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Day 52: Timbuktu

Timbuktu, Mali 
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Looking out of the upstairs window of the house which gave a brief protection to Alexander Gordon Laing, the Scottish explorer who rediscovered Timbuktu in 1826 and was killed on his way home, aged thirty-three.
Michael Palin - SaharaAn 8- by 5-foot downstairs room with yellow washed walls leads, via a flight of narrow stairs, up to another low room with delicately carved arabesque shutters, and from there onto a flat roof.

I stand out here for as long as I can bear the scorching midday heat, taking in the view.

Stretched out beneath me is a pale, dusty city with the colour bleached out of it. There are few modern buildings, and, apart from the pyramid-shaped minarets of the mosques, the overall feel is of flat roofs and iron-grilled windows, broken up by the occasional colonial touch: a stone arch, an attempted balustrade. There are satellite dishes on the walls but open sewers down the centre of the streets. Many buildings are either crumbling or derelict and the tents, families and livestock of the nomads have taken over the corpses of abandoned houses.

I shade my eyes and stare out beyond the walls to the desert, which has the city in an ever-tightening grip. Due north, the direction that both Laing and Caillié took when they left Timbuktu, there is no accommodation for the traveller before the town of Taoudenni, more than 400 miles into the desert. And you would not be welcome there. Taoudenni is a Saharan Siberia, an unimaginably hostile place, where Mali sends her criminals and troublemakers to work the salt mines, out of the sight of foreigners.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 52
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Timbuktu
  • Book page no: 157

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