Wednesday, July 23
Bamako, Mali

The Kayes-to-Bamako train ride ranked up there as one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my life.

At least I thought so for the first seven hours.

In the eighth hour, when my legs started to fall asleep and I realized we hadn’t yet reached the halfway mark, I began to count my blessings that I wouldn’t have to make the trip again in the opposite direction.

The nearly 500-kilometer trip ended up taking 18 hours. EIGHTEEN HOURS!! We left Kayes at 7 a.m. and arrived in Bamako in the middle of the night, at 1 a.m. Now I know why most tourists fly between Senegal and Mali.


But back to the reasons why the ride was awesome… It was a fantastic way to see Mali. We traveled mostly through bush, with small mountains and cliffs in the distance, and the train moved slowly enough to take it all in. We stopped every half an hour or so — spending just as much time stopped as we did on the move. 


Often the train paused in the middle of nowhere, and passengers would jump out to pee next to the tracks (myself included).

Other times we stopped in villages, and we could hear shouts from people who lived there even before the train pulled into the station. Hoards of vendors there awaited our arrival, and they’d surround the train with their goods, selling mostly food to passengers who hung out the windows.

Stopping at a village station on the way to Bamako.

Stopping at a village station on the way to Bamako.

I bought lunch, snacks and anything I simply wanted to try: a fish-ball sandwich, hard-boiled eggs, a banana, “cakes” or beignets and frozen fruit juices, which are a bit risky but fabulously tasty. After eating all that street food, I felt pretty proud of myself for not vomiting the next day. Maybe I’m getting used to African germs?

Chilling by my window seat.

Chilling by my window seat.

I had expected the ride to take between 10-14 hours, and I’ll admit even then I was tempted to buy a first-class ticket. It didn’t cost much more than the CFA 7,200 (about 16 bucks) second-class ticket, and I certainly could afford it. But I wanted to experience traveling to Mali’s capital from the western part of the country the way the locals do, so I took a seat in coach.

The inside of the train was pretty sad-looking. The seats were all ripped and nasty, but about three-quarters were functional, and that’s what really matters here. Passengers made the rest functional, no matter how broken, by sitting on the armrests or even on top of the chair near the headrest.

Here’s a view of inside the train:

Lots of activity inside the Kayes-to-Bamako train

Lots of activity inside the Kayes-to-Bamako train

I kept my backpack between my legs (It took me five minutes to smush it there, much to the amusement of the people around me), and my small backpack on my lap. Later during the ride, I took to sitting on the smaller bag, just like the people around me sat on their luggage.

A family of five was crammed into the two seats behind me. But I had an entire seat to myself, more than i could have expected in a road vehicle. For that reason alone, I was content I had taken the train instead of a bus — until hour 15 of the ride, when the guy sitting in front of me said the trip takes eight hours by car.

The long ride was bearable partly because I was sitting near my latest travel companions, Emily and Gail, two undoubtably French sisters who light up cigarettes at every possibly opportunity. We laughed together at the ridiculousness of the situation, and when we arrived in Bamako in the dark, the three of us took a taxi together to a youth hostel.