here…anyway, the octopus is tender, spicy and leaves you craving for more.

Speaking of trends, the last time i visited Korea was for our wedding in June of 2013. Back then you would see a lot of people wearing glasses without lenses, basically just frames. We aren’t talking about sunglasses…these were prescription frames, just without lenses. From young to old, you could spot at least a couple in every subway car. Now, just 3 years later i haven’t seen a single person wearing them.

The latest craze is outdoor clothing. Our parent’s home is in the north of Seoul, next to a large hill that people like to climb on the weekend. Like this is a small hike that would take you 2 hours up and down…you could do it in jeans. But everywhere weekend you see hundreds of brightly colored, puffy haired older folks marching past our house and up the hill. They are dressed to the T, everything from shoes to underwear, hat and gloves is specifically design for outdoor hiking. These fabrics are so breathable and dry to fast that i’m afraid some folks just wither away by fluid loss on the way up.

We’ll see what it is the next time come back to Seoul.


Not sure if this was a thing during the last visit…now young people dress up in Hanboks, the traditional dress you see up here, when they visit historical places like traditional villages, palaces and temples.


It really adorable to see someone wearing such a fancy traditional dress and then just roll around on a little tricycle.


Oh yeah…to all our church picture loving fans out there…yes, i’m talking to you Julie! Here is one from your motherland. Enjoy…this was just for you.


If you dont have your Hanbok with you there are a bunch of places that will rent you one for ~$5usd for an hour. This is not just a girl thing…everyone participates in this willingly. Koreans are very proud of their culture is the younger generations embrace it, make it fun and exciting. Nothing like a bunch of girls in hanboks drinking beer and taking selfies.

We would have loved to participate…the heat…it was too much. I wanted to walk around shirtless…Hyein reminded me that I have gained a bit of weight and dont want to make all white people look bad.


Ah…the school field trip kids finally caught up to us. Same clothes, same hair, same height – how do they tell each other apart? I kid…by the shoes obviously.


Styling…cruising around. I think its the same girl from the first tricycle photo…look her shoes match, she must have dumped her boyfriend somewhere. The village was a lot of fun, especially for people watching. When i mentioned earlier that it was very touristy, but in a very Korean way, i meant that it was classy. Of course there are shops trying to sell you stuff, but no one is yelling on the streets or grabbing your hand to get into their store, the prices are decent, everything is clean and matches in style.


After Jeonju we are making our way up north towards Seoul. This is the beautiful thing about overlanding, we saw something we wanted to check-out, in this case it was the “Cheonho Shrine”, followed the sign and 15 minutes later we were there.


In this case it might have a been a bit of a let down, because its just a statue of Jesus in the woods…but there was a really clean bathroom at the parking lot…so thats something.


Just South of Seoul is the city of Daejeon the home of KAIST, aka Korean MIT.

Why are we here? Do we miss UCSD already and just want to take a stroll through the campus?


Yes and no, gotta drop by and say hi to Simon. He was there on our first “date” with Hyein…i thought it was a date, she thought it was just friends hanging out and brought Simon along. I’m pretty sure she just wasn’t sure if i was a trustworthy person and needed his back-up.

Simon is also doing his Ph.D. in Cognitive Science and thought that i was an okay guy, so the next date Hyein decided to go by herself.

Thanks Simon!


Historical moment… our Hodori is driving into Seoul. We always knew this moment would come, but it feel surreal to actually be driving our own car from California in Seoul.


Hodori is bigger than some light-duty work trucks. It draws attention everywhere we go…just how i like it.

Parking, well… parking is a bit complicated.

2 Comment

  1. Julie says:

    Why did I just see this church post 😀 Thanks Ivan haha. Catching up on all your latest travels now that I’m not working like a slave!

  2. Julie says:

    Why did I just see this church shoutout bahaha. Thanks guys! I’m catching up on all your blog posts now that I’m not working like a slave. Safe travels 🙂

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