Walking The Streets Of Hargeisa, Somaliland
I will be honest; there are not a lot of traditional tourist haunts in Somaliland. A lot of it, is simply soaking in the atmosphere. There is no better place to start then strolling the dusty and cluttered streets of the capital Hargeisa. If you are staying at the Oriental Hotel, it is simple process. Just step out onto the street and you are in the thick of the scrum.
The main thoroughfare is the cleverly named Road number 1. Highlights on the street include a crashed Somali MIG from the war of independence and the local market. At the market you will find everything from textiles to slabs of meat.
Part of the magic is meeting the locals. Here is your chance to feel like Justin Bieber at the local mall. Do not be surprised if you are surrounded by a group of 20 locals, asking you dozens of questions.
Change Some Money
This is my favorite experience in Somaliland and this alone made my visit worth it. Somaliland is the epitome of a cash economy. And when I say cash, I am talking about a shitload of cash, entire wheel barrels full of it. The most common bill is the 1000 Schilling. This equates to around 14 cents. If you are converting $100 expect that you will need to carry a separate bag to house your new Somaliland Schillings.
One of the big open air markets is found outside of the Oriental Hotel. Dozens of men will lounge on the corners with incredibly large stacks of money. Interestingly, security does not seem to be a concern. There is no police, there are no guns. There are literally money changers on every street corner.
Chew Some Khat
When in Rome … chew some Khat with the locals. Alcohol is illegal in the country, so don’t expect to relax with a cold beer after a sticky day of taking in the sights. Khat is sold virtually on every street. Khat is a narcotic that is chewed for hours and extremely popular on the Horn of Africa. This is a giant industry enjoyed by virtually the entire male population is chewing Khat. Entire aviation networks are set up to fly in Khat daily. Most Khat is exported form Kenya and Ethiopia. It is critical for a good buzz that the Khat is fresh, less than 24 hours.
Go To Starbucks
Well not exactly, but their version. While driving outside of the city, you might come across a stand like this. Pull over, empty out the plastic water bottle. Your bottle will be filled with some warm camel’s milk. Enjoy.
Hang Out At The Ambassador Hotel
This is an oasis of solitude. After a couple of days of being in the thick of it, you might want to escape to the Ambassador. I do not recommend staying here due to the location, far from the city center and close to the airport. I strongly recommend bringing a book here and lounging in the outdoor restaurant. Enjoy the incredibly delicious fruit shake and try the cheese pizza. Win back your sanity.
Go To The Live Stock Market
If not concerned about MERS, you might want to snuggle up with a camel. If staying at the Oriental Hotel, you will need to take a taxi for about 15 minutes to the outskirts of the city. It is best to go earlier in the morning while the market is lively. Take in the colors and the scents. Statuesque camels roam next to timid goats. Expect to make friends and be questioned repeatedly.
Road Trip To Las Geel
You want to go here for two reasons. First, this is the only true touristic sight in the country. And second, you will be accompanied by your own private armed soldier.
Las Geel is a series of extremely well preserved rock paintings that date somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. The paintings are contained in a series of caves on a hill amidst the desert like landscape. Climb up with your guard and imagine our ancestors letting their creative juices flow. Most likely, you will be the only visitor there. While looking at the guest book, I was the first visitors in ten days.
The government is concerned about your security. If you plan to leave the capital, you are required to have a government document providing you permission and an armed guard. I arranged the trip with the Oriental Hotel. You need to plan 24 hours in advance. They will arrange for the paperwork, the car, the driver, and the armed guard. The entrance fee to Las Geel is $25, and the remainder is $100. Obviously, it is better if you have someone to split the $100 with. While leaving Hargeisa, you will pass multiple checkpoints. They are checking your paperwork and confirming that you have an AK-47 toting guard. The drive one way is about two hours, and expect to spend under 2 hours at the caves. To make friends I gave the guard and the driver some Khat for the drive.
Become A Somaliland Citizen
During my four day trip to Somaliland, I met one fellow traveler. An Austrian scientist, taking 6 months to travel Africa. We spent a couple of days hanging out, sipping fruit shakes at the Ambassador Hotel and traveling to Las Geel. He had an incredible experience after I left. He became a Somali citizen after my departure. Please read his story below.
Visa rules change fast. I planned to travel back from Somaliland to Ethiopia, but the Ethiopian embassy in Hargeisa, Somalilands capitol, refuses to issue me a visa. Their argument: I am not a Somali citizen. I am outraged. Furious. Angry. Frustrated I walk down Independence Avenue, Hargeisas chronically congested main road. And then I see them: Dark-green Somali passports poking out of the stacks of Somaliland Shillings in front of the money changers. Since Somaliland is officially part of Somalia, people here need a Somali passport to travel. However, Somalia is a completely dysfunctional country without working administration. In order to obtain an official passport, Somaliland people need to go to visit moneychangers at the roadside. ‘Ethiopia refuses me a visa because I am not Somali citizen? I simply become Somali citizen!’, I thought before I asked the money changer what I need to get a passport. “One passport photo and 100 USD”. No birth certificate or other documents. It’s this part of Africa where money dictates the law. I bargain the price down to a still steep 90 USD before the money changer hands me over a brand new blank passport to fill out the necessary information. Within seconds the money changer turns into an official by pulling out several stamps and a stamp pad. Like a professional he throws different stamps all over the passport – the right stamp at the right place. My photo gets placed next to the blank field “photo of wife” before he laminates the photo page and hands me over my brand new passport. I became citizen of Somalia within 5 minutes.
Valid Somali passport