Find your first step in Bamako. My new book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, is no easy ride. Most of the narrative unfolds in Timbuktu, a famously remote, now decrepit city at the edge of the Sahara in central Mali. The ongoing instability in the region has decimated the tourism industry, and this little guide you’re reading is strewn with one-eyed Emirs and various other warnings. But I’m sharing my tips here in the belief that tourism, and some kind of lasting peace, will one day return to the area. In order to get to Timbuktu when the time comes, you’ll almost certainly have to pass through the capital, Bamako. It’s a sprawling and fast-growing city of one million that, like much of the country, has suffered greatly from the spread of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb into the Sahel region. You can get a visa on the spot at Bamako’s international airport and hop a cab to the city center. Best to steer clear of the Radisson, a hotel favored by UN staffers, diplomats, and other expatriates that Al Qaeda targeted in November 2015. Your best bet is a less obtrusive but no less comfortable guesthouse. My favorite is the Villa Soudan, which overlooks the river in the Badalabougou neighborhood.
Take the road to Timbuktu, if you dare. Mali is a landlocked country of 15.3 million with a string of towns built along the mighty Niger River. Before jihadists took over north Mali in 2012—the invasion at the center of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu—commercial flights operated almost every day from Bamako to the legendary city in the desert. These days, the options are more limited. You can try to talk your way onto an occasional United Nations flight, rent a pinasse (a covered longboat) and sail up the Niger River from Mopti, or—most risky—retrace librarian Abdel Kader Haidara’s journey by taking a 4×4 on the desert road north. The drive is about eight hours from Mopti, and though Bamako travel agents refuse to send their clients that way, it’s still possible to line up a ride through an agent in Timbuktu. Police and army checkpoints are supposed to keep the desert track secure, but one Chinese tourist who made the trip last November said that she didn’t encounter a single post for 100 miles. As if that’s not enough to fret about, don’t veer off the main track: the desert is strewn with mines.