Let’s start with a short history lesson. Somalia, located on the horn of Africa at the Gulf of Aden, used to be British Somaliland in the north and Italian Somaliland in the south. The Republic of Somalia was formed in 1960 and it lasted only 9 years after the president was assassinated by his own bodyguards. Trouble never stopped in this war-torn place and the Somali Civil War beginning around the 1980’s, culminated in what is today the famous movie ‘Black Hawk Down’. Soon after, Somalia was characterised as a failed state and two autonomous regions were formed. Somaliland far north, bordering Djibouti and Ethiopia, Puntland in the middle with Bosaso being the only real city and Somalia in the south with infamous Mogadishu as its capital.
Somaliland proclaimed its independence in 1991, but no other country in the world recognises its independence, therefore it is still considered as a part of Somalia. Despite having its own borders, army, currency and government.
Nowadays Somaliland is the only part, that is relatively safe and considered okay to travel around. Puntland is more or less a pirate retreat and “the Mog”, as Mogadishu is nicknamed, remains a hell hole. Only hardcore traveler with a death wish fly there. Al Shabaab, Al-Quaeda’s african subsidiary, is extremely active in that part of Africa and you don’t want to get anywhere close to them.
That said, it is still a crazy idea to travel to Somaliland and I’d only recommend it to savvy traveler, who have been in similar places. After all, it is Somalia and more or less lawless. We stayed there for 3 days and the adventure was real.
From Harar in Eastern Ethiopia, where we had an amazing time feeding hyenas, it takes 3 different buses and about 8-10 hours to get to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.
The first bus to Jijiga took about 2 1/2 hours and costs 2 US$. Jijiga is small town, with barely anything to see and you only go there, if you pass through to Togo-Wujaale. This is your next stop and the bordertown between Ethiopia and Somaliland.
The bus station in Jijiga was as crazy as it gets. You have to push yourself inside the bus, otherwise you won’t be on it. Dozens of people try to get in. One angry looking guy yells at everyone in a horrible way to make sure every available inch on the bus is used. I was pushed to the far end in the last row and Marco to the first row on the left. Usually I’d say the bus was built for 20 maybe 25 people. I counted more than 40! We were sitting so closely, that you couldn’t even move an inch. Insane! You just gotta love african buses. Sigh!
When the last seat is full, the bus finally leaves and afterwards, money is collected from one person in each row. People were constantly talking and yelling at me, but I literally had no chance of building a conversation, because we had no mutual language skills.
We stopped every once in a while at military check points and soldiers were seeking out young people, who were seeking asylum in Saudi Arabia, as we were told. They found some of them on our bus as well, but once a few people got off the bus, in the middle of the road, there were new passengers picked up as well. So no more space to stretch out a bit. After horrendous 3 hours we made it to Togo-Wujaale.
From the bus station you walk about 500 m along a dirty road towards the border. Immigration on both sides was very easy and within minutes we were in Somaliland/Somalia. It was a strange feeling. I couldn’t really relax. Mainly because, there is only one way to get to Hargeisa and that is by shared mini vans and the second we stepped out of the immigration building, there was a fight between the drivers, who would take us into town. They literally fought over us. We had nothing to say. So, while they fought and yelled at each other, the immigration officer had to come out and sort the mess. Eventually a driver and car was found and we were directed to a car.
As usual buses in Africa leave when they are full and not a minute earlier. Since we had a few seats left in our car, in western standards 2 places, but in african standards 6 places, we had to wait for over an hour at the border, until 6 more people arrived and then we were off to Hargeisa and some trouble.
On every main road throughout Somaliland military check points are set up to secure the roads and make sure no militant group get to the main towns. From the border to Hargeisa we had 12 check points to pass. The majority of them were easy. Most of the officers were stoned from the Khat leaves and would just browse through our passport to see if we have a visa. But at one check point sh*t was about to get real. He took our passports and just vanished.
It took us a moment to realise what has just happened. We got out off the car with our driver and were looking for the officer. We couldn’t find him anywhere. After some minutes another officer came and said we have to follow him into a building. Very strange.
Then in the back of that building we were asked to pay. They talked bulls*t about how we need to pay a fee, otherwise we couldn’t proceed and won’t get our passports back. That’s proper blackmailing. I was not sure, what would happen, but our driver helped a lot by talking to them. Their english was not very good. The driver told us, we probably need to pay, otherwise we won’t get them back. But we refused and showed a document we got at the embassy, that said there is no other fee. They meant it’s a wrong document, but after another hectic minutes of arguing our driver convinced them, that it is an official document and we should be handed back our passports. They finally gave in. Waaahh how annoying!
We haven’t booked any hotel, but knew about the two main hotels in Hargeisa. There is the Ambassador Hotel, next to the airport, which is the unofficial UN hotel and heavily secured. We went there for lunch and had 3 security checks before even entering the hotel. It is also quite expensive with 50 USD per single room (there is no double room). That’s why we stayed at the Oriental Hotel in Downtown Hargeisa. It’s nowhere near as secure as the Ambassador, but it’s a proper 3*** hotel for 15 USD and breakfast.
When you leave the towns, you must have a soldier with you. The military check points won’t let you pass without security. It’s not because you really need it (we hoped), but because the Government of Somaliland wants to make sure all foreigners are safe and survive their visit. It’s part of a plan (a proven record of no incidents) to become an international recognized independent country. So when we planned to visit the amazing cave paintings at Laas Geel in the desert two hours outside of Hargeisa, we were given personal security.
The cave paintings at Laas Geel are about 7000 years old and extremely well preserved. Archaeologists made the discovery in 2002 and it is considered to be one of the most important ones, since King Tut. I can assure you, that if these cave paintings were found in any other more developed country, that’d be world famous!
Upon arriving you go into a small house and write your names into a guestbook. I scrolled through and found some familiar names of savvy traveler. In the last 5 years only about 20 Austrians have been at Laas Geel, which is a shockingly small number and maybe I have overseen some, but it’ll remain a small number.
There are 9 different paintings around the rock complex and while walking around the rocks, looking at these stunning paintings, I felt very grateful, that I’m able to see such an amazing site. There are no gates, no souvenir shops, no signs or whatsoever. Laas Geel is simply a collection of rocks in the middle of nowhere containing one of the best preserved sites of neolithic history and it is probably one of the most real off-the-beaten-path destinations on the planet.
Reminiscing on this day I still get goosebumps about that amazing site and I’m proud to have seen it. But thinking back, the most eye-opening part was, that people in Somaliland were really nice and welcoming! I have to admit, that I was a little unsure about our safety and too worried while planning this trip.
But 90 percent of that worries were completely unnecessary. It’s impossible to cross the streets without being greated by basically everyone. Drivers would stop their cars just to wave at us, pedestrians would cross the street to walk next to us. You definitely feel like a rockstar and get used to be looked at fast and that’s when you stop worry and actually enjoy being in such an unknown part of the planet, that deserves more visitors. Time will show, if this doomed country will ever make their way back to normality. I hope.
On our way back to Addis Ababa we saw this gem on the tarmac. I guess some passengers might not enjoy this kind of entertainment before flying.
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