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Mali offers a unique insight into pre-colonial African civilization. The towns of Djenne - with its famous mosque ? Gao, Segou, Mopti and Timbuktu all have something unique to explore. Timbuktu gained its reputation as a city of mystery because no European ever saw it and returned to tell the tale until 1828. It used to be an important trade center for gold, slaves and salt, linking sub-Saharan Africa to North-Africa. Travelers can also visit the Adrar des Iforhas mountains, as well as Dogon country.

Mali gained independence from France in 1960. Authoritarian rule ended in 1991 with a coup that ushered in democracy. Now Mali has one of the most stable democracies in West Africa. Alpha Oumar Konare was the country's first democratically elected president and after serving two terms has since has become an African elder statesman. He was succeeded by President Amadou Toure.

Mali is home to 12 million people. The landlocked nation is bordered by Mauritania, Algeria, Nigerja, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Senegal. Ninety percent of the population follows Islam. The Mande ethnic group, comprised of the Malinke, Bambara and Soninke, represents half of the population. Other ethnic groups include the Peul and Voltaic.

Bamako is the lively capital of Mali. It is a pleasant city with good markets, friendly people and a laid back atmosphere. The museum is well worth a visit, with a nice collection of masks, terra cottas and an excellent collection of textiles. A wonderful day trip can be made to Niono locally known as the Venice of Mali. Niono's mud mosque rivals the larger more famous one in Djenne, and it generally has easier access. The mosque in Djenne is the largest mud building in the world. Djenne itself is a very small city on an island in the River Niger. It is in the middle of an area where the earliest remnants of the Iron Age have been found in Africa.

The city of Gao is home to the tomb of Askia, a 500-year-old adobe ?pyramid?. Another highlight is an early-morning pirogue ride to the big red sand dune just outside of town. Leaving Gao, one can take a pinasse on the River Niger to Timbuktu, a journey of roughly three days. Travelers can watch fishermen on the river as well as kingfishers, raptors, ibis, hippos and the occasional manatee.

The city of Mopti is spread over three islands and sits at the junction of the Niger River and the Bani River. The city is mostly inhabited by Fulani traders. This makes Mopti an interesting market town where various traders meet to exchange fish and salt. Vendors sell cloth, leather goods, masks, jewelry, amber and intricately woven Fulani wedding blankets.

Mopti is an excellent base to start a trip to Dogon country and the Bandiagara Escarpment, a rocky cliff 200 km long that provides shelter to the fascinating Dogon people. They built a string of villages along the ridge and up high into the face of the cliff that can be seen on one-to eight-day hikes. Guides are recommended. Because of the difficulty in getting to the region few tourists go there. The Dogon culture, with its unique religious ceremonies, fabulous masks and hypnotic dances, has changed little over the centuries.