Somaliland doesn’t officially exist. I wouldn’t blame you though for mistaking it for a country. It has a population of people who live in Somaliland and do not call themselves Somalians (in fact they are quite offended if you do so). They are from Somaliland. They have an embassy in Addis Ababa, London and the USA. You have to get a visa as a foreigner to visit. They have an airport, a capital city, hotels and businesses. Everything that a country has Somaliland has, yet it is not officially recognised. If you want to know more about Somaliand click here
This post is about travelling in Somaliland and in particular my experience of the place. I hope it might help those of you thinking or planning to travel to Somaliland.
I was intrigued by Somaliland as soon as I heard it existed. I have to admit I’d never heard of it. It was only because of my impending trip to Ethiopia that it came into my radar. Somaliland was an unrecognised country where foreigners had to travel around with armed guards. I was hooked at the mystery and adventure this little country could offer me.
My trip to Somaliland began in Addis Ababa the capital of Ethiopia. I had to get a Somaliland visa. Note: the current Lonely Planet does not have the correct address for the embassy.
To get to Somaliland Embassy in Addis Ababa: Head South along Bole Road till you reach KZ Hotel (one your left); turn right off Bole Rd and follow this road past CA’DE BURGERS (on your right) till you reach Igloo Icecream (on your left). The embassy is well signposted from Igloo.
Once I found the embassy it was a simple process. I filled out a form, gave them a passport photo and $40US and was issued the visa on the spot. I was ready for Somaliland!
The journey to Somaliland begins in Harare, Ethiopia. Ready for an adventure I made my way to the crazy bus station and the journey began. It cost me 12 Birr to get a minivan from Harare to Bibele. In Bibele the driver dropped me at another bus that was heading to Jijiga. The bus was packed to the brim with people, luggage and animals. I was the talk of the town. I decided though I wasn’t in Somaliland yet, I’d put my headscarf on. The bus from Bibele to Jijiga cost 30 Birr + 10 Birr for my bag. They always get you with the supposed ‘bag fee’. Don’t fight it unless you want a long fruitless argument with an Ethiopian. In Jijiga it was time to pack onto another bus finally destined for the Ethiopia-Somaliand border, Wachake. The bus from Jijiga to Wachake cost me 30 Birr + 20 Birr for my bag. (Yes, ripped off for the bag fee. Dam it!)
Crammed onto a bus with a bunch of locals
As we approached the border check points started to occur every 1km. Everyone had to get out of the bus, have their ID checked and get back on the bus. This happened every kilometre or so. The checkpoints were checking for Somalians from neighbouring Somalia. The terrorist group Al-Shabab has, in the past, committed terrorist acts on these routes. So if you don’t have an ID then you aren’t allowed back on the bus. As annoying as these check points were getting on and off the bus, I was thankful for the thoroughness and safety measures taken.
At the border after stamping out of Ethiopia it was time to cross no mans land. The space between Ethiopia and Somaliland is barren, desolate and polluted. A few people are scattered rummaging through the garbage or crossing the border. It’s is eerie and exciting at the same time. You really feel like you are leaving Ethiopia behind and entering a new and mysterious frontier. The plastic bags strewn in the foliage is one of the most noticeable immediate differences in Somaliand to Ethiopia. That and its friendly people!
No mans land between Ethiopia and Somaliland
I entered the Somaliland Immigration building and a young Immigration Officer smiled at me widely exclaiming, “Hello, and welcome to Somaliland!!” Friendliest welcome I’ve ever had to a country! My passport was stamped, photo taken and taxi driver found. You can change money at the border. Look for the yellow cages with piles and piles of cash. You can use US dollars in Somaliland and you will be given Somaliland Shillings as change. I’d been advised it was hard to spend the shillings but I didn’t find that. I changed $10. That was plenty. Somaliland is cheap.
It was time to go to the capital Hargeisa. A shared taxi cost $7US +$2 for bag, or 400 Birr. A shared taxi means a shared taxi. In our station wagon style car we had a lady in the front seat, 4 of us in the back seat and a group of five women crammed in the boot. Lets just say it weren’t comfortable! But it was fun thats for sure! We knew we’d arrived in Somaliland when we were coming across checkpoints every few kilometres where an guard would yell at us for not having an armed guard. It is a requirement of foreigners to travel with an armed guard in Somaliland. This is not something to be concerned by. Rather, Somaliland is very cautious about maintaining the safety of their foreign visitors. They must keep up a positive image to the international world so that they can get recognition as a country. I didn’t travel from the border to Hargeisa with an armed guard. When questioned by the guards I would say I was going to the capital now and would get a guard there. They didn’t like it, but they let the taxi through each and every time.
The entire journey from Harare to Hargeisa took over seven hours. So prepare yourself for a long day.
In Hargeisa, I stayed in a great little hotel called Siraaj Hotel opposite Jama Mosque. The most well known hotel is the Oriental Hotel but this hotel has Lonely Planet syndrome and I was glad I didn’t stay there as when I ate at their restaurant I found them quite rude. Whereas the staff at Siraaj were friendly and accommodating. The hotel has sweet, simple little rooms and it will cost you $10US.
Watermelons for sale and the main market place in Hargeisa
Walking around Hargeisa is a treat. If you’re a female you must wear a headscarf. Somaliland is a strictly Muslim country. People will notice you but you won’t be hassled. The locals are excited to see a foreigner. There aren’t that many that venture to their small home. Feel honoured and privileged that you are one of the few that have done so. You don’t need an armed guard to walk around Hargeisa. (Though you will be told you do, don’t worry, you’ll be fine.) But if you want to leave the capital then yes you will need an armed guard. The place to organise one of these is the Oriental Hotel. Its expensive. A day trip to Las Geel will cost you $100 for the car (and when I say car I mean, an old falling apart vehicle you normally wouldn’t step foot in), driver and armed guard + $25 for the Las Geel permit. An overnight trip to Berbera, including Las Geel will cost you $189 +$25 for Las Geel permit. The Oriental offers longer trips and they get even pricier. Unfortunately I didn’t have long in Somaliland so I only did the day trip to Las Geel. The trip was well worth it though.
Getting through the check points with your armed guard is smooth and simple. The drive to Las Geel is a couple of hours with some of it off road. Las Geel is simply amazing. You have to see it to truly understand how incredible these ancient rock paintings are.
Las Geel entry office and Las Geel painting
I can’t give any advice on eating as I was there during Ramadan. There were no restaurants open. If you are in Hargeisa during Ramadan note that the Oriental Hotel will open its kitchen for you and make you meals. The service is terrible and the food is average. I can tell you the meals at the Oriental average $5US per meal. Interestingly for Ramadan the locals don’t eat all day, then in the evening the men group together in restaurants to eat deep fried delicacies and watermelon. The deep fried delicacies didn’t look appealing.
I hope this has helped with any practical questions you might have had. Somaliland is fantastic and well worth the effort to visit. Be friendly, open minded and arrive with your spirit of adventure and you’ll have a great time.