The Baltics For Beginners : Why go? To be struck by the drama and strangeness in three countries flush with their new freedom.


Picture Eastern Europe as a clock face instead of the post-Soviet scrum of anxious peoples, resurgent traditions and fledgling governments that it is. There's Moscow around 2, Kiev at 3, Prague at 9, Poland from 9:30 to 11. And atop the clock at high noon, perhaps teetering a bit, stand the Baltics.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania share an Oklahoma-sized chunk of low plains and shoreline, each nation with its own language, culture and cobblestoned, spire-punctuated, medieval-era capital. Lithuania declared its independence in March, 1990, followed by Estonia and Latvia in August, 1991, each occasion accompanied by months of renaming streets and tearing down Lenin monuments.

But the whole region remains a blank for most Americans. It has been since the end of World War II, when Russian occupiers chased out the Nazi occupiers and then everything seemed to get very quiet.

So why go there?

To stand between blazing bonfires on a Latvian summer night, maybe. All around stand delirious Latvians, gulping beer, nuzzling mates or swaddling sleepy children. A stooped man, born in Latvia 69 years ago and recently returned from Houston, Tex., begins to sing the Latvian anthem. Scores join in. For a moment the whole sprawling scene seems reduced to song, fire and night. The old man weeps, firelight flickering on his face.

Or perhaps to flinch as an Estonian cabbie disregards the moving traffic around him to turn and show off his nation's new currency.

Or to see the glint of gold atop a former museum of atheism in Vilnius, Lithuania, now reconsecrated as the Roman Catholic Church of St. Casimir.

Even if you speak no local languages, carry no family connections, and recall only the broadest outlines of Baltic history, you can't help but be struck by drama and strangeness here. Among the Western world's emergent class of post-Soviet adventurers--all those backpack-bearers who rushed to Prague last year and Budapest this year--the Baltics could become next year's destination of choice. Already, cruise lines have added the ports of Tallinn and Riga to their itineraries.

But the Baltics are no place for those who seek mints on their pillows, sorbet between courses or a boutique on every corner. Arrive at an inopportune moment, and you may not even get a hotel room to yourself until the maid finishes with her cigarette and movie.

"Very good film," said the domestic at Riga's Hotel Latvija when I found her at ease before my television. "Ten minutes." Then she took another drag and turned her eyes back to the movie's final moments.

Still, the old capitals offer architecture, art and three urban variations on a medieval theme that can be found nowhere else. And beyond the cities lie forests, lakes, castles and coastline.

In summer, the days are long and the temperatures mild. (This summer was so dry that the weather was blamed for forest fires that this month charred almost 4,000 acres outside Riga near Latvia's coast.) There is no McDonald's, no Kentucky Fried Chicken. If you steer clear of hard-currency restaurants, the eating is both cheap and regionally varied. For the jewelry-seekers, there is amber (chunks of it wash up on Latvian and Lithuanian beaches).

You can now find some lodgings of Western comfort, for $120 nightly and more, or you can save money and settle for a mostly clean, mostly well-lighted place with shared facilities for as little as $9 nightly.

And unless you hide in your room all day, you'll be witness to one of the most sweeping social transformations of this century. Some 8 million citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are suspended in the flux. To travel in the Baltics now is to hover among them.

Tallinn, Estonia

At a distance, from the wrong angle, Tallinn (pronounced TAH-lin) seems to seethe with shipping cranes, blank-faced apartment buildings and grungy electric buses. That, evidently, is what happens when Soviet planners take a coastal city and push its population to 500,000. But at the edge of workaday Tallinn stands Old Tallinn, ancient and aloof.

A growing commercial culture of restaurants, shops and art galleries lines its streets. Some of the buildings date back seven centuries, and many were restored by the Soviets for the 1980 Olympic regatta at nearby Pirita Beach. Yet the spirit of the place is young and tentative, with hints of Western culture rising on all sides.

While plump old women peddle flowers and fruit in bright red stalls on Viru Street, the main path into the old city, a slouching wraith up the street coaxes sounds of Pink Floyd from his electric guitar. At Pirita Beach, windsurfers ignore warnings about unseen Baltic pollution and merrily skid across the whitecaps in Day-Glo wet suits.

Toompea, the oldest neighborhood in Old Tallinn, sits on the highest ground, protected by thick castle walls and joined to the lower city by two passages known as "long leg" and "short leg." Lookout towers are pocked by cannonballs of ancient wars. Gnarled ironworks hang above business doors, advertising apothecaries and restaurants, awaiting their chance to rattle in a storm.

Half a dozen churches tower nearby, often alongside monuments such as the Toompea Palace, a three-story rectangle that houses the Estonian government, and the Raekoda, a gray town hall on the central square that dates to 1404.

If that's not ominous and medieval enough, there's the myth of Ulemiste, the lake above town. When the city stops growing and changing, the story goes, the spirit of Ulemiste will empty the lake and drown Tallinn.

When I got there on June 20, all this atmosphere seemed to be operating as a backdrop for an economist's daydream. Hours before my plane landed, the long-anticipated Estonian kroon had been formally introduced to replace the Russian ruble, and no one was sure whether the new currency would take. (It started trading at 12.6 to the dollar, and remained close to that in mid-July.)

Outside one downtown currency exchange outlet, a line led up the street and included several officers of the Red Army, which for 45 years has been assigned to impose Russian language, customs and politics on Estonia. Now the officers grimly waited to trade their rubles for bills bearing the faces of Estonian heroes. The Estonians seemed to like that.

The city History Museum, a few blocks from the central square at 17 Pikk, is the restored Great Guild House that went up in the 14th Century, when Tallinn was counted alongside the wealthy port cities of Europe's Hanseatic League. The museum rooms are stuffed full of clocks, rugs, silver work, woodwork and musical instruments--evidence of past affluence that many Estonians are quick to mention.

As recently as the 1930s, said city tour guide Kadi Ader, "we were on the same level with Denmark, and Finland was behind us. I say that to Finnish people and they don't believe me, but I have read the records."

Estonia, like its neighbors, has spent the last several centuries under occupation by a succession of invaders. The Germans have been here, and the Danes, the Poles, and the Swedes; the nation's only previous independence in eight centuries was from 1918 to 1940. But the Russians are the most recent oppressors, and the most resented. Since the ethnic Russian population in Estonia grew to an estimated 30% under Soviet rule, the friction between Estonians and Russians is a constant subtext in the new nation's life.

One of the most striking and best-kept buildings is the 19th-Century Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. But ask an ethnic Estonian about that and you're likely to be informed that before the church went up, there was a perfectly good park on the site. Estonians are more likely to be Lutheran.

"I hate them," confessed a thoughtful Estonian woman to me one day. We were sitting in a outdoor cafe, a group of giggling young Russians at the next table.

The woman, 26 years old, told how her grandfather had died in Siberia, how her grandmother would whisper stories of Estonian independence and swear her to secrecy. As the woman spoke, one of the young Russians, a stranger, appeared at our table with a rose. A gift.

"Doesn't matter," the woman said quietly, after the young man had retreated to his table.

The Estonian language is most closely related to Finnish. The cuisine features seafood caught nearby. In the 19th Century, when the first surge of nationalism rose in the country, songfests were key consciousness-raisers. In the new nationalist movement, music was again a rallying force. A 1990 songfest at the Song Festival Amphitheater outside Tallinn drew an estimated 30,000 singers and 200,000 listeners.

So the Estonian sense of culture is strong. But now, economically ambitious Tallinners are trying to see, and sell, their town in a Western way.

A single horse-drawn carriage serves the tourists who converge on the central square, competing with a Finnish-operated mock train that carries children up and down the stone-paved avenues in cars the size of golf carts.

In the patio bar of Eeslital restaurant, between crumbling yellow-brown walls, young Tallinners celebrate "Afro-exotic week" by nursing beers and nodding to the strains of old American jazz and blues recordings. The only Afro-anything in the place was the Billie Holliday recording on the sound system. For three days, that voice chased me through the streets, stereo-hopping from one fledgling cafe to another.

But every night around 10:30, as the five-hour northern dusk finally dwindled, I found a way to screen out all the political and cultural complications of the new Estonia. I sat at the window of my room high in the Hotel Viru and watched the sun slowly slide from the left of the Oleviste church spire to the right, then dive into the Gulf of Finland. No post-Soviet anomalies, no ironies of independence, just a red wafer dipping into a blue sea.

Riga, Latvia

Even before my bus from Tallinn got to Riga, Latvia had begun to shape up as a different kind of place. At the country's northern border with Estonia, a grinning young sentry was inspecting traffic with a Kalashnikov assault rifle on his shoulder and a droopy green laurel of leaves on his brow, in place of a helmet.

His headwear was in celebration of the summer solstice, a holiday that ranks second only to Christmas for many Balts, who were pagans before Christianity arrived in the Middle Ages.

In Riga (REE-ga), a riverside city of 915,000 whose oldest quarter hums with new commerce, every second pedestrian seemed to be carrying or wearing flowers. That night, throughout the country, thousands of leafy Latvians gathered at bonfires to stay up through the night. The next day, almost everything was closed, and I got to make the place's acquaintance on uncharacteristically calm streets.

Riga is cosmopolitan in a way no other Baltic capital is. Its magnet for tourists, like Tallinn's, is an old town with cobblestone streets and ancient architecture, its formal founding traced to 1201. Unlike Tallinn's old town, though, Riga's is integrated into the daily life of the city. The old quarter, larger than Tallinn's and set between the Daugava River and a ribbon of grassy park, is symbolically guarded by the Freedom Monument, a stone monolith topped by a resolute bronze woman who holds overhead three golden stars, one for each of the country's geographic regions.

St. Peter's Church, rebuilt at least four times since it rose in 1209, houses the highest of the city's church spires, 380 feet above the city floor. The best view in town is from the platform beneath that spire.

From that vantage point, you can see that the city is rigged high and low with scaffolding for renovations, or "REMONTS," as the signs say everywhere. Some of that work moves rapidly and yields gleaming new ventures, such as the luxurious and heavily booked Hotel de Rome, the bustling Jever Bistro and the Casinos Latvia, which restrict their clientele to foreigners and suspiciously wealthy locals by charging a $3 cover, payable in hard currency only. But investment capital is short in Riga, too, and many of the remonts seem stalled.

Some of the old city facades are dingy and crumbling, and in the early 20th-Century neighborhoods block after block of gently curving Art Nouveau window frames, detailed decorative columns and inset statuary faces wear a flaking, derelict pallor.

The Russian population remains higher in Riga than in any other Baltic big city--more than 40%, by most estimates--and the city is thick with residual Russianisms.

There are the jouncing jeeps of the Red Army, less menacing these days but still ominously present in each Baltic nation. Rubles are still the currency, though the government has printed a special Latvian variety of them. And when I paid 8 cents and ducked into the mostly full Pionieris movie house one weekday afternoon, the feature was "Spoku Mednieki"--"Ghostbusters," dubbed into not Latvian but Russian.

Perhaps because Riga had a reputation as the Soviet empire's most Westernized city, North Americans are more in evidence there than in Tallinn. In my first 24 hours in town, I encountered American and Canadian film companies, a squad of Jewish-American teen-agers on their way to summer camp, 10 English-speaking broadcast journalists on a university fellowship program, and Mark Swede, an art historian from Ohio, whom I found on the steps of the city's art museum.

Swede's specialty is Latvian art, and his father was born here. On a walking tour, he led me from 14th- to 20th-Century buildings. On Brivibas Street, the city's main thoroughfare, he pulled me into a consignment shop and pointed out goods and prices. A dusty old samovar: less than $6. An 1825 Bible, published in St. Petersburg: $20. A pair of 19th-Century Russian Orthodox icons: about $80 each. The bargains seemed enticing, but with cultural preservation laws in flux along with everything else, exporting one of those icons might well be a crime, and a buyer could be in for customs trouble.

Sightseeing, however, is a sure bet. At Jurmala, a string of beach communities bordered by a pine forest, I strolled a long pedestrian mall lined by cafes, shops, a poker parlor and even a Chinese restaurant. From the mall it's a short stroll to the shore.

And on an expedition in another direction, I found my way to the Riga Automobile Museum on Eizensteina Street. The collection of vehicles inside runs from an 1885 largely wooden motorcycle made by Daimler to a 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood. But everyone's favorite vehicle is the 1966 Rolls Royce that the curators say Leonid Brezhnev crashed in 1980.

There's no explanation for how this car got from Moscow to Riga, but inside it the curators have placed an effigy of the premier as crash-test dummy, a befuddled expression forever frozen between those familiar jowls and eyebrows.

Vilnius, Lithuania

I got off to bad start in Vilnius. After a long train ride, I broke down and did what the people at the Lietuva Hotel wanted me to: I handed over my rubles for dinner in their Panorama restaurant upstairs, and watched the squalid, ersatz-Las Vegas floor show. Evidently, old Intourist habits die hard. The next morning at the hotel desk I found myself behind two slick Taiwanese businessmen who were looking to make a big deal in amber, but couldn't find a supplier.

The Lietuva Hotel seems busy with people trying to make a bundle or recreate someone's vision of the West. But most of Vilnius is not.

In fact, despite its leading position in the fight for independence, and its possession of the largest old city of the three Baltic capitals, Vilnius shows the fewest signs of emerging capitalism and American culture. In a city of some 600,000, I found no casinos, no buskers plinking Pink Floyd, no dollars-only restaurants.

I also found fewer Russians; they amount to less than 10% of the nation's population.

But there was no evading Romas Gelminauskis, a 52-year-old Vilnius man with a white T-shirt, red suspenders, no job at the moment, but great optimism. He was sipping a beer when I stepped into Ciobrelis, his neighborhood bar in the old city. Within 15 minutes, he was dragging me from landmark to landmark through the Lithuanian afternoon. The itinerary was imposing.

Gediminas Tower, a medieval lookout on Gediminas Hill, presides over the old city and was one of the first structures in Vilnius to fly the Lithuanian flag during the drive for independence.

The University of Vilnius, founded 400 years ago by Jesuits and now attended by 15,000 students, dominates a big chunk of the old city below, its walls and ceilings busy with frescoes by much-loved Lithuanian artists.

The Vilnius Cathedral stands nearby, the only church I've ever seen with reversible pews. Years ago, apparently, Soviet authorities decided to remove the building from religious use and instructed workers to replace the pews with seats facing away from the altar and toward the organ at the rear of the church. The workers thought about that for a while and built reversible bench seats. They now face the altar.

Next came the Church of St. Anne, a Gothic concoction of red brick that went up in 1580. It stands near the deep green Vilnia River, where locals lie in the tall grass to sunbathe. About this landmark, there is more local lore. The sight of St. Anne's reportedly struck even Napoleon Bonaparte as he marched toward Moscow, prompting the general to say, "I want to carry this church back to France in the palm of my hand."

It's easy to understand why Lithuanians like that simple, happy anecdote. Even by Baltic standards, Lithuanian history is complicated, and sometimes horrific.

Like its neighbors, Lithuania has over the years been occupied by Russia and Germany and then Russia again. Unlike its neighbors, Lithuania entered the 20th Century with a population that was largely split between Catholics and Jews. In the 1920s and '30s, while the rest of Lithuania was enjoying independence, Vilnius was controlled by Poland. Even today, there are almost as many Poles in Lithuania as there are Russians.

"There are still people who believe Vilnius must belong to Poland," confided one lifelong resident, an ethnic Lithuanian, trying to explain the complicated allegiances attached to her city.

By 1939, an estimated 60,000 Jews lived in Vilnius, keeping a score of synagogues busy, amounting to as much as 40% of the city's population and prompting the city's reputation as "the Jerusalem of the north."

Then came the Nazis, who segregated Jews in a ghetto in the heart of the old city and built a concentration camp in the forest-surrounded suburb of Paneriai. By 1944, executioners at that camp alone had killed an estimated 70,000 Jews from Vilnius and elsewhere, along with 30,000 others. Jews today amount to less than 1% of Lithuania's population.

The story of the ghetto and the camp is told in old letters and photographs at the city Jewish Museum on Pamenkalnio street, and at a memorial site in Paneriai, about 45 minutes outside downtown Vilnius. At Paneriai, I found a couple from Israel standing before a polished black granite slab. They placed a small stone on the base of the monument, as had others before them, and whispered " shalom " on their way out.

On the same excursion, I stopped at Lake Galve, about an hour outside Vilnius. There, the restored 14th-Century island castle Trakai rises from the water, connected to the outside world by a drawbridge. Modern rowers and rafters drift on the lake beyond the walls, but medievalism seems to survive inside. Several years ago, a Leningrad movie company came here to film "Hamlet."

But in Lithuania these days, the future claims as much attention as the past. The Red Army may eventually go home, as the handbills pasted all over the city urge. And Western visitors and money will come, but in volumes that no one can guess.

One afternoon toward the end of my 10-day trip through the Baltics, I sat in a sidewalk cafe at the city opera house with Albinas Kentra. Kentra, a wry University of Vilnius language professor with a faded Philadelphia Eagles cap, fought from the forest as a guerrilla against the Russian occupiers of the 1940s. In the '50s and '60s, he served eight years in Siberia, and returned to secretly work for Lithuanian independence from a cluttered office in a hidden corner of the campus.

Together, Kentra and I watched a young Vilnius boy carry a new Western-style skateboard to the top of the opera house entrance, hop on and inexpertly fling himself down a steep incline. We didn't choose him, but there he was, our own little metaphor for these uncertain Baltic days. The boy and the board crashed loudly on the concrete. And immediately, the boy leaped up to try again.

"The Lithuanians," pronounced Kentra. "Still a heroic people."


A Traveler's Primer on the Baltics

Language: It's not a major barrier. Most hotels and restaurants have at least one English speaker and many people are eager to practice their English. In buses, trains and at corner food stands, where English is less spoken, it helps to have your destination written down. And there's always pointing.

Visas: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania require visas, but have established a common visa zone, so that a visa from any one of those countries is good for the other two. Visa and other information is available through the Estonian Consulate General (630 5th Ave., Suite 2415, New York, N.Y. 10111; 212-247- 7634 or 212-247-1450 for recorded visa information), the Latvian Embassy (4325 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20011; 202-726-8213 or fax 202-726-6785) and the Lithuanian Consulate General (41 W. 82nd St., Suite 5B, New York, N.Y. 10024; 212-877-4552 or fax 212-595-8301). Travelers passing through Poland or Russia are required to obtain separate visas for those countries.

Getting There: Lufthansa flies from Frankfurt to all three Baltic capitals. Finnair flies from Helsinki to Tallinn. SAS airlines flies Stockholm to Tallinn, Frankfurt to Riga and Copenhagen to Vilnius. Swissair flies from Zurich to Vilnius. Lithuanian Airlines flies from Frankfurt to Vilnius. Using U.S. carriers to make connections in Europe, round-trip fares from Los Angeles to Tallinn and Riga begin at $1,526. From Los Angeles to Vilnius, round-trip fares begin at $1,488.

Visitors can travel from one Baltic nation to another by train, plane or rented car, but buses may be the best value. They take less time than the trains, in some cases run more often, are often cleaner and less vulnerable to theft, and cost about the same. The six-hour ride from Tallinn to Riga cost me about $1.25.

Once in the capitals, you can walk to most places. Most of the rest are cheaply accessible by public transportation (which usually costs less than a quarter) or taxi.

Note: In the unstable conditions of all three Baltic economies, restaurant and hotel prices and exchange rates are subject to wide fluctuations, and the numbers noted here could change substantially.


Where to Stay: The Hotel Palace (Vabaduse Valjak 3; from the U.S., call 011-7-0142- 444-761 or fax 011-7-0142-443098) has the high-end market all to itself, with 91 rooms and two restaurants a short walk from the old city, and makes its guests pay dearly. During my visit, double room rates started at $190 Sunday through Friday, $135 Friday through Sunday. The 458-room Hotel Viru (Viru Valjak 4; local phone 652-093 or fax 444-371), where I stayed, is an impersonal but centrally located former Intourist operation, with double rooms beginning at $95. Another former Intourist hotel, the Olumpia (Liivalaia 33; phone 602-600 or fax 442-521) is nearby and has comparable rates and facilities. For information about smaller and potentially cheaper hotels, try the Tallinn City Tourist Office (Kinga 6; phone 448-886 or fax 441-221), which has but four employees and no computer or photocopy machine.

Where to Eat: At Submonte (Ruutli 4; phone 666-871 or fax 443-098), a medieval cellar in the old town, tasty main dishes run from $2.50 (mushrooms and vegetables) to $7 (wild boar). At Eeslital (Dunkri 4; phone 448-033), another popular old-town establishment, entrees ran from about 40 cents (beef stroganoff) to $1 (steak with mushroom sauce) for passable fare. As in many places, my one beer (Nikolai, brewed in Helsinki) cost about $2, about three times as much as the rest of my meal. Inside Neitsitorn, a tower in the 14th-Century Toompea town wall, a cafe offers heated wine and snacks (four finger sandwiches for less than $1), adding 25 cents or so if you take an upstairs view table.


Where to Stay: The Hotel Latvija (Elizabetes 55; from the U.S., call 011-7-0132- 212-505 or telex 161129 salon SU), a 356-room former Intourist operation, charges $105 and up for double rooms. The Hotel Riga (Apazijas 22; phone 216-285 or fax 161-197) offers comparable facilities at slightly higher rates, and is closer to the old town. For more money and more comfort, there's the 56-room Swedish-run Eurolink Hotel on the third floor of the Hotel Riga (see previous address; from U.S. phone, call 011-46-010- 682-832 or fax 011-46-010-617-041), which asks $160 for a double room. Another top-drawer place is the 90-room Hotel de Rome (Kalku 28; phone 011-7-0132-331-995 or fax 213-666), a German-Latvian joint venture that quoted a rate of $187 for a double room.

Where to Eat: My best and most expensive meal in Riga came from Otto Schwarz, the seventh-floor restaurant of the Hotel de Rome. Meals run from a cheese-and-tomato omelet ($6.25) to beef tournedos ($18). Similarly Western food and drink, and elbow-to-elbow crowds of wheeler-dealer Balts and Russians, can be found at Jever Bistro (Kalku 6; 011-7-0132-227-078). For lower prices, try the mirrored Jana (Skunu 16; phone 226-258), with entrees in the $2-$4 range. But selection was limited; with dinner I had a choice of orange juice or Georgian white wine.


Where to Stay: Comfortable lodgings are still hard to come by here. The Hotel Lietuva (Ukmerges 20; 011-7-0122-356-090) is the principal Intourist leftover, a 23-story slab across the Neris River from the old city, beginning at an $86 nightly double-room rate. Service: sullen. In the center of the old city, consider the Astorija (Didziosios 35; phone 629-914 or fax 220-097), a Norwegian-Lithuanian joint venture with 37 rooms in a 1901 building. Prices were advertised at $40 (single with shared bathroom) to $130 (a suite with toilet and shower); service was good.

Where to eat: Everyone seems to agree that Stickliai (Gaono 7; phone 627-971), an elegant place with arched ceilings, frescoes, stained-glass and an elaborately framed thank-you note from Princess Caroline of Monaco, is the top restaurant in town. Entrees run from eel, Russian-style ($2.50) to fried trout in cream sauce ($2.75) to beef steak ($3.25). Alcohol must be bought with dollars, and runs $2 for a bottle of beer. Medininkai (Ausros Vartu 6; phone 614-019) is another good old town eatery with agreeable food, and cheaper: fried fish for 15 cents, beef stroganoff for 60 cents.

Home stays can be cheaper and more enlightening than any hotel. Zephyr Press (13 Robinson St., Somerville, Mass. 02145; 617-628-9726), which has published "People to People" guides to meeting and sometimes staying with families in Eastern Europe, in September is scheduled to release a volume on the Baltics. For more on lodgings throughout the Baltics, see the this week's Travel Insider column on L2.

Medical care: The U.S. State Department had advised that medical care in Baltic nations currently "does not meet western standards. There is a severe shortage of basic medical supplies, including disposable needles, anesthetics and antibiotics. Tourists in frail health are strongly advised not to visit."

Guidebooks: For information on the Baltics, especially attractions outside the capitals, at least two Baltic-specific guidebooks are available. "A Guide to the Baltic States," published in 1990 by Inroads, is available for $17.95, excluding postage, from Publishers Distribution Service (121 E. Front St., Suite 203, Traverse City, Mich., 49684; 800-345- 0096). "The Baltic States: A Reference Book," published in 1991 in Tallinn, is available for $9.95, excluding postage, through the American Baltic News (P.O. Box 19398, Kalamazoo, Mich. 49019-0398).

HOTELS: New inns hope to lure tourists by outclassing shabby former Soviet lodgings. L2

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