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September 30, 2014, 1:28 pm

Though its people have long suffered under one of Africa’s most corrupt and complacent governments, Guinea’s stunning landscape and vibrant culture attract intrepid travelers prepared to rough it a bit.

Capital city: Conakry, population: 9.6 million, Area: 245,000 sq km, official language: French

Guinea has four distinct geological regions, all of which receive considerable rain in season. From a narrow coastal plain the country rises into the Fouta djalon plateau, where many peaks reach over 10,00 meters, then drops to the northeastern dry lowlands and ends in the hilly Forest Region - which, due to excessive logging, no longer warrants its name. The once impressive biodiversity present in Guinea is now in rapid decline thanks to decades of unsustainable industry.

History in a nutshell
Samory Toure unsuccessfully rose up against French colonialists at the end of the 19th century; many decades later, one of his descendants, Sekou Tour, became the father of independence. In 1958, when Charles de Gaulle proposed that the French colonies in West Africa join a united Franco-African community, Toure famously declared his preference for ‘freedom in poverty to prosperity in chains'. He got his wish. The French administrators pulled out and wealthy French citizens fled the country, leaving the local economy in a shambles. Toure was merciless against his opposition, among whom, in his paranoia, he eventually included the entire Fulani population.

Days after Toure's death in 1984, Lansana Conte took hold of the reins. Although some aspects of life have improved under his regime, the government has become increasingly repressive and at the time of writing, Conte was under pressure to resign.

Guinea's three principal tribal groups - Fulani, Malinke and Susu - compose 90 percent of Guinea's population. Eighty-five percent are Muslims, with the rest evenly split between Christians and traditional animist beliefs. French is the official language, but all of Guinea's 18 tribal groups speak their own tongue.

Despite a wealth of agricultural, hydropower and mineral resources - including nearly half of the world's bauxite reserves - Guinea is an economic basket case. At 25 percent, the inflation rate is the third highest in the world and the country was ranked 156 out of 177 in the 2003 UN Human Development Index. The government's budget is US$590 million, about the same as the island of Jersey and 0.0005 percent of France's budget. Most multilateral aid was cut off in 2003.

Les Ballets Africains
Circus Baobab
Writer Camara Laye
Vine bridges

Natural beauty
Most visitors to Guinea are here for the Fouta Djalon, a vast area of green rolling hills punctuated by peaks and canyons in the west of the country. Largely pastoral, with only scattered mud-hut villages beyond the main road, it is a beautiful area on the macro level and downright spectacular at certain sites. Even better, at its enormous waterfalls, and within its contorted slot canyons draped in jungle, you are far more likely to meet monkeys than other people.

Random facts
Three major rivers - the Niger, Gambia and Senegal Rivers - begin their journey to the sea in Guinea's rainy highlands.
Scrap-metal sculpture is an emerging art form and growing industry in several towns in Guinea.

Urban Scene
In some ways Kankan, Guinea’s second city, feels more Malian than Guinean. The streets are shady and sandy and life seems to move a little slower here than in other cities its size. The Malian connection is even stronger culturally - Kankan is the spiritual capital of the Malinke tribe, who ruled much of West Africa in the 12th century when the Empire of Mali was at its peak. However, this is also a university town which draws people from across the nation, and while the nightlife doesn't swing anything like it does in Conakry, it is there if you want it.

Wild things
A group of chimpanzees living in the forest near Bossou became famous in 2005, after Japanese primatologist Gaku Ohashi discovered that not only could they detect and destroy animal traps, but they were teaching this skill to other chimps.

From the forest
When you see it, it is easy to understand why many people call the dark-eyed, intricately patterned fabric produced across southern Guinea ‘mud cloth’. In fact, in Guinea no dirt is involved in its production (unlike in Mali, for example). The earthy brown color comes from kola nuts and tree bark, which is why Guineans call it 'forest-cloth'.

Three-ring cinema
When French filmmaker Laurent Chevallier decided he wanted to make a documentary film about an African circus on tour, he ran into one big problem - there wasn't one. So, in 1998 he took directing to a new level and created one. The high-flying Circus Baobab has since toured the world to high acclaim. The film of the same name was released in 2001.

Future directions
Guinea faces an uncertain future. In 2001 the constitution was changed to allow President Conte a third term, and, to no-one's surprise, he prevailed in the next election. Now a chain-smoking diabetic in his 70s, Conte can barely walk and has reportedly been on his death bed several times, but apparently has avoided making plans for his succession, nevertheless. No-one expects actual democracy to emerge after his death, but many observers fear that the transition will come violently.

The political opposition has united to implore the ailing president, for the sake of the nation, to resign and allow a transitional government. His refusal, along with the fact that the economy is doing just as badly as his health, has prompted general strikes and violent demonstrations.

Essential experiences
Hiking over the mountains and past the waterfalls of the Fouta Djalon
Watching local drum and dance troupes heat up the night
Coming face to face with chimpanzees in the forests around Bossou
Tracking elephants in the virgin rainforest of Fork Classee de Ziama
Lazing on the palm-fringed beaches of Sobane and lies de Los

Best time to visit November to May

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