Person 1: “You never come around to my house anymore!”

Person 2: “Yea well, that’s because you live all the way out in Timbuktu!”

How often have you heard this reference to Timbuktu? And how often have you wondered where this place actually is? I was quite amazed recently when a rather smart and ‘all-knowing’ (ahem!) friend of mine wondered if Timbuktu even exists. Well, of course it does! The phrase “from here to Timbuktu” usually conjures images of a very remote, distant, isolated, inaccessible, almost non existent ‘in-the-middle-of-nowhere’ location.

So, for all you lazy bums who wondered and wondered and never really found out, Timbuktu is a city in the West African nation of Mali. It was founded by the Tuareg (the nomads of the Sahara) sometime around the 11th century. Legend has it that whenever it started raining in the desert, the Turareg would leave their heavy goods with an old women called Tin Abutut who stayed at a nearby well. With the passage time, the name Tin Abutut became Timbuktu and stuck on.

Timbuktu made its appearance on the world map around the 14th century for its great wealth and for being an important trade hub. Much unlike its regular association, Timbuktu or Tombouctou (as the locals call it) is apparently quite a privileged playground in its own right. The poor, parched and sparsely populated ‘sandy’ area will surprise you with its Malian women in bright printed dresses, driving bikes in kitten heels; the men in their Old Testament-esque blue finery and the blaring music off the street-side speakers swirling riffs of Tuareg pop or Akon or 50 Cent.

This, however, doesn’t change the fact that you still need a sleeping bag, heavy boots, camel skin tents, mosquito nets, sunblock, baby wipes and lots and lots of water if you ever wish to tread that land. Timbuktu is a visual and cultural jolt. But it is a land devoid of western norms, trends and preconceptions.

The idea of Timbuktu caught up with such popularity that it’s been used and quoted in hordes of movies as well. So, the next time you use ‘Timbuktu’ in a phrase, you know the place really exists!