Most people that heard me mentioning I was on my way to Somalia, were in absolute disbelief - particularly during November 2014, a rather turbulent time in the country. They knew I had an adventurous spirit, but thought it was a bit too much, even for a traveller like myself.
What they were not aware of, like most people, is that there is an independent, self-proclaimed region in the northern part of the country, called Somaliland, and that this region has now for a good few years, been making a point of being safe for tourism and entirely separate from the rest of Somalia. I was also unaware of that fact for a long time. Over the 4 days I spent in Somaliland, I had a blast discovering such an off the beaten track destination, and was gladly surprised by what awaited those willing to venture into the region.
A brief introduction
Somaliland is a region in the northwest of Somalia that borders Ethiopia in its south and west and Djibouti in its northwest, also bordering the Gulf of Aden in the north. It is a self-proclaimed country that doesn't yet have its sovereignty recognised by the United Nations. It was included in the regional power struggle by a few European nations (France, Britain and Italy) also involving Ethiopia and Djibouti, back in the 19th century, but it wasn't until the 1960s that it was annexed to Somalia, resulting in ethnical and political tensions that later where acts that brought the region to break apart from the country's mainland in 1991, having its own parliamentary and presidential elections in 2010, and establishing itself as a peaceful region where acts of violence are rather rare.
Although the region is culturally much like the rest of Somalia, operations wise, it seems to work like an entirely different world. For tourism, it certainly does come very differently, as the rest of Somalia has been involved in civil wars for decades with extreme levels of violence that have resulted in the country becoming a no-go area for visitors. Somaliland, on the other hand has been making massive efforts during the last decade to establish itself as a safe destination where tourism is welcome and with attempts of development, and even though most international governments (including the UK) still advise against visiting the region, guidebooks provide enough information these days to lure a few adventurous travellers into this still somewhat undiscovered region.
But why Somaliland? My visit to the region
After having read a bit about the neolithic rock paintings in the cave dwellings of Las Geel, along with the exciting idea of travelling to a region much less travelled, I decided that I simply had to pay Somaliland a visit. I was going to be too close to the region to miss out on it.
Visas wise, it was almost as simple as it gets. I paid the London Somaliland High Commissioner office a visit, in an old warehouse building in White Chapel. After filling out a simple application form, handing in a passport size photograph along with £30, my passport had the easiest visa it had ever gotten attached to it.
After spending sometime in the east of Ethiopia, I made the long overland journey from Harar to Jijiga, the last city in the Ethiopian side, then took another shared taxi to the border town of Wajaale, from where I could cross the border on foot and officially enter the country, or shall I say autonomous region. Or whatever seems more suitable to call it.
A $5 shared taxi ride to the capital, Hargeisa, showed me quickly that I was in a very different land that little resembled Ethiopia. Although Arabic was the official language, Somali was mostly spoken. The country operated under sharia law (Islamic law) and people dressed very differently – particularly women, ranging from having their entire figure covered, even their eyes, to having an abaya and a head veil, but allowing their face to be visible.
From the research I had done, I had read that foreigners are not obligated to dress as conservatively, but are recommended to use common sense and dress respectfully, not exposing too much skin. As this is not a habit of mine anyway, I wasn't too concerned, and figured my travelling long pants and T-shirts would be fine, along with the usual everyday ponytail. But it didn't take me long to notice, as soon as I reached Hargeisa, that it was simply not good enough.
Hargeisa – A real city, with friendly locals, but rather conservative
After having checked into a budget hotel in the centre of town, I dropped of my backpack and decided to explore the city. I could see it from the taxi ride that it wasn't exactly big or too developed, but that it had plenty of street markets, mosques and overall “real things” to be observed. After having felt like a tourist 24/7 in Ethiopia, I was craving authenticity, and it did sound like a very promising idea.
The streets were busy with market stalls everywhere, street money changers, half broken cars and motorbikes among the groups of pedestrians roaming through the dusty roads. The centre had a mix of high-rise office buildings (not all that high, maybe 6 or 7 floors) and older one level constructions. Nothing about it yelled “tourist attraction”, but I was extremely pleased to be in a real city where real people went on about their daily lives.
I was, needless to say, the centre of everyone's attention. Fair enough, there were not many visitors around, let alone solo western females, so I didn't quite bother to care about it. And then, after about half an hour walking around, a girl approached me in a coffee shop, an English student, and mentioned she was surprised about how I wasn't shy, for everyone was obviously looking at me. She gifted me a head scarf (I had a scarf I could use, but she insisted, so that I would remember her), and told me it should defer people from starring at me so much. Fair enough.
As I went into the street market, a few other girls approached me, and an English-speaking one, around my age, asked me if I “wasn't shy to be showing my body to every man in such a way”. I started laughing, for I had long trouser and a very baggy T-shirt on. They were very kind and didn't mean disrespect in any way; they were just rather shocked and seemed to feel bad for me. I then asked one of them to help me find a proper outfit in the market, so that I could blend in a bit more.
In my mind, the experience of searching for a Islamic proper outfit in a street market of Hargeisa along with Somali Muslim girls was worth a million dollars, so I didn't care if I'd spend a few dollars on something I'd likely never wear again, She took me to a tailor who was the sweetest person she could be. After picking out a colour, and having a lot of fun being measured, I waited about 10 minutes, and then a blue, short cover-all sort of dress that basically just left room for my face to be out (through a little hole on the top) and reached my thighs, was ready to be worn. I would have paid $50 for that experience, but the “abaya” cost me not a penny over $5. Funnily enough, I didn't feel that the level of attention decreased – but now I was stared at as a culturally respectful solo western visitor, and smiles of approval were flowing in.
There isn't a lot more to Hargeisa. Walking around the markets and feeling the atmosphere, especially around 6PM, bringing the call for prayer from many nearby mosques. I was very happy to be feeling like I was actually travelling and discovering things myself, and experiencing local life through my own eyes – something I often cherish and appreciate a lot more than museums or monuments.
The cave paintings at Las Geel
The rock art paintings in the Las Geel caves were discovered fairly recently, only in 2002, by a French team of researchers. It is no UNESCO World Heritage site for the simple fact that Somaliland is not a recognised country, otherwise, it certainly would be.
The Neolithic paintings there are some of the best preserved in all of Africa, and venturing out there was quite an expedition, through rocky roads and extremely hot weather, but having an entirely “outdoor museum” to myself set in an isolated, desert like area, was indeed very rewarding, It isn't visited by many people, but it is indeed what visitors to the region do visit, and I won't be surprised if it becomes something extremely popular in the next few years, bringing more than history and archaeology buffs into the region.
Berbera – an exotic coastal town by the Gulf of Aden
From Las Geel, I continued on the same car into the coastal town of Berbera. The desert road didn't have much in between, aside from countless check points, a few camels here and there and a small village or two containing a petrol station and some dwellings.
I reached Berbera before sunset, and was fortunate enough to find a decent little local hotel with a room from where I could see the water, overlook the town and just sit back and observe.
Berbera was extremely hot and humid, reaching nearly 40°C. There was no tourism in the town itself, but 5 km away, an actual “resort” could be found, and I had heard tourists could go there, use the facilities and even swim! At 40°C, there was nothing I would rather do or nowhere I would rather be than swimming in the sea – even with a sarong or abaya covering my body as I did it.
Berbera was a fishing town, and with the assistance of some friendly locals, I managed to walk around the town, see the small centre with its old architecture (mostly destroyed by the civil war) and get a bit of a feel for it.
The following morning, I took the 5-kilometre taxi ride to the resort town, where indeed, a hotel with decent facilities could be found (along with many foreign UN workers). After finally finding a restaurant with vegetarian options, I ventured into the deserted beach, where the amazing warm waters of the Gulf of Aden stood still. I had gone prepared to swim in “respectful clothes”, but after noticing absolutely nobody was anywhere to be found, I decided a bathing suit couldn't offend anyone, and spent a good few heavenly hours on the sea, always paying attention and ensuring I was still on my own. Not even tourists or UN workers were around.
The beach reminded me a bit of Zanzibar, with its long stretches of white sand and pristine blue waters, but this time around, I wasn't sharing it with anyone, and that experience alone made the whole trip to Somaliland worth the distance and the heat!
A truly unique experience to be remembered
After 4 full days in the region, it was time to catch a plane and leave Somaliland behind. Although I wouldn't exactly recommend the place as the Number 1 not-to-be-missed destination to be visited ASAP by travellers around the world, I would most certainly recommend it highly to anyone, as a safe and authentic place in which to spend some time. Especially for seasoned travellers that have been around a fair bit and might find themselves a bit jaded, eager to experience the true art of travelling and discovering new places. For those, Somaliland is a real gem, and for everyone else, still a rather interesting region nevertheless.