Not a Pirate in Sight!

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Africa » Somalia » Somaliland » Hargeisa
March 28th 2012
Published: April 8th 2012
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First to explain, Somaliland is a separate state to Somalia and has been since the early 90s. It just has not been recognised by the international community yet. So, this trip was not some suicide mission into Mogadishu nor was I in search of any pirates. I had been told that it was safe to visit and quite interesting. As I wanted to visit Harar in the east of Ethiopia, I decided it wasn't that much more of an effort to get to Somaliland.

From Jijiga, we got a minibus to the border town of Wajaale. There, we completed the formalities on the Ethiopian side, had our bags checked not-that-thoroughly and walked through the rope across the street that formed the border and into Somaliland. We got stamped in and had some camel for breakfast.

We negotiated a lift into Hargeisa, which involved Jack, Joris and I packing into the boot of a station wagon. This journey didn't start out too well with the first 25-30 km being driven on a dirt track on the side of the 'road', because what was there was so bumpy and potholed. After about 45 minutes of this we got on to the asphalt road, which was a lot better. After 2 hours and 6 checkpoints, we made it into Hargeisa by early afternoon.

Immediately, we were struck by the difference from where we had just come. Everyone, it seemed, stopped on the street or their cars to ask how we were, where we were from and to welcome us to Somaliland. They seemed genuinely delighted that Western (white) people had recognised their country as being a safe place to visit.

I also couldn't believe how developed it was and the amount of building work in progress. There also seemed to be quite a bit of wealth, with most of the cars being quite modern - far more so than in Ethiopia, Sudan or Egypt. It was also a big change being back in an Islamic state, with all of the women covered up, most with nothing but their faces showing.

Our first mission was to change money. The Somali Shilling wouldn't be the strongest currency going and up until 2 months ago the biggest note they had was a 500 Shilling ( 1 US Dollar = 6,500 Shilling). They had recently introduced 1,000 and 5,000 Shilling notes. There are many money changers on the main streets, with cages full of bundles of money to exchange. They also have Somalian passports for sale! Having changed some money, I got most of mine in 5,000 notes, but I was a bit jealous of Joris, who got his in 500s and got to walk away with a bag of money.

We had arranged to couchsurf with an American guy, Brandon, teaching English in Hargeisa and went with him to a restaurant Hadhwannag. We also met Ian, an English guy, who was also teaching in Hargeisa and until recently was living with Brandon. The two lads made being in Hargeisa a lot easier, as it is not the most accessible city for a tourist.

That night we went to the Mansoor Hotel, which had major security. This is the place that all of the NGO workers go for food, drinks and meetings. We had to go through two sets of metal detectors before being allowed in. We were able to get some Western food and even managed to see the Barcelona - AC Milan Champions League 1st leg.

The next day, we were up early as there were quite a number of bureaucratic errands we had to run. Joris and Jack didn't have multi-entry visas for Ethiopia, so they had to apply for a new one. To do this, they first had to go to some immigration office to get permission to leave. Having got this, we got to the Ethiopian consulate, only to find it was closed - on a Thursday.

We were planning on going to Berbera the next day, via Laas Geel. This wasn't as simple as just catching a bus. First, we needed a permit from the police chief to travel up to Berbera without armed guards. We arrived at the police headquarters only to be told that the police chief wasn't there and to come back in an hour, which we did. Having arrived back, we were told he still wasn't there. This time we insisted on going in and at least having the letter prepared for him to sign.

Ian had come with us to make sure we got all this done and I went off with him to the Ministry of Tourism to get the permits for Laas Geel, leaving Jack and Joris to get the travel permit, when the police chief arrived. Given how the day had gone, I was fairly surprised that everything was sorted when we met up again an hour or so later.

With our chores done, we went 'sightseeing' in Hargeisa. There really isn't a whole lot to see, but the Mig they have on display with fairly gruesome murals is quite interesting. There are also a few British style buildings that seem literally untouched since 1960, when the Brits left. Somaliland used to be a British Proctertorate known as British Somaliland.

We also went to the market, which was fairly big and full of the most useless items you could think of. The meat market was a bit of an eye opener though. It was afternoon by the time we got there and most of the meat had been sold. There were scraps of meat left, but they were infested with flies. The stands where meat had been on sale were crawling with stray cats picking up any bits of fat they could find. I had to get out before I turned vegetarian!

The fact that there were 4 or 5 white guys in their 20s walking around Hargeisa, must have been quite strange for the locals to see and I think that is why there was such excitement. There are very few Westerners that we saw in the city, most of them that are there would be NGO workers and are ferried around in cars with armed guards. Over 99% of the responses from people were exceptionally warm and friendly, until a 4x4 pulled up and a guy shouted "What are you doing in my country? If you don't move, I will shoot you one after the other!" The strange thing was that he shouted it in a British accent. It was pretty shocking, but hard to take seriously.

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