By its name, we guess where Somaliland can be located on the map, but it’s a country that very few people know… Indeed, it’s actually a country that does not exist for the international community. Somaliland self-proclaimed itself independent in 1991, after the end of the civil war in 1988, when Somali troops were pushed back to what is now the borders of this de facto state. Unfortunately, Somaliland, not being recognized officially, experiences a lot of problems, and can (almost) only rely on itself and on the money of the diaspora to get by. It lives in peace and the country has a political stability, which is already a great success compared with what “remain” of Somalia (Puntland and Somalia). Elections were been prepared during my stay, and the elected party “Kulmiye” claims to fight for international recognition of the country of Somaliland, helped by foreign investors like United Arab Emirates. Somaliland, 55th state of Africa???
This country surprised me a lot, especially by the kindness and autenthicity of Somalilanders.
AT A GLANCE
Population: 3.5 million, 45% of the population lives in the city and 55% are nomadic or semi-nomadic
Area: 137600 km2, low density 25hab / km2
Capital: Hargeisa, about 1.1 million inhabitants, 1260m above sea level
Language: Somali (same alphabet), Arabic, English
Independence: declared on 18 May 1991 (but not recognized) from Somalia (unification of Somaliland with Italian Somalia after the independence of the United Kingdom in 1960).
Curiosity: camel population of about 5 millions, much more than the total population of the country. Country with the most camels in the world! Livestock is the main exportation.
SECURITY IN SOMALILAND
I know what you think. “How is it possible to travel to Somaliland”, “it must be dangerous”, etc.
To be neighbors with Somalia, or more precisely Puntland, also semi-independent, we think they might be terrorists everywhere, that people may even be armed, that we risk to get kidnapped or bombed in an attack…
As I explained in the introduction, Somaliland is independent! With its borders, its police, its laws, etc. It’s not the chaos like in Somalia, SOMALILAND IS NOT SOMALIA !!!! And they can be proud to live in peace. A fragile peace? Honestly I don’t think so, I don’t hope so. So stop to let your imagination run!!!
People live normally, they go to pray, to work, to buy at the market, it’s a safe country, you don’t see people carrying guns. There’s police check points at the entry of the villages and near the borders, but that’s all.
I felt safe at all time, in the streets of Hargeisa and Berbera, in the bus, at the hotel. So don’t be afraid to go!!! An escort is still necessary to visit the site of “Las Geel”, but more as a precaution and protection of the few tourists who come here than by real danger. See more details on my itinerary further.
MY EXPERIENCE AS A WOMAN TRAVELING ALONE AND DRESS CODE
I felt safe throughout my stay and had no problem with the locals. For the dress code, as a respect for the population, who is muslim by 99%, it’s better to cover yourself. A veil, a shirt or wide Tshirt with long-sleeves, trousers or ideally a long skirt. It’s not mandatory to be covered or veiled to enter and travel in the country, but it’s a question of respect, it’s also better for your own well-being and to avoid embarrassing situations. A lighter clothing would be seen as provocation.
People are curious in the street when you walk to know what you’re doing here. At first, some may be a little suspicious, it’s not usual to see a foreign woman walking alone, so many think I might be a journalist. Once the doubt is cleared, the people are immediatly more friendly.
The local population is VERY friendly, as I explain before, even if they are a little suspicious at first “are you a journalist?”.
A great surprise to see that many know English, either because they learnt it during the colonial period (English protectorate until 1960), or because some went abroad to live, especially in England (people with money who fled during the years of conflict or as refugees) and then came back.
The separation between men and women is not so strict as in some Muslim countries, in buses for example, a man can sit next to a woman even if it is not his. In the tea houses, however, there are mostly men only and in some restaurants, especially in the villages, one room is reserved for women and another for men.
D1. FROM DJIBOUTI TO HARGEISA
I’m able to travel from Djibouti to Hargeisa without escort. To avoid the heat, all the 4×4 that make the journey from the border to Hargeisa leave at 19h from the small border village of Loyaada.
From Djibouti city, I find a truck avenue 26 that leaves me at the border of Djibouti (see Dibouti’s article for more details), and from there, I pass the Djiboutian immigration control, walk the 500m that separates the two posts border and arrive in Somaliland. I recognize the flag flying proudly.
The border post is very small. The immigration officer, who does not speak a word of English, examines my passport and especially my visa issued in London. I have doubts now about its authenticity. I’m a little nervous but remain calm and confident. He asks me for the receipt of payment of the visa. Fortunately I kept it with my important documents. He looks, hesitates but stamps my passport. Phew. At the exit of the small office, another guy asks for my passport to annotate my entry in a register. He speaks English well: “welcome to Somaliland”!!! Behind the office, the sunset is beautiful, Somaliland: new country for me (the 103rd)!
Right at the exit of the border post, there’s a small village, quiet at this time. Some of the many shops and restaurants are still open. I recognize the driver who will drive me to Hargeisa with the rest of the passengers, we were already together in the truck from Djibouti to the border. I hope he has rested well, it is at least 12 hours of night driving!
I’m waiting there with other passengers until we leave. I change money. Women are sitting in the middle of the road near the vehicles. The exchange rate is good here, 1usd = 10000 som. For my short stay, I only change 50usd for meals, transport, small purchases and the hotel that can be paid also in usd.
We leave on time, 19h05! The trip is done at night to avoid the heat even if early November, the temperature is nice. In a big 4×4, 2 passengers behind, with me 3, and a man in front. On the last row of seats, boxes are piled up, the same as on the roof! If the trip is by 4×4 and not by bus, the road must be very bad…
I understand quickly. In fact, it is not a road but a track, in the middle of the desert. I feel like I’m in Paris-Dakar!!! If I thought it was going to be hard to sleep by the lack of comfort, especially for the space for the legs (and mine are small…), with the twitching of the vehicle, it is definitely unthinkable!
From the border, within a few kilometers, we pass several check points: just a rope to stop vehicles in the middle of the track and an armed soldier who don’t even look inside the car.
I doze a little and the rest of the time, I look at the landscape, lit by the half moon: desert everywhere with few shrubs and acacias. The track is really terrible. We are stucked in the sand several times, but the driver is used to it and in nothing we are already on the road again.
We cross small villages along the way: a few huts and a mosque. Some goats or dromedaries sometimes walk in the middle of the houses or in the courtyards.
Then at dawn but still in the middle of the desert, we see the first houses with aluminum roof of Hargeisa. The track becomes a paved road only in the main streets of the capital.
We arrive at 7am, 12h journey. It’s really a good timing, considering the very bad shape and quantity of sand of the 500km track!!! I thank the driver!
The 4×4 leaves us north of the city center, a taxi costs me 3usd or 30000som to reach the hotel Oriental, where I will stay 2 nights. The hotel is aptly named, the decoration, rather from the 60s is a bit like China or Japan. It mainly receives local businessmen or expatriate Somali returned for a stay in the country. I even find a Somali-Swiss who speaks French fluently! He is there for a few days for business and visiting his family who live in a remote village.
I take the time to rest after the sleepless night.
Then I spend the rest of the day walking around the city: the huge market, which starts right at the bottom of the hotel, the memorial of the Civil War, which we can see from a distance,
on the most important avenue of the city: avenue of independence. The upper part of the monument is actually a war plane, from the Somali army, that crashed here at the end of the war in 1988. On the monument, scenes of the civil war are painted, war that destroyed nearly 80% of the city. In 1991, the city was rebuilt almost entirely, hence its modern appearance compared to other African cities! I sit for a moment in the “tea shop”: some plastic chairs here and there and in the middle, a small stand where the tea is prepared! Even asking “chouahia zucar” (“little sugar”), it is still too sweet for me, but good anyway!
I’m back at the hotel for dinner, I prefer not to go out alone at night, and the meals prepared at the hotel are very good, even if it’s more expensive than in a local restaurant…
While I’m having dinner, I’m surprised to meet another foreigner, a tourist like me: Magnus from Sweden. Very surprised yep because I did not expect to find other travelers in Somaliland!!! We talk for a while. He also wants to visit the rock paintings of Las Geel, we organize it for tomorrow Thursday and we will share the costs of the car, driver and escort: 110 usd, plus 25 usd for the entrance fee per person… Good for both! It’s an expensive excursion!
The night is cool. From my window, I can see the big mosque, and even if the call of the prayers wakes me up in the middle of the night, I like to hear it, it’s always very exotic!!!
D2. LAS GEEL – HARGEISA
To go to Las Geel, Magnus and I book the day before with the hotel Oriental, where we are staying and also where I met Magnus, a Swedish traveler. Fortunately, we are two to share the costs: 110 usd for the rental of the vehicle with driver and military escort (mandatory), and 25usd entry fee per person, so all together 80usd per person… But I have no doubt it worth it!
If the hotel does not organize this excursion, it is possible to contact directly the Ministry of Tourism in Hargeisa who finds you vehicle, driver and escort for the same price.
It is not possible to get there by public transport, a private vehicle is necessary. The main road Hargeisa-Berbera passes 6km from the sight, but for security reasons, it is not possible to walk the last km. Well, that’s what they say…
We meet the driver at the hotel at 8am. We leave on time. To reach Las Geel, 50km from Hargeisa, we take about 1h15, 50km of paved road in bad shape (potholes, bumps) and then 6km of track in very bad condition with big holes and rocks.
Las Geel, “camel waterhole” in somali language, is an amazing place. This place was located at the confluence of two rivers where cattle and wild animals came to drink. It’s one of the only tourist attraction in Somaliland. The site was “discovered” in 2002, even if it was known by locals for much longer! Nobody was coming here, however, because it is said that the paintings were the work of evil spirits. The site is still little known and little studied
It consists of a series of rock walls of different sizes and heights, connected by a small path. The visit is done in about 2 hours. The paintings are splendid and still in good condition, preserved by the dry climate of the region. They were drawn in the Neolithic, that means between 10000 and 6000 years ago! Located in the middle of the desert on a small rocky promontory, we have a superb view of the surroundings.
The most common figures are those of cattle, which are clearly distinguished, but also men and women, dogs, giraffes and elephants, which populated the surroundings at that time.
The site is however endangered. If there are no conservation efforts, some rocks may collapse. In places, we can see bird nests that have already damaged some walls. The trampling, the dust and the breathing of the visitors also make the paintings fragile.
We visit the small museum, a room with some panels explaining the site. Then we walk to the caves and rock shelters. It’s already very hot. We do not walk long to reach the first wall of paintings, a few meters and a dozen steps. It’s impressive the number of figures painted here: women dancing, men with their dogs (hunting scenes), cattle, a man with two hands of five fingers well detailed, and even elephants that once populated the region.
Then we visit the following walls and caves, separated by a few meters from each other by a small path. The view of the surrounding landscape is beautiful.
We are back in Hargeisa early in the afternoon.
D3. HARGEISA- BERBERA
With my new travel buddy Magnus, we leave this morning for the cattle market. It’s Friday today so the activity is not so intense. We go by taxi because it is a bit far from the city center. It’s an interesting place to talk to local people. There are mainly dromedaries, goats, sheep and some cows. Livestock is the first export of Somaliland, mainly to the Arabian Peninsula. The country has more than 5 millions dromedaries more than people!
We return to town and leave for Berbera, a 3-hour drive. We are lucky that the bus is almost full when we arrive at the bus stop, in the city center. We pay 30000 shilings each, or 3usd. The road is in bad shape for over 70km, paved all the way but there are huge potholes. Local hotel in Berbera is 7usd for a room with shared bathroom and wifi.
We have lunch in the restaurant near the small port, the fish is excellent and fresh! The city is asleep at this time of day because of the heat, so we head to the beach. Good choice because it is very popular with locals on weekends, especially with young people. Women bathe fully dressed. We sit on the sand and people approach to discuss, they are very friendly and curious. Girls too. We meet several groups of young people, and spend a very nice time! The beach is wide and extends for several kilometers. The water is hot, unfortunately, I can not swim… Well I could but dressed I don’t think it’s very comfortable…
I have time this morning to walk in the dusty streets of Berbera. Magnus is already gone, he must fly this afternoon. It looks like a big village: small mosques, small white houses, unpaved streets where the goats roam slowly. I stop for breakfast and have a tea with laxoox, a kind of flat bread with honey. The flies go around but do not stick in, phew!
I meet many girls in green uniforms as they go out of school. At first, they are a bit shy, and then, even if you do not speak the same language, I feel a certain curiosity. They even let themselves be photographed!
The school in Somaliland is the Koranic school, based on the teaching of the Koran and therefore Arabic.
In the early afternoon, I take the bus back to Hargeisa and stay at the hotel Oriental for my last night.
D5. HARGEISA -ETHIOPIA
Last day in Somaliland… I do not want to go back to Ethiopia. People are so nice here…
After breakfast, I go for the last time at the market and take the bus to the border, the stop is not far from the city center, two blocks away.
Buses depart regularly in the morning, less in the afternoon. I leave at 12h and pay 35000 som (3.5usd). We take about 3h for only 90km… We stop regularly, and then at the last crossroad before arriving at the border, we wait for another bus to come… why? I don’t know, and this time, nobody speak english in the bus…
We arrive at the border town of Wajaale, the immigration office is before entering to town. So I have my passport stamped, and arrive at the end of the village with the bus when I see the Ethiopian flag on the other side of the bridge. It is with nostalgia that I leave Somaliland and already know that the “jungle” is waiting for me on the other side of the border!
No visa issued at borders or at the airport!!! It is mandatory to obtain the visa in advance for Somaliland!!!
In Europe, the only place to get a visa for Somaliland is in London. Otherwise, it is very easy to get it in Addis Ababa or Djibouti. Here are some practical details. The cheapest, as per today (November 2017), is to get it in Djibouti if you do the loop Ethiopia-Djibouti-Somaliland.
The address of the Somaliland mission: 234 Whitechapel Rd, Whitechapel, London E11BJ
Do not hesitate to send them an email, I got an answer in 2 days! Unbelievable!
I could go directly there as I passed via London just before the trip, otherwise you’ll have to send your passport.
No sign outside nor flag nor plate, nothing. And nobody in the neighborhood knows where it is. Enter 234 Whitechapel Street, there’s many offices of various companies, and the mission of Somaliland is downstairs. Just a little paper is stuck on the wall to indicate it.
As I entered the office, one of the officer immediately received me, made me fill out a form, then asked me for a photo, my passport and 30 GBP in cash. He put a sticker on my passport and I’m done!
The visa is valid for a single entry, for a period of 3 months, from the date of issue. Do not ask for the visa too long before the date of the trip otherwise it will no longer be valid.
The Somaliland Mission is located next to the Malawi Embassy. I specify because it has changed places several times and it is not updated on maps.me for example (2 wrong places on the maps).
It is close to the airport, in a street perpendicular to Cameroon St, near the large church of St Medhanialem and the hotel Bole Ambassador. If you look for the Malawi embassy, it’s just a 100m further.
The mission is open from Monday to Friday from 9am (knock on the door). Go there in the morning and the visa is issued from 1pm.
You will need:
Passport valid for more than 6 months
100 usd (more expensive than in London …)
1 photo ID
a completed form
Indicated on maps.me. Located next to the Ethiopian embassy, in a quiet street in the Plateau du Serpent district.
Open from Sunday to Thursday from 8h to 14h and they deliver the visa in 24 hours.
Passport valid for at least 6 months
5600 Djiboutian francs (aprox 28eur)
The best season to go to Somaliland is in winter, from November to March. It’s hot all year, very hot from May to October. Hargeisa is at 1260m altitude, it is a bit cooler than the coast.
The rainy season is in the spring from April to June and in autumn October-November.
The landscape is mainly desertic, with many acacias which are still green in November, and some fields (including corn) in the south, near the border with Ethiopia. I am surprised to see the river bed dry after the rainy season. Access to water is still a big problem in Somaliland and villagers sometimes have to walk for kilometers before they find a (subterranean) water source.
CURRENCY AND EXCHANGE
Somaliland has its own currency: the Somaliland shiling, 1usd = 10000 som, the biggest note is 5000, if you change 50usd you end up with a bundle of 100 notes!!!
It is very easy to change money in Hargeisa, you will see the money changers with their stacks of notes near the market in the city center. They accept dollars and some accept euros (1eur = 11000 som).
At the border coming from Djibouti, some money changers in the street offer you the same rate. In Djibouti city, avenue 26, on the other hand, I am offered only 8000 som for 1 usd.
No ATM, and no payment by credit card, all transactions are made in cash in Somaliland, the currency as the country is not recognized officialy outside the country.
The dollar is also accepted, but to pay for small expenses, it is better to change.
If we give you change in dollars, check that the notes are clean and not torn, otherwise it can be a problem in other countries!
COST OF LIFE
Somaliland is a relatively cheap country. Prices examples:
tea in the street: 2000 som
spaguetti 10000 som in a local restaurant, 30000 in a hotel
fruit juice in a local restaurant 5000 som, 10000 in a hotel
fish in Barbera: 10000 som or 1usd, street vendors, in a restaurant 5usd
snacks 5000 som
large bottle of water: 4000 som
Room in Hargeisa: 10 to 20 usd.15usd at Oriental hotel, in the city center, clean and wifi that works well.
Room in Barbera: 7 usd with shared toilets and showers, wifi. Several hotels in the city with different price range.
Excursion to las Geel: 110usd for the car, guide and escort (to share between the number of travelers) and 25usd for the entry fee per person.
Taxi: 3 USD or 30000 som within the city center
Bus Hargeisa – Berbera: 30000 som or 3 usd
Bus Hargeisa – Wajaale (Ethiopian border): 35000 som
Fruits and vegetables are quite expensive because they are imported. 1 orange = 3500 som approx
Border crossing at Loyada. On the Djiboutian side, there’s no village next to the immigration post, but on the Somaliland side, there are small shops and local restaurants. The vehicle from Djibouti drops you in front of the small immigration office, and once the passport is stamped, you have to walk about 500m between the two countries. The post of Somaliland is even smaller and just after you find a small square with restaurants and 4x4s. The border posts are closed at night, from 6pm.
From Loyada, it takes 12 hours to reach Hargeisa, by a track in the desert. 4×4 make the trip every day, in the evening at 7pm to avoid the heat. No escort is necessary for foreigners.
You can change money in Djibouti, avenue 26, but wait to be at the border, the rate is better.
Border in a small town, Wajaale, a busy border town. On Somaliland side the village seems to be bigger than in Ethiopia, with many shops and even a market. You can change money on both sides.
The bus from Hargeisa drops you at the entrance of the city, where the immigration post is located, you go back on the bus and it leaves you downtown a few km further. To get to Ethiopia, the barrier is just a few hundred meters away, where the rope is.
Once past immigration to Ethiopia, you have to take a tuk tuk “bajaj” (10 Birr) to go to the bus station, just outside the city.