Photo: Sand dunes in China's Alashan Plateau
Massive sand dunes ripple over China's Alashan Plateau. This arid though diverse region covers some 260,000 square miles (673,400 square kilometers) in China and Mongolia and is home to wild horses, snow leopards, and rare Bactrian camels.

Photograph by George Steinmetz

Written by Donovan Webster

Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine

Ghosts live here. That's what the Chinese say. They claim this place, a walled fortress abandoned in the 14th century and called Khara Khoto—Black City—is inhabited by demons and spirits.

I understand why. Around me Khara Khoto is a haunting pile of drifted sand that partly covers its 30-foot (9.1-meter) ramparts. Inside the city's walls lie ruins of a once vital kingdom. All that remains is shattered and tawny mud buildings crumbled long ago, scatterings of bleached bones unidentifiable with age, and smashed crockery pots and bowls. Granite millstones—their 3-foot (0.9-meter) faces etched by lines seven centuries old—also sit half-buried in the sand.

In the slanting light of an October sunset the legend of the Black City's violent and bloody end spreads across the sand around me. The year was 1372, and the Mongol king Khara Bator—his people protected inside these walls, which were taken by Genghis Khan's Golden Horde in 1226—was witnessing the end of Mongolia's reign across Asia. Outside, the armies of China's ascendant Ming dynasty were massing, and they'd employed the surrounding desert as their deadliest weapon. Diverting the Black River, the city's water source that flowed just outside the fortress, the Chinese denied Khara Khoto moisture for its gardens and wells. Then they simply waited.

As the Black City's thirst grew deadly, Khara Bator recognized his fate. Insane with fury, he murdered his family—then turned his sword upon himself. After his suicide Khara Bator's soldiers vainly continued inside Khara Khoto's fortress, weakening beneath the sun. When the Ming finally attacked, they slaughtered the remaining Mongols like livestock, leaving bodies unburied, the garrison sacked, and a stain of murder so dense on the sand it spawned the ghosts of today.

Walking from the walled city's center, I climb a sand dune inside Khara Khoto's fortifications to stand on the rampart's top. To the west the sun is touching the horizon. The day's tourists have gone, fearful of the ghosts and the hour-long drive across this rugged desert to the hotels of town.

Me? I'm staying.

In the night I'll walk the city's 12-foot-thick (3.7-meter thick) outer walls—as much as 450 yards (412 meters) to a side—and doze beneath the stars. I'll listen to the stories of Wang Zegong, the 70-year-old guard at Khara Khoto, who sleeps in a canvas tent outside these walls every night from April to December. He's witnessed the ghosts' doings: the fuel-less flames that burn for hours and rise 10 feet (3 meters) into the night sky, the roving pool of light that arrives after midnight and that once led him miles into the desert, left him for lost, then—when he called out for help—returned and guided him back to his camp through the darkness.

"My favorite story is this," he tells me over a bowl of instant noodles. "One night I heard two logs colliding, again and again, outside my tent. Bang! Bang! Bang! So I got up, went outside, and there were two big firewood logs lying near each other on the sand, exactly where the noise had been coming from. They were logs from my firewood pile, which is on the other side of my tent. I had not moved them. They had not been there when I went to sleep—but they were there now."

If there are ghosts here, I want to know them. During my travels I've encountered many things on the verge of being haunted: institutions and ways of life being abandoned by a China equally reverential of its past and hungry for its future. But actual ghosts?

So after dinner with Wang Zegong, I grab my headlamp and return inside Khara Khoto's walls. There I sit and wait for ghosts. Above me in the darkness, the bright pinprick of Venus slips toward the western horizon as constellations emerge. During the night a cold October wind rises to whip the corners of the ruins. But the ghosts never come. It is only me, sitting inside the ancient walls of a ruined city in the dark, pondering mankind's endless dance across these sands with time, events, and rain.

The Gobi isn't the world's largest desert (that's the Sahara) or its driest (the Atacama) or its most dramatically diverse with life (the Namib). Instead, it is Earth's northernmost desert and the least populated environment outside the polar caps. And it possesses a record of human habitation that is among the longest on Earth. Straddling the boundaries of China and Mongolia, and at 500,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers) nearly twice the size of Texas, the Gobi is a place where often less than 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) of rain falls a year. In fact Gobi is a Mongolian word that means "waterless place." Geologists have tagged the word with a slightly more specific meaning. To them the word Gobi is shorthand for "gravel desert." And at this rocky, gale-scoured desert's heart, in the reaches of northern China, is the Alashan Plateau, a place so remote and sparsely inhabited it has scarcely figured in China's long history. Today it remains rarely visited owing to its status as a missile testing zone for the Chinese military.

In September and October of 2000—thanks to the goodwill of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Desert Research in Lanzhou—photographer George Steinmetz and I were given unprecedented access to the Alashan. During eight weeks of exploring by camel, on foot, by rail, and by road, we looked for human traces on the desert's surface. The Gobi expands and contracts, allowing people to press civilization inside during its wetter intervals, only to be driven out when the desert expands once again. Throughout these cycles, however, resourceful Mongol herdsmen, the descendants of Genghis Khan, have clung to the hard earth. To better understand the remnants of Mongol culture inside China was one of our aims. Today the desert is spreading, and for China's 1.26 billion people this is one of their gravest problems, so we also wanted to learn from the Alashan how the entire Gobi steals thousands of acres of farmland every year.

But as we begin, we're aiming beyond the Alashan's edges into its center. There, we've been told, we'll find the world's largest dunes: sand mountains that often top 1,200 vertical feet (365.8 vertical meters). Many are separated by valleys holding spring-fed lakes. This 17,000-square-mile (44,030-square-kilometer) zone of megadunes—the Badain Jaran, sometimes called the Miraculous Lakes—is unique in the world. Only one other Western group has ventured inside in modern memory, a 1995 expedition led by the German geologists Dieter Jäkel and Jürgen Hofmann.

After a week of travel by aircraft and four-wheel drive, we arrive at the end-of-the-road town of Yabrai Yanchang to collect our string of 20 two-humped Bactrian camels and five horses. "Where we are going, we will need these camels;” says our guide, Yue Jirigele, with a smile that reveals a gold-capped front tooth. Yue, 46, is a sturdy six feet (two meters) tall, with a tanned and wind-creased face. He is a Mongol herdsman and the area's former mayor. He asks us to use his familiar name, Lao Ji. He shares some sweet, hard bread with us and says he lives amid the big dunes about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away. He has five children, ages 8 to 22.

Like all children attaining primary-school age in this isolated place, they spend the academic year at boarding schools outside the Badain Jaran and return home each summer. The best students among them are then allowed to continue beyond a government-mandated ninth grade to higher learning outside the Gobi. Lao Ji's oldest daughter, he's proud to add, is in college in Beijing—studying English.

Did he himself leave the dunes to study? I ask as we walk.

"No," Lao Ji says. "The new education policies in this part of China started with my children's generation. I was schooled at home—in the ger [Mongolian for yurt]—but not enough. I think it's good my children are being educated. My wife and I miss them, but education is the future…." He gestures toward his pack animals. "Not this."

For two days we press on, leading our loaded camels into yellow dunes that slowly—imperceptibly almost—rise taller. We camp near a few of the spring lakes, their water made salty by chlorides leached from the sand and left in high concentrations by evaporation. By the third day—carrying a canteen of water taken from beyond the Badain Jaran's edge—I've trudged up and down several steep dune passes that rise 800 to 1,000 feet (244 to 305 meters). Sand is never easy walking, and climbing each dune's pitched face is exhausting. Sweat stings my eyes and soaks my shirt. Then, standing atop a dune on our third day, I turn to stare back at our progress and discover we've entered a vast sand mountainscape. Like a treeless Tirol, the sand mountains are draped in a dozen shades of saturated yellow beneath a clear blue sky.

Standing in the pass with me is Dong Zhibao, one of two Ph.D.'s on the expedition from the Institute of Desert Research. A friendly, lighthearted geomorphologist of 35, he plans to study these 1,200-foot (366-meter) dunes and publish a paper on his findings. "What we are seeing here, these megadunes," Dong says, "is the result of very specific factors. Things that could only happen here."

Dong reaches down and lifts a handful of clean yellow sand. "These sand grains are coarse and very uniform in size," he continues. "This allows spaces to be created between them, spaces capable of trapping drops of water, which allows plants to grow."

Over time, as the plant roots stabilize the sand, each plant helps fix the dune, while blown sand and newer dunes roll over the tops of existing megadunes. These new dunes are then held in place by the plants beneath, and revegetation begins on the new top layer.

Like a bed thick with quilts of Velcro, the megadunes have seen successive fresh covers for millions of years. "At the interior of each megadune," says Dong, "you may have a dune 4 to 40 million years old—though a precise age has yet to be determined. But no matter how old the base of a megadune is, its top layer, its newest feature, may be only one year old. It's a complex process. Layer on layer on layer, requiring time and the area's characteristic mix of sand and rain."

On the afternoon of our third day we crest the top of another megadune pass, and below us sits a bowl-shaped valley. At the valley's northern end, fringed in rich green grasses and reeds, there's a small lake so saturated with salt-loving bacteria that its color is glittering vermilion. Sheep and goats drift across the dune hillsides, eating the sagebrush-like artemisia that grows on them. Camels and a few horses graze near the lakeshore. And at the far end of the lake, all alone, sits a pair of small square blockhouses.

We trudge down the dune, surprising the lady who lives in the valley. Her name, Lao Ji tells us, is Diudiu, and she's 72. She was born to a semi-nomadic Mongolian family near here. She never had children, and her husband died in 1974, leaving her as the last of her family.

With the same hospitality we'll find across the entire Badain Jaran, Diudiu sets up for visitors. She goes inside her house and fills a teakettle with water from a small cistern, then walks outside to a mirrored solar collector the size of a TV satellite dish. At the dish's center, where the rays of the sun will be focused, Diudiu snaps the kettle into an iron fitting, then she pivots the dish to face the afternoon sun. In seconds the kettle is smoking. Within three minutes, the water is boiling furiously. "I sold hair from my camels and sheep to buy this on the outside," she says, turning the mirrored face of the dish from the sun to retrieve the kettle. "It keeps me from having fire going all day."

Diudiu invites me inside her house. A wide earthen platform for sleeping and sitting occupies the back wall. The other walls are lined with wooden pantries and lockers; the boxes hold bags of rice and dried meat, a few potatoes and wild onions in baskets, and some extra clothes. In a corner a stack of folded blankets waits for winter. There's a small hole in the roof for the chimney of Diudiu's potbellied Mongolian stove, which is now outdoors for summer cooking.

She sprinkles dried tea into the kettle's hot water, then pulls out drinking bowls and a bowl of rock sugar. "Come and drink," she says, motioning for me to sit.

Diudiu is 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall and dressed in modern China's standard outfit: loose trousers and a button-front jacket, both of blue cotton. Her black hair is covered with a bandanna, her dark eyes sharp and quick. She has a wide Mongolian face—broad planes of cheekbones—which has weathered into a map of wrinkles.

I gesture toward a cliff swallow's nest that clings to the interior front wall, above the door. Diudiu smiles. "I like birds in the house," she says. "They're good company."

Spending the next few days with Diudiu, I will see that she possesses everything she needs. Though winter can get cold, as cold as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 34.4 degrees Celsius), she is prepared and experienced against it. Outside the house there's a sheep and goat pen whose 4-foot-tall (1.2-meter-tall) walls are made of camel dung wetted and pressed into bricks. In winter these bricks, which burn hot, warm her house and provide cooking fire. She also eats four or five sheep each winter, deep-freezing what she doesn't need by hanging the butchered carcass in a shady spot outdoors.

Following an hour or so of visiting, Diudiu goes outside. She fires up her stove and boils a pot of rice. In a wok she stir-fries potatoes and wild onions. Then she walks into her house, opens one of two large ceramic cisterns, and dips an eight-ounce (0.2 liter) plastic water bottle inside. "Rice wine,” she says. "Have some?"

Diudiu produces some thimble-size glasses and pours the wine. Luckily the cups are small, since the wine is powerful and goes down like kerosene. One of these cisterns, she says, is fully fermented. The other is in the process of fermenting, so there's always a supply of wine. "I drink one of these bottles a day," she says. "It's my recreation."

Slipping back outside, Diudiu checks the rice. Night is starting to fall. The first stars peek out. She lifts the food, carrying it inside the house to her small table. "See? I have everything," she says. "I don't understand the outside world. I know only eating, drinking, tending animals. This is what my parents did. Their parents. The young people today, once they leave the Badain Jaran, they never return. I don't blame them. The old life of herding is coming to an end. Work in cities is the future. But for me, I will live in this place until I die."

During two weeks in the Badain Jaran, I will meet several solitary men and women—most are 60-to-70-year-old herders—an aging population still living a tradition that stretches back to a time before Genghis Khan. But I also pass as many abandoned encampments as occupied ones. During my visit, in fact, I will find only two people younger than Lao Ji's 46 years. One, a government official and radio operator at a small outpost near the desert's remote center, is 36 years old; he talks longingly of leaving, the way a man dying of thirst speaks of water. The other young person, a three-year-old child, the afterthought of a middle-aged herding family, is still too young to be sent away to school "outside." Other than that, the youth of the Alashan, it appears, never return home after going off to school. Everyone I speak with agrees: The future is not among these unforgiving dunes and valleys.

But as the people of the Badain Jaran work and dream of escaping the desert, Chinese scientists are puzzling out how to stanch the desert's steady growth. According to the Institute of Desert Research, land degradation costs the nation 6.7 billion dollars a year and affects the lives of 400 million people. Current estimates say that 950 square miles (2,461 square kilometers) of land becomes desert every year—a 58 percent increase since the 1950s—much of it land that formerly supported crops and livestock. In a nation of more than a billion people, all of whom have adequate amounts of food but many of whom need better nutrition, such enormous losses are potentially devastating.

"Most desertification is due to increasing human population," says Wang Tao, acting director of the institute. "Increasing the number of people in an area places incremental pressure on land through farming, construction, road building, and other human activity. Add to this increasing water use and slight fluctuations in larger weather systems, and depletion of soil nutrients and desertification quickly become problems demanding great consideration."

Since 1956, beyond their laboratories and offices in Lanzhou, the institute has operated a research station a half day's drive away in the little town of Shapotou, along the Yellow River and about 250 miles (402.3 kilometers) southeast of the Badain Jaran dunes. At the research station scientists and visiting colleagues experiment with different ways to stem drying and erosion by wind and water. They also develop new crops suitable for the desert, look into ways to preserve soil richness in China and beyond, and use a wind tunnel and banks of optical-scanning computers to study the movement of blown sand.

A few days after we emerge from the dunes of the Badain Jaran—saying a sad good-bye to Lao Ji and his camel train—I visit the station with the geomorphologist Dong Zhibao. The station itself covers more than a square mile (2.6 square kilometers) on the side of a steeply pitched dune that traces the Yellow River's northern bank. Today the station is a tilting garden plot in what must be one of the world's most dramatic locations. To our southwest, across the river, the rocky peaks of the Tibetan Plateau jut into a cloudless sky; and just beyond the northern edge of the complex, separated by a railroad line bordered with vegetation, spread the dunes of the Tengger Desert, another district of the Alashan.

In Chinese, shapotou means "steep dune slope." And initially, Dong says, the research station was placed here on a temporary basis to study the desert's dangerous relationship with the railroad. Dunes would blow across the tracks, halting trains and interrupting commerce. Within weeks, though, scientists had conjured an inexpensive remedy. They arranged grids of straw in roughly one-by-one-yard (0.8-by-0.8-meter) checkerboards along the rail lines; then they drove the straw into the sand, leaving the stalks standing 4 to 6 inches (10.2 to 15.2 centimeters) above the ground, which created a low windbreak. This slows blown sand grains at the rail tracks, allowing plants to gain a foothold and fix the dunes.

Owing to its success at halting the desert here, the Chinese government decided to make the temporary base a permanent post. Since then the research station has forged partnerships with the United Nations and countries as disparate as Japan and Israel to explore erosion and desertification. Inside the labs, greenhouses, garden plots, and erosion test zones, 19 full-time personnel and a phalanx of visiting scientists push desert study forward. "We do a lot here,” says Dong as we walk past greenhouses growing new hybrid strains of arid-soil melons. Ahead is a mile-long (1.6-kilometer-long) "reintroduction garden,” where the station tests varieties of trees, shrubs, and annual grasses for desert suitability.

Dong pauses to touch the leaves of a ten-foot-tall (three-meter-tall) European poplar. "Vegetation is probably the best and least expensive way of controlling dune movement and wind erosion," he says. "But you have to find out which plants can survive in which environments. Take these poplars. They're resistant to wind, salty soils, and salty groundwater. That makes them very suitable for deserts and windbreaks."

Despite the garden's being initially set on sandy desert, the soil is now loamy dirt: a result of using silty Yellow River water for irrigation. The water may sink into the earth or evaporate, but the silt has stayed behind.

"This place is proof you can make a desert bloom," Dong remarks. "But we are careful, making sure we test and approve many different varieties of plants and grasses. If you only OK a few species for use, you're vulnerable to blights or parasites that could destroy everything again and return useful land to desert. Plant biodiversity is insurance against that."

We keep walking. A robust vineyard and orchard blanket a hillside within the station's brick walls. To the west are experimental rice fields. "Growing rice in the desert isn't advised, too wasteful in water,” says Dong. On some sandy black hillsides they are testing new petroleum-based sprays for sand fixing. "It's still too expensive for general application,” he says. "And not very environmentally sound."

Ahead, inside a steel fence topped by barbed wire, is the station's Drip Irrigation Center. A joint Chinese-Israeli project, it has developed a stingy, drop-by-drop irrigation system using hoses punctured with tiny holes every few feet to irrigate desert-friendly fruits and vegetables.

As we step through the gate, the center's curator, Zhao Jinlong—a sixtyish man wearing dusty gardener's clothes—meets us. While the other gardens seemed lush, they are paled by the fruits and vegetables inside this fence: watermelons, apples, green onions, cucumbers, corn, hot peppers, honeydews, bell peppers, radishes, carrots, cabbage, soybeans, pears, tomatoes, squash, spinach, cilantro.

"I turn on the irrigation three and a half hours a day," Zhao says. "And by planting seeds just beneath the perforations in these hoses, we save 90 percent of water used each day. Usual irrigation, with canals and ditches, is very inefficient. Evaporation. Runoff. A large percentage of irrigation water never reaches where it is directed." The center's drip system uses 800 gallons (3,028 liters) a day, a saving of roughly 7,200 gallons (27,255 liters). Conventional irrigation, Zhao says, also makes land prone to erosion. "So though it requires larger initial investments, drip irrigation is clearly a much less expensive way to farm for the long term."

Dong reaches down and plucks a few tomatoes from a nearby bush. He hands me one. It is wet and saturated with tomato taste, far tastier and meatier than tomatoes I buy in the United States. "Because drip irrigation is so consistent, the quality of produce is very high," he says. "Over time, look for these techniques to be implemented in China's arid regions and beyond."

Dong steps away, popping some ripe apples from a drip-irrigated tree. "Here," he says, handing me a large, red, shiny apple as I finish the tomato. "You are eating the future."

To see what may be China's most desertified place, Steinmetz and I head north to the desiccated city of Ejin Qi, hard against the Mongolian border and near the shores of two dry lakes. According to Dong and Qiao Maoyuan, director of water resources for Ejin Qi, about 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) of precipitation falls on the area each year, while evaporation occurs at a rate of about 150 inches (381 centimeters) a year. "So as you can see," says Dong, "this area of the desert has significant water-related problems."

To get to Ejin Qi is a demanding 400-mile (644-kilometer) overland trip: three days across dry desert valleys and through jagged mountain passes. Unlike the Badain Jaran and Tengger Deserts to our south, the northern part of the Alashan has been raked by relentless winds off the steppe to the north, leaving exposed rock everywhere. There is little water, so few herdsman live here. Despite long hours behind the wheel, we are lucky to find one lonely encampment a day. Only when we get within about 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) of Ejin Qi do we encounter dunes again, great rolling pillows of sand. Here the sand covers roads and devours telephone and electric lines as it blows south from the deserts of Mongolia toward the megadunes of the Badain Jaran.

In Ejin Qi we find a city of 14,000 that is vital and new and full of young people. There are fresh tile sidewalks and pin-neat shops. There is work in construction, in engine repair, in making and selling goods and clothing. In the cafés and restaurants and movie theaters everyone, it seems, is carrying a cellular telephone.

Ejin Qi has always been surrounded by desert, but a drought in recent years has brought such diminishing returns to farming that civic leaders have now gone capitalist, turning a raptor's eye toward a new, tourism-based economy. Our visit happens to coincide with the area's first cultural heritage festival, a tourist-minded event honoring the native Mongolians who settled the area and are now a minority as China's Han majority floods in. As the four-day celebration unfurls, it too is active and bright and well put-together, with traditional Mongolian dances, demonstrations of Mongolia's traditional wrestling, horsemanship, and archery. There is food: bubbling mutton kebabs seared over red-hot braziers. There is drink: hot tea and Coke, strong rice wine and the ever present tall green bottles of warm Chinese beer. In the lilting and clipped tones of the Mongolian language, songs are sung—usually about the toughness of the Mongolian horse—often accompanied by dancing troupes of Mongolian men and women dressed in traditional red robes bound by sashes around their waists. The festivities all take place in a pavilion beneath towering, golden-leaved poplars.

While I enjoy the festival, the locals are thrilled with its effect on the town. The hotels and restaurants are full, and, caught up in the party, natives and visitors alike spend money freely. Ironically the only people in Ejin Qi not attending are the area's few remaining farmers: Mongolians whose fields are close enough to underground water sources to irrigate crops from wells.

At one farm near the festival pavilion, inside a shady grove of poplars, a 37-year-old Mongolian woman named De Qiqige and her husband and 17-year-old son occupy the ger where she was born. Dressed in gray trousers and a white sweater, she invites Dong, Steinmetz, and me inside for a cup of tea. While theirs is a traditional Mongolian house, it is not one Lao Ji would recognize back in the Badain Jaran. The satellite television on one wall is flashing a Jackie Chan movie. In the kitchen area are a gas stove and electric appliances.

"We live between two worlds these days," De Qiqige says. "I love many of the modern things, but some things this new population is bringing, I do not like. At all."

The drought in this part of the Alashan, she says, began in 1982. "They were diverting the rivers upstream for irrigation, and one day there was simply no more water in the river. It dried up." De Qiqige sips her tea. In the years since she was a child, the grasses have disappeared, she says. Their land cannot support the 300 sheep and goats it used to. Now they have only 200 animals, and government officials have suggested her family cut the herd to 100 or less.

"The government is talking about relocating us too. Away from this place where my father lived his entire life, away from where I was born. I have no argument with the people upriver who have taken the water. They get their water before me. They are trying to make the best farm they can. But my land is dying. The river is dry. The livestock are weak. Soon we will be gone. Like Khara Khoto we will be destroyed after being weakened by thirst. I'll show you."

Putting down her tea, De Qiqige leaves the ger. She begins walking up a hillside behind her house; the hill's powdery dirt makes puffs beneath her shoes. We come over the hilltop. Ahead of us, a small tractor is pushing dirt around an equally dusty field. I can barely see the machine through the gritty clouds. "That is my husband," De Qiqige says. "He is preparing this ground for next year. We are digging a new well in the middle of this field, to irrigate it. It will cost all of our savings to do this. If we have a bad harvest next year, we could lose everything. "

De Qiqige's husband won't talk. He's too busy, he says. But I sense desperation; I can see it in his eyes. I also realize I'm standing inside the Institute of Desert Research's statistics: 400 million Chinese affected by encroaching desert each year, 950 square miles (2,461 square kilometers) of land gone.

"So this is desertification?" I ask Dong.

As he did back in the Badain Jaran, Dong stops walking and reaches down. He picks up a handful of powdery dirt and lets it sift through his fingers. "This is it," he says. "No nutrients. Nothing to bind this soil together. This is land falling into desert. Very bad."

Ahead of us, at the far side of the field, the river lies empty. We walk to its bank, then look down to see sand where water should be. Trees line the shoreline, their leaves red and gold at the height of autumn's color. I step nearer the edge of the steeply cut bank, which plummets a dozen feet (3.7 meters) to the dry river's floor.

"There you are," De Qiqige says. "We are becoming Khara Khoto."

Where fish should be swimming, a 6-inch (15.2-centimeter) lizard—colored the same pale brown as the dry riverbed—scrambles across the sand. It pauses, curling its tail into a tight loop, then darts beneath a flat rock.

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