When my buddy in Addis Ababa asked me if I want to go on a trip to Hargeisa, capital of the Republic of Somaliland, I immediately said yes. Seriously, how many chances do you get to visit a country that technically does not existent and is not recognized by the United Nations?
When I first heard of Somali-, scenes of Black Hawk Down and Captain Phillips came to my mind. And that was when I knew I needed this trip to check my stereotypes. First of all, Somalia and Somaliland are two very different geographical entities: Somalia, whose capital is Mogadishu, has seen decades of anarchy and civil war, is by no mean a travel destination. Somaliland, on the other hand, is an autonomous region and self-declared independent state since 1991, situates in the northwestern part of Somalia, is very safe, and has recently held one of the most transparent and fair elections in Africa. No country in the world officially recognizes the Republic of Somaliland, but it maintains an “embassy” in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which is probably one of the strangest diplomatic establishments ever. Anyone who wishes to visit must obtain a visa prior to travel, but it is quite a hassle-free process. I got my passport back from the Embassy within 24 hours.
The flight from Addis Ababa to Hargeisa was a short two hours propeller ride. On the way I talked to a Somali dude from Minnesota. He told me that although Somaliland government issues passports, no country would recognize them. Instead, many Somalilanders also hold U.S. passports… OK?…
I landed at Hargeisa International Airport, full of excitement and vagabond mood. Although I already paid my $100 visa fee, all foreigner who enters the country must also pay an additional $30 entry fee at the airport. No worries, I paid my dues and jumped into the city immediately.
Hargeisa sits in the middle of a basin, it is reasonably tidy, organized, and I felt very safe wandered around on the streets while not many locals would pay attention to me, until, someone yelled “Nihao!” from across the street. A friendly guy came over, he learned Chinese while studying his master’s degree in Hangzhou, and was super excited to see a Chinese guy getting lost in the middle of Hargeisa. We had a very pleasant and meaningful conversation in Chinese.
In the evening I rendezvoused with my buddies, and we had a feast of kebabs. I was very happy with the food offerings in Hargeisa: they may not have Michelin stars but these bosses know how to make lamb and coffee well.
The next day, we set out to the caves of Laas Geel (“where camels drink” in Somali), which should be the highlight of anyone who visits Somaliland. These caves are covered with paintings dating back 18,000 to 20,000 years ago, believed to be some of the oldest arts ever made by men who are still preserved in its original form. The caves are mind-blowing, and the paintings, still vividly displaying its colors, is truly a miracle to behold. Laas Geel is about two hours away from Hargeisa, occupying a rock formation rising above the dust plain. On this rocky hill, many half-opened caves are decorated from top to bottom. The condition of the paintings are unbelievably well. I think partly thanks to the constant arid climate in this area. Our ancestors have painted long horned cattle, dogs, giraffes, men and women: they were some impressive artists!
Since this was only a weekend trip, we flew back to Addis Ababa on Sunday. We didn’t have enough time to see the port city of Berbera. Still, it is one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever taken. And I sure hope I get to revisit Somaliland soon!