Getting to Somaliland is no easy task. We had an adventure from the obtaining of the visa to getting to the border and onto Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland where we would spend a few nights.
Before getting to far into this story, I should mention the importance of khat (pronounced “kat”) in this region of the world. Khat is illegal in many countries but it’s a legal drug in the horn of Africa. Recent violence in eastern Ethiopia was related to khat trade and the lack of availability. It’s been said that towns will go on strike if khat is not available. Khat would play an integral part in my travel to and around Somaliland.
Getting the Visa – Somaliland Special Interests Office in Addis Ababa
Somaliland, while self-recognized as an independent state for more than 25 years, is not a country recognized by the UN. Therefore, rather than embassies, the few that are found around the world (in USA, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and UK) are known as Special Interests. The Special Interests in Addis Ababa has moved around frequently in the last few years so we were lucky that someone had posted the most recent location in a travel forum on the internet.
We went at 8:30 opening time on Monday morning. As the guard opened the gate he said “no photos”. The front window of the office was broken and there was glass and plaster everywhere. A burned-out arm chair sat behind the broken glass. We were ushered to sit in the back of the parking area where the guard gave us 3 chairs. After a short wait, a well-dressed man approached us and shook our hands. He said a vandal had thrown a gas bomb on Saturday night. We chatted with him and he told us about his time living in the United States. We later found an article online and discovered he was the equivalent of the Ambassador.
After waiting 30 minutes, we filled out our forms and gave $100, a passport photo, and our passports to the officials. When we returned in 3 hours we received our passports with a rubber stamp visa and details filled out by hand. I got visa number 999/17 which I assume means I was the 999th person to get a visa to Somaliland this year – just over 3 people per day!
Location of Somaliland Special Interests: It is located between the Malawi Embassy and the IOM offices, just a block west from the south end of the Cathedral in Addis Ababa.
Harar to the Border
After three amazing nights in Harar, Ethiopia, it was time to make our way to Somaliland. You can catch a bus from Harar to Jijiga for 45 ETB ($2). We waited for 40 minutes for the bus to fill up while beggars and children selling tissues and gum made their way through the bus. The drive to Jijiga is beautiful. We drove through the Valley of Marvels, a few kilometers of rock formations.
We also saw many refugee camps along this route. With Jijiga in view, the bus pulled off the side of the road and most people got off the bus. We sat inside hoping to get all the way to the city. We soon discovered we were at the border of two districts of Ethiopia and we were entering the Somali district. Young men on the bus had to show ID and had their bags searched.
The bus stop in Jijiga was chaos. Each time a minibus would be going to the border town of Tog Wagale, a mob would rush it and it was impossible to get a seat. Eventually a guy helped us get into one of them so we gave him a little tip. There was only 70 km to the border and the trip only took a little over an hour for a cost of 30 ETB ($1). The roads from Harar to the border are very good due to recent paving so it’s possible to go very fast. We saw multiple military stops but they were all going west, away from the Somaliland border. Some trucks had every bit of cargo laid out on the ground beside it for easy inspection. We heard that many goods are cheaper in Somaliland so there is an active import business into eastern Ethiopia.
At Tog Wagale, we caught a tuk tuk to the border for 50 ETB ($2).
The Border Crossing
We were stopped at a roped road and instructed to go in an unmarked building. Here we had our Ethiopian exit stamped. We started walking through parked cargo trucks and came to a small town at the start of the Somaliland side.
A President’s Welcome
There appeared to be some sort of demonstration – women waving sugar cane leaves and men in a line. There was a big Somaliland military presence and they instructed us to move down the line. Local men were taking pictures with their phone so I gave them a big smile as we walked by.
We soon discovered the cause for the crowd – the President of Somaliland’s motorcade was driving by, complete with horses, secret service, and gun trucks (looked like rocket launchers). We waived at the president and his wife. It was quite a thrill. The people in Somaliland really seem to like him but we learned the elections are in a month and he is not running again.
The visit and ribbon cutting at the new immigration office made the front page of the weekly English Somaliland newspaper the next day…
The old Somaliland immigration office was about 1 kilometer from the Ethiopian side. It was in an old building and the office labels were made with Sharpie marker above the door. We were photographed and stamped in. A strange guy with visible khat between his teeth started video taping me on his phone camera. “Where are you from? Are you spy?” It’s the first time I’ve answered that question. He then asked of my older traveling companion “Is he retired C.I.A?”.
We pile into a shared taxi at a price of $5 per person. This will take us all the way to our hotel in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland less than 2 hours away. But first, our luggage is moved to make room for a very precious cargo… three large bags of khat. Three guys piled into the back seat and we were off. Moments later, the largest dust devil I ever saw swirled past the car.
We rocked to Somali music as we made our way towards Hargeisa. Not only did the guys in the back seat chew khat the whole way, but the driver did too so I decided it had to be tried. The guys in the back seat showed me to chew the youngest leaves. It didn’t give me the feeling of euphoria but did make my lower lip feel numb. We had several police checkpoints on the way and even stopped to weigh the bags of khat. By late afternoon we made our way to the hotel in Hargeisa.