61 – How much dust does a duststorm dust if a duststorm does storm dust?

Tue 26th Jan, Some local dump, Harar
Today we make the long journey from Hargeisa, Somaliland to Harar, Ethiopia. After the complimentary breakfast, we take the minibus from just behind the hotel to the Wajaale Station (1500 shillings) where transport to Wajaale could be found. What i thought would be buses turned out to the Toyota Mark II cars instead, and these charged 5.5 USD per pax to the border town of Wajaale. As usual, we waited for the vehicle to get full before going. The road was sealed, until we turned off onto the dirt track towards Wajaale halfway.
Here the terrain got interesting. We must have gone through this terrain at night when coming into Somaliland by 4WD. In the horizon, duststorm after duststorm loomed. We passed by a few up close. Around 2.5 hours later, we arrived at Wajaale. The main road here is still a sandy track. After doing the border necessities at both sides (the immigrations building is unmarked), we took a public bus to the next town Jijiga (20 birr, 2.5 hrs). The standard annoying Ethiopian asking for 10 birr for lifting your bag on top of the bus is back. =)
The road got better as we went west. And the scenery got greener as well.. I suspect it was rolling qat fields we passed through. I counted, along the way, there were 7 police or military checkpoints. The more thorough ones strip searched the passengers, one made me go on the bus roof to open my padlocked bag. The locals had to show their IDs. All these because of the proximity to the border.
From Jijiga, we took yet another bus, this time to Harar (23 birr, 2 hours), which meant we arrived in Harar only at around 8pm. Along the way we passed through the Valley of Marvels, so named because of the boulders standing on top of each other at impossible angles. I’m sure there is a story to this valley, but at that moment in the bus no one could tell us.
We reached Harar and found all the hotels to be full, due to some big meeting going on in the Oromia region. We were forced to stay in one of the local places, with no power point, water for shower etc (30 birr). But the beds were comfortable, so I had a good night’s sleep.
p/s im back in Ethiopia, so i’m posting from emails again since we cannot access the blog web page.

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60 – Time out in S.land

Mon 25th  Jan, Oriental Hotel, Hargeisa
There is nothing much to be said of today. In the morning, i had a full lunch of rice and mutton before lazing in the hotel. Went out to just see the many buildings, as well as the lively markets. I get the usual “China!” catcalls, though the irony is that the chinese investment money doesn’t reach here, since it does not receive international recognition. Similarly, international investors are wary of putting money into the country, which the government and Somalilanders outside the country are trying to change by raising awareness of the situation here.

Had dinner of Shiroo (2000 Shillings), which is some sort of corn or millet paste that you eat with milk. The milk is sour, and i asked other patrons if it was meant to be sour. Yes. It was like eating curdled milk and i didn’t finish it, of course. Tomorrow, we head back into Ethiopia, into the walled city of Harar. Days like today are good, just staying put and relaxing. Running around on long distance buses every day would inevitably lead to burnout when one travels for such a long period. That being said, tomorrow onwards, i will be doing the long haul of 4 days from Harar to Nairobi in Kenya.

Elaborate henna tattoos, courtesy of Chris (thanks!).

59 – Las Geel, at the ancient cave paintings

Sun 24th  Jan, Oriental Hotel, Hargeisa
Cutting to the chase, today we made our way to Las Geel, 50 km out of Hargeisa. The Las Geel site is where a series of ancient cave paintings carbon dated back to 5000-3000 BC were discovered, back in 2003. And under normal circumstances, such a find would result in tourists coming from all over by the busloads. But since we are talking about Somaliland here, only a trickle of independent tourists make their way to this spectacular location.

First, we needed to arrange for transport and the mandatory security detail. For this, we walked down the main street westwards towards the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The director general, who was reading an issue of National Geographic when we walked in, is a friendly old man who arranged for our permit. The entry fee into the site is 25 USD, the armed guard is 20 USD, and the transport to and fro is 60 USD. Pretty pricey i think. But there is a personal touch to it, since the director general himself offers us tea and shows us rock tools and neolithic knives in his office. Then he also sends along with us an English speaking employee of the Ministry. Mohamed speaks English with a very London accent, having spent time there before returning to Somaliland.

We took a car there, 5 of us: the driver, the armed soldier, the ministry guide and the two of us. Along the sealed road, we passed by several police checkpoints. They really take the security seriously here. Any harm to tourists would detract from their quest to potray Somaliland as a safe place, and hence for international recognition as a valid country.

Somali saying: “When one tries to ride two horses at once, one often ends with a scratched bum”

We turned off the main highway at the village near the twin Nasahablod hills. A further 5 km on rough terrain before we hit the base of the hill, where a single tourist hut has been built. According to the guide, there were 107 alcoves and sites all over Somaliland, 45 in Las Geel (of which maybe 25 are not caved in, and 5 are accessible to tourists) and 43 stone graves. We started at the base of the hill, visiting a series of alcoves.

The first alcove had the most detailed mural with peculiar shaped cows, people (one man was drinking with some instrument from the cow’s udder!), spears, dogs, dancing people in a circle. Women were painted with only the top half of their body showing. The second cave was similar with more amazing paintings. This one was also used as a council room where disputes are resolved. We continued uphill till we reached the highest cave, which was named the king’s cave. A stone ledge was where king would sit and he could view the entire plains below him from there. This cave was also the only one where it was not concave, an outcropping of rock protruded off the ceiling (dropped off) indicating this was a more important spot. Similarly more paintings. The walls and king’s rock “throne” was glazed with some sort of material so that the paintings would not come off after time. The French team who studied the place actually tried to simulate the same concoction used to paint the walls, but their version faded after only two months (whereas the ancient ones are thousands of years old!). We did a couple more alcoves with paintings, each one remarkably preserved. My favourite painting was a hunter protecting his herd from wild animals. My second favourite were a cow and bull humping each other, lol. Finally we ended at the lookout point. There was a small opening which overlooked the other side of the mountains. From here, the lookouts could use the near and far lookout points to see the entire expanse of the plains and warn their king of impending attacks.

I actually worry about the state of preservation of the paintings. There was a local guide with us yes, but the set up is not geared for the influx of mass groups of tourists, should this arise. Unlikely for now, since on my visa, i am tourist 424 as of Jan 2010. I’m assuming 001 was in Jan 2009, and so the country averages 1 tourist a day, also confirmed by Mohamed. Before leaving, we signed the guestbook, which had the last tourists to this site 4 days ago. So hopefully, these tourists don’t go around touching the paintings and defiling them.

On the way back, we passed the remains of an old tank, where of course i took the photo opportunity. And just inside the outermost checkpoint, our car, which had been traveling on really tough terrain of gravel and quartz, had a flat. The spare tire that they had didn’t fit at all (5 spokes instead of 4 slots available) so we had to wait for a bit before taking public transport back.

58 – Introducing Hargeisa, Somaliland

Sat  23rd  Jan, Oriental Hotel, Hargeisa
Woke up and had some tea. Somaliland tea is lovely, shah they call it. It is not like those tea-0 without milk in tiny little glasses found everywhere else which i never could understand. I mean, how can one get enough to drink? One gulp and the shai is gone. Here, however, a generous helping of tea is served in a metal mug, with camel milk in it.

The rest of the journey into Hargeisa took about 1 hour or so. We reached into the outskirts of the city, the residential area. The buildings walls of the shops are painted in bright colours, light green, pink and the wares they sell are painted in English and other languages (somali, arabic) as well as drawn onto the walls. So the electronics shop has pictures of telephones and radios, the restaurant has a picture of plates, goats and camels. The qat booths are green and had pictures of what else, qat.

The 4×4 drove us to the hotel. We ended up at the Oriental Hotel (s/d 15, 25 USD) since the first choice was full. It was a very nice place, if a tad pricey. But split within the two of us, with its excellent location by the souq, and free wifi (woohooo!), im sold. We went out for lunch.

The people go about doing their own thing. The streets are surprisingly relatively clean, police officers, traffi policemen direct people along. In general there is a certain bustle and life in the city. They are also quite welcoming, with none of the hassling found elsewhere. This could possibly be attributed to the need for recognition internationally. Or they are really just friendly people. In town we passed by the MiG jet memorial, and the car which went past 27 countries from Sheffield in England to here, to raise awareness of Somaliland.

 The Somali language is distinctly different from back in Ethiopia. Where back there, the people are soft spoken (ish), often ending their sentences with abrupt sucking in of air, and chaining their words fast (even though they argue a lot, over everything and anything, but that’s another story), here in Somaliland, they literally shout out their words. It seems like a coarser language, raising their voices especially when they speak to each other, even though there is obviously no ill intent. As such, the Somaliland women, in the colourful robes and headgear, seem altogether like a more robust bunch of people who are visible on the streets.

As you might see, i like the vibe of the town. We had camel meat for lunch (3800 SSH, erm, thats Somaliland Shillings). The currency is getting bigger and bigger. First it was 1 SGD to 40 Egypt pounds and 1 SGD to 20 Sudan pounds. Then it was 1 SGD to approx 10 Ethiopian birr. Then it was 1 SGD to 125 Djibouti francs. Now it is 1 SGD to approx 4700 Somaliland shillings. And since the only denomination that seem to widely exist is the 500 shilling note (besides the widely accepted USD), i am now carrying an insane wad of notes with me. I changed 20 USD today at the money exchange (check out those cute little money changer boxes and piles) and what i got are a stack of 264 notes. It makes sense however, since most of the country survive on 1 USD a day, poverty is a given outside the city area i think.

yes that wad of cash is 20 USD.

Ok, back to lunch. I had to try camel meat and it was really good too, though i gorged on a little too much camel fat. It is stewed in what tastes like mutton soup back home. Cost? 38000 SSH which fed both of us. That is around 8 SGD for a huge meal (or 76 of those shilling notes!!). After lunch, we went to chill in the hotel (wifi and satelite tv) before going back out again to explore the streets a bit and have dinner. Tomorrow we will try to arrange something to Las Geel, a series of cave paintings dating back to 9000-3000 BC.

57 – Ribcages go *Thok!* when they slam onto the floor of 4WDs

Fri 22st  Jan, In the back seat of a 4×4, Djibouti – Somaliland Border
Nothing is open this morning in the city. First we went south to the street where the 4WDs are parked. These leave for the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa. We arranged with the people there to pick us up at the hotel at 3pm later today. Price negotiated? It was 5000 DJF for front row seats and 3000 DJF for back row. Of course we picked the cheaper option, with an added 500 DJF each for the backpacks. Next we walked down to the beach to catch some salty air and went back to the internet cafe. There was no breakfast as all the shops were closed. Friday is the weekend. In most places elsewhere, shops open in the morning, close for lunch friday prayers, and reopen again. Here i think shops stay close in the morning, remain closed for friday prayers, and then everyone gets high on qat so everything is closed all day.
After checking out of the hotel, we had a quick lunch outside before making a beeline for the hotel grounds to wait for our pickup. The afternoons nowadays are characterised by both of us hiding in the shade somewhere. It is way too stifling hot here. The pickup was at 330pm and they took us to the 4WD street. Wait here, they say. And we waited, for about 2 hours. We wondered who would be our neighbours in the car. We had lots of time to sit there and wander too. Me, i’m the spectacle who hears “China” or “Hey you, China!” each time they try to catch my attention.
One thing i never could understand is why there is so much rubbish littering the streets. Here in Djibouti City, especially, i would expect to be better managed since it is such a cosmopolitan place where businesses and trade takes place. In front of us is this drain clogged up. True, there are workers assigned as rubbish pickers who walk all over the place to clean up after rubbish thrown by everyone. But why not just put bins everywhere and then get these rubbish pickers to clear the bins. That would be so much more efficient. But like Chris and I concluded, the style of management here is more reactive than preemptive. In this case, if nothing goes wrong, eg. There is no outbreak of disease or eiots or something, then let throwing rubbish on the ground carry on. Strikes me as being a very short term kind of thinking.
The 4×4 finally decides to leave just before sunset. We will travel in the night because the sun would be too hot to travel in the day. There were 12 people in the car, all Somalis. The driver, two ladies up front. 4 guys in the 2nd row, one of whom was totally qat-stoned for the ENTIRE 16 hour ride. And then 5 of us lumped together in the square area in the back. Well 4 actually since one guy was seated perenially on the roof during the journey.
And off we went. First to the border at Loyada, which was a painless process on both sides of the customs. We had to change 4WDs though, and so had to lug our belongings around. I think the reason is because the vehicles don’t run on either’s roads. Djibouti is right hand drive whereas Somaliland is left hand drive, following the British system. One of the Somalilanders in the back with us is a nice guy who speaks English and helps us along the entire trip
A bit about Somaliland then, though i am hardly an expert and my facts are probably messed up. Initially divided during the colonisation period in the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The British got what is today Somaliland, the Italians got what is Puntland and Somalia, while the French got Djibouti, and the Ethiopians got what is today the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia. When Brit and Italian Somalia gained independence in 1960, they merged to form present day’s Somalia. The new 5 pointed Somalia flag was done up, a sign of uniting the 5 regions (Somaliland, Puntland, Somalia, Djibouti, Ogaden region). However, over time the northwestern Somalilanders felt increasingly marginalized as the cultures are different, influenced by the marxist like regime of Siad Barre. The Djibouti Somalis, meanwhile prefered continued French rule while an invasion into the Ogaden region failed. At the start of the ongoing Somalia civil war, in 1991, the Somaliland rebels declared a breakaway independent state. This led to the main government reacting and bombing Hargeisa to ruins. However, the Somalilanders have recreated their city, set up a government, ministries, a proper education system and a semblance of proper governance since then. Unfortunately, they are not recognised internationally, despite much effort (this car below traveled 27 countries to raise awareness of Somaliland), and remains a part of Somalia. The reason for this i think would be UN and other bodies still hoping for a resolution to the Somali conflict, which continues to be in the news even now, albeit for different reasons (now extremism worries after the transitional govt etc) than 10 years ago.
So, excluding the occasional trouble where Somali terrorists from Mogadishu sneak into Somaliland borders to cause trouble (there are plenty of recent cases), Somaliland is a safe place. But just in case, we are required to have armed bodyguards whenever we get out of the city.
After the border crossing, the road turns to shite. The road is not sealed, and the terrain is a flat sandy ground, surrounded by dry low 1.5 shrubs. I have no idea how the driver navigates in the absence of a proper road, he is following the criss-crossing tyre tracks ahead. The 4 of us at the back are suffering. You get what you pay for. Sitting cross legged, my head smashes into the ceiling repeatedly, and i have trouble trying to get a hold of something. There are also some equipment undearneath us like a large coil of nylon rope underneath me which made it very uncomfortable. The terrain got worse when we started climbing uphill. Tossed all over to the back of the 4×4, i tried many times to sleep on the floor. But each time my ribs smash into the underside, and i will wake up in pain. Finally at around 5am, we stopped somewhere to sleep for 2 hours, before carrying on.
From top to bottom: La Nation weekly papers in Djibouti, menu from my fav restaurant, fish shoppe, random building, our vehicle to Hargeisa, me by the Djibouti beach that smells of fish.

ps / i really apologise for the crap grammar, but these entries are getting way to long and i cbf to change them.  hahaha.