From Harar to Hargeisa: The Border Crossing

Border crossings are often the most exciting parts of travel. Flying into a new country takes away the transitional phase of leaving one place behind and being welcomed by another. Border crossings are generally where one must be at their most vigilant and aware. Since very few major cities lie on the borders between African nations you tend to find yourself in seedier “wild west” type towns where law doesn’t quite hold up the same as it does in the interior. Border skirmishes and banditry are common as political lines often overlap tribal and clan territory.

The U.S. State Department and British Commonwealth both offer significant warnings of making the overland journey from Ethiopia to Somalia or Somaliland. The plan was to do it as quickly as possible and to aviod any overnight stays until I reached my final destination in Hargeisa, where I write this.

Harar to Jijiga

I went to the bus station in Harar with my bag over my shoulder and just asked around for my next destination. “Jijiga?!” I would say as I approached a kid who looked like he knew what he was doing. “Yes! Jijiga Jijiga Jijiga!” and pointed me in the right direction. I got on a bus and was told 13birr (less than $1) for the 2.5 hour ride. The bus was empty so I figured it might be awhile before we leave. In Africa, there is no real time table for bus departures as they leave when they are full. I was told 11am but that really meant nothing. An Ethiopian who spoke a little English started talking to me and told me the mini buses might be better if I’m looking to get somewhere faster. So for twice the birr I left the normal bus and hopped into a minibus. We were off within minutes. The gentleman that helped me out also decided to get on the minibus. I got the front seat in between the driver and the front passenger. I had to put my bag on my lap and keep myself from bumping the stick shift. The driver was fast and we made it in very good time. There was no seat belt and a lot of oncoming traffic. I just had to hope for the best and maybe my pack would act as an air bag.

Inshallah, I made it to Jijiga in one piece.

Jijiga to Wajaale

Jijiga is the last outpost before the Ethio-Somali border. If I was going to need to stay overnight before making my way to Hargeisa this would have had to be it. I was early enough to Jijiga that I wasn’t too concerned. As I was getting off the minibus two young Somali girls had asked where I was going. When I said, Hargeisa they both replied that they too were on their way. Two men had translated for me and were asking me which one I thought was prettier. This would be my third marriage proposal since arriving to the continent. They asked if they could go with me and I said yes but had lost them in the crowd of people at the bus station. I wasn’t exactly sure what the name of the border town was but several people asked me if I was going to Hargeisa or Harar. As soon as I said Hargeisa I was told what to do. Make my way by another minibus to the border town of Wajaale and from there go through customs into Somaliland.

I got myself on the next minibus to Wajaale and before heading off the two Somali girls from the prior leg joined me. The road started out rough and unpaved and went back and forth between paved and unpaved for the next 1.5 hours. 15 minutes into the trip they collected 20 birr from each passenger. As we’re approaching the border I hear “ferenjo! ferenjo!” from behind me. One of the two Somali girls had her cell phone out and said, “number!?, number?” I signaled to her that I did not have a cell phone.

We arrived at Wajaale-Tog on the Ethiopian side at around 2pm. This would be the last time I would see my new friends.

The Border

Before we could enter the town we were taken off the buses and everyone was searched except me. I only had my passport looked at and was let back on the bus and brought across the big dirt lot to the immigration area. A local helped me directly to the Ethiopian office where I was quickly stamped out and told to walk about a quarter mile down to the Somaliland immigration office. I actually missed the office but heard a “hey, hello! you!” coming from a small room that said “immigration” above the doorway. The officer was just a young guy with no shoes on washing his feet in the middle of the floor. He told me to have a seat and reviewed my passport. As usual, the question of my occupation comes up. I typically say, student. His reply was, “I do not think you are a student, I think you are FBI.” He had quite the sense of humor and I chuckled along with him.

Wajaale-Tog to Hargeisa

Then he asked me how I wanted to get to Hargeisa. I had two options: either a contracted car by myself for $80 or a shared station wagon for $5. I asked him for whatever the cheapest is and he replied, “Cheap!? but you have Obama!!” and laughed once again. I opted for the $5 shared taxi even though I understood I was probably in for a difficult leg.

I was the last to be loaded into the station wagon and was stuffed in the back with 4 Somalis. The vehicle itself had a total of 14 people in it (including a baby). We were forced to cramp in with our limbs folded against our chest. The driver took off with a mouth full of khat (a plant that is chewed in order to get high, popular in the horn of Africa.)

We took off and spent a good hour on complete dirt roads crossing the Ogaden Desert. There are about 6 police check points. I was only asked to show my passport once. At several check points I was welcomed with thumbs up and “Thank You!” for coming to Somaliland. They must wonder what the hell an American guy is doing stuffed 14 deep into the back of a station wagon crossing the desert to get into their country. The driver refused to roll down the back window so after awhile it turned into a sauna The entire ride I thought to myself, this has to be some sort of travel badge. It wasn’t until I arrived and found out the 20 hour Djibouti crossing is far more adventurous.

I arrived in Hargeisa just before 5pm. The shared taxi wouldn’t drop me off at my hotel so I had to hop on a local bus not exactly knowing what I was doing. I didn’t have any local currency so the taxi driver handed me 1500 Somaliland shilling. A couple of Somalilanders on the bus helped me to know what stop I should get off for the Oriental Hotel, where I was staying. Once off the bus more people offered to help. One Somalilander actually walked with me until I saw my hotel. He did not ask for money and that was incredibly refreshing.

I’m now comfortable in my hotel where I write this figuring out my next move! I apologize for the lack of photos from this crossing. I never really felt comfortable pulling my camera out to draw attention to myself. If you’re reading this and wondering if the journey is safe to do yourself, I wouldn’t be too concerned. The only problems you’re likely to encounter is a bit of butt numbing and a sore back when it’s all finished. Just enjoy ourself and have a sense a humor about it all. Of course as with any border area, things can change quickly so make sure you find up to date info. But you knew that already!

Harar

After a 10 hour bus ride Mike and I arrived in the eastern Ethiopian town of Harar. The bus ride was comfortable compared to the last time I was here. Ethiopia is undergoing quite the transformation with high-rise buildings going up in the capital and fast non-stop bus routes in between major towns. This is a far cry from the cramped local buses that tourists used to take in order to get from place to place. I can say I’m happy that I got to experience the more grueling ride and as happy to no longer have to do it again.

Textile Shop

Textile Shop

When arriving, you quickly descend into the valley. You’re greeted by tour guides, beggars and a general audience of locals interested to see the arrival of the ferenjo (an endearing term they use for the white people who show up in their city.) Mike and I were the only two frenjo arriving this evening so we probably garnered a bit more attention.

Our first order of business, after finding our quaint family-run guest house in the old city, was to find food. Harar is divided into two major parts, the old walled city and the new city. We figured there should be no problem finding a simple restaurant where we could get a good meal after not eating a lot on the bus. Block after block and turn after turn in the old city, we came up empty. There were several cafes and bakeries but nothing offering substantial food. We finally decided it might be a good idea to just sit and have a beer and gather ourselves. The only food available was slabs of raw meat on a plate of injera. We weren’t in the mood for raw meat so we carried on and eventually found food a little more fitting for our style.

The Old City

The Old City

Harar is unlike any place I’ve been before. It is a spiritual and colorful town. UNESCO was so impressed with its walled city that it gave it world heritage status and deemed it the fourth holiest city of Islam. Every morning the waling of prayer can be heard from throughout the city. Enjoying Harar is to enjoy the people who live there. Harari people have called this valley their home for over 1,000 years. While there is still a fair amount of hassle in Harar, there are still plenty of genuine people who just want to say hello or lend a hand. Harari of all ages will go out of their way to make you feel welcome. “Ferenjo! Hello! How are you?! Welcome Harar!” The lack of a lot of tourists really reinforces the vibe of Harar and convinces you that you have traveled a long way to get there.

I spent two nights in Harar. During the day I wandered around the old city in search of the six gates and a few mosques that date back to as early as the 10th century. The other main attraction in Harar is the hyena feeding that goes on outside of the walled city every night at sundown. More information on that coming up next!