This city of 30,000, located near the center of Niger, is often referred to as the sister city of Timbuktu. It's simply fascinating. If you approach overland, you'll see it rise right out of the desert: Its distinctive sand-brick architecture blends in so well with the Sahel you may think it's a mirage. Three tribes walk the streets: the Fulani, who wear large, sombrerolike hats and ride donkeys; the Hausa, merchants dressed in long robes and colorful pillbox hats; and the nomadic Tuaregs who give chilling looks from beneath massive turbans.

Agadez is very spread out, austere and dusty—it gives you a real sense of being on the frontier. There's not much to do but walk around the small market (it's filled with interesting characters), look at the multistory 16th-century mosque and browse in the silver shops.

If the political situation permits, excursions can be arranged to go by camel or other conveyance into the nearby Air Mountains, home of the Tuaregs and also home to the Tuareg rebellion. This area can be somewhat dicey—the locals are prone to a little banditry now and then (all in the name of the cause). Guides will insist that it is safe but that you need permission from a variety of government officials. They will also insist that you have to pay them a lot of money for their services.

If you don't have your own transportation, this may actually be the best option, although you can save some time by simply going to the Prefecture yourself and asking permission to travel "in the bush" (then, of course, you can bargain your guide down a bit). Not that it matters, though: The gendarmerie will have nothing to do with the areas immediately north of Agadez, so you can pretty much come and go as you please—at your own risk. We don't recommend taking this trip until the situation has stabilized.

Note: All travel to the Air Massif, Tenere and Kaouar regions is unadvisable because of recent clashes between Nigerien security forces and armed groups. Also, all travel to the Azawagh area—particularly between the Malian and Algerian borders and the Nigerian towns of Tahoua and Ingall—and to the east of Air Massif and the area north of Iferouane up to the Algerian border, is not advised. The road between Niamey and Agadez is in very good condition, but the road between Zinder and Agadez has a break in the asphalt of more than 60 mi/100 km—where the sand can get quite deep. 400 mi/645 km northeast of Niamey.

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