Few names are as evocative as Timbuktu, but there are even better places on the way.
If you're after spa treatments, luxury safari lodges, gourmet feeds and chocolates on your pillow, then Mali is not for you. Even wildlife is not really on the agenda, bar a few hippos and crocodiles lurking in the boundless Niger river. But if you fancy seeing a mind-boggling ethnic mosaic, hearing Africa's best music, pondering cosmological riddles and seeing mud architecture that could have been designed by Gaudi, then this is your kind of place.
Two thirds of this landlocked west African country is blanketed in the sand of the Sahara, animated only by the nomadic shrouded Tuaregs and camels. One town, Niafounke, is home to Mali's pioneering musician Ali Farka Toure, but the place everyone has heard of is Timbuktu, a name synonymous with remoteness although no longer the country's most compelling attraction.
Getting there is still a long, tough journey, even by four-wheel drive rather than camel. It entails chokingly dusty hours on the road, followed by a slow diagonal chug across the Niger on an infrequent pontoon.
Then comes the anti-climax: a mish-mash of concrete and mud architecture, litter drifting over the encroaching dunes, open sewers, exhibits gone missing from the dusty museum, sand creeping inside houses whose upper stories collapsed in last year's heavy rains.
But there are also beehive-like bread-ovens in the street churning out a local gritty form of chapati, a couple of markets, superb studded doors, a nightclub, Tuaregs clutching mobiles on motorbikes and three historic mosques. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit the oldest and most extraordinary of these, the Djingarey Ber.
Dating from 1325, its nine colonnaded corridors are made of packed mud and dimly lit by tiny skylights.
Southwest of Timbuktu, a more accessible Mali is typified by the thorny scrub of the Sahel, sliced by the Niger river, its lifeblood and main highway. On an island sandwiched between the banks lies Djenne -- a classic stop on the itinerary between the capital Bamako and the commercial hub of Mopti. Here concrete is banned, so the entire town is made of adobe bricks and rammed earth walls, radiating from another focal-point mosque, the world's largest mud structure, an iconic African equivalent to the Eiffel Tower or Sydney Opera House. It sits high above the main square on a raised platform, its walls and pinnacles bristling with projecting palmwood beams (which combine structural, scaffolding and anti-termite functions) and crowned with Dali-esque ostrich eggs.
Most visitors time their stay to include a Monday when the huge square and its surrounding streets host the weekly market with its multi-ethnic mix of peoples. Foulani (former nomadic cattle-herders, whose statuesque women sport tattooed upper lips and scarred cheeks), Bambara, Dogon, Songhay, Tuareg and Bozo peoples pour in on market day, balanced vertiginously on bundles of goods in gear- grinding trucks, ferried across the river from a donkey and cart, or paddling their own canoes. For these extrovert west Africans, market day is not just about commerce, it's the week's big party.
Mali is predominantly Muslim with the exception of the Dogon who remain largely animist, with a unique system of beliefs reflected in their distinctive handicrafts. Their highly symbolic wooden masks, intricately carved doors and baobab maracas can be bought at a handful of tourist-orientated stalls in Djenne, but they are most widely available in Mopti.