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Mali, West Africa's largest country, is perhaps its most impressive destination. From the sandy mysteries of Timbuktu, to boat trips (we won't go so far as to call them cruises) up and down the Niger, Mali has a wide variety of attractions to satisfy travellers. Not bad for one of the world's poorest nations. A lack of financial resources has not inhibited Mali's attraction; instead, cultural vibrancy and activity more than compensate. In Bamako, the capital, for instance, you'll be easily swept into the hustle and bustle of motorbikes, loud Malian music, and a busy marketplace environment.
Hiking excursions into Pays Dogon, the home of the Dogon people, are excellent. The Dogon live traditionally, in an area listed as a World Heritage Site. Their culture and arts are fascinating, and their resourceful use of space is truly something to be marvelled at.
Mali's early history was dominated by three famed West African empires - Ghana, Mali or "Manden Kurufa", and Songhai. These empires controlled trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and other precious commodities and were in touch with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern centers of civilization. The earliest of these was the Ghana Empire which stretched from the Atlantic coast until what is now southern Mali. The Mali Empire later formed on the upper Niger River, and reached the height of power in the fourteenth century. Under the Mali Empire, the ancient cities of Djenné and Timbuktu were centers of both trade and Islamic learning. The empire later declined as a result of internal intrigue, ultimately being supplanted by the Songhai Empire. The Songhai people originated in current northwestern Nigeria. The Songhai had long been a major power in West Africa subject to the Mali Empire's rule. In the late 14th century, the Songhai gradually gained independence from the Mali Empire and expanded, ultimately subsuming the entire eastern portion of the Mali Empire. The Songhai Empire's eventual collapse was largely the result of a Moroccan invasion in 1591, under the command of Judar Pasha. The fall of the Songhai Empire marked the end of the region's role as a trading crossroads. Following the establishment of sea routes by the European powers, the trans-Saharan trade routes lost significance.
In the colonial era, Mali fell under the control of the French beginning in the late 19th century. By 1905, most of the area was under firm French control as a part of French Sudan. In early 1959, Mali (then the Sudanese Republic) and Senegal united to become the Mali Federation. The Mali Federation gained independence from France on June 20, 1960.
Modibo Keïta was elected the first president. Keïta quickly established a one-party state, adopted an independent African and socialist orientation with close ties to the East, and implemented extensive nationalization of economic resources. In November 1968, following progressive economic decline, the Keïta regime was overthrown in a bloodless military coup led by Moussa Traoré. The subsequent military-led regime, with Traoré as president, attempted to reform the economy. However, his efforts were frustrated by political turmoil and a devastating drought between 1968 to 1974. The Traoré regime faced student unrest beginning in the late 1970s and three coup attempts. However, the Traoré regime repressed all dissenters until the late 1980s.
In 1990, cohesive opposition movements began to emerge, and was complicated by the turbulent rise of ethnic violence in the north following the return of many Tuaregs to Mali. Anti-government protests in 1991 led to a coup, a transitional government, and a new constitution. In 1992, Alpha Oumar Konaré won Mali's first democratic, multi-party presidential election. Upon his reelection in 1997, President Konaré pushed through political and economic reforms and fought corruption. In 2002, he was succeeded in democratic elections by Amadou Toumani Touré, a retired general, who had been the leader of the military aspect of the 1991 democratic uprising. Today, Mali is one of the most politically and socially stable countries in Africa.
In January 2012, an armed conflict broke out in northern Mali, which Tuareg rebels took control by April and declared the secession of a new state, Azawad. The conflict was complicated by a military coup that took place in March and later fighting between Tuareg and Islamist rebels. In response to Islamist territorial gains, the French military launched Opération Serval in January 2013. A month later, Malian and French forces recaptured most of the north. Presidential elections have been scheduled for 7 July and legislative elections for 21 July.
Mali is a landlocked nation in West Africa, located southwest of Algeria. It lies between latitudes 10° and 25°N, and longitudes 13°W and 5°E. At 1,242,248 square kilometres, including the disputed region of Azawad, Mali is the world's 24th-largest country and is comparable in size to South Africa or Angola. Mali shares a total of 7,243 kilometers of land boundaries with seven bordering states: Algeria (1,376 kilometers) to the north and northeast, Niger (821 kilometres) to the east, Burkina Faso (1,000 kilometres) to the southeast, Ivory Coast (532 kilometres) to the south, Guinea (858 kilometres) to the southwest, and Senegal (419 kilometres) and Mauritania (2,237 kilometres) to the west. Mali's territory encompasses three natural zones: the southern cultivated Sudanese zone, central semiarid Sahelian zone, and northern arid Saharan zone. The terrain is primarily savanna in the south and flat to rolling plains or high plateau (200-500 metres in elevation) in the north. There are rugged hills in the northeast, with elevations of up to 1,000 metres. Desert or semi-desert covers about 65% of the country’s area. The Niger River creates a large and fertile inland delta as it arcs northeast through Mali from Guinea before turning south and eventually emptying into the Gulf of Guinea. The Niger (with 1,693 kilometres in Mali) and Senegal are Mali’s two largest rivers. The Niger is generally described as Mali’s lifeblood, a source of food, drinking water, irrigation, and transportation. The country's lowest point is on the Senegal River (23 metres) and its highest point is Adrar des Iforas (960 metres).
Mali is made up of 8 regions.
Timbuktu is one of those names which makes you feel like goin to exotic places immediately. Although Timbuktu itself is not as exotic as it may sound, the place itself has many attractions. It is the home of the Koranic Sankore University and other madrasas. The city was a centre of intellectuality and spirituality and for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. There are three main mosques in Timbuktu which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Djingareiber Mosque (built between 1324 and 1327) is one of the most impressive and largest buildings in Mali. The Sankoré mosque has an impressive minaret and is worth a visit as well. The Sidi Yéhia Mosque is smaller but equally beautiful and all three mosques are within a short walk of each other. All of these mosques are made out of mud brick, which gives it extra charm and integrates perfectly into the surrouding desert. Please pay respect to local customs when taking photos.
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The Dogon are a nomadic people and the Cliff of Bandiagara might be their centrepiece. On the Unesco list as well, the Bandiagara site is a fascinating landscape of cliffs and sandy stones with fine architecture including houses, altars and the Togu Na, the communal meeting areas. Today, traditions like masks, rituals and ancestor worship live on in the region. Equally interesting are the geological, archaeological and ethnological meaning of this area and together with the landscape, the Bandiagara plateau might just be one of the finest places to visit in Mali.
You can arrange for a trek through the Dogon country in the nearby cities of Mopti, Sevare, or Bandiagara. These trips can last from one day to several weeks. You will be well fed, stay in local villages, and see amazing things as you visit the towns in, above, and along the cliff. Some tours involve walking, while others provide vehicles.
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Djenne is one of the most beautiful cities in Mali and is one of four Unesco World Heritage sites in the country. The area around Djenne was inhabited since 250 B.C. and it played a central role as a market centre and an important link in the Saharan gold trade. In the 15th and 16th centuries, it was one of the centres for the propagation of Islam, like Timbuktu was. Nowadays, around 2000 of its traditional houses remain and they are built on hillocks (toguere) as a protection from the seasonal floods. Its mosque is one of the most recognizable buildings in West Africa.
Spread along the shore of the Niger river about halfway between Bamako and Mopti is Segou, a relaxed yet lively town with stunning scenery. Here the river is clean, the people are friendly, the food is good, and the weekly market is vibrant. Once each week, people from the surrounding villages and tribes bring their goods and wares to the town. The area set aside as the market can not contain the crowd, and the surrounding streets become the market. Everything is for sale from food to live animals to plastic furniture to handmade souvenirs. The latter you will find the least of, actually, as the locals are here to buy and sell with each other, and not with the Toubabs (tourists).
Nearby villages of local tribes such as the Bozo people produce crops, pottery, and handmade art. You can visit these villages by hiring a boat either privately or on a tour. The boats will take you up and down the scenic river to the villages where you can get a first hand account of how the locals live their lives and make a living. They are warm and welcoming, and the children will win your heart.
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If the idea of sitting in the back of a cramped 4x4 on a journey to Timbuktu does not appeal to you, then visit Gao. A good road connects this remote but fascinating desert town to the rest of Mali with regularly scheduled bus services. Once here, you can arrange trips along the river to the nearby Saharan sand dunes, hire a camel to take you into the desert, eat some amazing grilled fish, and hang out in the market with the nomadic tribal people such as the Taureg and Honso people.
In the far west, near the border with Senegal is the sprawling town of Kayes on the Senegal river. While there might not be many sights, the market is always busy and extremely colorful. Its a daily market, unlike in most towns in Mali. Kayes makes a convenient stopping point when traveling overland between Senegal and Mali.
Mopti is the hub of activity in the center of Mali. It sits on the banks of the Niger river and is a center for trade for the country. Fruits and vegetables that are hard to find elsewhere in Mali are available in Mopti. Mopti is also a convenient place to pick up a guide for Dogon trekking. It makes a convenient stopover before and after trekking. Sit at a rooftop restaurant and enjoy a Bissap juice while you temporarily escape the heat and chaos.
This three-day January festival takes place around the normally quiet region of Gouina between Kayes and Bafoulabé. Goumbé and jazz musicians perform among the monkeys and hippos that live in the region teeming with wildlife. The event also features five different Kayes dance groups, craft workshops and Senegal River walks past the waterfalls.
This Segou February festival is filled with music, dance, puppet shows, workshops, craft vendors, and pirogue boat races along the Niger River. No fewer than 15 of the Segou's unique puppetry and dance styles are represented, which also attracts many of Mali’s famous musicians. Wood carvings, paintings, sculptures, and photographs from the country’s most talented artists are displayed in galleries around the region. Actors, musicians and puppeteers accompany centuries-old legends that Segovian storytellers share beneath the balanzan trees.
This lively February music event's location may have moved from Essakane to Timbuktu, but the likes of Robert Plant and Justin Adams still perform alongside some of Mali’s most talented Tuareg musicians. The Desert Festival evolved from a traditional Tuareg gathering filled with lively discussions and fun to an international event of peace. To this day, festival attendees celebrate the 1996 Flame of Peace ceremony when over 3,000 firearms were burned in Timbuktu. Unlike many other music festivals, the stage is surrounded by nothing but desert and the audience remains still and quiet. The more lively parties begin at nearby discos during the wee hours of the night.
The Diamwari Festival has been one of Mopti’s main events ever since it was held for the first time along the Bani River’s banks. A weekend of "happiness," as the word translates in English, takes place for three days toward the end of February. The festival features gigantic puppets from Djenné, Dogon masks and at least four different dance troupes. Visitors can purchase unique crafts from Mali’s talented artisans. The winners of the festival’s pirogue race receives money and victory flags called jonjon.
The word ba means "big" in English, and this festival held in the village of Sôh every March certainly lives up to its name. Organic cotton, Sôh’s largest export is front and center with many of Mali’s most important dignitaries getting guided tours of the village’s organic cotton looms while costumed theater performances entertain the children. The festival’s highlight, however, may be the women’s colorful drum circle dances.
This April festival is among Mali’s most famous gatherings. The masks the men wear during these five days represent Amma, the Dogon goddess of creation, and are believed to contain the souls of the dead and drive away evil spirits. Toward the end of the event, buffalo and hyena masks are believed to predict the tribe’s future.
Each year, an imam announces the date between late April and early May when the entire population of Djenné gathers to apply fresh mud to the city’s historic Great Mosque. The mud is prepared in pits with young boys helping to stir it by playing in it. Women and girls bring water to the men as they carry and carefully apply the mud to the mosque. Afterwards, all of Djenné celebrates with a gigantic feast filled with dancing and drumming.
Mali may presently have no passenger rail service, but this three-day festival still takes place each June in Kayes, the "City of Rails." Train conferences and debates are held alongside dance performances, concerts, cycling races, and wrestling matches throughout Mali and neighboring Senegal.
Mali has a hot and generally dry desert climate with a short rain season from June to September when there can be severe thunderstorms with occasonial floodings. Rains can be unpredictable though and sometimes the rainy season means just a few showers now and then. The coolest time is between November and February with warm and dry weather. April to June are very hot in the entire country with average daytime temperatures of 40 °C or more. Kayes in the west is said to be the hottest place in West Africa.
Bamako Senou International Airport (BKO) is the main international airport in Mali. It serves flights to destinations throughout Africa and to Paris, for example with Air France. Air Mali International has flights to Dakar and Nouakchott, the capitals of Senegal and Mauretania.
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Theoretically, a weekly train travels between the capitals of Senegal and Mali. The train is supposed to leave Dakar on Saturdays around 10:00am, arriving in Bamako just under 48 hours later. In the opposite direction, the train leaves Bamako on Wednesdays at 9:15 am, taking about the same amount of time. Because of works on the railway, the train now (since 2008) leaves every 8 or 9 days and there is no fixed schedule at the moment, so ask around in both cities when the next train is supposed to leave.
Mali shares borders with quite a few countries, most of the border posts are open, but the ones with Algeria tend to close now and then and it is not a safe route anyway.
Bamako and several other cities are connected by buses. These buses travel to Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire (daily connections to Abidjan), Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mauritania, Guinea and Niger.
Buses from Bamako go to Bobo-Dioulasso (15 hours) and Ouagadougou (21 hours) in Burkina Faso daily. There is also a daily bus between Koro and Ouahigouya (4 hours) with onward connections to Ouagadougou.
There is a weekly bus to Conakry in Guinee, but there are more frequent connections from Bamako to Siguiri by bush taxi's.
Old 4wd vehicles and trucks ply the routes to Mauritania, with connections between Kayes and Sélibabai and between
Nioro and Ayoûn el-Atroûs. From the latter you can get onward transport along good roads to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania.
Connections from Mali to Niger include buses from Gao to Niamey, taking 30 hours along bad roads.
Boats to Ayohou in Niger leave once weekly from Gao, taking roughly 2 days. During the rainy season there are also boats along the river between Siguiri (Guinea) and Bamako. It takes a day in that direction, but two days coming from Bamako upstream.
New airlines are joining the market all the time, so check around. Air Mali, and chartered flights from Société des Transports Aériens and Société Avion Express are one of the options. Flights mostly terminate or originate at Bamako and destinations include Mopti, Timbuktu, Kayes, Yelimané, Gao, Kidal and Sadiola.
The train to and from Dakar in Senegal which travels once every week or 10 days aproximately, also stops in several cities and towns east of Bamako, including Kayes.
It is possible to rent a car, either with a driver or driving yourself, but is best to rent a 4wd as apart from a few tarred roads (potholed at places, excellent in other places), most roads are dirt roads (pistes) which can be impassable after heavy rains. Also, it is not cheap so renting one with 2 or 3 persons is recommended. The main roads runs northeast from Bamako to Segou and Mopti and on to Timbouktou and Gao, while the other one run south to Ivory Coast.
Bittar Transport is one of the major bus companies, with scheduled services travelling to all major cities and towns, including Bamako, Mopti and Timbouktou.
Another popular option are the so-called taxi brousses (also called septplace, seven places), which are usually older Peugeots 504 and 505 station, which theoretically have seven places, but most of the times carry a few more. They don't have scheduled departures and leave when full. It is an adventure and a good way to travel to smaller places not connected by bus, but be prepared to have an uncomfortable and sometimes long trip.
Between July and December it is possible to travel along the mighty Niger River from Bamako to Gao via Timbuktu. From December to March, only the last part to Gao from Mopti is passable. It takes 5 or 6 days and first class cabins are recommended and can be booked in advance.
Visas are not required for citizens of Algeria, Andorra, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Mauritania, Monaco, Morocco and Tunisia. For all other countries, a visa must be obtained before arrival to enter Mali. An invitation is required (copy of hotel reservations or company letter explaining purpose of trip) to obtain the visa.
Nationals need to apply for a visa at one of the nearest embassies or consulates of Mali. Normal single-entry visas (valid for 3 months) are $80, $131 for US citizens. Multiple-entry visas are $110 and also valid for 3 months. 6 and 12-month valid visas are much more expensive, $200 and $370 respectively!
See also Money matters
Mali uses the CFA Franc as a currency. The CFA Franc is divided into 100 centimes. Coins come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 500 francs while banknotes come in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000 francs
The exchange range is fixed at aproximately 656 CFA Francs for one Euro.
In Mali the West African CFA Franc (XOF) is used which has the same vallue as the Central African CFA Franc (XAF), but it's not possible to use both currencies in the same country.
Fourteen countries in Africa use this currency, eight in West Africa and six in Central Africa. The West African CFA Franc can only be used in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo, while the Central African CFA Franc can only be used in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. the average worker's annual salary is approximately US$1,500 However, seasonal variations lead to regular temporary unemployment of agricultural workers.
French is the official language, but Bambara (or Bamanakan in the language itself), along with numerous other African languages (Peulh/Fula, Dogon, and Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg people), are spoken by 80% of the population. Few people speak French outside bigger towns, and even Bambara gets rare in some regions. Very few people speak English.
Restaurants are available in all major towns in Mali. Vegetable dishes are dramatically cheaper in Mali. Bamako has western, Indian, and other international restaurants in addition to the typical West African fare.
Typical Malian food includes Yassa, a onion and mustard based dish; couscous, and pasta. The most universal Malian dish is rice with sauce (often peanut "tiga diga na," tomato/onion/oil, or leaf/okra based - usually with some fish or meat if purchased or prepared for guests). "To," a gelatinous corn or millet food served with sauce, is another Malian classic, though more a village food than something most tourists would encounter. In the north, couscous is also quite common.
There are various types of accommodation options of various prices and qualities. You will pay US$ 60-100 per night (and up) for a what would be a decent to nice hotel by western standards. At the other end of the spectrum you can pay about US$ 5-10 per night for a bed or mattress (usually with mosquito net and sheets) in a room or on the roof. Such places will usually have toilets and showers in a shared facility (think camp site camping with less gear). All tourist areas have hotels or auberges and many places will also have homestays. Sleeping on the roof terrace, if available, is not only the cheapest option but also usually the coolest and gives you the pleasure of sleeping under the stars (which are incredibly bright outside of Bamako because there is so little light pollution) - just use your mosquito net and be prepared to wake to prayer call at 05:00.
Because of the dramatic decline in the number of tourists/visitors due to the conflict in the north, many hotels have closed across the country.
Treat tap water with suspicion. It is often so heavily chlorinated that one suspects few bugs could possibly survive in it. But short-term visitors will be safer with bottled water. There are several cheap local brands, but be warned that they are only drunk by foreigners and wealthy Malians: don't rely on finding bottled water in shops patronised by "ordinary" Malians. Soft drinks such as Coca-Cola or Fanta are more widely available and safe.
Street vendors sell water and home-made ginger and berry drinks in little plastic bags. They are often iced which makes them very refreshing in the heat. Generally, you shouldn't drink these without treating them first. However, one which is called "bissap" in French and "dabileni" ("red hybiscus") in Bambara, is made from hibiscus flowers that are boiled during preparation, and so generally is safe to drink. It is a particularly delicious non-alcoholic drink you shouldn't miss.
See also Travel Health
Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is required upon entering Mali. You have to have a cholera stamp (prove of the fact that you don't have that desease) when entering overland.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Mali. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Northern Mali, including the regions of Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao and Mopti, is still recovering from the civil war of 2012 and remains a dangerous region for Westerners to visit. Islamist rebels who controlled the region during the civil war have retreated to rural areas, while Malian soldiers backed by an international coalition of West African and French soldiers maintain control of major cities. The rebels have close ties to an Al Qaeda branch (AQIM) which has operated for years in the lawless desert areas of the Sahara and which is responsible for several kidnappings of foreigners from Mali (most of whom were killed after being held for months in remote desert camps).
The risk of kidnapping was high for years prior to the conflict and it is even higher today, particularly in Northern Mali and along the Mauritanian and Nigerian borders. The Islamists are responsible for the kidnapping of a Frenchman in Nov 2012 from the desert between Bamako and the Mauritanian border - which, at the time, was not under their control. Keep in mind that most Western nations will not negotiate with terrorists in the event a citizen is kidnapped! Because of necessary security details for consular employees, travellers may not be quickly provided consular services in the event of an emergency.
Due to the collapse of the tourism industry, many businesses have closed and the few tourists may make for easy targets for petty theft by destitute Malians. Travel to Mali is highly discouraged. See your government's travel advice for up to date information.
Internet access is available in most major cities for a reasonable price. Power outages and connection problems can limit access on some days.
See also International Telephone Calls
Mali's postal services are rather slow, but eventually your letter or postcard will arrive at its destination. For parcels, you'd better use an international courier like DHL.
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