Travel guide: Mauritania

Mauritania has definitely been the most interesting as well as the strangest traveling experience so far. Stunning views, beautiful landscape, enormous heat and an interesting, to me a bit strange culture.

Info:

Languages: Hassanyia arabic, french
Religion: Islam
Visa: Available on arrival, one month visa costs 52€ for european citizens
Currency: Ouguiya (MRO)
Exchange rate: 1€=400 MRO (on the street, official exchange rate would be worse)

Price list:
Simcard: 800 MRO
Internet: 100 MB=100 MRO, 200 MB=200 MRO etc.
Meal in a restaurant: 400-2000 MRO (depending on the restaurant)
Bottle of water (1,5 l): 200 MRO
Pack of biscuits: 100 MRO
Pack of dates: 250 MRO
Double room 1 night: 6000 MRO and up
Taxi 1 ride: 100 MRO/per person
Bus Nouakchott-Nouadhibou: 5000 MRO
4×4 Atar-Chinguetti: 2000 MRO
4×4 Atar-Terjit oasis: 1000 MRO

Getting there: The “famous” Rosso border

We were arriving from Senegal, crossing in the town of Rosso. I’ve heard about all the WORST from other travelers as well as from some senegalese friends, so I’ve been imagining the worst cases scenarios in my head from the night before and was even kinda scared. Scams, scams, scams, hassle, corrupt officers and once again scams. Now, this is true depending on from which side are you crossing-as we found out. To our big surprise, the crossing from Senegal to Mauritania was probably the easiest, smoothest and fastest border crossing ever. You take a ferry to cross the river which serves as an actual border between the two countries. To our even bigger surprise, the ferry was free. Don’t get scared by the scammers asking you if you have a ticket, it is actually free. Once we got to the Mauritanian side, the process of getting the visa was, to our biggest surprise, the smoothest and fastest process of getting a visa ever. You hand in your passport, take a photo, give your finger prints, pay 52€ and after 5 minutes-voilà you have your visa and you are free to spend one month in Mauritania!

Before continuing the story, as I said, the hassle in Rosso depends on the side you are crossing from. So coming back from Mauritania wanting to cross back to Senegal (yes, we came back to Senegal), the best border crossing experience turned into the WORST. The Mauritanian side of the border looks like a small plaza, with the immigration office, the port and a restaurant. To get there you have to enter through a big iron gate secured by police officers. Corrupt police officers, as we were to find out. Few meters before the gate, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of young men, one of them looking really scary and very scammer-ish. They told us to give them our passports. When I said no, that I was not gonna give my passport to someone who doesn’t have a uniform, they moved a bit further towards the police officers securing the gate to have them approved of this action. This whole thing was so strange to me, I am not stupid, but when this “process” was approved by an actual official in a uniform and being under the pressure of the scary chief of the group who started yelling at me that they won’t let us in if we don’t give them the passports, I gave in and gave him my passport. After I saw the guy handing the passports to the immigration officer-the same one who gave me the stamp two weeks ago when we were coming from Senegal. But by that time I gave him my passport myself. Hmm. I knew what was gonna happen. After two hours of waiting (the immigration officer went out to have lunch), the scary-scammer-guy came to us with our passeports in his hand demanding 6000 ougyia (15€!) in exchange. Tu put it in his words, “for the paperwork.” I immediately called a police officer standing nearby. I didn’t even need to start explaining the situation-the scammer quickly gave us the passports and disappered in a crowd. Guess I was lucky to bump into the only police officer that wasn’t corrupted. Guess this was the real Rosso everybody warned me about. So, be careful.

First impressions: a swift change of worlds

Right after leaving the gate of the immigration office, a whole new world was awaiting us. Usually, crossing a border doesn’t really change that much, except for that you are officialy in a different country, but here, it changed a lot. Everything, actually. Senegal is so vibrant, crowded and full of life but once on the Mauritanian side, everything became so quiet. As if the time had stopped. Kinda like an apocalypse. No, that’s maybe too much, but it is really strange to see all the noise and movement to cease. The landscape also changed; no more vegetation, just sand and occasional bushes. How come does the landscape change so swiftly? You just cross one river and all of a sudden there are no more trees or grass and all you see is sand. And lastly, the people represent a big change, too; with their typical clothing-long light blue robe over baggy pants and a turban on their heads, you are now sure that you are in an arab country.

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The people: one of the nicest people in the world, but…

Mauritanian population is generally composed of the “whites mauritanians” (berber arabs) and the “black mauritanians”(africans). This is a very simplified version, but that’s actually how it is and it’s also what I got from the locals. The first group makes up to about 30% of the population, the majority being the second one. Now the thing between those two is, as you notice very soon, that they don’t like each other very much. That the relations are pretty tight. Even before someone tells you, you will notice that there exists some kind of social system in which your race predetermines what kind of job you will have, where you will live and what you social status will be. The arabs are mostly traders, businessmen; whereas all the hard work and basically all the work is done by the blacks. Waiters and waitresses, taxi drivers, construction workers, fishermen… This is already somehow pitiful, but it gets even worse when you hear the black ones complaining about being consantly discriminated and held down. The situation is probably the worst for the numerous migrants especially from Senegal; Mauritanians really hate them! Ask a random berber mauritanian about the senegalese and he will surely tell you something like “ah les sénégalais, ce sont que des voleurs!” (oh the senegalese, they are nothing but thieves!). There was a point when I realized that there was something wrong here; after a ninth or tenth black person (we met various people mostly from other african countries who came to Mauritania to work-there are lots of them-because there are jobs) answered our question “so how do you like Mauritania?” by saying “not very much, the people are weird.” Then one guy from The Gambia killed it by answering “Mauritania? Oh, that country is fucked up man!”
Don’t get me wrong, when it comes to us, the Mauritanians were probably the nicest people ever; they are friendly, kind and generous (be prepared to drink a lot of tea with them!). Really, from what I can say from our travels, these people are definitely one of the nicest if not the nicest we’ve ever met. But the things mentioned above were simply difficult to overlook. Although I personally never encountered any bad behaviour, I didn’t feel 100% enthusiastic about the people, I just couldn’t.

Two other things about the Mauritanians:
Cameras:These people generally hate cameras, which sucks for someone like us who comes to the country to make videos and vlogs. You have to be careful if there is no police officer around (and there are plenty of them in Mauritania!), you have to constantly ask whether it is okay to make a video, sometimes you have to pay but most of the times they will reject you even if you are offering money. Apparently they are scared of being taken pictures of or filmed and then appearing on the internet (?). Fair enough, different country, different culture, less footage.
Hassle:Surprise, surprise travelers, this country is pretty much hassle-free! I was honestly a bit surprised (especially coming from Senegal), being immediately told the “right” prices, that is, the same prices that the locals pay, without having to negotiate. Of course, you still have to negotiate at the markets (but that’s what markets are for, aren’t they?) and sometimes the taxi prices, but apart from that, at least in our case, everything was hassle-free.

On the road: Nouakchott-Nouadhibou-Choum-Atar-Nouakchott

1. Noaukchott
Generally, traveling is pretty comfortable and easy in Mauritania. The roads between the major cities are in a good condition and the most common way of transportation is an air conditioned minibus (note that the air condition doesn’t always work-that would be too good, wouldn’t it?). One thing for those of you planning to travel there-bring a copy of your passport or the so called “fiche” (both of them are fine). You know what, actually bring like 30 of them (no kidding); Mauritania is kind of a police state, especially after the kidnappings of some westerners and the rise of terrorism in the Sahel region, so there is a police checkpoint on every 5-20 km (it depends). The capital city Nouakchott isn’t particularly interesting, apart from the most chaotic traffic I’ve ever seen. If the NO RULES system applies somewhere, it is Nouakchott. There is no public transport in the city (which honestly I can’t imagine that there would be), so you gotta move around in taxis, who kinda serve as a public transport. They are not labelled, so basically wave at every older sedan you see. There are certain “points” in the city and the cost of getting from one to another is 100 ougyia. You have to figure the system out on your own, from what I learned, the point in downtown is called clinique and there are some others such as carrefour Nouadhibou, carrefour Madrid, Cinquième etc. Just ask the locals.
TIP!: Auberge Sahara, close to carrefour Nouadhibou, opposite to Le Parisien.

Nouadhibou and the iron ore train to Choum
There is nothing interesting about the second biggest city in Mauritania, Nouadhibou, either. The reason we went there was that it is the starting point for the iron ore train, which we were about to hitch hike to the small village of Choum. This train is really something, it’s like from a different world. Being the longest train in the world (more than 220 carriages) it takes you couple of centuries back riding the empty vagon through the fairy tale-like endless Sahara desert covered in mysterious sand mist.
But how did we get there?
First of all, there is no schedule. When you ask the locals about the departure, you will most likely get different hours of departure ranging between 15h-21:30h. We decided to go there around 14:30 and I guess we were lucky enough to see the train approaching around 15:30 already. Now, you have two options; buy a ticket and get a seat in the passengers car or hitch hike one of of the 220 empty carriages for the iron ore. The train goes from Nouadhibou to Zouerat to load the iron ore there, so in this directions it’s empty. You can do the trip the other way round sitting on top of the iron ore, but you have to prepare yourself for having the iron ore…everywhere. If you don’t buy the ticket and go for the empty cargo car, the employees of the train station will show you where to stand and in which carriage you should get (if you go too far, you will hop off too far from the village of Choum-and that’s something you don’t want in the middle of the night) and there will most likely be some locals doing the same thing as you, also willing to help you. We were lucky to be in a vagon with 5-6 guys going to Zouerat transporting mattresses (?!) there, so the journey was a pure luxury, since they let us lay down on them. I mean how many people transport mattresses from Nouadhibou to Zouerat in Mauritania?! And how many of them climb to the same vagon with you?! On the same day?! Life is beautiful…
The carriages are pretty deep, so even though you ride the first few hours under the burning Saharan sun, you don’t really feel it, if you choose the right corner of the carriage. What you will definitely feel though, is the sand and iron ore dust. DO bring something to cover your face and eyes and close your backpack PROPERLY (speaking from my own experience). After the journey, you will probably be the dirtiest you have ever been in your life. Otherwise, bring food and water, but not too much of it, because there is only one option to pee during the 11 hour long journey. After the first 5 hours or so, the train all of a sudden stops in the middle of the desert, everybody gets down to pee, and shortly after it leaves again. So schedule your peeing needs well. 🙂
Seeing the starts above you on the clear, mighty, Saharan sky, where there is no light pollution nowhere near, is something truly beautiful. This trip is everything; adventurous, extraordinary, beautiful, magical. First you feel like Tom Sawyer, then like as if you landed in the Star wars movie and when the night falls it’s like in a Coldplay video.

Atar, Chinguetti, Terjit
When we hop off the train in Choum in the middle of the night, there were already few cars and minibuses waiting to take the passengers to the city of Atar. Yes, we’re saved! We don’t have to stay in this small village in the middle of NOWHERE asking the locals to let us sleep at their place (although that might have been fun). One problem solved, another one waiting ahead. We arrived in Atar around 4-5am, without having booked anything and thus having nowhere to sleep. Not wanting to sleep on our backpacks at the bus station, we checked google maps and saw there was a guest house quite nearby. Knock knock, nobody answered (obviously). Luckily enough, there was a phone number on the sign in front of the entrance. Luckily enough, I had a mauritanian simcard with enough credit on it. I felt really bad calling someone at this time of the night, but my exhausted inner voice forced me to. 3 minutes after, a guy came to open the door for us and prepared the room. I already knew that this would be a good person, and as it eventually turned out, he really was; actually he was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
In Atar, which is a city in the Sahara dessert, surrounded by the spectacular Adrar mountains, you get to know the real Mauritania. That includes the enormous heat, that can easily get up to 50 degrees. On our hottest day it was “only” 48. It´s burning you from the outside, it´s burning you from the inside, you can feel your system overheating. You know that moment when you leave your phone under the sun for too long and it alerts you that the temperature is too high. That´s kinda how you feel, you just crave a shadow or a gust of wind to cool you down. A shadow is the most precious thing. And water, of course. The heat makes you tired. Walking 30 minutes around the city and you already need to rest. You drink 5 litres of waters a day and you go to pee only twice, because you sweat out all the rest. But I’m not complaining here, it’s not bad, it is an experience! A warm, Saharan experience.
TIP! Camping & auberge Inimi, Atar, off the Akjout road direction Terjit

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Atar is a starting point for various trips including the ancient cities of Chinguetti and Ouadane or the Terjit oasis. The guy from our hostel helped us arrange a taxi, which is the only way to get to these places. To be honest basically wherever you go, you’re gonna be amazed, because the settings are just so out of this world, extraordinary, actually spectacular. Chinguetti, which used to be the center of all knowledge and probably the most important city of the muslim world many centuries ago, is a truly magical, lovely old town situated (as everything else here) in the middle of the desert, surrounded by sand dunes and the majestic Adrar mountains. The orange brick houses match with the orange Saharan sand and with an occasional palm tree they create an unusual combination.

My numero uno is the Terjit oasis though. As always, the expecations played an important role here. Because they were very low. Some palm trees and little bit of water in the middle of the desert, so what? I’ve seen that already in other places. Don’t let fool yourself Tereza, this oasis is a truly beautiful spot. It’s a miracle, coming from the 48 degrees’ heat-as soon as you step inside and the first palm trees surround you, the temperature gets down to some 28-29 degrees, which, given the circumstances is more then pleasant. It’s not just about that, the nature is (again) like from another world, date palms, little pools with crystal clear water, everything surrounded (again) by the Adrar mountains. You know what, just see the pictures.

Overall, Mauritania was a great experience. Arab, yet still African. Mostly covered with Saharan desert, yet so stunningly beautiful. And you will find the best tea there.

T.

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