Things To Know About Mauritania

You may or may not heard of Mauritania, but if you have, I’m sure you’ve heard some conflicting and often false information. These 9 things to know about Mauritania will help you disseminate the truth about this beautiful and safe Northern Africa desert country.

3 Important things to Know About Mauritania

Travel Warnings

Many governments have current travel warnings for Mauritania. Most strongly advise against travelling there. These travel warnings are absolute over-reactions to things that actually happened in Mali, not Mauritania, 20 or more years ago. I travelled to remote areas of the country, where according to the travel warnings, the possibility of something dangerous happening increases. No matter where I was, I never felt anything but safe.

Wherever you are in country areas, locals are always willing to take you under their wing. they’ll always make sure you’re safe and comfortable. There are definitely countries in Western Africa that are much less safe, but do not have current travel warnings. If you have any reservations or doubts, it’s always prudent to get in touch with locals. They can give you details on the actual situation in the area.

Currency

Back in late 2017, the government decided to issue a new version of Mauritanian Ouguiya (MRU). The new currency is worth 10 times more than the old currency, so there are now roughly 400MRU to 1 Euro, as opposed to the previous 4000MRU to 1 Euro. It can be confusing at times, as everyone still quotes prices in the old currency. You will only get the occasional person quoting the new currency. The best way to save yourself having a heart attack when you’re told your roadside BBQ for 3 is 4000 (10 euro), is to ask, “Old or new?”. Once you know it’s old, take away a 0 and breathe a sigh of relief.

Fiche

There are numerous police checks when travelling overland in Mauritania. You are technically expected to supply a Fiche at each one. For those of you that don’t know what a Fiche is, it’s a piece of paper with all of your personal details, including passport and visa information. It should also include a copy of your passport information page. The police will accept this in lieu of checking your passport. Having several copies will save you and your fellow travellers a lot of time at these checkpoints.

Even though I had about 20 ready to go, I personally only had to hand over 5 of these information sheets on my travels through the country. Four of those were distributed on my last day when heading towards the Senegal border. I was lucky to be waved through many of the checkpoints without having any documents sighted. I do however know other people who’ve travelled through the country and have used 10 or more.

2 Cultural Things to Know About Mauritania

Tea
Mauritanians run on tea. It’s tradition and it’s a chance to be social. If you talk to someone in the street for more than 2 minutes, expect to be invited for tea. It’s a very strong blend of tea with mint and they tend to add a lot of sugar. If you don’t like or can’t eat sugar, they’re also happy to make it without for you. It’s probably the best tea I’ve tasted in Africa, so definitely worth a try!

Men’s Thoughts On Women

While I don’t like to over generalise, there were some definite trends on display when it came to male attitudes towards females. The majority of people you’d see on the streets were males. Husbands will generally not let their wives go outside by themselves. This means that many males think that any women outside are fair game and can be asked totally inappropriate questions. Where it gets even trickier, is that sometimes even just acknowledging these men are talking to you can be seen as an invitation for more. These are terrible attitudes and I’m by no means implying that all men in Mauritania share these thoughts, but women do need to be careful of those that do.

That been said, people were generally friendly and helpful. I had some really nice men that started talking to me just to find out how I was liking the country. They seemed genuinely interested in talking to non-locals and finding out about foreign cultures.

Entering and Exiting – 2 Things to Know About Mauritania

Entering From The North

This border is confusing with absolutely no signage to tell you where to go. You will also spend extraordinary amounts of time waiting. Waiting in lines, waiting for visas, waiting for people to input your details into the computer system using the ‘two-finger typing’ method, waiting for transport, waiting for other people in your van to get visas. You will be asked the same questions in several different rooms. You’ll show your passport to several different people. Some of them will be super serious and others will try to joke around with you. Just remember that you will be there for at least 2 hours, but expect that it will be closer to 4. It may be an all day mission, so try to get there early and bring snacks!

Exiting in the South

Getting to the bus station is a complicated undertaking, it usually requires taking 2 separate taxis, but luckily we had a local helping us, who managed to get us into a taxi going all the way to bus station. The bus will only take you within a kilometre of the border, so you have to walk or get a taxi the rest of the way. To make things even more fun, there will be people yelling at you from every direction before you even get out of the bus.

This is another complicated border with little to no signage that may require the help of a local to navigate. Despite the complications, it’s a relatively quick passage and the reward for making it through the chaos is a nice relaxing journey across the Senegal River in a wooden canoe.

2 Logistical Things to Know About Mauritania

Dust

Mauritania is a desert country, which pretty much means it’s one big dust bowl with about 3 trees. While I may be exaggerating about the trees, I’m not exaggerating about the dust. It’s everywhere and will end up in places you thought were impossible to reach. You will still be finding dust in your clothes and bags weeks later. You will also eat it at some point. It’s all part of the experience.

Sand, anyone?

Getting Around

Navigating Mauritanian cities is very difficult. Especially because a lot of the roads are not sealed and even the sealed roads end up partially covered in sand. They all start to look the same after a while. Even my Mauritanian friend got lost twice whilst trying to find my host’s place. The best plan of action is to befriend some locals to help you get around. Luckily, the locals are always willing to help, even if it takes a bit of trial and error to get there. One caveat there is that you may need stop for some tea first.

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The Mauritanian Capital, Nouakchott and Beyond

K in Motion Travel Blog, Nouakchott, Mauritania

After an amazing Mauritanian Adventure I was ready to experience the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott and beyond.

The Mauritanian Capital Nouakchott

No one was rushed or stressed in Nouakchott. They were very excited about the French world cup win though. Whilst walking around the town with my host Liz, we were lucky enough to witness the pure spectacle and hilarity of crazy French expats in the city hanging out of the sunroof of their car. There was some proud flag waving and yelling in French. The sound of constant beeping horns could be heard for many hours after the victory. Excited locals would also feel the need to shout “FRANCE!” as they passed us hanging out of car windows.

We settled ourselves into a hotel lobby for shelter from the heat and world cup shenanigans. With an added bonus of fast wifi and some refreshing fruit drinks. It appeared that our server, Abdoul had taken a liking to us. After a bit of flirting he informed us that our bill had been taken care of. How unexpected!

Being Social

When Liz and I finally made it home in the evening, we were greeted by Anna and David. They are the couple that I had met at the Mauritanian border a couple of days earlier! We all headed out to a poolside feast at Liz’s friend’s place. An excited dog came out to say hello when we arrived, followed by Sidi, our host for the night. Sidi is first and foremost a Mauritanian, with a great love for his country. He has also spent an extensive amount of time living in other countries. This gives him a very unique and interesting worldview.

Sidi also happens to be the first person I’ve met on my travels who’s also enjoying the Keto lifestyle. That was great for me because I was able to try some local delicacies without the sugar! The dog made itself comfortable under the table, where it could easily get cuddles and scratches from everyone. Meanwhile. We chatted about everything from politics and corruption to drainage. Anna and Sidi have both worked on projects involving drainage, so that’s how that topic came up. Just in case you were wondering! A great time was had by all. I can’t think of a better way to end a cruisy but crazy day in a mellow city!

Yellow Fever Vaccine Adventure in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott

As I’d been previously unsuccessful in obtaining the Yellow Fever Vaccine, required for entry into some countries I intended to visit, it was time to try to get it in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. First, we went to a pharmacy. It looked very clean and professional. They said they could administer the vaccine, but couldn’t provide the international vaccination certificate. They informed us that the only place that could issue the certificate was the clinic at the national public vaccination centre.

The centre was nowhere near as clean and sanitary as the pharmacy. The first person we asked for directions sent us the wrong way. We finally found someone who knew where we needed to go. He took us to a nurse, who took us to a fly-infested room at the back of the clinic where many people were just hanging out. Or waiting, It was hard to tell which one.

While we were waiting, we noticed a very old poster on the wall issued by the World Health Organisation. It hilariously depicted animals with ‘La Rage’ or rabies. It warned, in a most dramatic and amusing fashion, of the dangers of La Rage and how to deal with it.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Nouakchott, Mauritania. Yellow Fever Vaccine
Did you know that death is the fatal end?
Grumpy Doctor Who Was Not a Doctor

After waiting for a while, a grumpy old doctor wearing a ‘China Medical Team’ lab coat approached us. He had spent the last 10 minutes walking in and out of the room making and taking phone calls on his mobile while wearing surgical gloves. He asked what I was doing there and where I’d come from. When his questions were answered, he started yelling about me living in a ‘rich country’ wasting their resources by getting the vaccine there. Alrightly then.

Most people in the room, including us, were wondering what was going on. We went into the injection room, where the nurse was, to ask him about it. He told us not worry, that the guy was “just like that” and he wasn’t even a doctor. Well, that was a relief. Shortly after I got the jab and with a hastily written doctor’s note, I was off to another room to get the certificate.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Nouakchott, Mauritania. Yellow Fever Vaccine
Doctor’s note

Of course, there was more waiting involved to get the certificate and the cashier didn’t have any change, so instead of €1, I paid €1.2! Still better than the $100+ charged in other countries with only limited supplies!

K in Motion Travel Blog, Nouakchott, Mauritania. Yellow Fever Vaccine
Yellow Fever Vaccine Mission completed!

As with everything in Africa, this process had been longer than expected, so feeling super accomplished that we’d achieved such an epic feat, we pigged out on roadside BBQ meat.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Nouakchott, Mauritania
Meeeeeeeat!
They do Things Differently in the Mauritanian Capital Nouakchott

On the walk back home, we encountered a traffic jam. It had been caused by a guy that had just decided to do some car maintenance in the middle of an intersection. For real. That’s how they roll in Mauritania.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Nouakchott, Mauritania
Middle of the road car repair

Later in the day, I decided to go down to the beach area to check out the fishing boats that the locals take out to the sea. Unfortunately, this required a walk through a very dirty, smelly fish market area.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Nouakchott, Mauritania
Fish Market

The boats all looked very old and very well used, but also very colourful. I watched a huge group of men trying to launch one of them into the choppy sea for a few minutes and it seemed like it was much harder than you’d think. I guess they eventually managed to get on their way, but I didn’t hang around to find out.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Nouakchott, Mauritania
Boaty Beach

Getting to the Rosso Border

It turns out that Anna and David were also heading to Senegal at the same time as me, so we all decided to go together and make it an early start, so we could get to our destinations at reasonable times. The process of getting a taxi to the bus station was relatively easy because we had a local there to help us. Unfortunately, we’d just missed the 7 am van because it was already full by the time we got there at 06:50.

We got our tickets for the next van, due to leave at 08:00. We then sat under a canvas shelter and waited. The 7 am bus didn’t leave until about 07:15, so we resigned ourselves to the fact that our van probably wouldn’t depart on time. That made it all the more surprising when the driver ushered us into the van and started the journey about 20 minutes before the scheduled time. I’m sure that’s not something that happens in Africa much!

Before I’d gotten to Mauritania, I was aware of the Fiche (personal information sheet) requirement for police checkpoints along the road. I’d only used one of these on my journey of over 1000km through the rest of the country. I had to part with 4 of them in the 200 odd kilometres to the Rosso border. At least having them available made passing through the checkpoints a breeze.

Chaos at the Rosso Border

Upon entering the Rosso border area, people crowded around the van that we were in before it had even come to a complete stop. A wonderful Senegalese man in the van with us had already warned us that people would be in our faces there. He told us to ignore everyone and stick with him. Just as well we did because the place was very confusing. We were still about 500m from the border, but there were absolutely no signs to indicate where the immigration point was.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Rosso, Mauritania
Rosso

Our Senegalese friend was also a bit confused and had to enlist the services of a local to help us get to the right place. First, there was a building where we had to show our passports and then get some tickets. Normally you’re required to pay for these tickets, but apparently we had the right person with us to get us through without paying.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Rosso, Mauritania
Border tickets

Behind the first building was an open area that looked more like a market than an immigration area. We had to walk across this area to get to the window where our exit from Mauritania would be processed. As we were standing at the window waiting for our passports to stamped, sellers were constantly approaching us to try to get us to buy their stuff. Some of them weren’t taking no for an answer and needed to be shooed away by the local helping us.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Rosso, Mauritania
Border area or market?
Waiting..

Who knew exactly what was happening on the other side of the window where we submitted our passports for inspection, but whatever was going on in there was taking a very long time! It would have taken at least 30 minutes for our documents, all 3 of them, to be checked. It seemed almost like an eternity.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Rosso, Mauritania
Canoes on the Senegal River

As Mauritania and Senegal are separated by the Senegal River, we had 2 choices for getting across. There was a free ferry, which was very slowly making its way back from the other side, or a small wooden canoe that would leave straight away and have us on the other side in a short few minutes, for around €2. We opted for the canoe.

??Mauritania Summary??

Travels in Mauritania

In a few words – Dust, tea and friendly locals
Languages – French, Arabic and local languages
Currency – Mauritanian Ouguiya (MRU)
WiFi Availability – ????
WiFi is available if you know where to look, but it can be quite slow.
Transport – ????
? Taxis are available, but the zone system can be confusing without the help of a local.
? Vans are also available for intercity routes, but they do not seem to be made with passenger comfort in mind.
? If you’re adventurous, you could travel hundreds of kilometres for free on the iron ore train that departs daily from Nouadhibou to Choum (empty), or Choum to Nouadhibou (full).
Roads – ????
Main intercity roads between are in decent condition. Within cities, there’s a mix of sealed and sandy roads, but most can be easily driven on without a 4WD.
Scenery – ?????
Sand, sand and more sand! You could see a tree or two in the south.
Prices – ?
Mauritania is great on a budget! I don’t recall paying more than 5MRU for anything I bought, unless it was from the cafe with the good wifi! You can buy around a kilogram of meat from a roadside BBQ for 4MRU (€1), or a bottle of water from a boutique (small store) for 1MRU (€0.25).
Checkpoints – ?????
There were many checkpoints along intercity roads, but not all of them make you stop. To speed things up, it’s good to have several Fiche, or personal information sheets available to hand to the officers in lieu of your passport.
Border efficiency – ??
Entering from the north was a complete disaster. No signage and a ridiculous amount of waiting. The Rosso border in the south was much more efficient, but still not very well signposted.
Corruption level – While people I met in the country, spoke of corruption within the bureaucracy, no corruption aimed at travellers was evident.
Overall – ?????

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Mauritanian Adventure – Coast to Capital on the Iron Train

Crossing into Mauritania

Once passing, relatively painlessly, through Moroccan immigration, I was ushered to a van where my Mauritanian Adventure began. I mistakenly thought that meant we would be moving soon. I waited over an hour for the seats in the van to fill up but then another van showed up. All the Moroccans and Mauritanians moved to that van, leaving just myself and a couple from Sweden, Anna and David, in the first van.

Our van then left straight away. We had a 10 minute drive through a sandy car graveyard with no defined road. I had heard that there were unexploded mines in this area, not that you’d be able to see them before you set one off! I honestly don’t know how the driver navigated his way through, but I guess he’s done it many times before.

Maritanian Adventure at the Border

We then stopped in front of a building and the driver told us to follow him in. It seemed that men were having lunch in a doorless room. We were told to wait outside that room, which made us think that it was where we would get our visas. Soon after, a group of guys carrying a door made their way to the room and fixed the door in place, while we waited some more.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mauritanian Adventure - Coast to Capital on the Iron Train. Border Buddies
Border buddies

We’d been waiting for about 10 mins when another man came along and opened the door to the room next door. That was the actual visa room. We went inside to wait some more. After a while, we were asked some questions, photographed and fingerprinted in that room. Then after what seemed like a very long time, we were finally given back our passports with visas inside. So surely that’s it? It’s all good and we can be on our way? Haha! No.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mauritanian Adveture - Coast to Capital on the Iron Train. Visa Room
Visa Room

Dude, Where’s Our Van?

Once we got back outside, the van that should have been waiting for us wasn’t. The other van, that had taken the Moroccans and Mauritanians earlier, was there. We were ushered into that van instead. More waiting ensued as the Moroccans got their visas. They had joined the long line outside the visa room just as we had left.

When the Moroccans were done, we drove another 5 minutes to another building, where we needed to get our entry stamps. The first guy that saw us, looked at our passports and called someone else, who took us to another room. In that room, we were asked pretty much the same questions as before.

More Rooms?

We were then taken back to the first room, where the guy inputted our details into their computer system. He also decided to teach us a bit of Arabic in the process. The word for Sweden kind of sounds like sweet. As a side note, he entered my year of birth as 2077 accidentally, so I’m a traveller from the future, folks.

We then had to go into a third room where a more jovial guy checked our passports and fingerprinted us again. He then tried to show us his knowledge of our countries by telling us something stereotypically famous about them. Thankfully, that was actually the end of the immigration process, but not the waiting.

The van drove us out to an intersection, not far out of the controlled area. We waited there for our original van to turn up, as that was the van that would take us to Nouadhibou. The van we were waiting in was headed for the capital, Nouakchott. Just 10 minutes later, the van we needed arrived and we were happily moving again! It had taken a total of 4 hours from when we first reached the border, to finally be on our way to our destination.

The Mauritanian Adventure Continues in The Little Town of Nouadhibou

Maybe I was just tired, but it seemed like a really long drive through endless desert before we arrived in the coastal city of Nouadhibou. The van driver kindly allowed me to use his phone to call my host, Haji, who came to pick me up shortly after. The driver also let Anna and David use his phone to call their host. Another guy from the van company then took them outside to get a taxi. Not long after that, Haji arrived. When he took me to his car, it realised he was the taxi, as Anna and David were inside!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mauritanian Adventure - Coast to Capital on the Iron Train. Nouadhibou, Mauritania
Nouadhibou

One striking thing about Nouadhibou, is that there is almost as many donkey-drawn carts as cars on the road. They haul everything from food to electrical goods. Another interesting facet of Nouadhibou is the stores run by Chinese people. Haji informed me that they have lived in the country for many years, but don’t speak the local languages. They do have a reputation for having stuff that can’t be found anywhere else, though. Who would’ve thought you could practice Mandarin in Africa?

The Iron Train – A Mauritanian Adventure Not to be Missed!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mauritanian Adventure - Coast to Capital on the Iron Train. The Iron Train. Nouadhibou, Mauritania
The Iron Train, Nouadhibou
This was the one Mauritanian adventure that I had no intention of missing out on! The Iron Train, as it’s known, runs empty from Nouadhibou to Zouerat, in the country’s north. It returns to Nouadhibou full of iron Ore. Not only is it the only train service in Mauritania, it’s also one of the longest trains in the world, at over 2 kilometres in length!

You can just jump on this train and ride for free for several hundred kilometres. Many locals actually use it regularly as a means of transport. I was only taking it to Choum, which is about halfway to Zouerat. All the information I’d found online had pointed to the train leaving around 2pm. I had inside information from Haji’s cousin, who works on the train, that it was leaving at 4pm. This meant that I got to spend an extra few hours waiting in the comfort of Haji’s place.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mauritanian Adventure - Coast to Capital on the Iron Train. Ready for The Iron Train. Nouadhibou, Mauritania
Ready for the Iron Train!

My New Train Buddy

Haji found a man he knew to take care of me on the train. When it finally arrived at 16:30, I helped the man get his stuff in the train car. He busily set up his Iron Train camp stove and started preparing dinner. I had wondered earlier what was in all the bags and boxes he’d brought with him. This man had clearly done this before!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mauritanian Adventure - Coast to Capital on the Iron Train. Setting up the car on The Iron Train. Nouadhibou, Mauritania
Setting up the car

The train finally departed, with a massive jolt, about 15 minutes later. Shortly after that, the man got out some money and started showing me the different types of Mauritanian notes and coins. As he showed me each note and coin he would also tell me the value in Arabic.

About 45 minutes into the journey, my train buddy got up from where he was resting on the floor and started praying. When he was done, the train came to a stop and many men from other cars got out to collect sticks, presumably for their own Iron Train camp stoves. My train buddy got to making some tea once the train jolted back into motion. I do love Mauritanian tea!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mauritanian Adventure - Coast to Capital on the Iron Train. The Iron Train Camp Stove. Nouadhibou, Mauritania
Iron Train Camp Stove

Unscheduled Stops

It was only about 20 minutes later that we stopped again. After drinking his tea, the man in the car with me jumped out to have a walk around. Once he was back in the car, the train started moving again, but backwards. Everyone was looking a bit puzzled, until it stopped again and started moving forward. Maybe the driver was just having a laugh.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Iron Train on the way to Choum from. Nouadhibou, Mauritania K in Motion Travel Blog. Mauritanian Adventure - Coast to Capital on the Iron Train. Me on The Iron Train on the way to Choum from Nouadhibou, Mauritania

Like any excited young kid on a train would, I hung my head out of the train car to watch our progress through the never-ending desert quite a few times. Every time I did, the constant barrage of sand trying to penetrate my face got too much and I had to retreat back into the car. Not that the sand situation was much better there. Who knew sand could get into areas covered with several layers of clothing I guess I got a free full body exfoliation session.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mauritanian Adventure - Coast to Capital on the Iron Train. So Much Sand on The Iron Train on the way to Choum from. Nouadhibou, Mauritania
So much sand!

Mauritanian Adventure After Dark

Things started getting hotter on the train when the wind died down after sunset. That along with the constant jolting made it difficult to sleep. I did manage to get in bits here and there until my travel buddy woke me up at about 2:20am. We were already approaching Choum. I was a bit surprised, as I was expecting our arrival into Choum to be closer to 6am! I got my stuff and was ready to hop off as soon as the train stopped. My buddy got off with me and made sure that I got a seat in one of the waiting vans. He only got back in the car after I was sitting in the van.

Of course, it would be silly to think that the van would leave straight away because that’s just not how things work in Africa! Let’s just say that what should’ve been less than a 2 hour trip, was stretched out to 4 hours. There were various stops along the way for praying, drinking camel milk and changing a flat tyre.

So how many Mauritanians does it take to change a tyre badly and break a hydraulic jack? 5 apparently. They had no idea of the correct placement of the jack and had tried to jack the car up with a rock. That just ended damaging the car chassis. In perhaps the strangest part of my Mauritanian Adventure, there I was, in the middle of the desert, schooling 5 guys on how to change a tyre. My dad would’ve been proud!

Atar

We finally arrived in Atar, which seemed to have streets run almost exclusively by goats, around 6:30am. There was also a makeshift market set up at an intersection where people sold bread from wheelbarrows and vegetables from the sidewalk. Atar was about to take my Mauritanian adventure to the next level.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mauritanian Adventure - Coast to Capital on the Iron Train. Atar Market, Mauritania
Atar Market

A lovely man that had started talking to me in the van to Atar, invited me back to his house. I still had a few hours to wait for transport to Nouakchott started at 8am. His family gave me some much needed cold water and a chance to freshen up. They also gave me a space for a well deserved, albeit short, rest. The man then took me back into the Atar town centre at 7:30am. It seemed the earliest bus was at 11am. I’d already had a very long trip from Nouadhibou, so I just wanted to leave as soon as possible.

The man then suggested that we go to the police post at the edge of town. He said that he’d find a car for me there which would depart earlier. As the police had to stop every car going past, they agreed to ask anyone going to Nouakchott if they could take me. What Mauritanian adventure would be complete without the police helping you to hitchhike!

Atar to Nouakchott

I only waited 5 minutes for a nice air-conditioned Toyota Corolla to come through and agree to take me along for the ride. My new short term travel buddies, Mohamed, Sidji and Khira, were very welcoming and even gave me some water. Conversation was a bit hard, as they didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic or French. We found a way to understand each other.

We stopped in a town about 250km from Nouakchott where we had some BBQ goat and tea for lunch. Probably the most interesting lunch I’ve had in a while.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Roadside Goat and Overloaded Bus on the Way From Atar to Nouakchott, Mauritania
Roadside goat BBQ and overloaded bus

Once in Nouakchott, I made my way to my host Liz’s house. I was just in time for a delicious chicken dinner, then a long overdue and well-deserved shower. After an interesting chat, we went out for a very mellow night of Mauritanian tea, lovely chats and games in the breeze on a rooftop. What a great introduction to the city!

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