x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Off to Somaliland, the safer version of Somalia

The Practical Traveller When it comes to ticking countries off the list, there's still no need for unnecessary risks.

There are few countries in the world that are truly dangerous, but at the top of the brief list of dangerous places is Somalia, a geographic area that probably shouldn't be a country at all, having virtually no government in control of much of its territory, and run by various warlords for the past 20 years.

Despite its reputation for lawlessness, though, one part of Somalia is safe: the lone breakaway region known as Somaliland. One of the many ironies of geopolitics is that Somaliland is effectively its own country, but Somalia isn't. To get to Somalia proper, you need to work for the United Nations or one of the charities that provides most of the limited food supply, or you need to be prepared to go under armed escort. In a typical - though distressing - sign of the state of affairs, bands of young men who provide their own weapons are available for hire upon arrival at the airport.

Fortunately, I was headed for Somaliland, the safer version of Somalia. I made a false start last month - I landed in Abu Dhabi airport from Frankfurt, expecting an onward ticket waiting for me. Not finding anything or anyone at all, I regrouped and made a new plan. This time, I would travel via Nairobi on a small carrier known as African Express. This plan was also somewhat hit or miss, but I was thrilled when I was able to buy a ticket in cash at the check-in counter at 5am on the morning of departure.

I was less thrilled when I discovered the two facts I had overlooked in the planning (my planning consists mostly of looking up airlines and figuring out how many days I'll need in any given country).

Fact number one: the flight to Somaliland went via Mogadishu, arguably the world's most lawless and dangerous capital city. Granted, we wouldn't be getting off the plane, but I decided if I lived the rest of my life without stopping off in Mogadishu, I'd be fine with it.

Fact number two: due to a change of airlines from my earlier attempt, the flight I finally caught didn't actually go to Hargeisa, my intended destination. Instead it went to the ancient city of Berbera - and then provided a "shuttle service" over to Hargeisa.

For some reason, I pictured this shuttle service as something that would involve a 30-minute drive, an hour at most. But the night before going to Nairobi airport, I deployed some advanced research skills (Google search: "Berbera to Hargeisa") and discovered a key point: it was at least a two-hour drive, maybe longer, because along the way we'd have to stop for numerous security checks, perhaps with other delays.

Ah, well, what was one to do? I was genuinely excited to tour the country. For the three days before going to Somaliland, I had been in the Central African Republic, and there wasn't much to report from there - like much of Francophone Africa, it's an old-school nation that remains desperately poor decades after independence. The hotel I had reserved in the capital of Bangui had no record of my booking, so I was sent on a search for different lodging. I finally found something basic - sharing the room with a colony of mosquitoes - and when the Kenya Airways flight returned to Nairobi via Douala two days later I was glad to leave.

I knew Somaliland would be different. I had slept only a few hours the night before, and checked out of my hotel room at 4.30am for an early ride to the airport. After purchasing the ticket, security was easy but I made a mistake in not getting to the gate in time, and was forced to board at the end of a long queue and head to the very back of the plane for a seat. Once settled in, however, the flight was relatively normal. We stopped in Mogadishu and I was happy when we took to the skies again. Four hours after the first boarding, we touched down in Berbera, Somaliland. I had made it! Well, almost.

Immigration procedures took a while. I found out that arriving foreigners are required to exchange US$50 (Dh184) for what looks like an extraordinarily large amounts of Somalian pounds. I deposited the huge bricks of cash in my bag, hoping to exchange them again - at a loss - later with the hotel.

Next came the long ride to Hargeisa via the ambitiously titled shuttle service. I hopped into a waiting minibus with other passengers and, after more waiting (a common theme with African travel), we set out on the journey. It's a two-hour drive by a Land Cruiser, but considerably longer by minibus. Tired as I was by that point, I was also grateful for the chance to travel in true Somali style.

"Once in a while," I wrote in my journal later that night, "I feel like a real traveller."

My lodging was simple but better than what I had in the Central African Republic a couple of days before. For once I was perfectly content, willing to accept my circumstances without trying to improve them. After dinner I walked around the market without concern or hassle. Children waved at me before hiding shyly behind their mothers. I liked being in Somaliland, even if it doesn't exist on most political maps of the world.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity, published by Penguin. He is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world, and is currently on number 178. Next week: the long road from Berbera to Nairobi isn't easily travelled.