Mauritania: Chinguetti and the return journey

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I left Terjit realizing that my trip was about to fizzle to an anti-climax, thanks to my lack of cash.

The ATM machine in Nouadhibou hadn’t worked for me, so was it worth risking going all the way to Nouakchott to try my cards there? If they didn’t work there then I would have be forced to return to Morocco. I decided the safe option was to spend my remaining cash on seeing the ancient desert city of Chinguetti, and if possible continue to Ouadane.

I explained my financial situation to a taxi driver in Atar and he was kind enough to let me ride for 3,000 ouguiya, though the going rate was 4,000.

It was not an easy voyage. Crammed into the taxi with six other people, we hurled along a neglected road. The scenery was sublime. I tried to erase the highway in my mind, and imagine myself leading a donkey through the desolation, with the knowledge I had to reach Chinguetti or die of thirst. Mauritania is one of those places where bygone ages are still palpable.

As we drew near to Chinguetti the road disappeared beneath the sand, and we fishtailed wildly as the driver maneuvered his way into the city.

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Cool exhibition of traditional building styles

I don’t have many photos of Chinguetti, I think because all they would portray is the rubbish and poverty which both blight the place. Being there, however, was something really special. This city has a history that you can taste. The friendly alien character of the people gave me tingles, while the adobe structures, clean white sand, and bright sky all had the atmosphere of a Windows default wallpaper.

Despite my protests, my driver dropped me outside of a hotel, where a raggedy concierge came to greet me. To him I explained that I could not afford a hotel room, and meant to camp in the dunes.

“You should ask permission from the police,” he said.

Of course I didn’t want anything to do with the cops, and I tried to escape from him.

“But a scorpion might bite you,” he said, “the police will be very angry if you don’t ask their permission to camp.”

I told him that since we both knew perfectly well that the police would refuse me permission, what was the point of asking them? And if they were going to get so hopping mad if I were to get stung by a scorpion —

I stopped talking as I realized he was already running toward the police station.

A gendarme called me over and I was dragged through the usual paperwork. I was appointed a guide who would take me to an approved camping place. He took me to a hillock in the middle of the wide wadi which divides the town.

It was the worst campsite possible.

It was littered with trash and visible from miles away. I could see dozens of kids playing soccer in the wadi and knew I’d have no peace if they saw me set up camp. And would I be able to have my usual quota of fun with the police watching me? Likely not. I ate lunch while I watched my guide hike back across the plain, and as soon as he rounded the corner I grabbed my bags and nipped off into the maze of narrow streets, doing my best to avoid drawing attention until I got beyond the buildings and my boots met sand.

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Out in the dunes I found a stand of large leafy trees stretching for a few hundred yards across the sand. I think they were planted to slow the advancing dunes, which have already started to bury the east end of town. With nothing between me and the Red Sea, this little oasis made me feel less agoraphobic and I camped here for three nights.

The day after my arrival I went to see the famous quranic library, an ancient repository for all sorts of old texts. Chinguetti is semi-officially the 7th most holy city in Islam, and still tries to live up to its past reputation as a center for religious studies. There are actually three ‘biblioteques’ in town, but one is certainly the more prestigious. I had an acquaintance of mine phone the library’s curator, who then came to meet me in the ancient quarter.

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Unlocking an old wooden door with a bizarre looking key, he introduced himself as Saif. The library has been in his family since 1699. He spoke fluent French, and talked casually about Islam without any kind of presumption. We sat in the courtyard and he educated me (as best he could given my limited French), telling me stories, answering my questions and addressing my doubts about the scriptures. He didn’t make a convert of me but he was a great guy to talk to. For their preservation the old books have been stowed away in a modern filing system, but it was fun to explore the ancient building. In the end he tried to refuse my payment (1000MRO suggested donation) but I pressed it on him.SAM_3012

Back at the grove of trees I’d learned how to build a fire with camel dung, as the wood thereabout was spongy and not worth burning. A fire of camel dung might be the most beautiful thing you ever see. The pellets look a bit like unshelled pecans, and when you stack them in a pyramid over a flame they draw in the heat and glow from within, resembling a nest of dragon’s eggs. They smolder with a pleasant resinous smell and are great for cooking food at a consistent temperature.
It had been cloudy (even rainy) most days I’d been in Mauritania, and these nights were the first chance I had to do some proper stargazing. Of course the stars are spectacular out there. It’s always a comforting sight to see the old familiar constellations you associate with home, but here below the Tropic of Cancer you can watch them disintegrate into the unfamiliar entropy of the southern stars.

Late on my first night in Chinguetti I heard loud amplified music a couple miles off, on the other side of the wadi. I was still convinced the police were searching for me, but I love Saharan music, and couldn’t pass up the chance to get a recording. The recordings below are the result of groping through the sandy night for two miles, bushwhacking through farmland, and slinking around dark alleys in search of the music.

I never did run into a snake or a scorpion, but there was a wealth of wildlife around the tree plantation. The glow from my dragon eggs drew flying insects which in turn drew bats. In the daytime the trees were filled with songbirds. Hercules beetles stomped around and generally terrorized me where I sat. Also I discovered that spilling any kind of liquid on the sand attracted hordes of a smaller kind of beetle. I called them ‘on-off beetles’, because when you touch them they freeze motionless in whatever position they are then in, and then you can arrange them in their dozens, stack them, or set them along a starting line and see which will unfreeze first.

5000 ouguiya and a handful of Moroccan dirham was now all I had in the world. I paid 4000 for a taxi back to Atar, and knew I had to save the rest to get transport to the Moroccan border. Whether I would eat between now and then depended on whether people wanted to give me food.
If I’d been more resolute in my plans to hitchhike in Mauritania, I’d have had the cash to stay there twice as long. Hitchhiking for free is certainly a known and accepted concept in Mauritania (at least between locals), whereas in Morocco it’s standard to pay for the lift. So I certainly could have managed to avoid the huge expense transport presents in Mauritania. But it’s darn easy to chicken out and pay for a taxi when the sand gets blowing and your sunburned nose starts peeling. Perhaps if you don’t feel as rushed as I did, you could see the entire country by thumb.

If you’re worrying about hitchhiking safety, stop worrying. You’ll understand when you get there — there are so many police checkpoints, someone would have to haul you off by camel if he wanted to kidnap you. Both police and civilians assured me the country as a whole is quite safe.

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Camels grazing by the tracks

The train ride back to Nouadhibou was different, as the buckets were now filled with ore. While the dust is greater, the vibrations are far less and it’s possible to make a comfortable nest among the chunks of iron.

This time I kept watch throughout the night. It was cloudy and completely dark. Tiny, anonymous villages seemed to pass us by, as the train stood still and shivered. From these clusters of houses little lights blinked on and off, and replies were sent out from all along the line of carriages. The villagers and the trainriders were winking flashlights at each other, for no reason other than in simple greeting, like so many fireflies. I dug out my flashlight and joined in the conversation.

If you ask the police at the Nouadhibou train station they may give you a free ride into the city so you can get a taxi to the border. I hadn’t eaten in 12 hours and I was envisioning the full meal which awaited me in Morocco. Hell, I might even get another fish tagine in Dakhla. I paid taxi driver 1000 ouguiya for a taxi and the equivalent of another 500 in dirham. The driver wasn’t happy with this low price, but even so he drove me all the way across no-man’s-land after I’d completed the exit formalities. When you pay someone to take you to the border, make sure to clarify whether the no-man’s-land traverse is included.

So is Mauritania safe? Well I’ll have to admit I’m biased since everyone was so nice to me there. Yes, I felt safe 100% of the time, though maybe it’d have been different if I’d spent more time in the cities. As in every other Muslim country I’ve visited, everyone in Mauritania loved the fact that I was American. Apparently there’s some kind of terrorist activity ongoing around the border with Mali, but there’s ongoing drug cartel activity going on around America’s border with Mexico. If that doesn’t stop you from going to Maine, then you should have no problem visiting Terjit and the Adrar. And like I said before, any qualms you still have will vanish when you catch a glimpse of the massive police presence (which makes life hell for locals).

A note for solo females: you will have already survived the unwanted attention and disrespect which infests Morocco; I imagine in Mauritania you’ll have an easier time. I really was impressed by the respect Mauritanians have for their own women.

The pickpockets and scams which are the only real danger in Morocco don’t exist down here as far as I experienced. The only friction I had with Mauritanian locals was when the conniving idiots at the bush taxi office in Atar sold me a place in a truck without telling me it wasn’t leaving until the next day. While I was stomping around town fuming at this dishonesty, it took the cool confidence of Moktar to calm me down. “What do you mean you don’t have money for a hotel,” he said to me, “Even if you had a million euro I wouldn’t let you sleep at a hotel. You’re staying at my house, of course.” Over the course of that evening he treated me to food, drink, and internet so I could tell my family I’d made it safely out of the desert.

Meanwhile I got to trail him in his work as a would-be guide. Like a Cornish village watching from the cliffs for its fishing fleet to return, Atar awaits the flood of tourists which may never come. Their leader, Moktar, sits sipping coke at the railing of the café which overlooks the central roundabout where tourists must pass through. Like so many others, he feeds on a mere trickle of tourism, the remnant of the stream which has ebbed along with the country’s reputation, leaving behind it (forgive me) a desert.

As well as being an injustice, this is a damn shame. The truth is that I would recommend Mauritania without hesitation to my friends, to my grandmother, to solo female hitchhikers, to the most timid of travelers.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo incident, many French people changed their vacation plans. Around that time a shop owner in Morocco said to me with heartbreaking simplicity, “If we lose the French, we’re lost.” Clearly this has already happened in Mauritania. The convoys of French and German motorhomes which fill the highways of the western Sahara stop abruptly at the border. Now the bulk of visitors seem to be overlanders who buzz through the country as if it were little more than a visa complication en route to Senegal. Most of those who venture to the interior are (from what I saw of the stacks of fiches in police offices) young backpackers like myself who came for the train and for the mystery, but stayed for Mauritania’s inherent laid-back appeal. Morocco welcomes in 10 million tourists per annum; surely many of these would better find what they are looking for in Mauritania. After all, aren’t we all just here to get our picture taken on a camel?c

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3 thoughts on “Mauritania: Chinguetti and the return journey

    • I went in early February. I suppose there might be a ‘tourist season’ when I might have seen more westerners, but I don’t know when that would be. The weather at that time was decent. It was cloudy or even drizzling half the time I was there.

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  1. I really enjoyed reading about your trip 🙂 I’m considering travelling the same route and your blog was the most detailed thing i’ve come across doing my research,

    Thanks:)

    Like

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