Hargeisa – Capital of a Country that isn’t – Somaliland

Somalia - 2013

When someone mentions Somaliland – others say Somali-what?

In most mind’s Somalia is a mess.

Terrorists. Pirates. Kidnapping gangs.

Yes, it’s a dangerous territory for lone foreigners in the regions of Puntland and Somalia, centered around Mogadishu.

But in the far north of Somalia is the safe and self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland.

Looking from my hotel roof-top in the downtown at dusk
Looking from the roof-top of the Oriental Hotel in central Hargeisa at dusk

While unrecognized by the international community (except Ethiopia), Somaliland has been independent since 1991.

Somaliland has its own government, army and currency

In the capital Hargeisa, electricity, water and internet are reliable.

cash vendors with bundles of money in hargeisa somaliland
Currency vendors with piled cash in public. You need loads of local currency – better to use US cash (no international ATMs) and receive change back in shillings

Business is booming thanks to 1000s of diaspora Somalilanders investing funds from abroad (I met them from the USA, Canada, England, all here on holiday during August).

At the Hargeisa market: women checking out shoes.
At the Hargeisa market: women checking out shoes.

Hitching across the city with a Somalilander from Holland, he posed the question: “How do you find Hargeisa?”

Before I could answer he added, “Fucked up?”

(It’s true that the streets are dusty and congested, construction hap-hazard, that some officials were moronic – and corrupt: like the Tourism officer trying to sell me permits that I didn’t need – or the aggressive security guard at the Ethiopian Liaison Office that was stoned out of his mind by 9 AM; he wouldn’t let me inside, until I persisted. But these incidents are not typical.)

However he said, because he was diaspora and hence perceived as a rich foreigner, everybody expected money and gifts from him to get anything done.

Crumbling colonial-era buildings in central Hargeisa.

Somaliland is a peaceful, independent state

A fact that people are fast to tell you often, delivering a friendly monologue – so that no visitor can mistake where they are.

Variations of the following are frequent: We are Somaliland. We are not Somalia. We are at peace. There’s no terrorists here. You are welcome to free Somaliland.

Where to stay in Hargeisa

Maybe the best place to stay in Hargeisa for backpackers is the central – and comfortable – Oriental Hotel.

It costs $US 15-30 including breakfast; prices reflect seasonal variations.

NOTE: Summer is the peak visiting season for expats Somalianders and also when an Air Con room is necessary.

Staff at the Oriental Hotel can also help arrange the taxi trip to Laas Geel, etc.

Ottoman Turkish house

Some traces of history remain in the downtown – like this Ottoman Turkish house; now a mineral water warehouse. Maybe one day, a boutique tourist hotel?

In Hargeisa, greetings and questions are constant (although there’s still the odd snarl at the sight of a foreigner with camera).

On the other hand, some veiled women in the street said “Good Morning” or “Welcome to Somaliland”.

beggar in streets of hargeisa, somaliland.
This beggar was full of smiles.

Somaliland is conservative country following the Islamic Sunni tradition

And the ban on alcohol is enforced strictly.

However, a popular substitute for alcohol is Qat. This is a bitter-tasting narcotic leaf (similar to Andean Cocoa).

The result is that males across the region love to chew – for hours at nearly anytime of the day.

But afternoons – like in Yemen – are mandatory sessions and life eases up.

What sights to see in Hargeisa

Well, nothing much really.

It’s just the vibe. The place.

I stayed in the city center that is fast modernizing.

But it’s not a flashy place, and the highlights for me were a few Ottoman-Turk colonial buildings and the traditional markets.

As far as ‘sights’, I didn’t visit the camel market (I was too busy shuttling around getting various travel permits and an armed escort for a trip to the ancient rock art caves of Laas Geel 50km beyond Hargeisa).

Maybe the only “tourist sight” in central Hargeisa is a monument of a Somali Air Force MiG fighter – downed over the city.

The MIG monument is one the few landmarks in Hargeisa.

It commemorates the civil war when Somalia’s last recognised leader, socialist Mohammad Siad Barre, had his air force bomb the city.

Following his fall in 1991, Somaliland (formerly a British colony and only united with the rest of Somali in 1960) declared independence.

Woman washing colorful cloth in the backstreets of Hargeisa.

Meanwhile the south of Somali – centred around Mogadishu – plunged into fierce inter-clan warfare spanning two decades.

Today, that violence continues with the Al-Shabab insurgency and criminal gangs.

tacky tank monument
Life seems to be passing this qat-chewer by; modern vehicles and university courses by-pass the past era of conflict at this tacky monument (no, this is not a real tank!)

Yet in Somaliland, which comprises of one dominate clan, the Isaq, the country has been spared from the greater regional conflict.

Somaliland is a safe and fascinating side trip if you’re anywhere in East Africa – go visit!


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