Timbuktu, Mali, November 11 - 12, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Monday, November 12, 2007

A recent poll of young British people reported that 66% thought there was no such place as Timbuktu while the remaining 34% thought that it was a mythical place.  Contrary to popular belief that places Timbuktu in the same category as such mythical places as Atlantis, Xanadu, and Shnagri-La, Timbuktu is in fact a real place.  It was also once a very important one. 
As an important center of scholarship with as many as 20,000 Koranic scholars and students, Timbuktu was the Harvard and Oxford of the 16th century Islamic world and a major center of learning and culture.  Now, however, the city is a dusty backwater whose name has become a metaphor for end of the earth remoteness, a shadow of its former self with streets and alleyways largely covered with sand and filled with jaywalking rubbish-grazing goats.  Perhaps that's what makes it so alluring for me and the fair number of other travelers who make it there 
Timbuktu remains the terminus of salt caravans from Taoudenni hundreds of miles further to the north in the Sahara, a trade controlled by the nomadic desert Touareg tribe.  The salt blocks are still carried by camels in caravans that range into the hundreds of animals on a trip through the desert that takes 40 days.  There was no evidence of salt caravans, though, during my time in Timbuktu, nor did I see any of the big salt slabs around town that I've seen in documentaries about the salt caravans, just a few little chunks of salt for sale as a form of tourist tack. 
Despite now being a small city, Timbuktu has an ethnically diverse population.  The city's best known residents are the Touaregs, historically a tribe of desert nomads who mostly live towards the north and east in the Sahara.  However, among them there are also Bellas, the Arabized Blacks who used to be the Touaregs' slaves; Fulani, the cattle-herding nomadic people who mostly live in the Sahel region south of Timbuktu; and the Songhai, the agriculturalist tribe that dominates eastern Mali who claim direct descent from the 15th century regional empire of the same name. 
On the whole Timbuktu is more of a place people travel to for the sake of going than for anything specific to see or do there, and despite the fair number of visitors I found few signs of nicer accommodations or good restaurants to serve them.  A guided walking tour of Timbuktu was included in our trip kitty payment and began early the morning after our arrival in town.  The tour included three major historical mosques, several small museums, and the houses where the early western adventurers who made it to Timbuktu in the 1800s lived.  Before long our group and Touareg guide Mohammed were surrounded and followed around by a group of tagalongs twice our number.  Unfortunately, Timbuktu's relative popularity with visitors creates a rather high hassle factor in the form of multitudes of young locals who have learned how to make a better living by trying to separate wealthy foreigners from some of their money. 
The pleasant desert nights with spectacular stars, cool temperatures and breezes on the Bouctou Hotel's roof should have made for two great nights of sleep, but then there were the sounds of the desert.  Throughout the night there were animal choruses of barking dogs, bleating goats, and braying donkeys from all around town.  Then towards morning it was the loud moaning from the nearby mosque and what seemed like a particularly long Sura from the Koran, sung by a caller who clearly had a bad cold based on the number of throat-clearing episodes during his prayer calls.  I nonetheless had some amazing dreams between these interruptions in Timbuktu, detailed in my parallel "Lariam Dreams" blog.

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