Taiwan’s Top Ten Day Trips

In Ancient trees, Coastal Scenery, Cultural relics, Day hikes, Geological curiosities, History, Hot springs, Hsinchu County, Hualian County, Kaohsiung City, Miaoli County, Mountains, Nantou County, New Taipei City, Outlying Islands, Pingtung County, Taiwan essentials (must-see places and sights), Temples and local religious beliefs, Waterfalls, Yilan County by Richard25 Comments

I’ve just written this piece for a Korean magazine, and while most of the places here have already been put on the Blog, it’s probably worth putting the whole thing up here  – Taiwan really is an extraordinary place!

This list is only a start, and on another day I might have come up with a completely different ‘top 10,’ but these are wonderful places, and all are great personal favorites. I’ve uploaded new photos and expanded the write-up on the spectacular Taiji Canyon, which is not covered elsewhere here.

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The secret’s finally out: more and more tourists are discovering that Taiwan is an island of quite extraordinary natural beauty. But whatever you do, don’t limit yourself to the big tourist draw cards such as Sun Moon Lake, Alishan and Kenting. The island’s popular sights are great of course, but be sure to make time for at least a couple of the countless little-known gems that lie scattered around the island and on the outlying islets.

There are enough enchanting spots to keep a weekend explorer going for decades, and any ‘top ten’ list is bound to be highly subjective, but here’s a personal list of ten places – all feasible day trips from one or other of the island’s big cities – that may well prove to leave more lasting memories than lying on the beach in Kenting or zooming through Taroko Gorge in a bus.

1.  Loyal Son Mountain and

2. Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk, Taipei County

Descending Loving Mother Mountain

See pages 172-177 and 138-143 for detailed descriptions of how to get to both places.

See pages 172-177 and 138-143 for detailed descriptions of how to get to both places.

The 12 kilometer-long Pingxi Branch Railway Line, an hour’s ride from Taipei city center, is one of the most beautiful train rides in northern Taiwan, but the real attraction of coming here is the host of natural and cultural attractions easily accessible from the tracks. The area is dotted with atmospheric reminders of the area’s coal mining past, and the valley (which boasts the wettest place in Taiwan) features well over twenty waterfalls. The most famous (and touristy) of these is forty meter-broad Shifen Waterfall (十分瀑布), the widest waterfall in Taiwan, but waterfall lovers can’t do better than take the stunningly scenic, 3-hour Sandiaoling Waterfall (三貂嶺瀑布) Walk nearby. Named for an impressive 30-meter high fall which plunges over a huge overhang behind which hikers can stand, the walk also features a further two beautiful waterfalls, and several exciting but safe climbs up cliff faces on chunky rope ladders.

Niya Waterfall, on the Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk

If hiding behind waterfalls isn’t enough adventure for you, take the train two stops further up the valley to the quaint old coal mining village of Pingxi (平溪) and explore the extraordinary scenery of bare rocky crags that surround the settlement. Hikers intent on longer walks should tackle the three rocky summits known as the Pingxi Three Peaks (平溪三尖), but for a short, sharp adrenaline boost, it’s hard to beat Loyal Son (孝子山), Loving Mother (慈母峰) and Putuo (普陀峰) Peaks, which loom above the village.

Rock-cut steps up Loving Mother Mountain

The first is a sharp needle of bare rock that looks impossible to climb at first, but is in fact easily scaled by a sequence of ladders and very steep, foothold-like steps cut into the rock. The two remaining peaks are broader but also a lot higher, and each is scaled by dizzying flights of ‘steps’ cut into the solid rock. Definitely not a place for sufferers of vertigo.

Below Loving Mother Mountain

  3. Wushanding Mud Volcano, Kaohsiung County

Yangnu Mud Pond, Kaohsiung COunty

Mud volcanoes are fascinating geological curiosities, and Taiwan is one of only twenty-odd countries in the world where they are found. Unrelated to the classic magma-spewing volcano of which the peaks of Yangmingshan (north of the Taiwanese capital) are long-dormant examples, about fifteen can be found around Taiwan. Easily the finest of these is the extraordinary Wushanding Mud Volcano (烏山頂泥火山), near the village of Yanchiao (燕巢), about twenty kilometers northeast of Kaohsiung City. Protected since 1992 as part of Taiwan’s smallest nature reserve (less than five hectares in area), the mud volcano changes in appearance according to weather conditions and whether or not there’s been an ‘eruption’ recently, but generally forms a striking cone that looms several meters above the heads of curious visitors.

Wushanding Mud Volcano

Nearby lies Yangu (or Yangnyu) Mud Pond (養女湖), the most impressive of a series of mud pots that bubble up to the surface in this part of Taiwan. Visit on a weekend, and there’s a good chance someone will be around to light the methane gas that bubbles up from the depths; the resulting flames can reach several meters in height, and are an impressive sight.

One of the smaller craters at Wushanding Mud Volcano

   4. Xiao Liuqiu Island, Pingtung County

Beauty Cave Scenic Area, Xiao Liuqiu

This tiny islet (小琉球), lying 15 kilometers off the west coast of Pingtung County, just south of Kaohsiung City, was until a few years ago a largely forgotten backwater. Now it’s been well and truly discovered, and coming here on a weekend is not recommended unless you like big crowds. During the week, however, the island is still a haven of peace and beauty.

The Vase Rock, Xiao Liuqiu

The island is described in detail on pages 229-242.

The island is described in detail on pages 229-242.

It’s also extremely unusual for Taiwan, in that it’s made entirely of uplifted coral, which has weathered into a complicated system of cliffs, crack-like gorges and weird formations. The finest scenery is contained in three Scenic Areas (Beauty Cave,Black Dwarf Cave and Wild Boar Gully, all on the island’s west coast) and it’s easy enough to see the island in a day trip from Kaohsiung. If time allows though, it’s a very relaxing place to overnight – at least during the week.

In Wild Boar Gully, Xiao Liuqiu5. Yuemeikeng Waterfall, Yilan County

5. Yuemeikang Waterfall, Yilan County

The hard-to-find route to the waterfall is described on pages 222-227.

The hard-to-find route to the waterfall is described on pages 222-227.

Taiwan’s magic combination of extremely steep terrain, hard (often volcanic) rock and copious rainfall makes the island a waterfall-lover’s paradise. Apart from the occasional giant (such as 450 meter-high Jiaolung Waterfall (蛟龍瀑布) in Chiayi County) most of the island’s waterfalls aren’t especially high or mighty, but they’re often magical. It’s impossible to choose a favorite from among so many, but a prime candidate would be the secret Yuemeikeng Waterfall (月眉坑瀑布), close to the popular hot spring resort of Jiaosi in eastern Yilan County.

In the gorge below the waterfall

Although it’s a short and easy day trip from Taipei, this waterfall was until recently very little known. In the last year or so river tracers and hikers have discovered it, and the trail is improving, but the hour-long hike to the fall still involves wading upstream through a narrow gorge and several steep climbs on ropes, so it’s unlikely to ever become a family favorite.

Getting there is a short adventure, but well worth it upon seeing the of water plunging 40 meters over the cliff at the head of a narrow canyon in a broad, shimmering curtain, to fall into a large plunge pool. It’s a fabulous place on a hot summer day.

6. Lion’s Head Mountain, Hsinchu and Miaoli Counties

A Thread of Sky, near Water Curtain Cave, Lion’s Head Mountain

For much more detail on Lion's Head Mountain, see pages 208-215.

For much more detail on Lion’s Head Mountain, see pages 208-215.

A wooded ridge studded with old and beautiful temples and monasteries inhabited by grizzled old monks, shrouded in a picturesque misty veil for much of the year, Lion’s Head Mountain (Shitoushan, 獅頭山) is Taiwan’s answer to those amazing Buddhist sacred mountains in China such as Mt. Emei and Mt. Jiuhua.  Like those much larger Chinese giants, on sunny weekends Lion’s Head Mountain attracts hoards of visitors, who come to enjoy this important center of worship and the beautiful surroundings alike.  Not even the crowds, however, can spoil and the beauty and unique atmosphere of this rather special place, straddling the borders of Hsinchu and Miaoli Counties.

View from Qinhua Tang, Lion’s Head Mountain

Lion’s Head Mountain, about fifteen kilometers south of Hsinchu, is a rocky eminence and most of its ten or fifteen main temples are built into natural caves or overhangs in the rock. Sitting halfway up the steep, densely forested slopes is possibly the most visually impressive ensemble of temples and monasteries on Taiwan. The main structure of the group, Qinhua Tang (勤化堂), is a magnificent edifice of classical Chinese prayer halls, pagodas and gates, each crowned with bright orange-tiled roofs which shine in the sunlight. The main event is complimented by a series of smaller structures, including the Morality Gate (道德門), Kaishan Temple (開善寺), and Lingyun Cave (凌雲洞), which combine to create a truly impressive scene.

7. Jinguashi, Taipei County

  1. Mount Banping, Jinguashi

Although its tragic associations continue to color this old mining town to this day (it’s the site of one of the most notorious Japanese PoW camps during the Second World War), Jinguashi (金瓜石) is one of the most characteristic old villages in the Taipei area, with the added benefit of being a bit less crowded than its wildly popular neighbor, Jiufen (九份).

Summit of Mount Banping, Jinguashi

Jinguashi owes its existence to rich seams of gold and copper in the surrounding hills, and today constitutes part of the very fine Gold Ecological Park, which preserves many old Chinese and Japanese structures and several mine shafts.

Old House at Jinguashi

The village of Jinguashi and the surrounding peaks are described in detail on pages 58- 63 and 116-123.

The village of Jinguashi and the surrounding peaks are described in detail on pages 58- 63 and 116-123.

The village is surrounded by the craggy peaks of the petite Mount Keelung range.  Although only 700 meters or so at its highest point, this cluster of peaks are real mountains in miniature, rocky, steep and photogenic. Mount Keelung (基隆山) itself is the easiest ascent, while Mount Banping (半平山) and the conspicuous Teapot Mountain (無耳茶壺山) both involve easy but fun rocky scrambles (with fixed ropes).

The Japanese shinto shrine (in ruins) above Jinguashi

 8. Taiji Canyon, Nantou County

The wonderful waterfall in the Inner Gorge of Taiji Canyon. These pictures were all taken in the late 1990s and around 2001, and the area is probably very hard to reach now).

One of Taiwan’s most awesome natural wonders, Taiji Canyon (太極峽谷) is another place long associated with tragedy. The canyon was long a hugely popular challenge hike until in May 1986 a landslide in the innermost part of the canyon killed thirty hikers and injured several score more. The canyon was officially closed to the public, signposts indicating the trailheads were removed, and although still accessible, the canyon was left to the few hikers that knew (or, like me, found!) the way in (it took me four separate attempts to find the trailhead!).

In the inner Gorge of Taiji Canyon

The gorge is divided into four parts. The lower canyon has been inaccessible for many years, since the trails to the one way down became overgrown – I tried it once and it’s a dangerous place to reach nowadays!) has the highest walls, which close in like pincers; a tall waterfall drops from a side stream into the main gorge.

Beside the lower waterfall, which separates the Middle and Inner Canyons

The Middle Canyon is the usual way into the most spectacular part of the canyon, courtesy of a side stream which cuts through the otherwise sheer or overhanging walls of the mighty gorge, which elsewhere tower up to a hundred meters above the river.

In the Middle Canyon

Making a way carefully upstream through the Middle Canyon along a narrow ledge about five meters above the surface of the river, the lower waterfall is eventually reached, a long waterslide plunging into a deep plunge pool. The way ahead lies to the left, up a pair of long metal ladders, which were already rusting in 2001, when I was last there; they may be dangerously unsafe by now.

At the top of the ladders lies the most famous part of Taiji Canyon: the Inner Gorge (內坑). At first the canyon widens greatly, with a couple of gaping caverns in its walls; the bigger is (predictably) called the Bat Cave. Immediately past the Bat Cave, the canyon makes a sharp ‘S’ bend, narrowing greatly, and concealing the fantastic waterfall, plunging into a huge and very deep pool hidden in a secret and awesome cleft beyond. The waterfall isn’t visible until the last minute and makes a big impact.   The sheer walls also make any further progress (into the upper gorge above) utterly impossible.

The Bat Cave, in the Inner Canyon

There’s been talk for years of possibly reopening the spectacular Middle and Inner parts of the gorge, but so far only the upper portion of the canyon (which was always its most accessible part) is open to casual hikers. Featuring a long suspension footbridge spanning the dizzying cleft and a couple of waterfalls, it’s a wonderful sight, but we can only hope that one day the wonders of the awesome central gorge some distance downstream will be thrown open to everyone once more.

9. Mount Niaozui (Beidelaman) Ancient Tree Grove, Hsinchu County

  1. One of the four ancient trees at Beidelaman

Groves of huge and very ancient trees (mostly red cypress) lie scattered throughout Taiwan’s mountainous interior, growing at altitudes of between about 1,000 and 2,500 meters and reaching mind-boggling ages (the oldest are estimated to be around 3,000 years in age). The four Beidelaman Ancient Trees (北得拉曼神木), lying at an altitude of 1,400 meters in mountainous eastern Hsinchu County, aren’t the easiest of these giants to reach, involving an hour or so driving over rough roads followed by several hours’ climb along a rough trail, but this relative inaccessibility ensures that they’re relatively little visited and their mountain home remains pristine.

The gnarled trunk of the biggest and most impressive of the four trees is curved, and looks like some monstrous stick of celery looming out of the forest floor. There’s ample room for a group of ten hikers to pose, side-by-side against the foot of the great tree, so it’s surprising to find that the tree doesn’t hold a place inTaiwan’s ten biggest specimens. One of those can be found in the far more popular Lalashan Ancient Tree Grove (拉拉山神木群) in Taoyuan County, but with ease of accessibility come crowds, and Lalashan’s twenty-plus ancient trees, for all their impressive size, lack the mysterious seclusion of those at Beidelaman.

One of the trees

10.  Jhuilu Cliff Trail, Taroko Gorge, Hualien County

On the Cliff Trail

Taroko Gorge never fails to impress greatly during a first visit, and bits of it – the Tunnel of Nine Turns, Swallows’ Grotto, the Lyushui Trail – are always a delight, but after a couple of visits the area’s limitations soon become apparent. There’s little chance to get off the main road for long and enjoy the scenery away from the hoards of noisy tourists, cars and coaches, and it’s only by getting away from the road that the full beauty of this natural marvel can be really appreciated.  All in all, Taroko really isn’t a great place for hiking.

There is, however, one astonishing exception.  The Jhuilu Old Trail (錐麓古道) has always been Taroko Gorge’s most coveted hike, for the simple reason that it’s by far the most interesting hiking opportunity in the Gorge, offering some truly jaw-dropping views.  The entire trail makes for a magnificent 6-7 hour hike, but it’s renowned for a 500 meter-long stretch near its eastern end which is, astonishingly, cut into Taroko Gorge’s highest and sheerest cliff face. The precipice plunges vertically for over 450 meters from the edge of the trail to the road and the Liwu River, far, far below. The trail is wider than it once was (the ledge was once only a foot or so in width!), but walking along this precarious perch nearly half a kilometer above the foot of Taroko Gorge remains an unforgettable experience.

Nearly five hundred meters above the river!

Halfway along the cliff face, the trail dives into a short tunnel, near the end of which is a small shrine housed in a hollow carved out of the cliff. It’s not hard to imagine locals (who once used this route to travel between the east coast and the aboriginal settlements of the mountainous interior) stopping here to pray for a safe traverse along this, one of the most intense and spectacular trails in the whole of Taiwan.

Comments

  1. thank you, richard. i hope to get back to taiwan one day to visit these beautiful sights. they sound wonderful & your writing makes them even more tempting. carry on!

  2. Author

    Hi Carol,
    Hope you can make it back here some time! I’m sure you had a wonderful time in Southeast Asia! Hope to hear or read something about it some time.

  3. Great post, Richard. Two comments: one, Taiwan’s rocks are renowned for being soft not hard which is why this is the landslide capital of the world. As my geologist hiking partner likes to say, Taiwan’s rocks are shit. Also, I disagree that Taroko isn’t a great place to hike. In addition to the Jhuilu there’s Wenshan hike which is 3-4 hours and offers peace and quiet and stunning views. The new long Baiyang Trail, the Shakadang, especially if you continue up to the villages, and the trails out the old farming villages further up the park (can’t remember the names). Half a dozen great long trails in one compact areas, plus other shorter ones makes for a really good hiking destination in my opinion. Anyway, great article. I’m on the road in China at the moment and feeling homesick.

    1. Author

      Good point Robert! I’ve never walked the Wenshan Trail, as it’s a relatively recently reopened, and I’ve been meaning to do the Datong trail for ages. Compared with many parts of Taiwan, I’ve always found hiking in Taroko a frustrating experience, so maybe I should go back and check out a few more trails there!

  4. Despite having lived in Taiwan for a couple of years and traveling around a good bit, most of these I didn’t know about. I’ve already saved the links for places to visit later this year.

  5. A small correction, I think. The “Old House” in Jinguashi is neither old nor a house. Unless it’s changed since the last time I was there, it’s a B&B owned by a brother and sister, whose father built the structure for them. When we stayed there the right side was operated by the sister, a devout Buddhist, who mostly offered a few rooms as a very low-cost retreat space for Buddhist followers and shifu. The left side, operated by the brother and his wife, is a more expensive but nicely decorated and designed B&B. At the time I was there, the brother was trying to get his sister to cede her space (we stayed with the sister, and found it basic and comfortable).

    1. Author

      Thanks for the info! Good to know it’s a B&B – there are some great places to stay in the area. As for it not being really old, in hindsight I agree (especially since I’m from England, where no buildings are considered ‘old’ unless it’s several hundred years in age), in Taiwan, though it sometimes seems anything more than a couple of decades old is considered antique, or is it a new place pretending to be an old one, like all those atrocious faux Fujian-style buildings going up at Qinbi village on Beigan in Matsu….

  6. You, sir, are an awesome human being. Thank you for the great books you wrote and these wonderful blog.

  7. Richard, are there really fake “Fujians” going up? That is both dreadful and amusing. And are they really worse than the usual concrete box that passes for a home here?

    1. Author

      ‘fraid there are, at least in Qingbi (Matsu) – they might look a bit like real Fujian houses when they’re finished, but they’re made of bricks (or concrete) with a facing of stone to make them look like the real thing. I’m pretty sure they’ll become homestays.
      Reminds me painfully of glorious Bagan in Burma: among the ancient pagodas are lots of obviously new ones – built in the same style but without the artistry (or any of the historic significence) I suppose by rich families with delusions of grandeur.

  8. Are any of these suitable for a 73 year old woman who isn’t in superb shape? I will be visiting my son in the fall of 2012 and look forward to seeing some of the beautiful sights of Taiwan.

    1. Author

      Unfortunately the majority of the finest sights in Taiwan (in my humble opinion!) are those places that have been overlooked by the masses, or so aren’t so family friendly.
      The big tourist sights are still marvellous though, and you’d have a wonderful time visiting Taroko Gorge, Yehliu Rock Formations, Jiufen and Jinguashi (no. 3 on my list, which is in no particular order, by the way), Alishan, and the Northeast Coast National Scenic Area, along with many other popular but lovely places. These places are all well developed for tourists of all abilities, but are no worse for that.
      I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time here – there’s an amazing amount of beautiful and unusual things to see here, even ON the beaten tourist route!

  9. Wonderful list. You know Taiwan’s natural sites better than my Taiwan-born and raised parents. Hope to see some of these on my trip there this summer. Also, if you know of any Taiwanese cooking classes for English speakers (in Taipei, Tainan or Kaoshiung) please email me: spiceboxtravels [at] gmail [dot]com. Thanks! Will be following you on Twitter now.
    -Linda (@spiceboxtravels)

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  11. hi, any recommendation as to place to go if I arrive in Kaoshiong on the 26th and need to in Tainan on the 27th & 28th, returning to Kaoshiong on the 30th to catch the flight. Apart from being there, I have no plan and have all the free time. Ideally, somewhere easy enough to get to either by renting car or train for 2-3 hours walk for beautiful scenery, but into temple nor shrine. Like adventure in the nature, but a city chic I am.

    1. Author

      Hi, and Merry Christmas! I don’t know the Kaohsiung area as well as northern Taiwan, but there are some great places down there that I do know and would recommend. The Yanchiao area, just off the freeway (3?) is really close to Kaohsiung, and particularly fascinating, with the extraordinary Wushanding and Yangnu Mud volcanoes, the badlands formations and the cockscomb mountain, a small but very sharp peak well worth climbing. I wrote blog entries on Wushanding and the Badlands, which should have some info. If you need any more I can try to help, although I’m in the UK now, away from all my maps etc.
      One of my favourite areas fairly close to Kaohsiung is the Wutai aboriginal area. There’s some really wild and impressive countryside here, and quite a bit to explore, although the area was devastated by Typhoon Morakot in 2009, and is still recovering (the road up to Wutai was still unsurfaced and one-lane in one place, in March this year!). The Maolin area is also great, and a bit closer to Kaohsiung, plus the butterflies should be around at the moment The world’s second largest migration of butterflies occurs in Taiwan – between this area of southern Taiwan and the north. Most of them congregate in areas that remain out-of-bounds to visitors, but there were clouds of them beside the road in places when I went there last time, during the winter months – very special.
      For all these trips you’ll probably need to hire a car, as public transport isn’t great down there, but car hire is cheap and easy to arrange. A few weeks ago we rented from Zuoyin HSR station; there are desks in the arrival lobby, and it’s easy (they speak English) and very convenient to rent. Have a great time!

  12. Hi Richard, it was delightful reading your posts! I’m planning a 7 day trip to Taiwan next June and was thinking of visiting Hua Lien so it was really exciting to read about #10 regarding the Jhuilu Cliff Trail. Do you know of any other places within or around Taroko Gorge that I could visit for more stunning/scenic views? Also for 7 days, what are some of the other places you would recommend for a not-too-rushed scenic tour of probably the Eastern or North-eastern part of Taiwan? Thanks so much for your help! 🙂

    1. Author

      Hi Samuel, Glad you found the blog useful! Jhuilu Old Trail is a real highlight, but a permit is needed to enter. During the week there may be no problem getting one if demand is lower – I’ve had at least one friend get one by just turning up on a weekday – but to be on the safe side you might consider having someone in Taiwan getting one for you, if you have the budget, Matt Hopkins at Hualien Outdoors (Hualienoutdoors.org) should be able to help, or you could try Taiwan Adventures (Taiwan-adventures.com), a British/America -run outdoors outfit here.
      Jhuilu is undoubtedly the highlight of Taroko, day-hike-wise but if open you mustn’t miss the Tunnel of Nine Turns (closed as I write, but might reopen soon…) and Swallows’ Grotto paths, both short but absolutely the most spectacular areas of the gorge. More short paths that are well worth doing are the Shakadang Trail, the Wensgan Trail, which ends at the fabulous wild Wenshan Hot Springs in the gorge, and the Baiyang Waterfall Trail (the only other trail in Taroko that’s closed at present; for up-to-date details on trails you can check at http://www.taroko.gov.tw/English/?mm=0&sm=0&page=3#up. A old favourite (although only 45 minutes long) is the Lyushui Wenshan Trail just down the gorge from Tianxiang (a great place to saty, at the top of the gorge), although bizarrely a permit is now apparently needed to walk that now…! Once you get to Taroko there’s a great English-language book on the all the trails available which can be bought at the National Park Office, which is excellent and details all the trails (there are a lot more). Good news also is nearly all are open (a rare event in Taroko(.
      Elsewhere you’re spoilt for choice, and it really depends on if you have your own wheels. If you do I’d suggest traveling the Central Cross-island highway up to Hohuanshan, which is extremely spectacular, but check conditions first – the summit of the road is over 3,200 meters high, and is closed due to ice and snow sometimes in winter. Also up the east coast to Suao along the Qungshui Cliff is an amazing journey, and fabulously scenic, specially the first section north from Taroko.
      Let me know if you need any other ideas, and have a great time!

      1. Wow thanks so much for the comprehensive advice!! Didnt know Taroko had so many hidden gems! Looking forward to a memorable experience in Taiwan! Really appreciate you taking time to share and type out what you know 🙂 Thanks once again Richard and have an awesome year ahead in 2014!!

  13. Hi,
    I have already been once to Taiwan and i wish i knew about your blog at the time. this time we are going for a two days week end (friday night to sunday night) landing in Taipei in august. We want to go hiking and go in the mountain not too be too warm. What area would you recommend close to taipei? I liked the picture of the first place but i am wondering if there is a place where you can stay in a nice place and still do two days hiking.
    Thanks!

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