“Somaliland!? Why would anyone go to Somalia for their birthday!?” That was the common reaction from my friends and family when I told them about my upcoming Nov 7th birthday trip to Hargeisa, Somaliland.
Somaliland broke away from Somalia after a bloody war in 1991. They have their own flag, president, government, military, police, currency…. but no country on earth recognizes their sovereignty. I knew very little about the place until I reached out to a few Somali people online. They told me about the “peace and stability” that their country has and how they are doing everything right so the world will take notice and recognize them. It sparked an interest in me that just lingered around until one night in August of 2017.
I spend my summers on the beautiful island of Nantucket, Massachusetts from May-September and then my fall, winter and spring is spent in Serbia. I had just spent an exhausting day at work, showered and sat down on my bed to figure out where I was going to spend my 41st birthday. I’m a bit of an oddball; I don’t like the common tourist spots like Paris, Rome, etc… I like the off-the-beaten-track places that most folks have never heard of. I googled “Most Dangerous Places for Americans to Visit” and I stumbled upon this article. That did it, I had made up my mind, I was going to visit Somalia. I looked around for flights, read up on how to get the visa, checked out all the warnings from the U.S. State Department, and tried to find a tour agency that operated there. The only one that I found was through the awesome adventure travel company “Untamed Borders“. The prices were high at $1295 for two days in Mogadisu, so I started looking at Somaliland instead.
I found a round-trip ticket from Belgrade, Serbia to Rome to Addis Ababa and back from Hargesia to Dubai to Belgrade for around $850. It took me less than 1 minute to click “purchase”. That was it, no going back!
Americans need a visa to visit Somaliland and it can’t be obtained at the airport in Hargeisa so it must be done before arrival. Somaliland isn’t recognized by any nation so you won’t find an embassy in the States or anywhere else. In reading blog postings from others who have been to Hargeisa, I learned you can obtain it at the Somaliland Representative Office in Addis Ababa, but they say it’s hard to find. My friend, Google, informed me that there was a Somaliland Mission in Alexandria, Virginia:
6019 Tower ct
Alexandria, VA 22304
You need to email them for the application form. It took less than 24 hours before I received a friendly response from one of the office staff. Once you fill out the application and attach a photo to it, you place an $80 money order in a self addressed stamped envelope, and mail it off to them. I received my 30 day validity visa in less than 6 business days. You need to be careful because the visa is only valid for 90 days from the date of issue so plan accordingly.
Let’s skip my arrival into Addis Ababa because it will deserve a post of it’s own. After 4 wonderful days exploring Addis Ababa and Adama, Ethiopia, it was time to finally decide how I was going to get to Hargeisa. I’m a bit of a spontaneous guy so I waited till my 2nd to last day in Addis to decide. The cheapest route was a bus from Addis Ababa to Jijiga and then catching a minibus to Tog Wajale, Ethiopia before taking a cab or walking across the border into Somaliland and catching a cab, private car or bus to Hargeisa. I was only going to be able to spend 5 days in Hargeisa so I didn’t want to waste over 24 hours getting there so this option was out. The other option was flying directly from Addis Ababa to Hargeisa. Ethiopian Air flies there a few times a day, but the prices aren’t cheap. It was going to be around $250- $300 for the short flight! Africa isn’t known for budget airlines. The other option was to fly from Addis Ababa to Jijiga, Ethiopia and bus/taxi/mini bus to Hargeisa from there. That one sounded very interesting to me so I did it. I purchased my flight from Addis Ababa to Jijiga the night before my flight for around $70 (you get a discount if you fly into the country on Ethiopian Air).
The airport shuttle driver was already down in the lobby waiting on me when I finally made it downstairs. The driver was a younger man who spoke nearly zero English, but was always very outgoing and friendly. He dropped me off at the domestic flight terminal at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. I threw him $3 dollars and he was off with a wave and a smile.
Bole International Airport isn’t the prettiest airport on the planet, but is that really that important? The only thing I wanted was to arrive in Jijiga alive! My only complaint about Bole Airport is that the regular staff doesn’t speak English well. Security was very tight and we had to go through metal detectors and send your luggage through x-ray the minute you stepped through the airport doors. The staff was pointing and motioning people to go here and there and it was a bit chaotic. I was finally motioned through the x-ray, picked up my baggage, put on my shoes and went through the door to find the booking desk. The guy at the counter was very friendly and asked what I planned on doing in Jijiga. He wished me a safe trip and shoved my luggage onto the conveyor belt.
It was easy to find the departure gate, but there weren’t a lot of coffee shops, stores or kiosks to shop around at so I grabbed at a seat at my gate. I was surprised to find that Bole International Airport did have free wifi! This was going to be my last post before heading into the unknown. I hadn’t been too nervous until this very moment. Where would I be able to catch a bus to Hargeisa? How would I get from the Jijiga airport to the bus station? What if the bus was sold out? Those were some of a billion questions that were flowing through my brain. It was too late to worry about any of that now, we were starting to board the plane. It’ll have to be dealt with in Jijiga.
My Ethiopian Airline flight to Jijga was a pleasant one. The staff was very friendly, the plane was comfortable and it was only a short 2 hour flight. We did have a short layover in Dire Dawa, but we didn’t have to leave the plane. It just docked on the runway to let off some folks and allow a few more on.
On our descent into Jijiga, I started to really worry! There was nothing at all around the airport and I had no clue where the bus station was located. The other scary thing, I didn’t have any Ethiopian Birr on me at all! How stupid can you be? I’m used to airports having lots of exchange offices so I didnt want to drag around a lot of it. Ethiopia is also very protective of their currency so every transaction is logged by your name and passport number. You aren’t allowed to leave Ethiopia with more than 200 birr in your pocket. What was I going to do if they didn’t have an exchange office in this tiny airport? Well, they didn’t have an exchange office or anything else for that matter. I waited around on my luggage to come through while trying to search for an open wifi connection. There was an open connection, but it wasn’t working so I couldn’t load a map or anything. Upon gathering my luggage, I stepped outside to the empty parking lot.
There were three taxis sitting out in front with the drivers helping folks get their luggage placed in the ancient, rust buckets. I saw two machine gun clad Ethiopian soldiers sitting next to the gate so I asked how to get a taxi to the bus station. The guard yelled out to the taxi guys and one of them quickly ran over to me. He was a big, unpleasant looking bearded guy who grabbed my bag and began walking it to his car. I followed him and asked him how much it would be in U.S. dollars since I didn’t have birr. The other taxi driver notices that i’m a “white tourist” and starts arguing with my driver. The other driver is motioning me to come with him and tries to get my bag out of the trunk. They were in some shouting match when I angrily yell out the window that I need to go. The other driver isn’t happy at all, but my driver finally gets away from him and into the driver’s seat. He says it will be 100 birr so I lay $4 on the seat next to him.
We are pulling out of the airport when the driver turns around and says he needs another 100 birr. I tell him that I already gave him $4 that we agreed upon and that I wasn’t going to pay more than $4 to go the short ride. He says it over and over so rather than get pulled out of the car and beaten up, I pull out a $5 and hand it to him. He then picks up the phone, calls someone and hands the phone to me. The guy on the other line has very broken English, but asks where I want to go. I tell him that I need to go to the bus station in Jijiga so I can catch a bus to Tog Wajale and on to Hargeisa. He says that this driver can drive me all the way to Hargeisa and I say in a very forceful manner ” NO! I want the bus station in Jijiga!” and hand the phone back to the driver. He mumbles around some more to the guy on the phone, but finally gets to the “bus station” in Jijiga.
The driver pulls off to the side of the road and tells me to get out. He grabs my suitcase and wheels it across the street to this very hectic, loud and dusty parking lot. He starts yelling out to people and finally points me to this minibus that is already leaving. He has one young man run up and stop it for me, but it keeps going. It finally stops and a big group of people are shoving their way on. The taxi driver hands me 100 birr and tells me to give him $5. I do as he says because he is chatting with one of the passengers sitting by the window in this old, dusty minibus that I need to get in. The guy in the seat takes my 100 birr, gives me his seat, takes my suitcase and throws it on top of the minibus. Thank God, I’m done with that intimidating taxi driver, but this little minibus is overflowing with passengers and I have no idea where it’s heading.
The majority of passengers are Somali women dressed in their brightly colored clothing. The lady next to me has a little child on her lap and he stares at me for the majority of the journey. The young lady sitting in front of my speaks a little English and asks me where I’m from. I contemplate saying Canada, but I admit the fact that i’m an American. She smiles and tells those around her that i’m an American and then it seems that everyone wanted to have a closer look at me. It’s an odd feeling being the only white, foreigner on a little bus, but I asked for this. I ask the young lady if she would be kind enough to let me know when I should get off this bus so I could catch a bus to Hargeisa.
She says that it will only stop in Tog Wajale so I have nothing to worry about. Whew! My stress level is slowly starting to drop until the bus driver’s assistant comes back asking for 60 birr. I thought the taxi driver was going to pay for it with the money I handed him, but he didn’t. I didn’t have any birr , only American dollars in my wallet. I hand the guy five $1 bills which was way more than the bus ticket, but he says “We don’t take dollars”! Ughh! I tell him that I have nothing but dollars on me, but that I could exchange some at our next stop if I had to. The bus driver says something to the guy and he tells me that the dollars will be fine. 🙂 Thank God! We are finally on our little dusty, cramped journey to the Somaliland border.
The trip to Tog Walaje wasn’t dull, I’ll give it that. We buzzed over the bumpy roads, flew around slower moving vehicles and ended up hitting a goat. That wouldn’t seem like such a big deal back in the West, but it was here. The driver had dodged numerous animals that were darting across the roads, but this little goat wasn’t so lucky.
We heard a big thud and then everyone on the bus started yelling about something. The driver pulled over and then all of the passengers exited the bus besides me. They were all yelling and pointing while the driver was in some negotiations with the goat’s owner, a little old man with an orange beard and white dress. After nearly 10 minutes, everyone boarded the bus again along with the goat’s owner. We pulled into the next little village and they all got off the bus again. I noticed a policeman was getting involved at this point. A lot of village folks were walking by the bus while all this was happening, each one seemed to stop and stare at me.
One guy was sitting in front of a little shop chewing on some khat (narcotic leaf that’s common in Ethiopia, Somaliland and Yemen, but illegal in the US and Europe). He noticed me and started marching right over to my open window. He wasn’t smiling or making any kind of friendly gestures so I was a bit nervous. He came over, opened his khat-filled mouth and said ” Where are you from?” I told him that I was from the USA and here to visit Somaliland. He must not have known much more English or wasn’t thrilled with my answer because he started saying something in Somali and walked back to his chair. The driver, police and goat owner must have worked out the situation because 5 minutes later everyone went their merry way. Somaliland and this part of Ethiopia are very dependent on herding and raising cattle, be it camels, goats, sheep or what not so losing a goat would be a big deal to them.
Once the bus gets going again, the little lady in front of me turns around and tells me that we are almost to Tog Walaje. Thank God for the kindness of this young lady. She had kept me informed about where the bus was going, when it was arriving, etc. We pulled up to the stopping point and everyone started departing. I started smiling and poking the little boy’s cheek who was sitting on his mom’s lap next to me. He was smiling and giggling at me all the while. All the ladies around me waved and smiled as they got off the bus in front of me so I bid them goodbye with a “Salam alykoum”. They responded with “Alykoum salam”. It was so refreshing to see and hear the kindness of these local folks.
Tog Walaje can only be described as hectic, chaotic and dusty! I’ve never been so intimidated in my entire life as I was stepping out into the hot air of Tog. The minute I get out of the bus, I’m bombarded with young men trying to help me with my bags. They kept grabbing at it which I didn’t like! I said ” NO! Don’t touch!” One guy spoke a bit of English and asked where I was going. I told him that I needed to get to Hargeisa. He pointed to a little shabby building with an Ethiopian flag on it so I walked over to it. These three shabbily dressed (no uniforms) guys with guns came over and told me to open all of my bags. I’ve heard horror stories about people being harassed at the Ethiopian border for having too many electronics, etc, but these guys didn’t say anything. They just poked around in all of my things and told me to go. That same guy who spoke a bit of English had stayed really close to me so I asked him where the border crossing was.
He said that I’d have to take a “bajaj”, little three wheel carts or rickshaw, because it was around 2km away. He found a driver and had to beat off some of the other kids who were trying to help with my luggage. I paid the guy $3 and thanked him for helping me out. He told me that I needed to pay the driver $4 when I arrived at the border. The driver didn’t speak any English, but he was good at his job. He swerved around hoards of people and got me to border in no time.
The Ethiopian border guard was very friendly. He was in a dark little office with the front doors open. He didn’t ask me anything related to what I had been doing or where I was going; he only asked me which city I was from in the USA. He then slammed down the exit stamp on my passport and pointed me the Somaliland immigration office. The actual border is nothing but a little piece of rope that’s stretched across the road.
I notice a Somaliland flag hanging out in front of this little building. Right before I get to the gate, a group of men stop me. They ask me if I’m heading to Hargeisa, I confirm that Hargeisa was my desitation and they say that they can take me in a private taxi for $60. I tell the guy that it’s too much because a shared taxi can be had for way less. He asks how much I’d pay for a ride in their new van with a/c. I think back to my hellish ride in the cramped bus and we finally agree on $50. He said that the driver will be waiting for me in front of the immigration office. The minute I walk through the Somaliland immigration office, the two guards greet me with large smiles! They say “Welcome to Somaliland! Land of peace!”. You don’t get that kind of welcome from immigration police very often so It really calmed my nerves. The officer grabs my passport and tells me that he hasn’t seen an American on this border crossing in a long time. He chats, chats and chats about everything imaginable while even making a joke about his wife who had just dropped off the keys to his car. “Do I look like Obama?” That is what he said after removing his sunglasses from his head. He said that many people have told him that he resembled the former president. 🙂 The Somaliland immigration security methods are very strict and detailed. You have to give your fingerprints and do an eye scan before you are stamped and allowed to leave.
Once I’m finished, the guard comes out of his booth and allows me to take a selfie with him. He takes out a business card, jots down his cellphone number on it and tells me to call him if I have any problems at all in Somaliland. What a great impression this guy left on me! I had just arrived in Somaliland and the first two Somalilanders were amazingly kind to me.
I had done it! I had officially arrived in Somaliland! This guy from the middle of Illinois had navigated his way from Addis Ababa to Jijiga to Tog Wajale to Somaliland without too much trouble. What a feeling of accomplishment! It was time to load my suitcase in the private taxi and begin my 2 hour journey to Hargeisa, Somaliland!
……… Continued in next article