Not gonna lie, as punny as our blogpost title is today, it did jinx me: Royal Air Maroc just cancelled one of my flight legs home, so I had to rebook at the last minute via a Turkish Airlines alternative thanks to satellite internet…but hey, that comes with the territory here!
From Atar we woke up early for the long 5 hour drive to the Mauritanian capital city of Nouakchott.
Valley cliffs become plains.
And plains become desert.
…anyone here a fan of Mad Max?
Because it might have been filmed here in the outskirts of Nouakchott, aptly also known as “the place of winds” and the starting point of the trans West African highway that passes through the 12 coastal states of West Africa . . .
As we entered outer limits of the capital city, we stopped for a seafood lunch at a random fast food joint before heading for a half an hour’s visit at the spartan National Museum:
We then drove on towards the coast for the lively Atlantic fish market. This is where local Nouakchottois come to escape the city and cool off.
Every evening here hundreds of fishermen bring in the day’s catch on their distinct sea canoes recognized by their colorful hand-painted hulls.
Their catch is then brought by donkey carts to the cities’ markets.
With a quick stroll up and down the beach and through the market, at 4pm I said my goodbyes to the group and scrambled off to catch my new, earlier flight itinerary taking off from Nouakchott’s new airport.
My long journey home in order (5 flights total): Nouakchott, Mauritania to Dakar, Senegal to Istanbul, Turkey to Vienna, Austria via Turkish Airlines, then from Vienna to Brussels, Belgium via Austrian Airlines and then from Brussels to NYC via United Airlines.
Turkish Airlines safely delivered me to Vienna, where I caught up with this lovely monsooner and friend for breakfast once again:
And then I got upgraded for free on Austrian Airways to business class:
Took the one hour and a half flight to Brussels, Belgium:
And then after a quick overnight stay, I boarded my first flight on United Airlines’ new and highly anticipated 1-2-1 Polaris business class product.
Flying United Polaris Business/First Class
From Brussels to NYC
Unlike my previous experience on the old 2-1-2 or 2-2-2 configuration, the attention to detail to my single seat was nearly at the level of Qatar’s QSuites; the only thing missing is a sliding door to make it even more private!
Therefore, I opted to book the A line seats to get that extra bit of personal space (the one with your personal table facing the aisle rather than the window)
While in your seat, you’ll notice a nice looking but useless dim vanity lamp, a more useful spotlight for reading, a slightly weirdly shape table on the side to place extra things like a small laptop or tablet, and a personal shelving locker for your phones/headphones/water bottle.
My locker actually wouldn’t open for me at all until I had a flight attendant help me force the lock ajar with a butter knife.
Finally, for the first time there’s a required retractable shoulder seat belt you have to wear in addition to your lap belt during take off and landing.
The amenities bag sported a Star Wars theme keeping in line with the recent release of The Rise of Skywalker, and I’m biased since I’m a fan.
In the bag contains the typical dental kit, eye mask and ear plugs, a sleek pair of comfy socks that I decided to keep (they’re not the raggedy disposable types!), and a separate Sunday Riley bag containing face cream, hand cream, and lip balm.
The enormous amount of Saks 5th Avenue bedding remained; although I always find this setup cumbersome in terms of where to place them during take off (first world problems!) they ultimately remain my favorite touch in United Polaris’ hard product.
In Flight Entertainment
I appreciated the overall agenda of the flight upon accessing the IFE, after which was a standard collection of nearly 100+ movies to watch. The interface was also quick, responsive, intuitive and easy to use.
About 10 minutes after settling into my seat, I was offerred a complimentary glass of champagne and asked for my first and second choice of entrée options for dinner.
With an on-time take off, the soft product began unrolling about an hour later: My appetizer was chicken, pork, and apricot terrine with sweet onion marmalade, peppers and chives:
For the entrée, I chose the braised beef short ribs with porcini mushroom sauce, au gratin potatoes, roasted carrots, celery, and parsnip:
And I chose everything for dessert: the international cheese assortment, their signature sundae with Ghirardelli hot fudge and sea salt caramel sauce, a French Macaroon, a mint-chocolate pastry, and another soft pastry with vanilla frosting.
And after 5 hours of movies and grabbing more free snacks they set up in the galley, I was served a Hamburger Wellington about an hour before landing in EWR airport.
Those 8.5 hours in the sky really flew by for me in a way I was surprised how much I enjoyed the experience thanks to United Airlines’ serious efforts in improving both their hard and soft product service for United Polaris in the 1-2-1 configuration. Color me impressed!
After an early breakfast in Ouadane we departed another drive out into the desert for Agrour to see some pre-historic paintings left there more than 6000 years ago.
Do you see the imprint of the human hand underneath the sun?
After 20 minutes here, we then continued forward to glimpse at the Mheirith oasis, mostly active in July when it’s date season and everyone comes here to harvest.
We then headed past the oasis for a really rough off-road excursion up and down various types of rocky terrain to visit the White Valley. Here, desert is trapped within dramatic cliffs – a breathtaking scenery.
After a few hours dune bashing up and down the desert cliffs, we finally stopped for a late lunch at Tergit/Terjit Oasis: Mauritania’s most picturesque place.
You can take a quick hike through here to see more of the valley:
After lunch and our hike we arrived early evening in Atar where we dropped off our bags at Hotel Des Caravanes:
. . . and had dinner back at Hotel Mer Et Desert, where we were treated to a local dance and music performance by the locals in Atar:
At their behest, some of us joined for some of their dances and learned how to play the drums before we had to turn in early at 10pm: Tomorrow will be our last day of the journey!
- At time of posting in Atar, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 16% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: n/a
After exploring Chinguetti early this morning we then headed off for a 1-2 hour drive into the Adrar region of Mauritania, stopping at isolated and lost cities of the Sahara where empires were founded and felled.
Once upon a time these were important stops of the trans-caravan routes of the Sahara.
Now they’re simply ruins of abandoned towns engulfed by the desert.
. . . as if buildings became their own tombstones . . .
About another 2 hours into the drive, we made a quick pitstop at a remote yet still very active village in the oasis.
We stayed for an hour here for some tea and souvenir shopping.
After another 1 hour’s drive we reached Ouadane aka the “Pompeii of Mauritania” for its sprawling city in ruins:
It was here that products of sub-Saharan Africa were traded with those of the Maghreb. Then the Portuguese arrived in 1487 and transformed the city into a local center of cultural, economic and scientific advancement before the town was moved due the need for sturdier structures.
We walked the streets from old town . . .
. . . into the new town where we found a working foosball table and locals playing bocce.
The kids loved us:
Although authentic, overall the new town vibe somehow had an unexplainable bizarre feeling to it that was shared by others in our group. For some reason the mood felt suspicious and expensive military-grade barbed wire was seen everywhere — including the new hospital as well as the new square — protecting them both from…? Goats? Camels?
Our guide demurred at the question.
We then returned back to our lodgings, finishing with a traditional dinner and an overnight stay at Hotel Vasque.
- At time of posting in Ouadane, it was 23 °C -
Humidity: 20% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After disembarking from a train journey of a lifetime, we drove out towards a campsite outside of Choum by 1am and spent the rest of the night in our tents.
The stars here are unbelievable.
When the sun rose at 8am, we woke up to a picnic breakfast.
After packing our tents, we then drove up towards Atar and took a break with lunchtime and a much needed shower at hotel Mer et Desert.
Here we met the owner, a French doctor who had fallen in love with a local guide here many years ago while on vacation and subsequently left everything behind to become member of the community.
After a pleasant, slow lunch and washing off the dust from the train, we stopped in Atar for a quick sim card purchase (although I wandered off, had a kismet moment of my own and made a few friends, which I describe in the previous post).
After an hour in Atar and saying goodbye to my new friends, we then set off for an evening sunset from the huge sand dunes outside of Chinguetti before turning in to catch up on much needed sleep at their Hotel Caravanes:
The next morning we set out early at 8am to explore more of the UNESCO world heritage site of Chinguetti.
We first tour the main library . . .
. . . where its very famous librarian (I see a photo of him in anyone’s album of Mauritania and Chinguetti) sat down with us and spoke at length on the dire need for greater education within the Islamic world to prevent further radicalism of their religion.
After 20 minutes chatting, he then showed us his tremendous archives of historical Islamic texts dating as far back as a millennia prior.
The next important stop here is the Friday Mosque of Chenguitti, the national symbol of Mauritania.
You can get a great panorama of it from the library’s rooftop. Much of the old centre dates from the 12th century:
For centuries this city was the gathering point for pilgrims of the Maghreb to gather on their way to Mecca. Africans claim it as the 7th most holy city of Islam.
We began in Nouadhibou where we picked up some supplies for the epic train journey ahead.
If you’re serious about this experience, you should definitely pack goggles, warm blankets, scarves, some sort of breathing mask, plenty of water, food, and warm clothes (I recommend thermal undershirt and underwear, light down, windbreaker, a beanie, and a scarf) for the journey.
No tickets, no bookings, no cash, no reservations – you’re supposed to just hitchhike and hop on top when it arrives!
The only “thing” we had “to do” was to show our passports to the security guard at the train station as they want to make sure you’ll get off in Choum and not continue onwards into Western Sahara territory (or Morocco, depending whom you ask) without a formal exit and entry stamp.
Some statistics: The train is 3km in length (way over a mile!) with 200 carriages, 3-4 locomotives, weighing up to 84 tons, capable of carrying 17,000 tons of iron ore, and operating all 365 days of the year since 1963.
There are at least 4 of these trains running on 2 tracks covering 437 miles (704 kilometers) on its journey across the Sahara Desert from Nouadhibou, on the coast, to Zouérat, an iron mine in the center of Mauritania.
It is one of the longest and heaviest trains in the world and with its 3km length, the train took at least 10 minutes to whiz by us before stopping.
And keep in mind there is NO HORN so you have no idea when the train will immediately start again after stopping, whether it’s a minute or twenty.
So once it completely stops, GO GO GO!!!
At the moment the train was still, we quickly inspected a few wagons to make sure they had good wheels, picked one to call home, climbed its ladders, half hanging on while being passed all our bags.
And if there’s ore, you can simply chuck your bags on top before jumping on yourself.
Passenger carriages also can be attached to the train, but people are uncomfortably packed in like sardines and you’ll miss the true experience as a passenger sitting inside the wagons meant to carry the ore, or on top of the ore itself.
And while the train can carry your car as well, you have to make arrangements way ahead of time with the government for your vehicle. But once your car is on the train, you can decide to stay inside your car, sit on top of the ore, or both.
No car? No worries: let it be known that our group has proven that pitching a tent inside a wagon is totally possible and may be a great idea:
With a few minutes to spare after settling in, a huge SONIC BOOM jolted us back before the train began moving.
There was no ore in our car when we boarded, which allowed us to get the best views when climbing up the ladder while still having room to move and use the walls of the car to protect us from the wind.
The train is all yours as nobody cares that you’re here, but if you must explore, be mindful there are no barriers, brakes, or safety measures of any kind. You fall, you die, and the train keeps going.
And those of you who are lighter sleepers, good luck as carriages slam into one another constantly and unexpectedly throughout the journey in a way where we called it the “sonic boom.” (And yet through all of it I was still able to sneak in 2 hours of sleep).
A video example of the sonic boom (this was one of the lighter ones):
Hitchhiking this train will be anyone’s ride of his or her lifetime: Running through one of the harshest environments on earth from the scorching desert heat of daytime and the bitter cold at night, the train offers no shelter, no bathrooms, and no food.
So either pack ahead or buy some disposable secondhand clothing beforehand!
Since we sat in open top cars, we brought tons of blankets and were all wrapped up warm with good scarves to protect our faces from the sand and dust blowing in our direction by the train.
Sometimes the train slows down enough for some breakdancing:
Another upside? The sunset.
Even after the sun had long disappeared, the sky above us just got more purple, especially in the haze of the desert sands blowing past the train:
And while it gets really really cold here (subzero temperatures; I recommend putting on all your layers while it’s still warm around sunset), the true show comes out once it gets completely dark — if the moon isn’t full you can usually see the Milky Way stretching across the night sky.
I had a moment here. This is almost exactly what I saw (with more stars) through my naked eye whenever I looked up and took off my goggles:
While we had expected the train would make its usual delays and arrive to Choum about either 13 or 18 hours after our departure at 3:30pm from Nouadhibou, we lucked out with very efficient train conductors who got us into Choum only 9 hours later at 12:30am!
So after a 2 hour nap by midnight and 15km away from our destination, we packed up everything in our wagon and tried to leave no trace behind.
This is the time where we’d recommend that you plan out an exit strategy and order of who leaves first (using your trash bags as a booster) and who can leave last simply by using upper body strength to swing their legs over.
And by 12:35am we quickly disembarked, leaving with an experience we’ll have a hard time forgetting for the rest of our lives.
We then turned away the taxi drivers by the tracks and instead waited for our pre-arranged jeeps to take us to our campsites 5 minutes away.
And if you love stars, you’re going to love them here.
For those of you wondering “where do I sleep? how do I clean up?” Read onwards!
Not even until 12 hours later the next day and kismet: The main group were all arranging sim cards in the town of Atar where at that very moment I debated whether to stick around, or split off from the group with the non-sim contigent and walk with them around the town for an hour. I then consciously convinced myself to go even a step further, walk off alone, and give myself some much needed me-time.
However, I got uncomfortable splitting off alone, after which I actually thought out loud to myself: “C’mon man, do what makes you uncomfortable. Good things always happen when you do. You always tell others to do the same so you might as well own up to your words and practice what you preach!” (yes I really thought this to myself as I tore myself away from the group who was walking the other direction)
As I turned around from the group and walked away I immediately saw a small café that looked inviting and where I could grab my usual afternoon espresso. And just so happened to have 2 Western-looking backpacker types and a local guide sitting in front outside. I sat down in a table across from them when the guide called out about how he liked my camera. He was a local guide — Yaya of Sidi Tours — and was leading the couple (of Rutas Salvajes) around Mauritania. It just so happens that the 3 were discussing whether to take the train, so when I mentioned that I had just gotten off the train earlier this morning and that it was one of the most life affirming experiences I ever had on my travels, that sealed the deal for them: They were going to get on the train. For once *I* was the happenstance and serendipity with impeccable timing.
Then to further add to this tale of maktoub, I mentioned how my 2 friends who had rode the train in the other direction a few weeks prior had given me advice about it and how it was meant to be that I could quickly pay it forward. Yaya asked who those friends were, and before I could answer, Yaya also mentioned that I reminded him of someone that he had met 2 weeks prior in Dakar, Senegal named David Yang.
HOLY SHIT. I KNOW THIS GUY. AND THAT IS THE FRIEND WHO GAVE ME ADVICE ABOUT IT. This same David Yang (whom I first met in the Marshall Islands last year!) also had just messaged me on Facebook yesterday morning with that last minute advice about the train!
How do I even reply to David now? A photo of me and Yaya? “Oh hey David. Thanks for the message and advice! The train worked out great. BTW Yaya says hi!”
10 minutes ago I was debating whether to go off on my own, even forcibly convincing myself to get over my fears to explore the town alone instead of the group. And 10 minutes later I’m sitting with 3 strangers both finding and becoming serendipity. This is why we travel and another lesson learned that courage cannot exist without fear. So here’s to fear, and the courage that follows.
Anyways if you plan on taking the train in the other direction sitting on TOP of the iron ore . . .
. . . here is David’s formal message about his experience, written by his fellow travelers from the Facebook group Every Passport Stamp, namely Ania Budzinski of Travel Bred (who traveled with David as well as Jenna, whom I met in Iraq 2 Mays ago), of their experience heading from Choum to Nouadhibou:
MAURITANIA – JANUARY 2020 – SOMETHING TO NOTE ABOUT RIDING THE IRON ORE TRAIN
Four other EPSers and I used Hademine from Time For Mauritania (http://timeformauritania.com) for a quick 3-day tour in Mauritania, which included riding the iron ore train from Choum to Nouadhibou. Hademine was excellent—highly recommend.
Day 1: Nouakchott to Terjit (approximately 5 hours) with a night in Terjit— a lovely desert oasis (much better than spending the night in Atar). [Note: There are two camps. Both basic. One is located at the oasis, and the other (Chez Jamal) is just a quick walk away.
Hademine suggested that we stay at Chez Jamal, since the tents at the oasis are situated next to the water, attracting hordes of mosquitoes.]
Day 2: Terjit to Choum with a stop in Atar (approximately 2 hours). Overnight: iron ore train (approximately 13 to 15 hours).
Day 3: Arrive in Nouadhibou.
If you leave early enough, you could technically just drive directly from Nouakchott to Choum. Easy drive. The road is paved. But, do plan to arrive in Choum early. The train does not operate on a fixed schedule. We were told that it does not usually arrive before 19:00, but that it can really come whenever. And when it does, you only have minutes to pick out a “good” wagon and hop on—we were advised to inspect the wheels and levels of iron ore. Also, we were advised to pick a wagon towards the very back of the train (to avoid having to walk 1+ km after arriving in Nouadhibou).
We arrived in Choum just before noon and spent the day hanging out by the tracks. Initially, our tour with Hademine was supposed to end there. However, he offered to join us on the journey to Nouadhibou last minute. Little did we know, this would change everything. After spending the day waiting, we were gutted when the iron ore train just passed us by and did not stop. Shortly after, we learned that no trains were expected to stop in Choum that evening. Hademine mentioned this has been happening a lot in recent weeks/months—something to keep in mind!
We were not prepared for this; we ignorantly just figured the train always stops in Choum. Nope. Apparently, if no passenger car is attached in Zouerat, the train will not stop. [Note: There is an actual train station in Choum. I suggest walking over and asking if the trains are expected to stop (just in case you need to make alternative plans). But, unless you speak French or Arabic, you will need to find someone to translate.]
With Hademine’s help, we hunted down the chief of the train station, and paid him a visit at his home. We basically begged (and incentivized) him to call the conductor of the next train (that was expected to arrive after 04:00) to have it stop—a first for him! Although he could not make any guarantees, he agreed to make some calls. Fortunately for us, he pulled through.
Boarding the train, we were hit with another curveball. The wagons were filled with water—something none of us were expecting. Per Hademine, for whatever reason, they have been adding water to the wagons in recent weeks—something else to keep in mind! Initially, we tried kicking the mounds of iron piled in the center of the wagon into the surrounding water, but quickly realized the iron was obviously not absorbing any of it (just turned to slush). We cut open three water bottles and used them to scoop out as much water as possible before we leveled off the mounds. I suggest bringing empty water bottles in case you need to do the same.
Normally, the journey from Choum to Nouadhibou is overnight (but, since we did not leave Choum until 04:45, we spent almost the entire ride under the sun). Depending on the time of year, it can get quite cold at night (today’s low was 6C or 43F, plus windchill from the moving train). Come prepared! You can buy blankets in some of the towns along the way (and in Choum for twice the price). On the way to Choum, we each bought one in Atar. There are two types of blankets for sale (they are identical from town to town)—one cheaper in quality, and the other better in quality. The blankets are relatively expensive. We shopped around, and the lowest we were able to negotiate anywhere was €30 for the “better quality” one (and €15 for the “cheaper quality”). If you are traveling with someone else, and do not mind sharing, one “better quality” blanket for two people is enough (the blankets are huge).
Make sure you have enough water and food to last you a day. Do not wait until Choum to go shopping—not much there. We bought cases of water and snacks in Nouakchott (also widely available in Atar). Other than that, bring the obvious: some type of goggles, a face mask or two, and something to cover your hair with (you can buy turbans in Atar for cheap). I also suggest bringing “contractor-type” trash bags (one for your bag(s), and one for you to fit into or sit on top of), as well as smaller bags for your phone/camera. And, have a back-up plan! I can assure you that public transportation is limited in Choum ; )
Edit here: Ania’s account of their experience all are big reasons why our group chose to go in the other direction from Nouadhibou: With no iron ore we could use the empty wagons as a cover from the sun and wind if needed, we don’t have to scoop out floods of water off the iron ore when boarding, and that the train would be guaranteed to stop for our group at the terminal station in Nouadhibou.
- At time of posting in Choum, it was 15 °C -
Humidity: 47% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After relaxing in Dakhla for 2 night, we drove to the border of Morocco and Mauritania early this morning.
About an hour into the journey we suffered a flat tire, which luckily took about 30 minutes to sort out thanks to a friend of the driver’s brother that was nearby!
And yet that was my opportunity to get in about 200 push ups while waiting, so ’twas meant to be.
We enjoy one final rest stop on our epic road trip beginning a week ago in Casablanca.
Once we hit the Morocco/Mauritania border at 1pm we said our goodbyes to our guide and drivers and exited the country.
They stamp you out in this little office here:
Once they inspected our bags at “customs” we were picked up by our Mauritanian guides across the border.
From there we hopped into 3 pick up trucks and began a 5km drive into no man’s land, more officially (or arguably?) controlled by the SADR (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic).
While the rest of Western Sahara is claimed by Morocco, this sliver of land is indisputably Sahrawi.
While you may see stolen cars sellers, guns smugglers, and refugees from the conflict here, we saw simply an eerie road lined with endless rows of desolate trucks, and a barren wasteland of abandoned cars as if the apocalypse had occurred years ago. Or Mad Max.
It makes for a surreal 5 minute drive.
Right from the Mauritanian border we entered a whole new world, especially after 2 weeks in Algeria and Morocco. Keep all obvious camera equipment on you and hidden away unless you want to spend forever here.
Our visa on arrival here took nearly an hour and a half to arrange; bring small denominations of Euros to pay for the visa in exact cash (55 euros at the time of posting) because they’ll conveniently “not have change.”
Another trick is to pay in a big group: Not only did we make sure we wouldn’t be swindled the 5 euros per person, but also it ensured our place in the queue.
We were led into the small office about four folks at a time where one by one they took our fingerprints and photos before issuing us our one page visa on arrival.
After getting our visas, we quickly continued onwards to Nouadhibou, the Mauritania’s second largest city and economic capital.
Along the way we sailed through a series of checkpoints; it helps to have a stack of printouts that list your group’s names, nationalities, passport numbers, and visa numbers so you can hand them to every guard that stops your vehicle. That way they can let you drive on without having to get out and be inspected every time.
We quickly drove through Nouadhibou for a southern detour to Cape Blanc: a peninsula shared between Mauritania and Western Sahara.
Like literally shared. Look at Google Maps. What country am I in anyway?
It was here that the Spanish expanded their fishing presence from the Canary islands onto the African coast.
If you’re lucky, you might spot the endangered Mediterranean monk seal colony there; there’s only 150 left out of 500 total in the world. We settled for the small museum in the area.
Making use of a rope nearby, we then rappelled down to the beach, where the world’s biggest ship graveyard used to be located until it was broken down into steel parts and sold by Chinese companies.
We then visited the newer ship graveyard of Nouadhibou.
Looks like they’re phasing this one out as well: Last year there were 15 ships being taken apart, now there’s only 2 left.
Afterwards we grabbed a late dinner at Ice NBC where they served humongous portions for a great value and with decent WiFi. If you fancy a cold one you can grab a beer at the next door Chinese restaurant, the only place that openly serves alcohol.
Then by 11pm we turned in at Hotel Al Jezira.
And yet during all the driving, we managed to get a sneak peek of the train we’re hopping on tomorrow:
The next morning we quickly the Port of Nouadhibou and its fish market . . .
. . . before getting our supplies ready and hopping on this:
- At time of posting in Nouadhibou, it was 26 °C -
Humidity: 33% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear