Gyeongju: Where History Runs Deep

Gyeongju, South Korea

Artwork functioning as guardians for Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, South Korea. Artist-created guardians are sometimes paintings, sometimes very colorful statues.

This is the final installment of Nadine Godwin’s series on South Korea. Check out her other articles: Korea: A Temple Sleepover, Seoul: Traditional Architecture, Seoul: With Designs on the Future, and Seoul: Palace Hopping.

GYEONGJU, South Korea — In the eighth century, Gyeongju had a population of one million; today that number hovers around 250,000, or only one quarter as many.

But the city does have a rich collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites because it was Korea’s capital during the thousand-year rein of the Silla Dynasty. Gyeongju’s importance ended with the dynasty in the 10th century.

My recent press trip, sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organization, included a very short visit to this former capital. I had been here previously, in the 1980s, when the name was spelled Kyong-Ju. Our guide said Korea has been standardizing spellings of place names, hence, the new iteration for the old capital.

During our fly-by sojourn, we squeezed in an unplanned visit to the royal tombs, which I had seen in the 1980s. The specific destination is called the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, part of a UNESCO site. It encompasses 23 royal tomb mounds, out of 155 such tumuli in the city’s downtown.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Grass-covered burial mounds seen in the Daereungwon Tomb Complex in Gyeongju, a former capital of Korea. There are 155 such mounds in the city’s downtown.

The enclosed complex is essentially a pleasant park with paths that take visitors past many of the manmade grass-covered bumps. These tombs are estimated to date from the early fourth century through the sixth century, during Silla days.

We found our way to the best known of them, Cheonmachong Tomb, which displays some of the artifacts found there including an outstanding gold royal crown. Also, one display shows how the tomb was constructed, i.e., with stones and dirt surrounding a wooden room in which the royal body was buried with various treasures.

A sign said no photos were allowed, so I did not take a shot of that golden crown. Our guide said later that we could have taken pictures anyway.

I was glad to revisit the tombs but was not so enchanted by our next UNESCO site — the hillside Seokguram Grotto, site of an eighth century Buddha. It is a manmade granite cave on Mount Tohamsan.

This location meant we had a dramatic mountain drive getting to the destination — and quite a few steep steps to climb upon arrival.

Maybe Seokguram would have made me happier if the site had not been tied up in restoration and protective maintenance work. I do understand such work is necessary.

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Korea: A Temple Sleepover

The twin Buddhas for which Daebiro Hall at Haeinsa is famous. These are described as the world’s oldest wooden Buddhas (covered in gold, obviously).

The twin Buddhas for which Daebiro Hall at Haeinsa is famous. These are described as the world’s oldest wooden Buddhas (covered in gold, obviously).

HAPCHEON COUNTY, South Korea — Haeinsa is a Buddhist temple in the mountains of Hapcheon County south of Seoul. Dating from the ninth century, it is one of 16 Korean Buddhist temples where tourists can stay overnight for one or a few nights and experience aspects of a monk’s life.

Haeinsa is different from all others, however, because it houses the Tripitaka Koreana, the world’s most complete collection of Buddhist writings, carved on 81,258 wooden blocks nearly 800 years ago.

Fabulous characters painted on the ceiling inside the main hall of worship at Haeinsa Buddhist temple.

Fabulous characters painted on the ceiling inside the main hall of worship at Haeinsa Buddhist temple.

I sampled the temple life for one night and glimpsed some of the Tripitaka wooden blocks while on a press trip hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization with support from the Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism.

To reach Haeinsa, we traveled by coach about five hours from Seoul, mostly on expressways, taking breaks twice at large, modern rest stops with some amusing features.

For one thing, each had a machine that for a dollar or two would read your fortune if you put your hand inside the designated opening.

RoadsideVending3a

In one bathroom, there was a device called the etiquette bell: Push a button and you

Toilet for tots, seen at a highway rest stop in Korea.

Toilet for tots, seen at a highway rest stop in Korea.

get the sound of flushing to drown out other sounds. Further, one ladies room set aside a space for primping that smacked of a bordello. And the stall for tiny tots looked like a play area.

 Sleeping over

Now, about the temple stay — this was an enlightening experience, but it isn’t for everyone. It helps to have an interest in Buddhism and in the promise of meditation. Otherwise, the experience may be something of a grind.

On the afternoon of our arrival, our Haeinsa host, a monk called Do Moo Zee (meaning Just Don’t Know) gave us instructions on temple manners, meditation and prostration routines.

Do Moo Zee leads the way through one of several gates at Haeinsa.

Do Moo Zee leads the way through one of several gates at Haeinsa.

Manners meant bowing in certain circumstances and no talking during meals in the common dining room. It often meant no indoor photos.

As for meditation, we were told we would be whacked with a bamboo stick (it looked like a yardstick) if we fell asleep during meditations. Do Moo Zee demonstrated on one guest who said it felt like the whack one may get during massages. We were urged to smile slightly during meditation, as this is not meant to be a grim business; it’s meant to be the route to enlightenment.

Prostration, starting from a standing position, involved going to a kneeling stance and then prostration, then standing up again, multiple times. I figure we did about 90 of those by the end of our visit the next morning. We attended evening and morning services.

That morning service occurred at 3:30, which meant a wake-up knock on the door at 3 a.m. after sleeping on thin mats on the floor (blessedly heated from below).

My bet is this was a cut above monks’ housing arrangements, but our food was the same and somewhere between tasteless and inedible. To our great amusement, we found a notice posted in our shared sleeping rooms saying comments on the food were “highly discouraged.”

Navigating this temple, which sits on a mountain, also involved a lot of steps, but this is not true of all temples where overnight guests are welcomed.

These points may make a temple stay sound unattractive, but these are things one should know before committing to the experience.

The brightly painted Daebiro Hall on the grounds at Haeinsa.

The brightly painted Daebiro Hall on the grounds at Haeinsa.

On the other hand, our very short visit included serious time for meditation plus group conversations with Do Moo Zee, where we could ask about Buddhism in Korea, temple life — and even his personal life. For those who stay more than one night, only the first day involves the described rigors; after that, guests decide how rigorous to be.

A Haeinsa monk, using a very large hanging drum, calls fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

A Haeinsa monk, using a very large hanging drum, calls fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

There were amusing surprises. Haeinsa monks use a huge drum to call others to services. One monk, wielding a very

A Haeinsa monk films another who uses a drum to call fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

A Haeinsa monk films another who uses a drum to call fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

with-it tablet, filmed the drumming session that our group witnessed. This was for training purposes, we were told. Pounding that drum wasn’t easy and required five monks working in rotation.

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Seoul: Traditional Architecture

Seoul architecture

Traditional architecture seen in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.

SEOUL, South Korea — The Korean word hanok refers to a traditional Korean house. I had occasion to see the houses during a recent press trip to Seoul and other Korean sites, sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organization.

The Bukchon Hanok Village is a Seoul neighborhood known for these houses. Tourists are drawn to the area to see the houses and for Bukchon’s galleries and artsy workshops devoted to traditional arts.

We had a guide for our stroll — a stroll that was more like a forced march (that is what learning trips for the press are like) up and down hills on narrow streets to look into shops and view picturesque streets.

This replica of a 1910 home shows how effectively wood was used to create a structure both sturdy and attractive.

This replica of a 1910 home shows how effectively wood was used to create a structure both sturdy and attractive.

This visit started at a large house that is used to show tourists what a typical hanok looks like. According to our Bukchon host, this area was redeveloped in the early 20th century with houses that were built using old construction methods. So, locals consider this area new although it has the look of something that could be older.

Hanoks feature small rooms that face courtyards covered with sand, not grass. Our hostess said grass is associated with the dead, whereas the sand assists with water drainage and reflects light, bringing the light into the homes, which have deep eaves to block direct sun in summer.

A courtyard in the model house that tourists visit in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village. The raised floor leaves room for under-floor heating.

A courtyard in the model house that tourists visit in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village. The raised floor leaves room for under-floor heating.

Floors inside these homes are constructed to accommodate fires underneath for heat.

Our hostess said the style of these houses came from China “long ago,” but the concept of under-floor heating is Korean. Even today, she said, apartment buildings have under-floor heating.

We dropped by one Bukchon gallery/workshop with paintings, plus other artsy objects (braziers of steel but inlaid with silver, for example) and briefly watched a potter at his work. In another shop, we were offered tastes of rice wine that, I gather, was made based on traditional ways.

A potter demonstrating his skills at a workshop in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.

A potter demonstrating his skills at a workshop in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.

At the area’s Folk Painting Workshop, we tried our hand at painting small lotuses or peonies on coasters. Fortunately, we were coloring in established lines, but with paint and brushes.

A rice wine tasting site in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.

A rice wine tasting site in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.

This was the finale to our too-short visit to this nice-looking area. The Bukchon Hanok Village is worth considerably more time.

We had a free afternoon in Seoul, which I used for a solo visit to another collection of hanoks. This required conquering — after a fashion — the subway system. I only had to travel a couple of stops on one line.

The two stations I saw were huge with numerous exits and with charts identifying the street or attraction that each exit led to — and the information appeared in English as well as Korean.

Thank goodness for that system! It let me exit the underground maze at the right place and, thus, avoid being totally lost once I was on the street.

Instructions for buying tickets are available in English and there is a surcharge (about 50 cents) for buying single paper tickets. One can pay about $2.50 for a refillable plastic card and avoid the surcharge after that. This reminded me of a similar concept in the Washington, D.C., metro.

Anyway, for my two rides, the plastic card did not make economic sense.

I asked for help a couple of times while underground, and the young women I approached were able to divine my needs and respond sufficiently well.

All of this delivered me rather quickly to the Namsangol Hanok Village, a fabrication in the city center created in the 1990s by moving historic (and usually 19th century) buildings from other points in Korea; also, one house is a replica. There is no entry fee to see the village, which is essentially a park, a quiet spot in the heart of a city of 11 million.

Seoul architecture

View of an 1890s-era house in Seoul’s Namsangol Hanok Village. The raised floor leaves room for under-floor heating.

The village installations are walled compounds, which had belonged to reasonably well-to-do people, with courtyards surrounded by small sitting, reading and sleeping rooms, plus there were kitchens, some shrines and secondary buildings.

This display at Namsangol Hanok Village illustrates a traditional way of cooking.

This display at Namsangol Hanok Village illustrates a traditional way of cooking.

I walked through the grounds of Namsangol’s five compounds but visitors are told to stay

out of the rooms and hence off the wooden floors.

However, in the fifth house I viewed, it appeared several visitors had rented traditional costumes in order to be photographed in them, and this was occurring mostly inside the house.

Women in rented traditional Korean dresses enhance the look of traditional homes in the Namsangol Hanok Village.

Women in rented traditional Korean dresses enhance the look of traditional homes in the Namsangol Hanok Village.

Visitors can try their hand at a traditional game, tossing arrows into a narrow-necked jar.

Visitors to Namsangol Hanok Village test their skills at an old Korean game that involves tossing arrows into a narrow-necked jar.

Visitors to Namsangol Hanok Village test their skills at an old Korean game that involves tossing arrows into a narrow-necked jar.

Also, Namsangol promotes its demonstrations of craft making although I didn’t

A pond on the grounds of the Namsangol Hanok Village.

A pond on the grounds of the Namsangol Hanok Village.

see examples of this; handmade traditional goods are sold here, too.

Namsangol was very popular when I visited, but as far as I could tell, it’s not a top spot for foreigners; most visitors seemed to be Korean.

 

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Seoul: With Designs on the Future

Seoul, South Korea

Figures, made of traditional Korean paper, floating on Seoul’s Cheonggye Stream. Effectively oversized lanterns, they were meant to be lighted at night. These floats were part of a temporary special exhibit.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series of articles on South Korea by Nadine Godwin. Read her first one, Seoul: Palace Hopping.

SEOUL, South Korea — I went to Korea a few times in the 1980s; I was mostly in Seoul and mostly there for business. Then, I returned with a press group in 2014, hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization.

In the ‘80s, the South Korean capital was already a big city with its share of high-rises of the commonplace sort. By my latest visit, its population was 11 million, and those nondescript (or ugly) high-rises had been joined by a number of striking skyscrapers that are actually attractive or bespeak an interest in creative architecture — or both.

Modern high-rise seen from the below-street-level Cheonggye Stream in Seoul.

Modern high-rise seen from the below-street-level Cheonggye Stream in Seoul.

Other recent projects — epitomized by the attractions described below —beautify the city, highlight the country’s past and embrace the future.

• The Cheonggye Stream is a 3.6-mile-long park that lines an old canal. Korea’s Joseon kings (1392 to 1910) created the canal for drainage into the Han River.

Seoul, South Korea

View of the Cheonggye Stream below-street-level park in central Seoul.

After the Korean War, the city covered the stream with a highway, then removed the road early in this century to create the below-street-level park, debuting in 2005.

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Seoul: Palace Hopping

In Seoul, Korea, changingOfGuardFinale43a

The changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Seoul’s Gyeongbok Palace is accompanied by percussion and music.

SEOUL, South Korea — I have seen the most exotic changing-of-the-guard ceremony ever — well, the most exotic in my experience.

It featured armed men in brightly colored and slightly feminine robes and broad-brimmed black hats. The guys with vicious-looking blades came escorted by others waving gorgeous flags or providing background sound effects with cymbals, horns and painted drums.

Costumed reenactors, portraying palace guards, carry some wicked-looking blades at the traditional changing-of-the-guard ceremony seen here at Seoul’s Gyeongbok Palace.

All of this is a daily occurrence at two of Seoul’s palaces. To be precise, this event occurs three times a day six days a week (not Tuesdays) at Gyeongbok Palace, or Gyeongbokgung (gung means palace).

Another palace, Deoksugung, has a similar ceremony three times a day six days a week (not Mondays) on similar terms.

These events, which are free, are canceled if the weather is wretched.

I watched the ceremony during a spring press trip hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization.

We entered the grounds at Gyeongbokgung, commonly called Northern Palace and one of five in the city, via the dramatic and grand Gwanghwamun, which

Gwanghwamun, entryway to Gyeongbok Palace in the middle of Seoul, with a mountain in the background at left.

Gwanghwamun, entryway to Gyeongbok Palace in the middle of Seoul, with a mountain in the background at left.

means Enlightenment Gate.

The palace grounds and buildings encompass several courtyards and roughly 1,000 rooms, but the palace once counted around 7,000 rooms. Built in the 1390s, it was burned in 1592, the year of a Japanese invasion. After reconstruction in 1867, it was largely destroyed again when the Japanese invaded in 1910 and toppled Korea’s monarchy. (Japan occupied Korea until 1945.)

What we see today is a mix of reconstructions and restored 19th century buildings.

Our tour led us in succession to the main reception hall, the king’s “office,” his bedchamber and lastly the queen’s sleeping quarters, with gates between each and walls around each.

Interior of the king’s audience hall at Gyeongbok Palace, with brightly painted wood ceiling elements and very red pillars.

Interior of the king’s audience hall at Gyeongbok Palace, with brightly painted wood ceiling elements and very red pillars.

We could only look into, but not enter, rooms. We focused in particular on the huge audience hall, with a throne at its center, surrounded by pillars and topped off with high and decoratively painted wood ceilings.

Although smaller, the palace is reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City in its architectural style, but not in colors. In Beijing, there is lots of red. Here the colors are black, white, blue, green, red and yellow, in other words, more varied but, with less red, less bright.

The grounds include gardens behind the queen’s quarters, which had quite a few flowers in bloom during our visit. This was a nice effect, as was the occasional view of a mountain in the background, one of the 37 mountains located in Seoul.

Part of the palace garden behind the queen’s quarters in Gyeongbok Palace.

Part of the palace garden behind the queen’s quarters in Gyeongbok Palace.

Our group visited a second of Seoul’s five surviving royal palaces, Changdeokgung, built in 1405. Scores of children were on site, too, apparently on school trips. My favorite little kid was wearing a New York Yankees cap.

Our guide said the king who built this palace did so because he had just murdered all his relatives and any other competitor for the throne and did not want to live in the previous palace with its bad memories. As our guide said, “he was human, too.”

An example of residential buildings inside Changdeok Palace.

An example of residential buildings inside Changdeok Palace.

The palace includes a public area, the royal family’s residential buildings and a garden at the rear, called the Secret Garden because only the royal family and anyone approved by the king could go there.

Buyongi Pond inside the Secret Garden at Seoul’s Changdeok Palace.

Buyongi Pond inside the Secret Garden at Seoul’s Changdeok Palace.

Another unique feature is the separate set of walled buildings that one king built in the 1840s for the concubine who was the love of his life and the woman he would have chosen as his queen. However, when it came to choosing a bride, he had to accept the choice of his grandmother, the family matriarch.

Buildings inside the compound that was home to a favored concubine at Changdeok Palace in the 19th century. Note buildings here are not brightly painted.

Buildings inside the compound that was home to a favored concubine at Changdeok Palace in the 19th century. Note buildings here are not brightly painted.

Our guide talked briefly about the paper used in shutters and sliding windows. He said the paper, from mulberry trees, absorbs the moisture when humidity is high and, as it is white, reflects the sun.

Angry citizens destroyed this palace (because the royals skipped town) during the Japanese invasion/occupation of 1592-1598; it was quickly rebuilt, in 1611.

Changdeokgung is the best preserved of Seoul’s palaces and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in large part because of the natural style of the garden at the back.

The garden is a separate attraction available to the public for 90-minute guided tours. I joined one such tour but soon left that quite large group to walk the garden paths at my own pace.

It’s remarkable to realize these quiet palace grounds are in the middle of a bustling capital city.

Costumed reenactors demonstrate the traditional changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Seoul’s Gyeongbok Palace.

Costumed reenactors demonstrate the traditional changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Seoul’s Gyeongbok Palace.

This is the first of a series of articles and photos on Korea by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Love in Far Off Lands: 4 Romantic Get Aways

JumeirahDhevanafushi

The Jumeirah Dhevanafushi is one of the fine resorts in the Maldives being offered in Greaves’ romance catalogue. (Courtesy of Greaves)

The experience of an exotic destination adds another level of bonding to weddings and honeymoons. Destinations around the world want to present themselves as idyllic settings for the main event. While these locales may be a little too late for this year’s June brides, they make it worth a couple’s while to marry outside the June zone. While Ireland may be within the temperate zone, Thailand and India can at least promise warmth the year round.

Destination weddings can be especially effective when the friends and family are already scattered in different locations around the U.S. and the world. In that case, the wedding serves as a neutral destination. It’s always smart to choose resorts that have wedding planners available. For the modern honeymooner look to make a combination of active traveling and laid back time in a resort setting.

(Editor’s note: For even more romantic inspiration, check out the The 2014 Official Destination Weddings & Honeymoons Directory in the September issues of Vacation Agent and Agent@Home. Click the link for details on getting yours.)

South Asian Romantic Experience

Ancient Himalayan monasteries in Bhutan, the rain forests of Sri Lanka, top end resorts in the Maldives, the national parks of India and more. South Asia has become much more accessible to luxury travel with the emergence of Dubai as an aviation hub.

Dubai has become a great place for high-end stopovers as well. South Asia, with its legendary commitment to spirituality would make an ideal honeymoon setting for the right couples. Greaves Tours LLC, a specialist in South Asia, created a new 28-page honeymoon destination guide to India as well as other regional destinations like the Maldives, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Dubai. Greaves can handle even the most opulent honeymooners. One program includes the operator’s private plane.

“We’ve designed this destination guide to help couples think beyond the traditional for their honeymoon by showcasing options such as dining at an elephant camp, climbing to the top of an ancient monastery and sipping tea with local monks, or diving into the Indian Ocean straight from their over-the-water villa,” said Ian Cambata, Greaves’ director of business development. Any trepidation about sending a young couple to such exotic far off locales should be assuaged by Greaves’ 30 years of customizing journeys in the region.

Buddhist Beach Nuptials

Romantic Buddhist bliss awaits at Zeavola. (Courtesy of Zeavola)

Romantic Buddhist bliss awaits at Zeavola. (Courtesy of Zeavola)

On the idyllic Thai island of Phi Phi, out in the Andaman Sea, couples can take their vows in a traditional barefoot Buddhist ceremony on a white sand beach at Zeavola. Couples can plant a “love tree” as part of the ceremony. The Thai Wedding Ceremony Package involves monks and is conducted in the morning, with the reception, cocktail and dinner in the evening. It includes a Buddhist prayer ceremony, holy water pouring and bonding ceremony, a floral arch, champagne and cake cutting ceremony.

Zeavola’s wedding planners can assist couples with special requests and in navigating the sometimes complete legal requirements of marrying in Thailand. The wedding specialist can organize a Thai marriage certificate.

The weddings are enhanced by the resort’s teak wood villas. Zeavola’s Pool Villa Suites include private gardens, outdoor rain showers and more. For the Western Wedding Ceremony Package, a celebrant conducts a blessing ceremony with an exchange of vows. If a couple wants the ceremony to be traditionally Christian, a priest can be arranged at extra cost. Divers love the resort because it’s set within a national marine park. The resort can also offer weddings underwater.

The Thai Wedding Ceremony and Western Wedding Ceremony are priced at 71,000 baht ($2,192) and 65,000 baht ($2,007) respectively. Beverages are extra and so are a host of other options including make-up and hair, manicure and pedicure, Thai costumes for the bride and groom, photography, VDO and scuba diving. An array of live entertainment options is also available.

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Hong Kong Takes a Holiday Part 2

Museums were closed. So were all public buildings and a surprising number of shops. But Hong Kong was certainly not lacking in things to do. Best of all, most of them were free or very cheap.

We wandered through Hong Kong’s gorgeous park, an oasis of green plunked down in the midst of some of the world’s most expensive real estate. The towering buildings that surround it, including I. M. Pei’s Bank of China Building and Paul Rudolph’s Lippo Center, as well as the more anonymous but equally soaring high-rise apartment buildings, seem to eye the park covetously.
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Hong Kong Takes a Holiday


“I once went to Philadelphia and it was closed.” – W.C. Fields

How can you compare the Philadelphia of W.C. Field’s feverish imagination, a sleepy burg where nothing happened, to Hong Kong, that money-mad mecca of moguls and millionaires? And yet I was tempted.

The last time I had been in Hong Kong was just prior to “the handover” in 1997, when Britain ended 150 years of colonial rule by returning sovereignty to China – Red China. Of course Hong Kong isn’t quite a worker’s paradise just yet. Under the terms of the handover agreement, China agreed to treat Hong Kong differently for a period of 50 years, the so-called “one country, two systems” approach.
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Uzbekistan Update

Bukhara B&B

A reader recommends a homey spot in old Bukhara

I am writing to highly recommend the travel agency/small hotel “Farkhad & Maya” in a residential neighborhood in the old city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan. I stayed there two years ago and just now returned from two weeks there again.

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Tourism Contacts in Uzbekistan

This is a selective list of Uzbekistan tourism contacts. It makes no pretense to be complete. If you have any additions to this list, please e-mail them along with comments.

In Tashkent

Osiyo Intour Business
Louiza Ligay
Buyuk Ipuck Yuli, 115
Tashkent 700077
Tel: (3712) 686733, 686781, 686764
Fax: (3712) 686783
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