In most countries you need a passport to exchange foreign money for local currency. In Somaliland, an unrecognised country in the Horn of Africa, you need a wheelbarrow.
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Most local banknotes in Somaliland are only worth pennies, so a brick of money is usually needed to buy a meal of camel hump or goat meat. The whole process of exchanging notes is gloriously exotic.
In the dusty local market in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, rows of currency traders set up stalls on the side of the road with money they value by weight. Some traders have hundreds of kilos of notes ready to swap for pound sterling, US dollars or euros, with barrow-boy helpers moving the money around on two wheels or in the back of a car. I gave them $100, and was handed a sack of Somaliland shillings that made me feel like a millionaire.
I was visiting Somaliland on a journey that took me from South Africa, up the east coast of the continent, around India and back down through Indonesia to finish in southwest Australia.
Rarely visited by Westerners, Somaliland is fundamentally different from the other countries in the region — and almost anywhere else on the planet. According to the rest of the world, Somaliland is, officially, just a part of Somalia, located in the northern area along the Gulf of Aden. Somalia has endured appalling suffering during recent decades and has become the classic example of a failed state.
At least one million Somalis have died in the conflict that has raged there for decades, and when I visited the Somali capital Mogadishu recently, the country was undergoing a famine that started during summer 2011 and by unofficial estimates has killed tens of thousands and affected millions more. For foreigners it is an anarchic, chaotic and a frighteningly dangerous place. I wore a flak jacket, helmet and ?blast boxers? (armoured underwear) as I witnessed active frontline combat in the ongoing battle to control the country.
Somaliland, by contrast, is an unrecognised state larger than England and home to 3.5 million people, but it has an independent, democratically elected government and its own army, flag, media and border control, but must rely on an uneasy relationship with Somalia for matters like international diplomacy and large scale public works. Somaliland also fosters a small tourist industry offering a warm and welcoming alternative to Somalia for the occasional adventurous international traveller who makes it this far.
Landing here after visiting Somalia is a profound culture shock. In Mogadishu visitors are greeted by chaos and bundled into the back of an armoured personnel carrier for their own safety. In Somaliland I was greeted at the airport with a huge smile and warm hug by a local guide and taken by taxi to change money and then for a meaty feast in a local restaurant.
Britain was the former colonial power in Somaliland from 1888-1960.
Locals, overwhelmingly Muslim, fought and died for Britain during World War II, and Somalilanders still feel a strong attachment to the country and what consider its benevolent rule. They now struggle to understand why the UK has not done more to help their country secure legitimate international recognition — a complicated issue apparently caused by the British government?s desire for an African state to be the first to recognise Somaliland, and the fact that a Somaliland port competes for business with neighbouring Djibouti.
After separating from the shrinking British empire, Somaliland voluntarily joined with Somalia for economic and security reasons. But when a dictator came to power in Somalia the relationship soured in the 1980s. Somalilanders fought a bitter war to reclaim their independence which was ultimately successful, by default, as Somalia collapsed in internal turmoil.
Visiting the Somaliland today is a humbling lesson in survival and self-determination. In Hargeisa, where 50,000 died during the war of re-independence, a Somali MiG jet used to bomb the city sits atop a poignant memorial. But the city is being repaired and redeveloped. There is hustle and bustle, as new shops, internet cafes, hotels and other businesses open every week.
Outside Hargeisa modern facilities for visitors are scarce and basic, but there is plenty to see. At Laas Geel, an area just outside the capital, visitors can see the most significant Neolithic rock-painting site in Africa, a treasure of global significance where the strong, vibrant colours and stark outlines show ancient locals worshipping cattle and venerating a pregnant cow.
Farther afield a stunning drive through a dusty landscape takes you to the medieval port town of Berbera, site of a runway once secured by NASA as an emergency space shuttle landing strip. Tracks run along the coast west from Berbera, past mangroves, gorgeous islands and coral reef, to the towering cliffs and beaches around the historic city of Zeila, once part of the Ottoman Empire and a major centre for trade during the 19th Century.
History lovers are well catered for along the coast with ruined cities, thousands of years old, which had links with ancient Egypt and northern Ethiopia. Energetic visitors can hike up into the thick forests in the Cal Madow mountains, home to at least 200 endemic plants and rare and beautiful wildlife, including the golden-winged grosbeak and the beira antelope. But the main attraction of this unrecognized country, at least for me, are the locals.
Somalilanders are an inspirational people who have built a functioning state in a dangerous part of the world. The country, whether internationally recognized or not, is a stark and beautiful land and, thanks to both the landscape and the locals, one of my favourite places on the entire planet.
The adventurer and explorer Simon Reeve has visited more than 110 countries and been around the world three times for the BBC television series Equator, Tropic of Cancer, and Tropic of Capricorn. His latest televised journey, that included Somaliland, was titled Indian Ocean.