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Off the Beaten Track: A Few Pointers for Navigating Somaliland (PHOTOS)

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*SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM FOR PHOTOS*

The northern section of Somalia, which proclaimed its independence in 1991, is free of the mindless violence tearing the rest of the country apart and offers rewarding sites from age-old rock paintings to spectacular escarpments to blinding white beaches -- much indeed to interest the visitor who ventures on this road less traveled.

Getting There From Neighboring Countries: Overland from Ethiopia is a relative, if potentially uncomfortable, cinch by bus from Jijiga; at the border group taxis drive on to Hargeisa, the capital, all easily doable in a day. Air travel remains suspended following a bomb attack against Ethiopian targets in Hargeisa in 2008.

From Djibouti, there are supposed to be daily landrovers, but these can take 20 hours or more, travel mainly at night to avoid the heat so you don't see much, and are subject to frequent breakdowns. So I went by plane. There are four flights a week by two companies, Daallo and Jubba, the latter suiting my timetable.

On A Wing And A Prayer: Well, it does at least have two wings -- but that's about all you can say for it -- and many a prayer on the part of yours truly. Jubba's 1,000-year old four-engine Russian Ilyushin 18 turboprop is something out of science retro-fiction. It's filthy, the seat belts don't work properly, corroded immutably and for eternity into maximum stretch for vast vodka-filled bellies; and don't even think of pulling down the table in the seat back -- I did, and it had repulsive calcified food remains from the 60s. Come to think of it, they could be mine; the last time I flew an Ilyushin 18 was in Cuba in 1966; perhaps this is the very same plane, and these the remains of my 1966 repast.

Fortunately it's only 45 minutes to Hargeisa. On landing, the Russian pilot is out on the tarmac giving a very suspicious glower at the outer right engine, tapping it as though it were a tuning fork to see if it sounds safe to take off again.

Security: Other than a deadly bomb attack in 2008 against UN and Ethiopian targets in Hargeisa, apparently by Al Shabab Islamists from the south, there has been little major violence. But security is pervasive with zillions of police and army checkpoints on all the roads. At the time I was there (July), just after democratic elections in which the opposition won and actually took power peacefully, it was possible to go by public bus to Berbera and the inland city of Burao and the Ethiopian border. Travel further east, where clan loyalties to the Puntland autonomous region of Somalia have caused tension and clashes, requires renting a 4X4 and an armed security police guard, the latter costing $15 a day. Unlike many other African cities, Hargeisa seems relatively safe to wander around in the center till at least about 10:30PM.

Sights and Sites: The premier tourist attraction is Laas Geel. Large rock overhangs on outcroppings on the vast savanna an hour from Hargeisa make a natural shelter against the elements on the 4,000-foot high plateau where 7,000 to 10,000 years ago some artistically inclined cavemen felt their home needed a make-over. They set to work with the rock minerals at hand -- deep red, white, yellow -- and produced some truly remarkably paintings. OK, the Mona Lisa, or Last Supper it ain't, but then old Leonardo had some 6,500 to 9,500 years of technological advances to work with. They're not the sort of rock paintings you have to strain your eyes and imagination to decipher. The deep red cows with udders waiting to be milked, the men in white shirts, the group dancing, and the family dog with his upturned tail certainly deserve to be put on UNESCO's World Heritage Sites List, regardless of non-recognized independence claims.

Berbera on the Red Sea coast is a bit of a wreck as are most of the cities, due to the heavy damage inflicted in the pre-independence civil war. But the coast is great for beachcombers even if searingly hot.

The drive inland to the plateau through spectacular mountain gorges is splendid, and the vast lonely plateau stretching out to the horizon with the occasional nomad 'homesteads,' permanent small mosques and milling camel herds is incredibly evocative. Finally the fantastic escarpment by Daallo mountain with its drop of thousands of feet near Erigavo in the east is truly awe-inspiring. For this I needed to rent a 4X4 at $200 a day with driver, guide and the armed security guard all in.

Money: compared with neighboring African cities, it is really cheap. For instance when I was in Hargeisa the Oriental Hotel charged $15 for a clean room with fan and shower and $4 for a great meal in a great setting -- a large indoor courtyard with pergolas and balconies -- right in the center of Hargeisa. Fortunately dollars are accepted everywhere, otherwise you'd almost need a donkey cart to cart your local money around -- at 6,000 shillings to the dollar, and 500 shillings the highest denomination. If you want to see Rothschild a la Somaliland, there's a whole lane in the market lined with money changers sitting on the ground, their little tables piled high with huge bricks of bank notes in bundles a couple of feet tall, some using the loot as foot rests. In Erigavo, it's even worse; they use the Somalia shilling and if Somalia's highest note is 1,000 shillings and it takes 32,000 shillings to equal $1, just do the math.

Talk Of The Town: If you're at a loose end in Hargeisa after dipping into the cacophonous effervescence of markets crowded with donkey carts amid the amplified calls of the muezzin, you could do worse than go to the Imperial Hotel, just beyond the walled presidential palace. The building is run down, but its meal and tea garden is the watering hole for the local literati, gliterati, politicati, and reporterati as it's bang in the center of government offices. Here, at little tables scattered amid copses of flowering bushes and trees, the latest scraps of 'news' can be gathered and regurgitated in the 'information bourse' as you seek out the latest Somaliland "deep throat" and generally fill up on local gossip, local color and local what-ever among the friendly patrons.

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For more additional information on Somaliland and other travel experiences see www.looneyfront.blogspot.com

Also by the same author, Shakespearean spoofs on current day politics at www.shakespeareredux.blogspot.com