In the 10-year hiatus between my two trips to this part of Mali, much has changed here.The Dogon country is not as such, a trap that you cannot get away from, though it is fast becoming a problem in some of the villages, namely the amount of souvenir shops and the number of hawkers here and there. As the local guides know everyone, it is also impossible for them not to run you past the gauntlet. It is not yet a vast problem but one that may start turning people away from some villages.
Unique Suggestions: The way I have found the best to deal with it is to just not accept that they put anything into your hands "just for the pleasure of the eyes", or to firmly make your point saying "you don't want anything". Both of these can be difficult to implement, once you are on their territory.
Fun Alternatives: Make it very clear to your guide that you have no intention of buying anything in the villages so "please do not take me where the hawkers are". He should also be told that his tip at the end of the trek will be adjusted according to the amount of hassle you have to endure.
Having said all that, I do fully appreciate the fact that everybody has to earn a living and most of the vendors do accept a "no" for an answer. As always, it is the few that make it hard to endure. This tip should not make you shy away from the Dogon people and their culture, nor from the beauty of the surroundings. But I feel that it's better to be forewarned.
If you wander around the market area in Bamako you will meet many young men coming to you with the classical "Hello my friend", "I just wanna talk to you" etc, that always end up in "come to my shop, only look", "I can be your guide, no big money"...
If you really want a guide, take the first one, he will keep the others apart.
If not, just be polite and say "no, thanks". You will have to say it many tims before they go, but ignoring them is the best way. If you start talking, you will have them with you for a loooooong while.
Although the majority of the kids are not aggressive at all, it can become overbearing, in the heat when you have 30 or 40 of them following you.
Unique Suggestions: Make a break by heading into the artisanal market . Here you can walk around, watch the men making the articles and not be troubled by the hordes of hawkers. They do not have the right to enter here.
Fun Alternatives: Wait until you reach Segou or Djenné for the markets there. Most things will be cheaper anyway, more time for haggling and much, much friendlier.
What a wretched place! I suppose anyone that comes within shouting distance of Tombouctou has to go there just to be able to say, "I've been to Tombouctou and back!" But that's about the extent of the excitement.
Tombouctou was a fabled destination for centuries. Reputed to have houses with gold roofs. It defied successful European exploration until April 25, 1828 when the French adventurer Rene Callie made an appearance on the dusty streets of this outpost. Upon his return to France Callie was awarded a 10,000 franc prize for being the first to venture to Tombouctou and live to tell the tale. Unfortunately, Callie succumbed to sicknesses picked up in Africa and dies at age 39 a few years after his triumphant return.
But Callie was infinitely more fortunate than Major Gordon Laing, an Englishman, who dared to enter the reclusive city in 1826. The sultan of Tombouctou order Laing to remove himself from the city with all possible haste. Laing complied but was ambushed by agents of the sultan just a few miles outside the city gates and was dispossessed of his head.
Given the track record, I can see why we all feel that we must say that our feet walked the ground of Tombouctou, but just know going in that it is hot, dusty, dirty and devoid of any real charm.
We had the misfortune (or ingenuousness) to contact for the location of vehicles and all transportation, including the pinasse, Bani Tours travel in Bamako (http://www.banitours.com/).
We rented the jeeps for three days but we could use them for only 2 days because were not informed that 1 day was used up only to reach us at a village three hours distance from Bamako.
They made us pay 140€ for 5 min transportation from the port to our hotel in Mopti.
They arrived 2 hours late, after 10 phone calls, to take us to the airport when leaving the country. The reason was they were upset we didn’t follow their suggestion to stay in a horrid hotel (hotel Dakan) in Bamako.
Everyone (except nationals of the West African states) needs a visa to enter Mali. There are no embassies in the UK, the nearest are either France or Belgium.
Once in Mali, you need to register with the police in all major twon, who will stamp your passport.
My expectations were a little shattered, when, on our first lunchstop on the plateau of the Bandiagara Escarpment, a motorbike with a young lad appeared, carrying a crate of beer and soft drinks for sale. The same happened every time we stopped for lunch or to camp.
The children greet you with the words 'bonbon, cadeaux, bic' but are not too put off if you just ignore them. They are not as persistent as many other places and lots of them are just happy to shake your hand.
Unique Suggestions: Everywhere the children and the adults want your empty plastic water bottles, which are used for a multitude of things. Great way to recycle!
Bribes: You have to be ready to pay them. It is nearly impossible to avoid. Every 30 to 40 kms, you have to stop at a police control. There is always something wrong with the Visa, with the car... They may let you go after hours of discussion, but everything is quickly arranged if you pay the 'fee'.
Unique Suggestions: Go with a good guide, used to deal with police controls. The most tourist you look like, the higher the price. So try to hide your blond hair and your white skin.
From Tombouctou, you can arrange to spend the night in a Touareg camp. We were taken on a one hour camel ride to the camp (our bags and tents followed us by 4x4) from where we could see the city ligths. The 'camp' was occupied by two young Touareg families not realy eager to communicate. This did not give us any insight into the Touareg's way of life.
Don't fall for the esteem of visiting Tombouctou. Malians have learned that they can highly capitalize on tourists who seek the stigma of being able to say they've been to Tombouctou. I almost fell for it myself, but luckily due to the political situation in Mali at the time, we didn't make the full trip.
It takes a very long time to get to Tombouctou, for one. If you are travelling on anything besides a plane, it's a really difficult trip to make. Nearly everyone who goes there says it's a disappointment, because it's a very small place with few buildings, a small population and just lots and lots of desert sand. A camel ride would probably be the highlight of your trip.
If you want to see some real culture and history, Djenne and the Dogon country are better bets. I even had a hard time travelling as far as Djenne from Bamako, I couldn't breathe for about 4 days after the trip because of all the dust I inhaled (should've brought a scarf).
I hate to say this, but Timbuktu could be a disappointment. It's quite fun to say you've been, and I found it charming, but there is little to see, nothing to eat, it is a challenge to get there, and very expensive to stay in a hotel. I stayed with a family and found the soft sand of the streets enchanting at night, and the stars beautiful, but everyone I know quite disliked the place. I admit that the sand gets into all the food, which is a drag.
ACI 2000, Hamdallaye, (formerly Radisson SAS), Bamako, 2566, Mali
Good for: Couples
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