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Archive for the ‘Biking’ Category

Our days in SE Asia are numbered, and as they draw to an end we have found ourselves drifting among the islands of the Indo-Pacific. Well, not drifting in the literal sense, more like hopping from island to island without knowing how long we will stay nor where we will go next.

The last two weeks have been spent on two islands that sit in stark contrast to one another, yet have both found a special place in our hearts. Our post today is a tale of two islands: the bustling island-nation of Singapore and the once famous, but now somewhat forgotten, Tioman Island.

The Isle of Singapore

Like so many of our favorite stops on this RTW expedition, we hadn’t initially intended on visiting Singapore. Its reputation amongst young backpackers is that it is far too expensive and really not worth the time. We heard similar complaints about Hong Kong and enjoyed it, so when we found a cheap flight on Tiger Airlines, we opted to make Singapore our launch pad into Indonesia.

After spending months in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao & Thailand, Singapore hit us like a sack of bricks.  “Wait, that’s the price for one beer? I thought that was for a whole pitcher.” The rumors about steep prices couldn’t have been more true, but over the next few days we came to realize that Singapore is definitely worth every cent.

The first thing to catch our eye was the skyline of the city. The architecture is a perfectly woven combination of restored historical buildings, ultra-modern design, multilane highways and small public squares and parks. The city is also immaculately clean; you literally have to seek out rubbish and graffiti. This, however, may be due to the fact that nearly everything is against the law; where else will you find yourself getting fined for not flushing the toilet?

As if in symphony with the city’s complex structural design, the people of Singapore offer a diverse mix of ethnicities, cuisines, religions, cultures and languages. As is the case with most major cities, the first immigrants to Singapore formed smaller communities leaving the modern day city with a Little India, China Town and Arab Street, but the city center is far from segregated. On just one street you can walk by a mosque, temple, shrine, church and synagogue, all while hearing people speak English, Malay, Tamil, Arabic and Cantonese.

After a few days exploring Singapore’s urban sector, we were beginning to feel trapped by the concrete jungle, so we hopped on a bus across the island and headed for, you guessed it, another island. Pulau Ubin is small, sparsely developed and sits between Singapore and Malaysia. It is reachable by a 15 minute ferry and is a popular escape for Singaporeans looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Mountain biking, kayaking, camping, fishing, and trekking make Pulau Ubin the best bet for outdoor enthusiasts visiting Singapore.

Exhausted and with sore butts, we returned to the city after a day of biking and headed to Brewerkz, our favorite watering hole in Singapore. Any beer loving person who has spent some time in Asia will tell you that stumbling across a micro-brewery is like finding an oasis in the dessert. We figured if we were going to drop some coin on beer in Singapore, better to spend it on these delicious craft brews instead of the same old watery Chang, Tiger, and Beer Lao that is found throughout the region.

As we said earlier, Singapore was supposed to be our gateway to Indonesia, but the ferry situation turned out to be more costly, time consuming and complicated than we originally anticipated. We had been hoping to do some more SCUBA diving anyway, so we decided to look into some other options…

Tioman Island – A Lesser Known Paradise

One night in Singapore, we sat at our hostel pouring over information about the best dive sites in Malaysia. The good news? There didn’t seem to be a shortage. The gold medal goes to the world-renowned Sipadan, however, due to its distant location on Borneo and the fact that diving there requires months of advanced booking, we decided on another option.

Tioman Island was made famous by the movie South Pacific and in the 1970s was included in Time Magazine as one of the world’s most beautiful islands, but in recent decades has lost much of its luster.   It was a place we’d never heard of before, but we were intrigued by the beautiful pictures of its coral reefs and seemingly easy commute from Singapore. Without giving ourselves time to think twice, we booked our tickets and were setting off to Tioman just 24 hours later.

To make a long story short, we fell in love with Tioman, spent many more days there than we intended, and could not stop SCUBA diving. Two dives turned into four, four into six, and six into nine. There are many reasons to love Tioman. First, the entire island is surrounded by a marine park with crystal clear water that gently fades into a spectrum of turquoise blue that can only be found in a true tropical paradise; perfect for diving and snorkeling. Our adventures at sea offered us glimpses of Hawksbill Turtles, Reef Sharks, Barracuda, and a seemingly endless abundance of marine life.

What’s more, the entire island is duty-free! What does that mean exactly? Tioman is one of the few places in Malaysia where you can find cheap booze and cheap tobacco, in a country that otherwise imposes a very hefty tax on these items. Shhhhhhh….don’t tell the wild party kids that have managed to ruin so many of SE Asia’s most beautiful places. Despite the duty-free aspect of Tioman, it still does not attract hoards of party-ready backpackers, but rather offers a bar scene that is a very chilled out, one where tourists and locals mingle and chat under a star-filled sky.

Furthermore, the entire island is layered with jungle that covers the land from shore to mountaintop making it virtually inaccessible by vehicle. So what’s so great about thick jungle? It’s ideal for island trekking (assuming you’ve applied a thick layer of DEET) with plenty of chance to see wildlife, ranging from monitor lizards to monkeys to the world’s largest flower.

Last but not least, the entire island offers fantastic food. OK, not the entire island, but there is an amazing BBQ seafood restaurant in Tekek village that serves up fresh snapper, prawns, marlin, barracuda, lobster and so much more, all for a ridiculously cheap price. You may be thinking “fresh fish from a marine reserve?” Don’t worry, everything they serve was caught well outside the boundaries of the Tioman Marine Park; we’re certain of this because we saw the island’s lead marine biologist and conservation team eating there every night.

While relatively close together, Singapore and Tioman are worlds apart. Singapore offers all of the luxuries of an international hub, but comes along with traffic, high prices and over development. Tioman can leave you feeling a bit isolated, with nothing more than small villages speckled along its coasts, but provides a genuine island experience. Is one better than the other? We don’t think so; they’re just two different islands on this planet we all call home.

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Please Don’t Rush

The nation of Laos is officially known by the name of Lao P.D.R. (People’s Democratic Republic), but to many travelers this name also symbolizes a deeply rooted part of the Lao identity. It is often said that locals operate on “Lao Time,” meaning that they are friendly and helpful, but in no particular hurry to get anything done. So backpackers have dubbed it with the not so official name of Lao P.D.R. (Please Don’t Rush). We embraced the P.D.R. attitude and took our time exploring the town and outskirts of Luang Prabang.

It was a welcomed change to move away from the backpacker party scene in Vang Vieng and into the beautifully serene and laid back town of Luang Prabang. The town even has a nightly curfew of midnight which contributes to its low-key environment.

We hired bikes one morning and set off to explore the rolling hills that surround Luang Prabang. The Mekong and its tributaries wind through the landscape while temples and shrines speckle the countryside. On our single-track bicycles, we quickly learned that the “rolling hills” are steeper than they appear. Hydration stops and fruit shake breaks helped us get through the toughest parts.

Waking up very sore and stiff the next morning, we opted to take a boat cruise up the Mekong River.  We piled on board with two other couples and set off towards some villages and caves up river from Luang Prabang. There is something so mesmerizing about the Mekong. It really embodies the “please don’t rush” mentality as it meanders its way through the lush green countryside. The muddy brown waters were running high from the recent rains which made the journey to the cave a bit slower than usual but equally if not more beautiful. We stopped in a small village whose specialty is lao lao whiskey, made from sticky rice, had a few tastes for good measure, and kept on our way.

The caves at the end of the trip were more impressive than we’d imagined. For thousands of years, the two caves we visited have been used as places of worship. The native people of Lao used to worship spirits of nature and believed that the riverside caves were connected with the water gods. After Buddhism arrived in the region, the caves gradually became religious shrines and house countless statues of the Lord Buddha left as offerings by faithful pilgrims.

Another well-known attraction in the area is Kuang Si Falls. When it comes to waterfalls, Amy is hard to impress. The many falls of the Colombia River Gorge near her hometown of Portland, OR are tough to beat. This particular waterfall definitely met her expectations. At first, it seemed like nothing more than a fast flowing jungle river with some small drop offs, pools, and rope swings. As we made our way upstream, we stopped for some fun and took a few turns on the swing ourselves before running into one of the most spectacular waterfalls we have ever seen. This bad boy seemed to stretch on forever as it disappeared into the clouds escaping the reach of our camera lens.

Luang Prabang is the type of place where you can easily get swept away by the nightly market, amazing scenery and easy going locals. Our goal of circumnavigating the globe, however, means that we have to keep moving, even when we want to stay. The lengthy bus ride through winding, mudslide-ridden, mountain passes that we took from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was more than we could handle for a second time, so we opted for a short 30 minute flight to Vientiane. In true Lao fashion it turned out to be the easiest and most stress-free travel experience of our trip so far; factor in the brand new airplane, tasty on-board vegetarian snack and breathtaking aerial views of the Mekong, and it may go down as the best flight ever!

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A lot can happen in a week. Since we last wrote, we’ve played with tigers, ridden on elephants, watched knockout Muay Thai, honed our motorbike skills, climbed Thailand’s highest peak, and so much more.  Where did we do all of these spectacular things? A little place called Chiang Mai.

Not so little actually, Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand making it somewhat of a “capital” for the northern region of the country. While it doesn’t have the skyscrapers, mega-malls, and constant adrenaline of Bangkok, Chiang Mai still seems to have something for everyone. We easily could have spent a month there, but the tourists visas we acquired at the border with Cambodia were only valid 15 days, so we had to leave before we were ready to say goodbye. Thanks to our friends Daniel and Libby, we got a taste of home and some great suggestions of what to do and see in the city. Here is a glimpse at the different faces of Chiang Mai.

On the Wild Side

Amy is a cat lover through and through, and since childhood Mike has been watching Jake Jabs play with baby tigers on those annoying American Furniture Warehouse commercials; so when we learned about Tiger Kingdom just outside of Chiang Mai, we jumped all over it. As the name would suggest, this place is crawling with tigers! Tiger Kingdom does not drug their animals prior to allowing visitors into the animal enclosures. This is evident from their playfulness and alert demeanor. For our visit, we chose to get in the cage with the little guys. The tiger cubs we played with were 2-4 months old and beyond adorable. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come up with a plan for lifting one in the fifteen minutes we were allotted, but we did get plenty of pictures.

As Thailand’s national animal, elephants are an important symbol of the country’s culture and history. Chiang Mai is home to numerous elephant sanctuaries, some more concerned with the elephants’ well-being than others. We took the advice of our friends and visited a place called Maesa Elephant Camp, a place that rescues elephants from bad situations and breeds baby elephants to increase the dwindling population in Thailand. During our visit, we saw a 4 month old calf with his mother, fed bunches of bananas and sugarcane to a herd of hungry elephants, and even rode on the back of an old-guy by the name of Poo Somboon. He was 41 years old and carried three of us on his back like it was nothing. The camp even has a daily show where the elephants play harmonicas, paint incredible pictures, and shoot soccer goals. There is no doubt that the elephant trainers love and care for these animals, and we can only hope that the elephants themselves also have fun preforming.

We also got a close look at one of the most dangerous animals around, the Muay Thai kickboxer. You don’t want to mess with these guys or gals. Muay Thai is the nation’s favorite sport and for good reason. We spent an evening watching several fights at a local arena in Chiang Mai. The night began with two female fights then moved on through increasing weight classes of men. Although gambling is technically illegal in Thailand, throwing down a few Baht between friends is common and makes things a bit more interesting. While small, the female kickboxers who started things off fought with great ferocity. The male fighters, on the other hand, were more methodical in their attacks. Unfortunately, the “main event” didn’t even last one round; a knee to the kidney and kick to the temple ended things quite quickly in a knockout.

The Street Food Scene

We can say with confidence that Chiang Mai has the best street food scene that we have experienced thus far in SE Asia. The weekly Saturday and Sunday markets boast endless options of Thai food and other interesting specialties like sushi, Indian and Burmese food. We spent our weekend evenings in Chiang Mai grazing through the stands and ended up absolutely stuffed each time.

Greater Chiang Mai

For those with more than a few days to spend in Chiang Mai, we recommend getting out of the city center to visit a doi (meaning mountain in Thai). We spent one day with our friends driving up Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand. The air became cooler and less tainted with pollution as we scaled the mountainside. Thick fog had engulfed Doi Inthanon that day, and the rain was relentless, but we still had fun walking through some trails and visiting a few waterfalls.

Another more easily accessible mountain is Doi Suthep, which is a short 25 minute drive from the center of Chiang Mai. We rented a motorbike one day to visit the temple that is perched on the top of this mountain, Wat Phrathat. The temple itself is stunning, and the panoramic views of Chiang Mai cannot be beat.

Taking it Easy

After several action-filled days, we were ready for some relaxation. Having heard of the infamous Thai massage, we wanted to give it a try. You can’t walk down a street in Chiang Mai without seeing two or three spas, so it was easy enough to find a spot. We can’t say that getting a Thai massage is the most relaxing experience, but it definitely awakens your muscles and works out the kinks. It’s kind of like visiting a masseuse and chiropractor at the same time.

An afternoon stroll through the streets of Chiang Mai will lead you by countless ornately decorated temples. We spent an entire day just marveling at these wats and stopping for Thai Tea along the way. Turns out that it was Buddhist Lent during our visit to Chiang Mai, so we saw lots of activity at the temples.

There is nothing like a familiar face, especially when you haven’t been home in seven months. This blog is dedicated to our friends Daniel and Libby – thank you for sharing your home with us for the past week and showing us a great time in Chiang Mai! The hours spent playing cards, telling jokes, and sipping coco locos made us feel so at home. The farewell lanterns were the perfect end to a great week.

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Any traveler in Vietnam will undoubtedly be told to visit the scenic area of Ha Long Bay. For decades, the limestone peaks of this coastal region in northern Vietnam have attracted tourists from far and wide.  Sadly, its popularity and designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site have turned this natural wonder into an absolute zoo.

For us, there was nothing peaceful about the place; dozens of tour boats crowd the bay, tour operators aggressively try to fill their trips, and the water has become polluted from the thousands of people who visit each week. But don’t despair, another option still exists for those willing to put in a little extra effort. Adjacent to Ha Long is the area known as Bai Tu Long Bay. Like its neighbor, Bai Tu Long is home to countless limestone islands that rise sharply out of the turquoise waters and is relatively unaffected by the tourism industry.

Why is Bai Tu Long better than Ha Long? The same beautiful views without the masses of tourist boats!

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, we don’t like tour groups. Several people in Hanoi tried to convince us that exploring Bai Tu Long on our own was impossible, but we took some advice from one of Amy’s brothers, did a little research and found a public ferry. We boarded a small wooden boat with locals that live on islands in the bay and set off into the landscape of towering peaks.

The public ferry that runs between Hon Gai and Quan Lan Island

View after incredible view of the limestone peaks in Bai Tu Long Bay

Hanging out on the roof of our boat as it slowly puttered through Bai Tu Long Bay

Because we are constantly moving, it can be easy to lose sight of the amazing expedition that we are on. Ironically, the same thing happens to travelers that happens to people at work…days blend into weeks and weeks into months. However, being out on the waters of Bai Tu Long brought back our sense of adventure. The thrill of being on a rickety boat headed to a sparsely populated island with no idea of where we were going to sleep reminded us why we left home in the first place. Watch our video from the ferry ride through Bai Tu Long Bay here or by clicking on the image below.

After a four hour boat journey, we docked at Quan Lan Island (pronounced Gwan-ah). This island is so remote that we were unable to find a map online prior to leaving the mainland, so we arrived with no idea of the layout of the land. Not surprisingly, there were numerous tuk-tuks waiting at the pier, so we jumped aboard and attempted to communicate that we wanted to go to a hotel, any hotel. The driver spoke zero English and gave us a blank look. He showed us 30,000 Dong and pointed to some small buildings in the distance. Having no other choice, we agreed to the price and were on our way.

Tuk-tuks and motorbikes are the only method of transport on Quan Lan.

Turns out there is no real town on the island, but there is one street that is home to a few mini-hotels, ALL of which double as restaurants, convenient stores and motorbike rental shops. They are very entrepreneurial people. It was quickly apparent that aside from the limited lodging, there is little to no tourist infrastructure in Quan Lan, a refreshing change from Hanoi and Ha Long.

In the morning, we rented a motorbike from our hotel (we are pretty sure that it was the owner’s personal motorbike) and took off down the road. While we would never have attempted driving on the crazy streets of Hanoi, riding on Quan Lan was a piece of cake. Little to no traffic helped put us at ease, and having only one main road made getting lost on the island nearly impossible. Peaceful is the best word to describe this place; water buffalo roam the fields, rice paddies glisten in the sun, and waves crash onto white sand beaches.

Nothing but calm

Mike mastering the motorbike

Our trip to this island can be summarized as a relaxing time on the beach. We didn’t do much else. The people of Quan Lan were some of the most friendly that we have encountered in Vietnam. Even though most do not speak a lick of English, we managed to have full conversations with people using impromptu sign language, and we were even invited into a family’s home for a crab dinner one night. It is clear that the influence of tourism has not yet ravaged this island, and we hope it stays this way. However, we weren’t the only tourists there, and we know that more will make the journey with each passing year. If you find yourself amongst them, please tread lightly.

Minh Chau Beach, on the northeast side of Quan Lan

The public ferry from Hon Gai, through Bai Tu Long Bay, to Quan Lan Island was spectacularly beautiful. When combined with the laid back atmosphere and friendly people of the island, we found it to be a worthwhile alternative to Ha Long Bay.

The return ferry ride couldn’t last long enough

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Upon arriving at the dock in Yangshuo, we said goodbye to our boat full of new Chinese friends and set off for our hostel.  We heard many stories about the budget accommodations and even cheaper food to be had in China, but until Yangshuo, we had yet to fully experience them.  Our hostel was awesome and we were shocked to find beds for only $2.50 USD.  We instantly realized the cost benefit of traveling in China; no wonder so many backpackers flock to this region.  Our one-year trip may have just been granted an extension.

The center of Yangshuo with the spectacular karst peaks in the background.

The cruise down the Li River offered spectacular views, and during our four days in Yangshuo we continued to be wowed by the magnificence of the limestone peaks.  At home we spend much of our free time hiking and enjoying the outdoors, so naturally, we like to do the same while on the road. One of the best bike rides of our life happened in Yangshuo, through the Yulong River Valley.  We cycled for 20km up and down the river on rocky paths exploring small villages, rice paddies, and the surrounding peaks.  The farmers who live in the region work hard under the heat of the sweltering sun, but man do they live in a beautiful place.  We found ourselves wondering if they realize that their home is situated in one of the most unique landscapes on the planet.

Adventure biking along the Yulong River.

Glistening rice paddies.  If you have to work knee deep in mud, this is the place to do it.

Mike cruising the trails alongside acres upon acres of farmland in the Yulong River Valley.

We spent another one of our days in Yangshuo hiking toward the town of Fuli, but this time the heat was too much to handle.  We only made it about 6km into the hike before opting for a more enjoyable plan: beers in the shade along the Li River.  At our apartment in Denver, we frequently enjoyed sitting on our balcony and taking in the view with a beer or glass of wine, and we enjoy doing the same while traveling.

View of the Li River from our secluded beer drinking spot in the shade.

Throwing up the peace signs is a must when taking photos in China.

One of the many villages that sit along the Li River. Beautiful sky, but man was it hot!

On our last day, we took a bus to the nearby town of Xingping.  You can never really get tired of the amazing mountains in the area, but what we most enjoyed about Xingping was the town itself.  Its relaxed vibe stems from its small size, smiling locals and lesser influence of tourism than its neighboring cities of Yangshuo and Guilin. We considered changing our travel plans to relocate there for a few days, but the Longji Rice Terraces to the north were calling our name.

The view of the Li River from the town of Xingping.

Back home, cooking and savoring fun and inventive meals is something we truly love, and it’s no different when we find ourselves in a foreign place. We were surprised by a cafe in Xingping where we enjoyed one of the best Chinese meals we have had so far. The pineapple duck and side of taro root with bok choy lingered deliciously in our mouths for the rest of the afternoon.

Roasted duck with real, fresh pineapple! “Please Sir, I want some more.”

The walls of the cafe where we ate in Xingping were covered with notes of praise from customers from across the globe.

Our week of biking and hiking in Yangshuo made us feel at home. May 16th marked four months since we arrived in Barcelona to begin our RTW trip.  At times we honestly do get a little homesick, especially when our friends and family reach milestones in their lives.  Even though we are living our dream, we know that life goes on back home for those we love.  That being said, we are going to end this post with a throw-down of shout outs to some very special people; they have been in our hearts and minds throughout the journey (events in chronological order, no favorites here)…

Abe – We miss you greatly, but your love for travel lives as we explore this amazing world.

Max & Tamara – Another Siler, yes!  We are so excited to meet Paul!

Cindy & Marisol – Congratulations again on your engagement!  We will 100% be there to celebrate with you on your wedding day!

Alina & Mike – We welcome Sebastian into the world and our family!

Liz & Alyssa – Sorry we couldn’t make the Portland Juice Press launch party. So proud of you and looking forward to our first taste of the juices upon our return!

Nick – You the man! Congrats on your graduation and starting a new chapter in your life. We love you!

Christina – You’re done with law school! Congratulations friend!  We hope to celebrate with you down south after you take care of that pesky bar.

And a big thanks to ALL of our readers! Sharing our experience via The Chamborres Expedition makes us feel a home wherever we may be.

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We chose to take an early morning train from Granada to Sevilla so that we could check out some of the Andalusian landscape along the way. Much to our surprise, seemingly all we saw from the train windows were endless rolling hills covered with olives trees. We had been offered olives with pretty much every meal since arriving in Spain, but hadn’t really connected the dots. Did you know that Spain is the world’s largest producer of olives?!

After arriving in Sevilla, we met up with some friends who are living there as English teachers. It was fun to connect with people we know after nearly a month of solo traveling. No, we’re not sick of each other, but a familiar face always has a way of making you feel at home.

Our main mode of transport while in Sevilla was bikes, via a bike share program called Sevici (for all you Denver people, it’s similar to B-Cycle). Thanks to Blake and Danielle, we were able to use the bikes for free!

Mike checking out a bike at the Alameda Sevici station

Riding around allowed us to cover much of the city in just a couple of days. A few of our favorite sites were the Plaza de España & Catedral de Sevilla, and we also enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods of Alameda, Santa Cruz and Triana.

La Plaza de España was built in 1928 for a world’s fair. It is surrounded by the beautiful Parque de María Luisa.

Fountain in the center of La Plaza de España

The Giralda Tower, as seen from the orange tree courtyard at La Catedral de Sevilla

View of Sevilla from the top of the Giralda Tower at La Catedral de Sevilla

Our nights in Sevilla were filled with tapas and flamenco. El Ambigú, which was recommended by Amy’s sister, Jennifer, was a casual place filled with locals and serving delicious tapas (you can read our TripAdvisor review here). Another great tapas place we found for a late night snack was El Rinconcillo, founded in 1670, and in operation ever since.

Tapas at El Rinconcillo – we love how chalk is used to keep track of tabs on the bar top!

Flamenco is part of the soul of Sevilla and can be seen everywhere; whether it be a flamenco school, a store selling traditional dresses, posters promoting  upcoming shows, or an actual Tabalo.

Our first flamenco experience was a performance held at La Carboneria, a flamenco venue in the Santa Cruz neighborhood that offers complimentary shows each night. This venue features ample seating, a fun bar and a casual setting. The show had no dancing, but highlighted the classic cante (singing), toque (guitar) and palmas (handclaps). It was very different but equally as impressive as the second, full blown performance that we attended the following night.

Palmas y Toque at La Carboneria

The second flamenco show, held at La Peña Flamenca Torres Macarena, was a much more intimate setting, with a raised stage and a few rows of seating on three sides. We were impressed by the dancer’s intense focus and incredible tranquil speed. Additionally, this show featured two singers which gave the performance a much more robust sound. In hopes of capturing the complex auditory component of flamenco, in addition to photos, we also took a short video which you can watch by clicking on the picture below.

After just under a week in Sevilla, we both agreed to add it to our shortlist of places we would consider living in the future. If you plan on visiting Spain, do not miss this city!

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