The capital of Somaliland challenges media-soaked preconceptions about the region – but visitors should be prepared to eat a lot of camel meat, and mind the acrobats.
Hargeisa is not Mogadishu. Most people don’t know much about Hargeisa, in northwestern Somalia. But for many travelers, its location alone is a red flag. For more than 25 years, news from the region has been a relentless stream of violence and despair, even after the country managed to cobble together a (laughable) central government in 2012 after 22 years of statelessness and civil war. Yet major southern Somali cities like Mogadishu, Kismayo, and even the de facto federal capital of Baidoa are all a little too rough around the edges for tourism. But the story of Hargeisa is different from the rest of Somalia. It’s the capital of a self-declared independent state (unrecognized) called Somaliland, formed when the historic colony of British Somaliland merged with Italian Somaliland in 1960. Somaliland started to pull away from Mogadishu in the 1980s, so when the Somali government collapsed in 1991, local ‘Lander’ leaders quickly moved to quell violence within their borders, declaring independence and forming a new government that has presided over a relatively peaceful two decades.
Bad things have happened in Hargeisa—just rarely, and not recently. Somaliland sometimes skirmishes over its eastern provinces, known as Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn, with neighboring semi-independent Puntland. In 2008, terrorists managed to bomb the presidential palace and an Ethiopian diplomatic outpost in Hargeisa. But Somaliland officials, desperate to prove their mettle to the international community and achieve global recognition as an independent state, have ensured that major cities maintain order (if not always law), succeeding well enough that Hargeisa, and cities such as Berbera, Borama, and Burco, have functional police forces and streets you can walk on unarmed–even at night–and safe enough to have some fun.
Getting around is easy. In the 1980s, Hargeisa, seeking self-determination, was bombed to bits by Somalia’s longstanding military dictator, Siad Barre. Its streets are still mostly dirt. And the rebuilding city is evolving so quickly that maps can’t keep up. With an estimated population of 1.2 million, over eight times the city’s population in the 1970s, you’d think it would be easy to get lost in this expansive, dust-choked urban labyrinth. But it’s not, thanks to the numerous and cheap taxis and buses that work their way around town. It’s not even all informal: taxis are marked and metered, and buses are regular. If you stand still for five minutes, some form of transit will roll by with someone in the driver’s seat or passenger area who understands just enough English to get you where you need to go.
The Ambassador and the Maan-Soor aren’t the only hotels in town. Aside from a handful of intrepid backpackers, most of the people who come to Hargeisa are academics, aid workers, industrial oil prospectors, and a large cadre of Turkish developers looking to spread their nation’s soft power throughout Africa. For the sake of security and amenities most of these folks stay in one of two hotels. The Maan-Soor, on the northwestern fringe of town, offers a blast wall, permanent armed guard, and attentive staff often for long-term or returning foreign guests; the Ambassador offers much the same on the south side of town near the airport, convenient for short-term functions and conferences. Both pop up as the top options in town for all travelers, and both are insular and Western. Although you’re unlikely to find them easily, there are other options. Many hotels in the heart of Hargeisa are perfectly safe, well stocked with resources, and trafficked by much more colorful and diverse characters (who will gladly mingle with you in this more relaxed atmosphere). The staff are a little more mellow and can help you arrange anything you might need, from SIM cards to trips into the countryside, all on the cheap. I’m personally quite fond of the Oriental Hotel, which is just blocks from Hargeisa’s main drag and serves a mean porridge.
This city is wired up. The birth of a thriving telecoms industry has been one of the few universally reported success stories out of modern Somalia. In this free market, entrepreneurs have flooded the country with cheap cellphones, offering some of the lowest data and international call rates in the world, with pretty strong signal even in rural areas. They’ve even managed to jigger their way into internet connections, often via cooperation with firms in neighboring Djibouti and Ethiopia, which are strong enough to support most downloads and streaming. (I streamed the first season of Orange Is The New Black from a Hargeisa hotel room over the course of a few dull Ramadan days.) Combined with fairly lax browsing restraints, this is a perfect recipe for international connectivity and entertainment in an otherwise remote part of the world.
Almost every market is a grey market. Local entrepreneurs are bright, and probably more resourceful than many guys on the Google Bus. But they’re still operating in an unrecognized region, under a local regime that’s mostly disconnected from global financial institutions, leaves postal operations to DHL, and has minimal international business leverage. It only follows that a lot of goods in the market came literally came off the back of a truck and were paid for under the table in cash. The computers at that Internet café are riddled with viruses. The batteries in that market will run dry within the space of a few hours. That jacket is just one cleverly disguised long thread, waiting to unravel cartoonishly as soon as it meets an attractive snag. And none of this junk is even that cheap, thanks to “irregular shipping practices.” Really, if you need consumer goods in Hargeisa, just bring them along.
Bring cash. Preferably a stack of cold, hard, American dollars. The nation is not hooked into the global financial system in any meaningful way. Cash services are shaping up in Hargeisa, which has just started to launch a series of traditional bank branches and reportedly launched its first two ATMs in 2014. But you still can’t rely on these young banks and ATMs for all your financial needs. Also, Hargeisa will try to milk a little money from you as soon as you touch down, charging entry, exit, and security fees at border control, often forcing you to change some dollars to shillings upon entry as well.
Ignore the Somaliland Shilling. The Somaliland Shilling hovers around S$7,000 to $1, uses tiny notes that max out at S$5,000, and exchanges at negotiable and uneven rates from roadside vendor to roadside vendor. Most financial services take a cut out of your cash. Everyone takes USD as a valid alternative currency. A pocketful of Shillings is useful mainly for small change and cheap street vendor items such as bottled water or a candy bar. However, dollars are so coveted that locals are loath to make change in US currency, opting to pay you back in Shillings instead.
There are a few financial services that you can use. If you’re dead set against carrying a big wad of cash around, you can make use of Somaliland’s two financial services: Dahabshiil and Zaad. The first is a local money wiring system (and a cornerstone of the regional remittance economy), by which you can cheaply send dollars to Hargeisa and store them in secure and well-respected locations. The second is a mobile money system that allows you to send ethereal cash to most vendors, even street side shacks and rural folks, who’re hipper to currency digitization than most major American retailers, meaning that you might actually have an easier cash-free, non-credit shopping experience in Hargeisa than at home. But, as with any service, you’ll lose a little cash off the top and it adds steps between you and your dinner.
Mind the hidden social tensions. Although Hargeisa epitomizes Somali optimism, the commerce and conviviality can mask long-standing divisions. Somaliland, like the rest of Somalia, is predominantly Sunni Muslim, but local Somalilanders are split along still-relevant clan lines, often accusing each other of clan favoritism and power monopolies. All of the locals together often resent southern Somali immigrants who they see as honing in on the success of the region. Both of these groups marginalize the hell out of a series of minority communities, historically held down in an indigenous racial quasi-caste system and rapidly losing their hold even on their traditional jobs. And all of these parties throw a little shade at returnees from the diaspora, cast as outsiders getting too big for their boots. And across the board, people tend to ignore the refugee populations, mostly Ethiopians and Yemenis fleeing poverty or violence and stuck in the region with nowhere else to go. These tensions won’t affect your trip, but it’s good to keep them in mind to avoid needlessly stepping on some sensitive toes and stoking social issues.
Sit down, shut up, and eat your camel. Although many restaurants are opening up serving Western, Yemeni, Middle Eastern, and Ethiopian fare, much of what’s on offer for cheap is local Somali food – which is not too diverse. I could warn you about the sickly saccharine breakfast laxoox, the fact that you’ll need to master eating loose rice with your hands, or the shocking monotony of the coastal region’s diet. But the most important thing I can warn you about here is this: You’re going to eat a metric shit-ton of gamey, tough, and greasy camel meat. Camels are legion in Somaliland. Somalia as a whole is home to half of the world’s 14 million camels, and arid Somaliland is their ideal environment — so they’re one of the easiest and cheapest sources of meat at roadside stands. Camel meat is not tender. You’ll also eat a fair share of camel’s hump, which is a spongy, fatty tissue, resistant to all mastication, as well. This is a valuable commodity and offering it is a kind gesture, so don’t turn it down. And if you happen to have to drink the milk, know that it is truly foul, but muscle through the experience by repeating this mantra: This is very healthy milk. This is very healthy milk. This is very healthy milk.
You’ll get a minder whether you want one or not. Ever wary of the bad press a dead or missing foreigner would bring to their independence movement, whenever you leave Hargeisa the government requires you to pay for a dude in fatigues with a questionably functional Kalashnikov to accompany you. Usually they’ll try to get you to use a private car service as well, so most day trips outside Hargeisa can cost an arm and a leg—all in the name of making absolutely sure you don’t lose an arm and a leg. But trips to Berbera and Laas Geel, on well-secured and trafficked roads, are usually exempt from this requirement, so they’re your best bets to freely visit the hinterland.
A day trip to Las Geel is quasi-mandatory. Though some people come to Somaliland as misguided war tourists or to check off Somalia on their world travel map, most come to understand a region often presented as impoverished and pitiful. This latter group will usually be content checking out the local camel market, grabbing tea at a roadside shack, and spending nights chilling with a few locals chewing khat and shooting the shit. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing touristy to do around the city, and probably the best option is a quick day trip (about four or five hours in total) to Laas Geel. Long known to locals but only documented by French archaeologists in 2002, Laas Geel is a rough rock outcropping in the middle of the desert, which displays some of Africa’s oldest and best-preserved rock art–some parts dating back to 9,000 B.C.E.–which are a big point of national pride. They’re not the country’s only historical sites, but other rock art masterpieces are in the restive Sanaag, and ruins at Abaasa, Amud, and Zeila are inaccessible, looted beyond repair, or just poorly maintained. Laas Geel is the best option for tourism.
The beach at Berbera is overrated, but you should still go. Berbera is a once-significant Red Sea port trying to regain its relevance and become an engine of growth. Aspirations to develop the port have granted it one of the nation’s best roads (to and from Hargeisa), a route sufficiently fast and well-traveled that the government usually waives its minder requirement. Most tourists try to make the trip for the pristine beaches, maybe go snorkeling with the aid of the local Maan-Soor branch, and chow down on some local fish—which is more than enough to make most visitors happy. But the place is a furnace, pushing highs of 110° F all summer with equally absurd humidity levels. As with any travel beyond Hargeisa, the price to simultaneously bake and stew in sand are higher than you might expect – or think reasonable. But the chance to see a bit more of the country on your own for a day is still worth it.
Hargeisa is more than just a staging point. The city lacks for landmarks. The best it has to offer is a downed MiG-17 fighter jet, a monument to when the regime in Mogadishu carpet-bombed Hargeisa in 1988 during Somaliland’s independence bids. There are theatres or clubs, and minimal entertainment and nightlife. Sometimes it can seem like the only thing to do is drink tea or chew the mild narcotic khat. But every year, more and more Somalis return to the city from the diaspora, eager to revitalize Somaliland and bring with them new developments. In the evenings, the streets and restaurants are hopping with people meeting and greeting, chatting and dealing, often in English as well as Somali, because some have returned from America and Europe. It’s a vibrant crush of culture and exchange. And during the days, there are even a few cool new sporting teams—acrobats and martial artists—holding low-key public exhibitions, which are striking to see on the dusty red streets. Hargeisa might not have the most institutional fun on tap. But you can still have a good time—and simultaneously challenge your media-soaked preconceptions about a region, which is more than you can ask from most vacation spots in the world.