MALI. Few tourists have heard of this West African country. It is one of the economically poorest countries in the world, yet it offers one of the richest traveling experiences imaginable. It is remote, incomparable, African to the core. It hangs beneath Algeria, and is sliced in half by the sleepy Niger River. The northern half is desert, the southern half, bush. There are three sites that are considered national monuments in Mali: Timbuktu (the ``mysterious'' city on the edge of the Sahara), Sanga (a remarkable community of Dogon cliff dwellers), and Djenne (an ancient and exquisite city renowned for its magnificent mud mosque).
The kickoff point for visiting these sites is the lively riverside city of Mopti. There is a new hotel here, the Kanaga, which offers a bastion of comfort previously unheard of in this rugged area, opening it up to tourists who might never before have dared to venture here.
Mopti can be reached from Mali's capital city, Bamako, by way of riverboat, plane, or road. I chose the three-day boat ride, which, in the cultural diversity it presented on board and ashore, was practically a national monument itself.
There are six stops between Bamako and Mopti, and each has a distinct character. What they have in common is the fact that every port is converted into a market upon the boat's arrival. One-person markets wave their wares from the pier. They hold up baskets, colorful hand-woven blankets, and chickens like bouquets. If there is no pier, they wade into the water up to their shoulders to make a sale, floating bowls of eggs, milk, or black sticky fish in front of them. Or they paddle up to the boat in pirogues (canoes).
Plying slowly down the Niger, we view an ever-changing scene: tiny mud villages, tented nomadic camps, the round grass houses of Bozo fishers. We pass nomads watering their herds, peasants tending small gardens, termite mounds standing as tall as cows, mosques rising like sand castles into a hazy blue sky, and dunes spilling into the river.
On the boat's deck, people sit on mats, skins, and carpets representing the entire cultural spectrum of Mali. Tuareg women in indigo gowns prepare a meal of liquid butter, bread, and meat, tossed together in a gourd bowl. When the food is ready, they pull a broad length of cloth over them to eat in ``secluded'' privacy. Nearby, Moorish men brew strong sweet tea on a tiny coal stove, and Songhai women grill lamb brochettes which they sell to other passengers.
For daytime shade, people hang fabric of every sort from the tarp frame that arches over the deck, turning the boat into a floating carnival. At night, although I have a cabin, I sleep on the deck, where there is a refreshing breeze and a blanket of stars - and scores of other snoozing passengers.
I travel by boat to this city of 12,000, which many think is a mythical place. There is no road between Mopti and Timbuktu.
As I arrive, a dozen boys approach me, each claiming to have the story of Timbuktu. I join one who provides a running commentary as we stroll through a sandy labyrinth of mud brick houses and walled streets, past public water pumps and street corner ovens shaped like beehives.
This once-exuberant center of trans-Saharan trade is today a quiet specter; although camel caravans laden with slabs of salt broad as tombstones still come here, the city is by no means the grand emporium it was from the 13th to 16th centuries. To really appreciate Timbuktu, one needs to glimpse its past. It comes alive once you know that, during the 14th century, the empire of Mali was wealthier than Egypt, and two-thirds of Europe's gold came from West Africa, most of it transported by way of this city.
In the 15th century, Timbuktu's Sankore mosque became a university and the city grew into a consummate cultural and intellectual center. Great histories were written here, and books sold for more than any other trade item. In the twilight of the 16th century, Sultan Moulay Ahmed el Mansour of Morocco captured Timbuktu. This, and the fact that coastal trade routes began to eclipse trans-Saharan trade, led to the great city's demise.
Hints of the past remain. The Sankore mosque still stands. One can see the house where French explorer Ren'e Caillie, the first European to reach the fabled Timbuktu, stayed for two weeks in 1827.
Desert nomads still camp beyond the city's edge. Visitors can ride a camel to a Tuareg encampment, where nomads bake bread in the sand, forge swords and jewelry out of scrap metal, or work on colorful leather cushions.
Djenne came to prominence about the same time as Timbuktu. Architecturally, it is Mali's loveliest city. It appears to be made of one piece, as if tugged up from the earth by some mighty magnet.
Djenne's marketplace stands at the foot of a sublime mud mosque that dominates the city. The market's stunning array of fabrics, crafts, and cuisine enlivens the senses and contrasts with the divinely dull mud walls of the mosque. Inside the mosque, a hundred arched naves surround a courtyard ablaze with sunlight. The shadowed naves are cool and quiet, with prayer mats laid out on the sand floor.
Dogon villages perch among the cairns and ledges of the Bandiagara plateau, which rises chaotically from the plains of southeastern Mali. Sanga, the heart of Dogon country, is a three-hour drive from Mopti, and the ``road'' between the two places is inhospitable, at times nasty. But the rewards are worth every bump you bear, each mouthful of dust you swallow, and every trickle of perspiration that slides down your back.
At the Sanga guest encampment, visitors are fed and housed modestly. There are sheets and mosquito nets, but the shower and sink are often dry. Still, the lodging is sufficient to provide a good night's rest to prepare for the next day's guided trek through five Dogon villages.
The nine-mile hike stretches over a moonscape rock slab. It descends down a wild tumble of boulders into a canyon where birds wheel between rock walls. It climbs up a cliff into a crevice that opens onto the upper reaches of Ireli village. Here, visitors first encounter the miracle of Dogon women climbing precarious precipices while balancing huge clay pots of water on their heads.
Like other Dogon villages, Ireli is a maze of sloping narrow pathways between courtyards and houses. Spotted goats and playful youngsters occasionally block the corridors. Dogon women sometimes invite female tourists to help pound millet on a broad ledge high up on the escarpment. Most visitors encounter Dogon men crouched beneath thick millet reed shades, making rope from the bark of baobab trees, weaving cotton strip-cloth, or carving the wooden masks or figures for which they are famous.
Dogon country remains utterly distinct and remarkably untouched by Western ways. This is surprising, since French tourists, drawn by the writings of French anthropologist Marcel Griaule, have come here since 1962. Only a handful of Americans have discovered the area; of last year's 2,500 visitors, less than 100 were from the US. If you go
Getting to Mopti. By plane: Air transport (on Air Mali) is available between Bamako and Mopti, but it is irregular. You'll fare better on the river or road. By taxi or bachee: Go to Bamako's taxi park. A fair price for a bachee (small pickup with benches in the back) is 6,000 cfa francs (about $18; cfa stands for Communit'e francophone d'Afrique and there are about 326 to the dollar at this writing.) A bush taxi (Peugeot station wagon that carries nine passengers) runs about 7,000 cfa (about $21).
By boat: Take a half-hour ride from Bamako's taxi park to Koulikoro port. The Compagnie Malienne de Navigation has boats that ply the Niger between September and December. A first-class ``lux'' ticket ($140) wins you breakfast and dinner, a very modest suite with private shower and toilet, and weak, erratic air conditioning. First-class A and B tickets ($80 to $90) include meals, a double room with private sink, and rights to the community shower and toilet. (A has twin beds and B has a bunk.)
Getting to Timbuktu: Go by boat - one of the three noted above. Make arrangements in Mopti at the portside Malienne Navigation bureau, or with Amadou Mariko at SMERT, the government tourist bureau, across from the taxi park. First-class lux runs about $210, round trip; first-class A, $140; first-class B, $120.
Getting to Sanga: If you like a blend of bothersome hassle and delightful serendipity, walk to Mopti's taxi park and simply say ``Sanga'' to anyone. Scores of varied offers for getting there will come your way. If you want guaranteed transportation, lodging, food, and guide, arrange your trip at SMERT's office next to the taxi park. The price for SMERT's two-day trip, including transport, food, lodging, and guide, is under $100.
Getting to Djenne: Catch a bachee in Mopti's taxi park; about 2,000 cfa ($6) each way.
US sources of information: Several American agencies collaborate with Mali's SMERT bureau: Worldwind Travels, One Sutter St., Suite 500, San Francisco, CA 94104; (415) 398-4998. African Step Travel, 681 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10022; (212) 308-4249. African Holidays, PO Box 36959, Tucson, AZ 85740; (602) 742-1161.