Aled Evans has recently returned from a trip to Somaliland and this (Somaliland Uncovered) is his blog of the trip.
Before traveling to Somaliland, I decided it was best that I arranged my visa before arriving. There is the option to get a visa on arrival in Hargeisa, but after a 14-hour journey from Newcastle via Dubai, the last thing I wanted was to be hanging around, hot and sweaty at the immigration desk!
Having corresponded with the Somaliland Mission in London, I was offered the option to send my passport and application form to them (recorded delivery) rather than visit in person. Although this would have saved me a day out of the office, I am always nervous about sending my passport through the mail and I chose to book a day return rail ticket.
On the day, things run very smoothly. A couple of stops on the tube and I am in Whitechapel looking for the Somaliland Mission. Hidden away deep inside the ground floor of an office block, it is easy to miss the office. As I wonder through a maze of corridors, a knock on the window and a man pointing to the sign saying ‘Somaliland Mission’ tells me that I’ve arrived. They must have a lot of people walk straight past! It only takes 15 minutes for my application form to be checked and a visa stuck and stamped in my passport. A £30 fee paid in cash and it’s all done and I’m glad I came down to London to have it done in person now.
A couple of weeks later, as my FlyDubai flight touches down at Hargeisa and we step off the aircraft into the dry heat, I’m again relieved that I don’t have to join the que for visas on arrival. It is a quick process to get through immigration, pay my $10 tax and wait for my bags to be offloaded. A tip – keep hold of your luggage receipts as these are checked and cross-referenced to your luggage as you collect your bags and leave.
Outside the terminal, I am met with a large smile and soft handshake by Mr. Ali, my guide and driver for this short introduction to Somaliland. Before going to the hotel to check-in, we visit the camel market, which at this time in the morning is just getting into full swing. It seems that Mr. Ali knows almost everyone here and there are more handshakes and smiles as I’m shown around. I’m amazed at the prices the camels can sell for, with the bigger stronger animals fetching in excess of $1000 each. It is no wonder that the owners are taking such good care of the animals.
The hour and a half spent at the market flies by and I’m surprised when I’m told we need to go and check-in at the hotel. The drive through Hargeisa passes the famous ‘Hand of Somaliland’ statue which an enterprising local has almost hidden with a large sign advertising their business services. It seems that there are no official laws or rules relating to business advertising, or if there are, someone may have ‘overlooked’ this particular example. It takes about half an hour through the bumpy streets until we arrive at our hotel, located right in the center of Hargeisa.
We arrive at the hotel and with a quick and easy check-in procedure, I’m in my room. A large comfortable double bed, a tv with international channels and a clean bathroom with shower. I have stayed in better but also much worse and it is more than adequate given that the view I have out of the window is of the famous MiG-17 in Memorial Square.
A good night’s rest and the next morning as I step out of the hotel entrance, Mr. Ali is waiting for me and we head off on foot into Hargeisa to explore the markets. The city center is surprisingly compact although the central market is a dark labyrinth that it would be very easy to get lost in. My guide seemed to know his way around and, as with the Camel market, he also seemed to know everyone in the market! There are lots of clothes stalls, some wonderful stalls that seem to sell every spice you could think of, and some people selling meat that I am told is a camel. There are lots of friendly smiles and waves, a few traders try and get me to come in to buy but no real pressure. This is an authentic market and no tourist trap.
We have a light lunch in a cafe just outside the market. The coffee is excellent and gives me just the lift I need for the afternoon. We travel through the city and Mr. Ali points out a non-descript building with high walls topped with barbed wire. ‘That is a top-secret CIA building for battle against al-Shabaab’ he whispers to me. ‘Also used by British intelligence’ he adds with a knowing nod. I wonder, as it is top secret, how Mr. Ali knows what the building is and what it is used for, so I ask him. ‘Of course, everyone in Hargeisa knows that this is a top secret building’ he tells me!
We stop the car at a wonderful view overlooking the city and it is a great place to sit in the calm evening air as the sun sets. Despite the size of the city below us, it seems very calm and quiet with lights just starting to come on and a call to prayer just audible in the distance.
The next day is an early start as we are heading to what is without a doubt one of the ‘must sees’ of Somaliland – Las Geel. These rock paintings are perhaps one of the most important rock art sites in all of Africa. Dating back at least 5000 years, Las Geel consists of a complex of caves and rock shelters, the most significant of which is a 100 square meter surface with at least 250 individual paintings. The figures depicted here are cattle, giraffe, and hunters accompanied by dogs, among others, and they are exceptionally well preserved, making this a real delight for anyone who is even in the slightest bit interested in rock art.
We travel for about an hour out of Hargeisa and then the journey involves a 25-minute off-road drive that the Land Cruiser handles with no problems. We stop at a checkpoint, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with the ‘guard’ asleep under a tree. A quick check of our papers and we continue for 10 more minutes to the small whitewashed reception building located near the main rock formation. Inside are a few interpretation boards in English describing the various paintings and the academic studies carried out there. No cafe, no souvenir stalls, all very low key and discreet.
Mr. Ali leads me along a rough path that gets increasingly steep until we arrive at the main site. What we find in the cave is quite stunning with the walls covered in paintings of wild animals, livestock and people. I can’t imagine how the first people to find this cave must have felt. It really does seem to have an aura about it.
We spend the next hour exploring the various caves with different pictures and levels of details. It really is quite stunning and also very authentic, as there are no other tourists here when I visit. The views looking out over the savannah are spectacular and it is easy to imagine the people who painted these images sitting exactly where I was and looking out at exactly the same view 5000 years previously. Las Geel is certainly worth the visit and the undeveloped nature of the site adds to the overall feel of adventure and discovery when you visit.
My final stop on my quick tour of Somaliland is Berbera, Somaliland’s second city but at only 50,000 people, it is considerably smaller than Hargeisa. Once occupied by the Ottomans, Berbera is home to a fascinating old quarter which is an interesting place to explore, with winding alleys and some small mosques. It must be said that a lot of the old quarter is now in ruin and I was slightly disappointed to see how the buildings had been left to crumble. Mr. Ali talked about foreign investment coming in and preserving or rebuilding some of the buildings, but there was no sign of this when I visited. If and when this does happen, there is huge potential in the town. The highlight of Berbera for me was the long sandy beach and the wonderful fish restaurant that we had lunch at.
On our return to Hargeisa, something happened that made me think that Somaliland has a long and prosperous future. A smartly dressed young man came up to me just outside the hotel and introduced himself as Ashkir. He had overheard Mr. Ali telling me the collection time in the morning and had realized that I was a tourist. He explained that he was the customer service and HR manager for the hotel, and they usually only had Western business travelers staying. He was keen to encourage tourists and wanted to know what I thought of his country and the hotel. After telling him all about Undiscovered Destinations he was delighted to know that there were companies out there supporting Somaliland.
Ashkir went on to explain that he had only recently returned to Somaliland and was keen to promote it. His family had been refugees in the 1990s and he was brought up and educated in Oslo, gaining a degree and Masters before working in the U.A.E. at a number of five-star hotels. He had returned to Hargeisa to try and give something back to his country of birth and to help build up the economy of the country. What really struck me about this was that it was not the first time I had heard this story. A few days earlier, I had spoken to another gentleman, the owner of a restaurant I was eating in. He had a distinct midlands accent and explained that once again he was a former refugee, whose family had been resettled in the U.K. He had been brought up and educated in Birmingham, attending his local college and training as a chef. The family had returned to Somaliland and had set up the restaurant. They still had many family and friends in Birmingham but felt that they needed to return to help ‘rebuild’ their country.
As Somaliland is still unrecognized as an ‘official’ country, it is going to be through the efforts of people like Ashkir and others and all those returning to Somaliland, to promote their independence. During my time in Somaliland, I felt entirely safe and welcomed. There is a vibrancy and energy in Hargeisa, a sense of optimism and hope, and if there is one thing that I will always remember about Somaliland it is this.
Aled Evans visited Somaliland in November 2018. Due to Somaliland not being recognized by The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) as a separate country to Somalia, it does fall under the FCO as Somalia and therefore has a ‘Advise against all travel’ red warning. https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/somalia
Undiscovered Destinations works very closely with experienced local contacts and the local tourism ministry and are fully confident that it is safe to operate tours in Somaliland. Full details of Undiscovered Destinations tour in Somaliland can be found here. https://www.undiscovered-destinations.com/holidays-guided-tours/somaliland/
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