Update 015
April 20th, Djenné -- Sunny
Africa's Mona Lisa

Again early in the morning we started off. Like usual the river was already very busy with those spindly fishing boats going back and forth in the golden reflection of the morning sunshine. And there was the very gentle wind blowing, the whole world was like a seed full of water and nourishment, everything was so lively and vigorous.

Today one important thing in our itinerary, we would arrive in a most important city on the Niger River---- Djenné. But we found the branch river linking the Niger and Djenné was dry. We simply had to leave our boat and get a van to go to the city.

Djenné (also Dienné or Jenne) is a historically and commercially important small city in the Niger Inland Delta of central Mali. It is famous for its mud brick (adobe) architecture, most notably the Great Mosque of Djenné which was rebuilt in 1907. In the past, Djenné was a centre of trade and learning, and has been conquered a number of times since its founding. It one of the oldest known cities in sub-Saharan Africa and its historic city center was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. Administratively it is part of the Mopti Region.

The town was originally situated 2 km south-east of its present position at a site known as Jenné-jeno or Djoboro. Archaeological excavations have established that Jenné-jeno was first settled around 200 BCE and had developed into a large walled urban complex by 850 CE. After about 1100 CE the population of the town declined and the site had been abandoned by 1400 CE. Many other smaller settlements within a few kilometres of Jenné-jeno were also abandoned at this time.

It is not known why the site of Jenné-jeno was abandoned but there was possibly a large decline in the population of the area at time.

Preliminary archaeological studies in modern Djenné indicate that the present town was first settled after 1000 CE.

Two important indigenous Arabic chronicles give rather different accounts of the status of Djenné during the time of the Mali empire (mid 13th to early 15th century). Al-Sadi's Tarikh al-Sudan of 1655 claims that the Malians attacked the town ninety-nine times but that Djenné was never conquered while the other major chronicle, the Tarikh al-Fattash, says that the chief of Djenné was one of the humble vassals of the Mali emperor. It is likely that during the period of the Mali Empire the town had a tribute-paying fiefdom status.

Djenné was conquered by Sonni Ali (reigned 1464-1492) during his expansion of the Songhai Empire. The siege of Djenné is said to have lasted 7 months and 7 days culminating in the death of the towns's chief and its capitulation The chief's widow married Sonni Ali, and peace was restored. In 1591, Morocco conquered the town after destroying the Songhai's hold in the region. By the 1600s, Djenné had become a thriving centre of trade and learning. Caravans from Djenné frequented southern trading towns like Begho, Bono Manso, and Bonduku.

The city continued to change hands several times. Djenné was part of the Segou kingdom from 1670 to 1818, Massina under the Fulani ruler Seku Amadu from 1818 to 1861, and the Toucouleur Empire under Umar Tall from 1861 to 1893. The French finally conquered the city that year. During this period, trade declined and the city's importance with it.

My first feeling upon the city was amazing. I had never imagined that a city made of earth could be so beautiful. It's a pity that the great mosque is out of bounds for non-Muslim tourists.

Today was Monday, the opening day of the weekly market. The bazaar was really busy. The women wearing their traditional clothes were shopping for life necessities. Their eyes were pure and charming, their shining clothes and complicated hair styles gave them a complexion of dignity and mystery. Most traders were also women, so we started to wonder what the men were doing, looking after the kids at home?

In many places in Africa one man can have several wives. Segou told me a secret way to know how many wives a man has---to count windows. One window at a house indicates one wife. While we were discussing about this we came across a big house and I counted and found there were more than ten windows in the house!

Then we found a barber shop, we went in. Our hairs and mustache were long. We haven't had time to take care of that due to the roughness of wild life and the tightness of our itineraries. This was a rather small barber shop and the barber was washing a client's hair. There were not much gear in the room. A young women sitting in the corner holding a sleeping baby. She didn't stand up seeing us entering, but she smiled to us. There was the motherly gentleness in her shining big eyes and there was the humility in her smile. At that moment I thought I met Africa's Mona Lisa! And I immediately took out my cameras even though I didn't know whether she would agree.

Returning to our boat, we saw our cook cutting a big African weever fish. He was very proud of the fish he bought from a fishing boat passing by and the price was only about one US dollar!
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Update 016
April 21st, Mopti -- Sunny

Venice in the Desert


Another busy and weary day; the river got even more shallow. Every mile was hard to advance. It was the kindness and hospitality of the local people that helped us to complete our journey from Djenné to Mopti within one day, which would be impossible otherwise.

Mopti (Pronounced Mohti) is a city at the confluence of the Niger and the Bani in Mali, between Timbuktu and Ségou. The city lies on three islands linked by dykes: the New Town, the Old Town and Bani. As a result it is sometimes known as the "Venice of Mali".

The city of Mopti derives its name from the Fulfulde word for gathering. The islands had long been inhabited, but Mopti was only founded in the nineteenth century as part of the Massina Empire, later becoming the base of El Hadj Umar Tall. With French domination, Mopti became known for its egret feather industry.

Amadou Toumani Touré, current president of Mali, is a native of Mopti.

Mopti is popular with tourists, having an active river port, a mosque, and across the Niger, small fishing villages. Attractions in Mopti include Mopti Grand Mosque and the nearby Pays Dogon. There are several popular hotels, the Hotel Kanaga, Hotel Y a pas de Problème, and Hotel Ambedjele which is on the road to Sevare.

For a long time, Mopti has had the name "City of a Thousand Fishes". During the rain seasons, in the vast seasonal lakes, there are numerous kinds of fish growing. But now it is the dry season, so it is even hard for our boat to move ahead.

Here almost every family has their own fishing boat, which is also their main transportation tool.

Mopti is also the largest land and water dock in the deep Sahara desert. It is a transshipping port for the different kinds of goods.

Walking in the streets of Mopti, there was even smell of fish flavor. And the Hygienic condition, was, very bad. Garbage was thrown everywhere, sewage flowed directly into the river. The river is no longer as clean as it is in Segou, it is becoming very cloudy and in some portions there even appears eutrophication. Flaky Eichhornia crassipes grow near the river banks. This situation is not strange to us. It is the same situation of Kunming more than ten years ago when our Dianchi Lake started to be polluted.

It seems that people here like to keep clean. We found a lot of people doing laundry on the river side and many bathing in the river. However, we then saw somewhere just next to the bath people, some other guys were taking bath for their cattle.

This year the water volume was especially small and in some places even the river bed appeared. The riverway is also very narrow. Most of the branches are now dry. With the absorption of the desert, we assumed more serious situations ahead. So after settling down in Mopti, we sent our guide to do some investigation.

When we arrived in Mopti, it was just the time the school kids left the schools. We waved to them and they happily waved back.

Like in Djenné, adults did not like to be photographed, but the kids are quite easy to approach. A little boy immediately took out from his satchel a photo of Mali President Amadou Toumani Touré and held it in front of his chest when he saw that we were going to take a picture of him. Maybe that was his idol and maybe he would like to become like the president when he grow up. I would show them their pictures whenever I took pictures of them and this made them very interested. There was another little girl who was so excited to see us and to be photographed that she followed us along several streets.
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Upgrade 017
April 22nd Mopti -- Sunny
Africa -- Hot Land; Warm Heart

The Problem of insufficient water volume in the Niger River remains and we started to worry that we would get behind on our schedule. But the first good news we received was that our guide, with the help of the locals, found a very experienced captain who is a sailing master-hand in the Niger River, even in the small water volume. To wait for the master captain to come, we had to stay in Mopti---only a short stay for faster progress.

Walking in the streets Mopti, Fei Xuan and I were again surrounded by passionate people -- vendors who tried to sell us their goods, mostly handcrafts. They repeatedly explain to us how good their commodities were, and they would follow us for a long way -- this city is really passionate, all strangers experience the same. Though surrounded by dozens of people, I could find a pair of slippers worn by one of them, this I believed to be very good -- the slippers were made of waste tires. Are people in Mopti master-hand in waste utilization?

In the Bazaar in Mopti, we found the salt plates. They were like bricks. This was very interesting to us as in China, we buy salt in bags. Then we learned that the salt plates in Mopti were taken from the bottom of a dry lake. And in the bazaar, we found baskets of dead leaves and became very surprised -- Africa is really a mysterious place, even dead leaves could be sold. Then we couldn't help asking the woman vendor, and she said it was tea! It's already degraded leaves and I am sure there will not be much tea taste left.

As we were walking we found ourselves at the dock. There was a small boatyard building pinasse. In Mopti, the technique of building pinasse has been passed on for more than one thousand years. They use planks with very good timber, then they connect the planks together using a special method. And a pinasse is ready for sailing. Though they do not use a keel, the pinasse is very durable. To build such a boat, the cost is about 1000 USD, this is a huge sum for the locals. But in Mopti, every family has a pinasse, some have used the same pinasse for more than thirty years.

Back to the Bazaar, we saw Oumar Cisse, Robert's best friend in Africa and the owner of African Bead Museum in Sevare, near Mopti. His museum is the only one in the place. He also has two pearls -- his two daughters. At my first sight I was deeply attracted by their pure eyes and their smiles -- they are very beautiful, indeed! Oumar Cisse told us that he heard about our news from Robert and he had been excitedly waiting for us for several days. We agreed that if time permits, we would go to visit his museum.

And who said that lightning never strikes the same place? We just met Oumar Cisse and soon we received good news that our Niger visas arrived. These are really good news for us when we were worried about the rebels and Al-Qaeda's actions in north Niger.
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Update 018
April 23rd Bandiagara Escarpment -- Sunny

Villages on the Cliff

In the morning our guide Segou told us that the master captain would not reach Mopti until late afternoon and it meant we had to stay in Mopti for another day. He added that since we would stay for a full day he would take us to the Dogon county, if we would like to. Of course we would like to. Robert told us the Bandiagara Escarpment is a must-go if someone ever goes to Mopti.

We've heard so much of the Dogon. And Amadou, who is our land operator in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, and who also arrived in Mopti to send us the Niger visas, was so excited that we were going to the Bandiagara Escarpment. He explained how popular he was in that place and how many relatives and friends he had there. This certainly added to our interest in the cliff and the villages.

My first sight of the villages on the cliff was that it was aboriginal and poor. Amadou hadn't lied to us, as soon as he got off the van, he immediately went forward to talk to an old man wearing black clothes and a bamboo hat. They greeted each other and talked for a long time, hand in hand, as if they hadn't seen each other for years. When they were talking, Segou told us it was their custom that if you meet someone, you will introduce yourself and each one of your family, then the other one will also introduce himself and each of his family. They will start the main topic after such greeting procedure is over. After finishing talking with Amadou, the old man turned to me and held out his hand to me. So I did as Segou just told me, telling the old man that my name is Jin Feibao, I am from China, have a beautiful wife, a lovely son. My parents are both healthy and that I also have two elder sisters, three elder brothers who live in China far far away.

Segou translated my introduction word by word. The old man's eyes were bright and honest. He shook my hands tightly. His hands were trembling slightly but were warm. He expressed his best wishes for my wife, my son and my other family members. Hearing Segou's translation, I was deeply moved. This is so beautiful a custom they have. Yes it seems too long and redundant, but it really represents a kind of precious faith and honesty.

Then the old man did the same with Fei Xuan and after we finished this, it was already an hour later. By then we learnt that the old man was the chief of the village and our arrival obviously made him very happy.

Then the chief took us to a house, a place like the council house of the village. There were many posts on the door and he expressed wishes that we could leave some image on the door. So I took out our stick posts and a kid immediately took them from my hand and put them on the door. It was the first Chinese posts on the door!

Since the passionate greeting took a long time, it was now time for lunch. The chief invited us to have lunch with them. The main food was the steamed mixture of corn, broomcorn and millet after being smashed. It was put on a large wooden bowl with some dressing to dip. The bowl was passed around the people and everyone would pick a piece from the mixture and dip the dressing. To be honest, this was hard for us to adapt to or even fearsome. But I couldn't refuse the passion of the host. I had to pick a little piece and dip the dressing and put it into my mouth. The taste was not bad. I could understand that the host must have taken a lot of thought in making the lunch.

After lunch, by Fei Xuan's earnest urge, Amadou and Segou took us to the world famous cliff. Fei Xuan became very concentrated when we arrived there. He observed many places and then declared that there used to be a lake there since he found evidences, including the rock features. Though this was no news to the world, the legend and the arts of the Dogons also proved this.

The ancient lake has left only a pond with several crocodiles which have been sustained and worshiped by the locals.

The Bandiagara Escarpment is an escarpment in the Dogon country of Mali.

The sandstone cliff rises about 500 meters above the lower sandy flats to the south. It has a length of approximately 150 kilometers. The area of the escarpment is inhabited today by the Dogon people. Before the Dogon the escarpment was inhabited by the Tellem and Toloy. Many structures remain from the Tellem.

The Bandiagara Escarpment was listed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1989. The Cliffs of Bandiagara are a sandstone chain ranging from south to northeast over 200 km and extending to the Grandamia massif. The end of the massif is marked by the Hombori Tondo, Mali's highest peak at 1,115 meters. Because of its archaeological, ethnological and geological characteristics, the entire site is one of the most imposing in West Africa.

Remnant dwellings of the ancient Tellem people in the background and a mud mosque of the modern-day Dogon people in the foreground

The cave-dwelling Tellem, an ethnic group later pushed out by the arrival of the Dogons, used to live in the slopes of the cliff. The Tellem legacy is evident in the caves they carved into the cliffs so that they could bury their dead high up far from the frequent flash floods of the area. Dozens of villages are located along the cliff, such as Kani Bonzon. It was near to this village that the Dogons arrived in the 14th century and from there they spread over the plateau, the escarpment and the plains of the Seno-Gondo.

There is an interesting theory explaining why the Dogon were relatively undisturbed by the French colonial powers. Supposedly there are a series of natural tunnels weaving through the Bandiagara Escarpment which only the Dogon know about and they are able to use these caves to surprise and drive away any aggressors.

The Dongon worship their own god. They do not have a written language, but they recorded their lives, history and legend by means of drawings. Here every man is an artist and every home is a workshop for making living tool and daily articles. But to us, every tool they make is a fancy art work. The wooden carves in their life tools recorded the life occasions of their ancestors, including hunting, picking and working in the fields. The women make clothes and they also knit beautiful drawings in the cloth. It seemed to me that every piece of things they use and wear is full of legend and history.

Then in the late afternoon, Amadou asked us to go back to the village to see their God-honoring celebration. It was actually a mask dance, their communication with their gods. They feel they are communicating with their gods and their ancestors when they are dancing.

The dance was done mostly by the young men in the village. They wear strange costume, very shining and exaggerating. There are mainly two roles in the dance. One for the part of gods, wearing shell-made masks and standing on a piece of colorful wooden stick-just like stilt-to make the dancers look tall and strong. Such role players would also put on two horns on their chests, I don't know what that means. The other role is probably for the priests and these dancers would wear heavy wooden masks with a long, goat-horn-like thing.

All villagers have come to the dance. The old men wore blue robe and bamboo hat. They kept their sharp eyes on the young dancers and would yell to the young dancers if they found they were not doing good enough or even hit them with their wooden stick. The whole ceremony was lively and divine. The abominable natural environment made the Dogon believe in the gods more than other people, they hope their gods can help keep away the desert and bring to them a rich and fertile land, like the their ancestors used to have.

The Malian government has built for the Dogon public facilities, including schools. But I doubt that there are not many children going to school as I saw many school age kids were only playing around the village or helping their parents work. Many kids bring a notebook with them, not to write but to draw. Upon departure, a kid showed his notebook to me with his drawing. No one taught him how to draw, but the drawing was full of intelligence. He drew a mask dancer, the lines were simple but full of imagination and the expression of the dancer was sufficiently outlined. So I paid 3 dollars for his drawing and bought it from him. Though his intelligence in drawing amazed me, I still hope he can go to school.
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Update 019
April 24th, Debo Lake --Sunny
Water World

Soon after we left Mopti, we found the riverway became a lot wider. It felt like a brook joined a river. Segou soon understood what I was thinking about and he came to tell me that the Niger River has a branch---the Bani River which runs as long as 1000 kilometers and joins the Niger in Mopti. This makes the Niger River larger.

We were still going against the wind, but we were going downstream. It was still extremely hot, the water splashes were blown to our faces by the head-on wind. We would not wipe off, one reason, we would always have that and the other reason, it actually brought some cool comfort. The sailing was sometimes very boring and at that time we would listen to some music.

In the afternoon, we finally entered the largest inland lake that the Niger runs through. The waterway here became even wider.

Lake Débo is a lake in central part of Mali, formed by the seasonal flooding of the Niger River basin.

Lake Débo, at its greatest extent, lies around 80 km from Mopti on its upstream end and 240 km from Timbuktu at its downstream end. It is the largest of many such seasonal wetlands and lakes which form the Niger Inland Delta, and the largest lake in Mali. It is largely reduced during the September to March dry season.

During the seasonal floods of the Niger and Bani Rivers, the lake is intensively trawled by the ethnic Bozo fisherman who live along its shores, while in the dry season, the many ethnic Fula nomads and their herds from the north end their migration here.

The lake is also an important stopping place for Migratory birds, and UNESCO has classified it as a RAMSAR zone (The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat, zone humide reconnue d'un intérêt international pour la migration des oiseaux d'eau)

It was probably the bad luck of us or the bad luck of the fishermen, the fish they caught today was very small and we could only get a small fish from them. We started to worry that we would starve today as there were a large crowd of people on board compared to the tiny fish. But our cook did not look worried at all, instead he looked confident. While we were waiting curiously, he served a big meal, fish and grilled bananas. The bananas would make us full and as for the tiny fish, we just took it as an appetizer. In China we take bananas only as fruit, but here it is one of he main food. After bananas, Segou made a cup of mint tea for each of us. We were now quite accustomed to this kind of tea, it's actually very cool and taste is good.

After dinner, I asked Fei Xuan to go for a walk on the river bank. There were not many plants here and the visibility was not as good as before. A wind brought with it sand. I suddenly realized what it was in my mouth when we were having dinner. We could smell the desert now!

"He Ma!" (hippos), Suddenly Fei Xuan shouted and ran to the river, I followed him and in the lake not far away from the bank, there were a cluster of hippos, young and old. This was the first time I saw hippos personally. Excitedly, I started taking photos, but soon they immerged---probably a little shy because we were the first yellow skin they ever saw?

In sunset, the fishing boat started to come near the bank. And I saw a boat with broken sails which was fast and a cart pulled by two donkeys carrying a whole family back home.

Then we started setting the tent. It has been a week that we have sailedl in the river during the daytime and camped at a good place beside the river during the night.
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Update 020
April 25th Debo Lake -- Sunny
Special Place, Special Birthday

Last night before going to sleep I suddenly remembered that today was Fei Xuan's sixty's birthday. We Chinese take sixty years as a cycle and we like the number 6 very much. And 60-year birthday is always a most important one among all. I started planning a special birthday for Fei Xuan. This morning I got up before him and found Segou to tell him the importance of 60th birthday, then we all decided to give him a surprise at noon.

So now let me say a little bit of Fei Xuan. He is an experienced geologist. He has a lot of titles both in the enterprises and in the government, I will not list that but I would like to mention that he worked for nearly one year in the desert of Australia. He did find a gold mine there, not big, just about one ton of gold. Then last year he went with me to cross Greenland. The expedition lasted for 23 days and during the 23 days he never dragged behind.

In the morning, the Debo lake was very crowded, the fishermen started their one day's busy life much earlier than we could imagine. And we started off sailing forward. Our master captain was again the first one to get on the boat. The scenery along the river sides were not very different from what we had passed, a lot of sand and a green place now and then.

Segou told us to keep our eyes open for the hippos. We didn't see any hippos today, but I saw two little boys playing roll tires, which was my favorite during my childhood and I used to be very good at it. This world is so unbelievable, kids from very very different places and under very very different cultural background may play definitely the same game.

During the noon we pulled over near a small village for the cook was going shopping, so we got off to take a walk. Many kids were playing and their laughter and smiles made us happy. Only one thing, we were running out of candies!

During the noon the cook made a very African-style lunch for the lucky guy Fei Xuan -- broomcorn. Even the stern captain said happy birthday to him. I told him I would take him to a star hotel this evening. He was really happy and in his own word, there needn't to be a birthday cake or any luxury feast, to be with so many good friends is already good enough.

After lunch, he was still excited and exclaimed to me how satisfied he was for being en route on this expedition. If he hadn't come with me, the birthday gift he would receive might only be a retirement note and he then had to start those retirement "happy" life in the parks or some rest home for the old. He said he just started the second part of his life, he would not stop adventure until seventy. And I told him, "well, then I will accompany you all along."

The captain gave us good news; today we would arrive in Timbuktu, a colorful and legendary city, "pearl in the desert". Segou gave each of us a blue neckerchief, as long as 2 meters. He said we had to cover up including the head, like all others, whether Turegs or Muslims, would do for entering Timbuktu as a symbol of the Sahara Desert.

When the day's sail was over, we pick a nice place near the river bank and I immediately told Fei Xuan that this was the star hotel I chose for his birthday -- sleep outside the tent, counting the stars!

One more word, Happy Birthday, Fei Xuan!
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Update 021
April 26 Timbuktu -- Sunny
To Look Like a Fierce Bandit

As usual today's journey was not smooth. We had thought we could reach Timbuktu yesterday. We stopped now and then and were extremely tired for we had been dragging and carrying our pinasse. Well, you could say that half way she carried us and half way we carried her. The Master captain Bama said we could reach Timbuktu today, that was really great news, hope we could make it.

It was too hot and it made Fei Xuan and me not feel like eating. The great cook made us a delicious dashi and in which he even added some of our favorite yam. Though he is really a good cook, we simply did not want any food. Another problem might be that we had been having fish ever since we started sailing in the Niger River. He tried to make different food of fish, but we were tired of fish. And again like a lot of times when I was far away from home, I missed Kunming rice noodles especially those boiled in a small wok.

Our big chef is indeed good at what he does, and he is very proud of it. So our not wanting to eat made him feel upset. He gestured a walnut shape in his stomach to show his disappointment for our "tiny" stomach. But he gathered the dishware and left us alone.

The water was shallow, but the wind was strong with a lot of sand which made the trip unpleasant. After many days of sailing in the Niger River, we could see that the river is drying and we could feel how dependant the local people are on the Niger River. This made me very upset. If ecological situation on the Niger River gets more serious in the future, some day an ultimate doom may come upon these people. We all know that it can not endure very long!

And we came upon the first accident in this expedition today. Our very serious master captain's foot got cut when he jumped into the river to check how grounded the boat was. He was cut by a sharp shell. We pulled him out of the river and gave him an emergency treatment. The cut was deep and he bled a lot. Luckily both Fei Xuan and I had our emergency ffirst aid kits and inside it we had "Yunnan Baiyao." We tried to explain how good the medicine was for such a wound but it was difficult as our English was limited. However, I suppose Segou was pleased because he finally burst out the words, "the Magical Chinese Medicine."

After dealing with Bama's wound, we got down to the water and managed to drag the boat off.

In the late afternoon as we sailed, we saw more boats in the river, probably because we were going close to some villages. And we saw a cluster of horses. They were very strong and beautiful horses -- tall and brisk with long hair. We took a couple of pictures of the horses.

We have been taking pictures along the route, hundreds every day and I am proud of them since all the pictures we took are unbelievably beautiful. I am not talking about how good I am in photography but that there have been so many beautiful things and people for us to photograph.

The sun was setting and we should have started setting tent in another day. When we were wandering Segou came and told us that Timbuktu was near and they had decided that we should stay in Timbuktu tonight. So we took out our scarves Segou gave us the other day. I tried to roll the scarf around my head but simply could not put it on. Then Segou helped me and when I finally had it properly around my head, I believe I had become a typical local bandit like in many of the movies.
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BACK -- to previous report
NEXT -- Reports: April 27to May 2