Telegraph travel article by Simon about unrecognised
By Simon Reeve
SOMALILAND’S government Minister for Tourism was elated he finally had a rare foreign visitor he could take to see his country’s national treasures.
“Don’t worry!” said the enthusiastic Minister, as I reluctantly agreed to accompany him to some rock etchings recently discovered at Laas Ga'al outside Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. “The drawings are beautiful, and it will just be a small detour from the road!”
After bumping along potholed dirt tracks through the parched African bush for long enough for my bones to separate, I started to think my scepticism was justified. But we crested a hill, dodged wiry bushes on a wide plain, and scrambled over vast boulders to find exquisite rock paintings dating back thousands of years.
Even under the scorching sun, the paintings had strong, vibrant colours and stark outlines, showing the ancient inhabitants of the area worshipping cattle and venerating a pregnant cow. In a low cave further up the hill I found human figures dancing along the rock.
Laas Ga'al is probably the most significant Neolithic rock painting site in the whole of Africa, and for a brief moment I felt like an explorer finding hidden treasures, at a time when the entire world seems easy to reach on package holidays.
But there are still areas of the world off the beaten track which can excite and amaze. Somaliland is not on many tourist maps. In fact, it is not on any maps at all. According to the international community, Somaliland does not even exist.
Although there are almost 200 official countries in the world there are also dozens more unrecognised states like Somaliland which are determined to be separate and independent. These countries are home to millions of people, they have their own rulers, armies, police forces, and issue passports and even postage stamps, but they are not officially recognised as proper countries by the rest of the world.
I wanted to highlight the risks of leaving unrecognised countries isolated, and was visiting Somaliland as part of a journey to and through a group of these unofficial states for the five-part BBC2 series ‘Places That Don’t Exist’, which starts on Wednesday.
It was a chance to visit some of the most obscure and forgotten parts of the world. A series of trips took me to Somaliland, Transniestria (between Moldova and Ukraine), Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, and three regions of Georgia which broke away after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Lack of recognition is not limited to poor nations. No major power recognises Taiwan as a proper country. It has one of the largest economies in the world but no seat at the UN.
Taiwan was welcoming, but visiting other unrecognised nations was often tricky. Getting in was difficult, and there were no foreign embassies to turn to in an emergency. But the very fact most are isolated and untouched by tourism made them intriguing places to visit.
All of the unrecognised nations on my list declared independence after bloody conflicts with a neighbouring state, which I also wanted to visit. In the case of Somaliland, that’s Somalia. So with a BBC film-crew I began several months of travel by flying into a dusty airstrip just outside Mogadishu, the Somali capital, on a tiny UN flight from Nairobi.
Years of fighting have destroyed once-beautiful Mogadishu, which is now the most dangerous city on the planet for foreigners. The BBC crew and I had to pay a dozen gunmen to keep us alive. Corpses lie in the streets for days, and locals eke out a living in a state of utter chaos. I went to the main market and bought myself a Somali passport from a man called Mr Big Beard.
Despite the chaos, and although Somalia has no real government, the rest of the world recognises it as an official country. By contrast Somaliland, in the north of Somalia, has a government, police, democracy and traffic lights, but no recognition, making it extremely difficult for the country to attract aid, investment, or visitors.
A UN cargo flight stopped briefly in Mogadishu to lift us out of chaos and take us north. The chirpy Afrikaans pilot casually warned the flight might be a bit rough. As the plane was battered I closed my eyes and gripped the armrests, while my producer Iain calmly cooked himself a bean curry.
The flight was so bad I could have kissed the ground after landing in Somaliland. A smartly-dressed immigration official stamped our passports. His presence and uniform were an immediate sign of order.
Britain is the former colonial power in Somaliland, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. Locals went to Britain’s aid during the Second World War, and Somalilanders still feel a strong attachment to Britain. They struggle to understand why the UK has not recognised their country and politely quiz visitors about the reasons.
As we drove into the sweltering capital Hargeisa, Yusuf Abdi Gabobe, my towering local guide, explained Somaliland voluntarily joined with Somalia after independence from Britain, but when the relationship soured in the 1980s Somalilanders fought a war for independence.
Visiting Somaliland is to receive a humbling lesson in survival and self-determination. Hargeisa, where 50,000 died during the conflict, is being rebuilt with little help from the outside world, and refugees are returning from camps in Ethiopia. A Somali MiG jet which bombed the city sits atop a poignant war memorial.
Outside Hargeisa there are ancient rock paintings and stunning journeys into the mountains and up to the port of Berbera, home to a runway once hired by NASA as an emergency space shuttle landing strip. Tracks run along the coast west from Berbera towards Djibouti, and mangroves, gorgeous islands and coral reef.
But Somaliland’s main attraction is its determined and inspirational people. Without aid or loans and largely ignored by the world, they are building a state from scratch and seemed determined to keep their independence.
I was sad to leave, but we headed back to the edge of Europe, to Transniestria, a nation of 700,000 people which split from Moldova to become an extraordinary Soviet-era theme park. The hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union still adorns many buildings, while Lenin looms over the streets and stands proud outside the House of Soviets in the capital Tiraspol.
Our route to Transniestria took us through Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. Ruritanian-style villages were empty of all but children and the elderly. Everyone else had fled abroad in search of work. I met a villager who sold a kidney to buy a cow, and the hospitable President kindly taught me to fish, got me drunk, and claimed Transniestria is a black-hole for arms-smuggling and crime.
Moldovans had warned me hungry armed men roam the streets of Transniestria, but although the border is tense, the leafy lanes of Tiraspol were full of cafes and restaurants. Fighting talk was limited to thoughts on political strife in neighbouring Ukraine and the impact on the price of salo, pig fat, a major Ukrainian export. Transniestrians eat it covered with chocolate, which is as unappetising as it sounds.
Transniestrians celebrated their National Independence Day while we visited, an event which bore a striking resemblance to old Soviet May Day parades. The army goose-stepped past a platform of officers awarded medals by the kilo. Having always wanted to visit Red Russia, I watched goggle-eyed. They still have the KGB in Transniestria, a fact we discovered when they detained us for spying. It was tense in their cells, but after a while the KGB agents softened, gave us KGB cap-badges as souvenirs, and allowed us to leave.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was the cue for a number of smaller regions to declare independence. In the Caucuses, never the most stable part of the world, I visited Nagorno-Karabakh and three breakaway regions of Georgia: Ajaria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Karabakh sits high in snowy mountains, which locals believe gives them the highest rate of longevity in the world. The scenery and churches were impressive, but it is difficult to visit without asking awkward questions. Before Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan its population was evenly split between Azeris and Armenians. After a bloody war only a handful of Azeris remain.
To the north, Georgia gave the world a Golden Fleece and Stalin, who they commemorate with a museum. When guides vanished I sat on Stalin’s personal toilet and struck my own small blow against the veneration of a murdering madman.
Georgia rarely failed to impress. There were ancient monasteries to explore, old sulphur baths, trendy new bars in the capital Tbilisi, and a population which delights in drinking more toasts than eating mouthfuls.
We headed towards South Ossetia, and crossed yet another tense border to be told the government would only allow us to linger for a few hours. It was time enough to learn the people are Ossetes, who speak a different language to Georgians, share birthday toasts with young Ossetian soldiers, and realise the locals are prepared to fight and die for their independence. But it was an uncomfortable visit, and we were shadowed everywhere by the secret police.
Heading west across Georgia an overnight train took us to Ajaria, a summer paradise with beaches that attracted tourists from across the former Soviet Union. Ajaria was formerly a breakaway region headed by a strongman whose son closed roads to race a Lambourghini along the seafront. Strangely this did not go down well with locals (average monthly wage £20). They kicked-out the strongman and were welcomed back into Georgia.
Further north, the government of Abkhazia reneged on an offer of entry, so we left the Caucuses and headed east to Taiwan. When Mao’s Communists defeated Chinese Nationalists they fled to Taiwan and took over. China says it wants Taiwan back, and will use force if necessary.
For decades Nationalists in Taiwan claimed they were the rightful rulers of China and wallowed in heritage, protecting buildings the Chinese destroyed during their economic boom. There are ancient temples and chic hotels nestling beside mountain lakes. In the capital Taipei visitors can trek to the top of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world, to watch as planes fly beneath them.
But of all the unofficial and official countries I was lucky enough to visit while filming Places That Don’t Exist Somaliland had the greatest impact. War between Somalia and Somaliland could erupt again, but there is also a much more optimistic future for the country. Perhaps one day Somaliland will have its own seat at the United Nations, and tourists will flock to its stunning beaches to swim at the mouth of the Red Sea. It is nothing less than Somalilanders deserve.
Simon Reeve 2005
Simon Reeve is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism, and the writer and presenter of the five-part series Places That Don’t Exist, which starts on BBC2 on Wednesday May 4th at 7.30pm with a journey to and through Somaliland. More information is at www.shootandscribble.com
Flights to Somaliland are available from Dallo airlines (www.daallo.com) via Djibouti. Several airlines fly to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, from where buses and taxis will happily take visitors to Transniestria, or at least the border, where more taxis wait on the other side.
Major airlines also fly to Tiblisi in Georgia, from where visitors can take a train to Ajaria (tickets are around £5). Entry to Abkhazia and South Ossetia is more difficult, but is best attempted via Russia. BA flies to Yerevan in Armenia, from where you can take the long road south-east to Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan. Check the Internet before travel, and make sure relevant permissions are obtained. Remember the Foreign Office advises against travelling to many unrecognised nations, so most personal travel insurance policies will be invalid.
Although Taiwan has plenty of good-quality hotels, tourist facilities in most unrecognised nations are not of conventional Western standards. Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, has a couple of surprisingly good hotels, including the Ambassador (www.ambassadorhotelhargeisa.com), which has comfortable rooms and friendly staff. Outside Hargeisa locals are so pleased anyone is visiting Somaliland they make up for poor facilities with a warm welcome.
When to go:
Climates vary widely. Taiwan is good from spring to summer. Nagorno-Karabkh and the breakaway areas of Georgia are shockingly cold in winter. Transniestria has a warmer climate than the UK. Somaliland is warm in winter and among the hottest parts of the world in summer. Check guidebooks.
Taiwan can boast excellent food, but beware amphetamine betel nuts sold by the side of the road by scantily-clad women. In Transniestria it helps to have a local speaking guide who knows the restaurants and can book your meal several hours before you arrive. I repeatedly waited literally hours for food to arrive at restaurants in the Transniestrian capital, by which time my stomach had started consuming my internal organs. Good hearty organic produce is plentiful in Nagorno-Karabkh, otherwise why does everyone there live so long?
Lonely Planet produces an excellent Taiwan guidebook (£12.99), and guides to several of the countries from which breakaway states have split (Romania & Moldova £10.99; Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan £14.99), although they only mention the breakaway countries I visited in passing. The Stone Garden Guide to Armenia & Karabagh [sic] is a celebratory tome produced by Armenian-Americans and sold for $24.95. The otherwise excellent Lonely Planet guide Africa on a Shoestring (£19.99) has just a brief mention of Somalia, basically telling people not to go there, and just a few paragraphs on Somaliland.
Unless war breaks-out with China, Taiwan is and will be safe. I cannot encourage anyone to visit Mogadishu in Somalia, but by contrast Somaliland is relatively safe, although visitors must always remember they are a long way from a Western embassy. Likewise Transniestria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh also fall into a diplomatic no-mans land: Western governments don’t recognise the existence of these breakaway nations, so it will be harder for them to help if you get into trouble.
Details of Simon's books:
The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism
and also here
One Day in September: the full story of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and Israeli revenge operation 'Wrath of God'
Details of Simon's TV Travels:
Equator - a long journey around the warm waistband of the planet
Places That Don't Exist - a series of adventures in countries that aren't officially countries
Meet the Stans - Simon's long journey around Central Asia
For those interested, here's a biography of Simon
And some photos
See the award-winning photography of James Reeve, Simon's brother - here