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Everybody has heard the name Timbuktu, but an amazing number of people don't know that it's actually a real place. Before I first went travelling and met people who'd actually been here, I didn't know whether Timbuktu was a myth – hell, I didn't even know where Mali was until I fished out a guidebook to Africa and started researching this trip – but one thing that everyone knows about Timbuktu is that it's famous for being in the middle of nowhere. How right they are; Timbuktu is surrounded by lots and lots of nothing.
That's the whole point of the place, and it's the main appeal. Timbuktu doesn't have anything particularly spectacular going on; it's a hot, dusty town on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, 15km north of the River Niger and a long way from anywhere else of note, and on the surface it's just another town with sand for streets, a bunch of khaki-brown mud buildings sweltering in the harsh desert sun, and precious little else. But the one thing it has in spades is atmosphere; after all, this is Timbuktu, and nowhere else can lay claim to that.
It's Timbuktu's saving grace, this sense of history. I loved it straight away, though it's hard to say exactly why. From the second we rattled into town in the back of the bush taxi from Korioumé, I kept looking around and thinking, 'Wow, I'm in Timbuktu!' I wandered down the main street, past shoddy markets with hardly any goods for sale, and thought, 'Wow, check out the markets of Timbuktu!' I sat on the roof of my hotel, looking over the squat collection of mud buildings, dotted with nomad's tents, and thought, 'Wow, so this is what Timbuktu looks like!' It felt great.
A Famous History
If Timbuktu wasn't Timbuktu it would still be an interesting place to visit, but its fame is what makes it special. Timbuktu was once the most important trading post in the Sahara, a meeting point for caravans of camels as they carried salt, ivory, slaves, gold and untold riches along the Saharan trade route, in the days before European sea power reduced the trans-Saharan trade to a trickle. It's still an important destination for salt from the mines in Taoudenni in northern Mali, but the days when Timbuktu was important are long gone.
Timbuktu was founded in about 1100 AD around a small oasis; tim means 'well' in the local language, and Bouctou was apparently the name of the woman in charge of the well, hence 'Timbouctou', or 'Timbuktu' as the Europeans transcribed it. Given its strategic position between the kingdoms of West Africa and the marketplaces of Europe, Timbuktu soon boasted a population of 100,000; it's now back down to around 15,000, and had already dropped to this level by the time the first Europeans reached here in the early 19th century. Indeed, the legend of Timbuktu was already ancient history by the time the white man arrived.
However, these early explorers didn't always make it home to tell the tale, perpetuating the mystique surrounding the town. The first European visitor, the Scotsman Gordon Laing, set out for Timbuktu in 1825 and arrived here on , but he was killed shortly after leaving the city in September; the second visitor, the Frenchman René Caillié, reached Timbuktu on and managed to return home safely, but he only managed the journey by disguising himself as a Moor; and the third visitor, the German Heinrich Barth, took five years to get there, disguising himself as an Arab and finally reaching Timbuktu in 1853 (and he very nearly didn't get out again). No wonder Timbuktu gained a reputation for being remote and impossible to reach, and thus became a byword for the middle of nowhere.
It's this history of exoticism that still blows through the streets, drifting against the buildings and adding colour to the ubiquitous brown of the desert. Despite the television aerials on the houses, the internet café on the high street and the airport just outside town, it doesn't take much imagination to travel back to the old days, and that's the appeal.
Mosques by Moonlight
About the only buildings of note in Timbuktu are a few Sahel mosques, strange mud towers that look like huge desert hedgehogs; this distinctive type of architecture is dotted all over Mali, and the wooden spikes that cover the mosque's conical towers enable locals to pack more mud on the surface when it starts to wear out. They're a delightful sight, but apart from that Timbuktu doesn't look like much.
But among the monotonous brown lies a town that pulsates. When the sun goes down and the temperature drops to the bearable, people come out into the streets and fill the markets, and the town comes alive. By the light of the full moon you can wander through the winding alleyways behind the main streets, being careful to step over the streams of raw sewage that flow from the houses, and light peeps out from half-open doors, where locals sit and work, prey, eat and chat. It's easy to imagine that Timbuktu has hardly changed since the old days – well, apart from the advent of electricity and associated mod cons – and for this reason alone it's a moving place.
The people are friendly, too. Sure, lots of them sidle up to you trying to sell you trinkets – mainly people from the Tuareg tribe, with their distinctive indigo turbans and light brown skin – and the kids still try the old «Donnes-moi un cadeau!» routine, but compared to Bamako or Mopti the hassle is incredibly low key, and they do take 'no' for an answer. Perhaps it's the heat, which is intense, or perhaps it's just that Timbuktu is too remote to be a Mecca for armies of young men trying their luck, but I found it a refreshingly tranquil spot.
Or perhaps it's the effect of the surrounding desert. The land round Timbuktu isn't full of rolling dunes – you have to head a few days' north by camel to see the classic desert you associate with camels, mirages and oases – but it still seems to deaden the noise, the sand sucking up any sound and leaving the dry, still air in total silence. The streets are made of sand and are therefore totally quiet to walk along, and in the afternoon, when most sane people are inside cowering from the sun, Timbuktu is reverently serene.
Very little happens here as the ancient stories blow along the sandy streets, forming drifts of history against the walls. It's the perfect place for sitting back and thinking of camel caravans, nomads drinking sweet tea in their tents, and the slow passage of the sun across the perfect blue sky. What a place.