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Mali. Few tourists have heard of this West African country. It is one of the economically poorest countries in the world, yet it offers one of the richest traveling experiences imaginable. It is remote, incomparable, African to the core. It hangs beneath Algeria, and is sliced in half by the sleepy Niger River. The northern half is desert, the southern half, bush.

There are three sites that are considered national monuments in Mali: Timbuktu (the "mysterious" city on the edge of the Sahara), Sanga (a remarkable community of Dogon cliff dwellers), and Djenne (an ancient and exquisite city renowned for its magnificent mud mosque).The kickoff point for visiting these sites is the lively riverside city of Mopti. There is a new hotel here, the Kanaga, which offers a bastion of comfort previously unheard of in this rugged area, opening it up to tourists who might never before have dared to venture here.

Mopti can be reached from Mali's capital city, Bamako, by way of riverboat, plane, or road. I chose the three-day boat ride, which, in the cultural diversity it presented on board and ashore, was practically a national monument itself.

There are six stops between Bamako and Mopti, and each has a distinct character. What they have in common is the fact that every port is converted into a market upon the boat's arrival. One-person markets wave their wares from the pier. They hold up baskets, colorful hand-woven blankets, and chickens like bouquets. If there is no pier, they wade into the water up to their shoulders to make a sale, floating bowls of eggs, milk, or black sticky fish in front of them. Or they paddle up to the boat in pirogues (canoes).

Plying slowly down the Niger, we view an ever-changing scene: tiny mud villages, tented nomadic camps, the round grass houses of Bozo fishers. We pass nomads watering their herds, peasants tending small gardens, termite mounds standing as tall as cows, mosques rising like sand castles into a hazy blue sky, and dunes spilling into the river.

On the boat's deck, people sit on mats, skins, and carpets representing the entire cultural spectrum of Mali. Tuareg women in indigo gowns prepare a meal of liquid butter, bread, and meat, tossed together in a gourd bowl. When the food is ready, they pull a broad length of cloth over them to eat in "secluded" privacy. Nearby, Moorish men brew strong sweet tea on a tiny coal stove, and Songhai women grill lamb brochettes which they sell to other passengers.

For daytime shade, people hang fabric of every sort from the tarp frame that arches over the deck, turning the boat into a floating carnival. At night, although I have a cabin, I sleep on the deck, where there is a refreshing breeze and a blanket of stars - and scores of other snoozing passengers.

I travel by boat to Timbuktu, this city of 12,000, which many think is a mythical place. There is no road between Mopti and Timbuktu.

As I arrive, a dozen boys approach me, each claiming to have the story of Timbuktu. I join one who provides a running commentary as we stroll through a sandy labyrinth of mud brick houses and walled streets, past public water pumps and street corner ovens shaped like beehives.

This once-exuberant center of trans-Saharan trade is today a quiet specter; although camel caravans laden with slabs of salt broad as tombstones still come here, the city is by no means the grand emporium it was from the 13th to 16th centuries. To really appreciate Timbuktu, one needs to glimpse its past. It comes alive once you know that, during the 14th century, the empire of Mali was wealthier than Egypt, and two-thirds of Europe's gold came from West Africa, most of it transported by way of this city.

In the 15th century, Timbuktu's Sankore mosque became a university and the city grew into a consummate cultural and intellectual center. Great histories were written here, and books sold for more than any other trade item. In the twilight of the 16th century, Sultan Moulay Ahmed el Mansour of Morocco captured Timbuktu. This, and the fact that coastal trade routes began to eclipse trans-Saharan trade, led to the great city's demise.

Hints of the past remain. The Sankore mosque still stands. One can see the house where French explorer Rene Caillie, the first European to reach the fabled Timbuktu, stayed for two weeks in 1827.

Desert nomads still camp beyond the city's edge. Visitors can ride a camel to a Tuareg encampment, where nomads bake bread in the sand, forge swords and jewelry out of scrap metal, or work on colorful leather cushions.

Djenne came to prominence about the same time as Timbuktu. Architecturally, it is Mali's loveliest city. It appears to be made of one piece, as if tugged up from the earth by some mighty magnet.