Dorothy Ng makes friends with the locals and even gets marriage proposals during her backpacking trip in Somaliland
I NEVER knew I could make so many heads turn, literally, till we were in Somaliland. Asian tourists are almost non-existent in Somaliland. Everywhere we went, curious eyes of the old and young followed us.
Somaliland is a self-declared sovereign state that is internationally recognized only as an autonomous region of Somalia. A breakaway state of Somalia, it has been independent for 21 years but remained unknown to many as a country.
Crossing the border overland from Ethiopia into Somaliland was an adventure in itself. For hours, we sat huddled with the locals in a bus till we reached the border town of Tog Wachaale. A friendly businessman we befriended on the bus went out of his way to chaperon us to the border office to get our passports stamped, and even treated us to a sumptuous meal of authentic local food.
Our first stop was Hargeysa, the capital situated in a valley in the Galgodon (Ogo) highlands at an elevation of 4,377ft. Colorful hand-painted murals of groceries and appliances decorated every shopfront.
Moneychangers were men with yellow metal cages filled with Somaliland shillings.
It was surreal to see huge stacks of notes freely carted around in wheelbarrows and openly displayed at stalls. We had to whip out heaps of notes to pay for a simple meal.
At the night market, we befriended two college girls in traditional Muslim hijab who became our shopping guides. They helped to get a good bargain for hijabs on our behalf and even taught us how to wear them. We fumbled with the bales of fabric and our veils for a long time before we were finally dressed.
When we were done, we were greeted with many approving nods from adults and giggles from children. Our cameras and hiking bags were the only tell-tale signs that we were foreigners.
Livestock, the lifeline of Somaliland’s economy, contributes more than 60 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. The bustling Hargeysa livestock market is an interesting place to visit, and a great place to feel the pulse of the everyday life of the people.
Other interesting discoveries make this country unique. Along the way from Ethiopia into Somaliland, we spotted numerous colorful igloo-like structures that dotted the horizons. Our driver explained this is the traditional home that is made of sticks and old clothes, known as “munkul”.
Laas Geel, an ancient cave complex in the desert, is Somaliland’s star attraction, and was discovered in 2003. Located 50km away from Hargeysa, it is a must-see as the Neolithic rock art drawings are believed to date back 3,000 to 9,000 years and reputed to be among the best rock art drawings in Africa.
We clambered onto rock surfaces and traversed cliffs to marvel at these amazing pre-historic drawings that were eternalized on the inner ceilings of numerous grottoes. Painted predominantly in red and white, these drawings of cows, sheep and figures were intriguing as they bore testament of their existence in ancient times.
Following that, we hiked to the mountaintop and were rewarded with a scenic view that overlooked the great expanse of the desert.
Our second stop was the coastal town, Berbera. Interestingly, the Gulf of Aden we know today was historically known as “The Gulf of Berbera”, named after the ancient port city. Every year, millions of animals are shipped from Berbera’s port to other parts of Africa and the world.
Though Berbera may not be a beautiful spot with its numerous war-torn structures and stretches of trash-covered wasteland, its Ottoman architectural buildings and friendly people make the place a worthy stop. We found our tranquil haven at a beachside resort free from houseflies and cats and enjoyed a beautiful sunset by the beach.
One thing I truly enjoy about backpacking is not knowing what to expect every day and letting serendipity take over. A random email to the editor of a local newspaper opened doors to some unusual travel experiences. Mr Yusof M Hasan turned out to be a gracious host who showed us around. He even introduced us to his friends, including a singer, head archaeologist and owner of a television station.
To reciprocate our host’s kindness, we agreed to write a travel story for the newspapers he worked for and be interviewed by a local television station. Much to our amusement, we actually appeared on the front page of the newspapers and our interview clip was broadcast to the entire nation the next day!
The warm hospitality of the people moved us, and at times landed us in somewhat bizarre situations. Once in Berbera, we were bombarded with questions by three inquisitive girls and by the time we reached the middle of the night bazaar, an entire village of children was gleefully tailing us. And on two occasions, the Somaliland guards took a fancy to my “exotic” face when the vehicle we were travelling in stopped for security checks and offered marriage proposals!
Somaliland does not boast of world-class attractions like the other parts of Africa, but the uniqueness of this self-declared state, the patriotism of the Somalilanders and their warm hospitality make this unofficial country a worthwhile destination.
Ethiopian Airlines has regular flights from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to Hargeysa. One can also travel overland from Ethiopia into Jijiga in eastern Ethiopia and take a bus to the border town of Wajaale.
■ Bring a headscarf and a long skirt. In Somaliland, it is mandatory that women wear headscarves and skirts or the traditional Muslim attire. You can also buy the traditional Muslim attire and the veil from the night market for less than $25.
■ Visit Laas Geel to see the ancient rock art paintings that dates back more than 6,000 years ago. Arrangement of a four-wheel vehicle, a driver and an armed escort is required. You would also need to attain a written permit from the authorities before going there.
■ Manage your expectations when it comes to accommodation as tourism infrastructure is still in its early stage of development. Do not expect five-star hotel standards there.
■ Set aside US$40 (S$51) for departure tax as it is mandatory for locals and tourists to pay the amount at the airport.