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Shhh, Don't Tell Mamma: Mogadishu to Mecca, with a taste of Djibouti

Shhh, Don't Tell Mamma: Mogadishu to Mecca, with a taste of Djibouti

Old Jan 22, 18, 7:18 pm
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Shhh, Don't Tell Mamma: Mogadishu to Mecca, with a taste of Djibouti

Mogadishu Day 1 (Part I)
Mogadishu Day 1 (Part II)
Mogadishu Day 2
Djibouti Day 1
Djibouti Day 2
Medina to Mecca (via Miqat Masjid Dhul Hulifa)
Mecca (Part I)
Mecca (Part II)

Previous Trip Reports:

Iran, UAE, Oman- February 2015
Chile- July 2015
Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan- November 2015
Tanzania, (Zanzibar), Kenya, Ghana - March 2016
Ghana, Togo, Benin, Rwanda, DRC, UAE, Lebanon, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka – May-July 2016

Last edited by rivlinm; Mar 31, 18 at 6:41 pm
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Old Jan 22, 18, 7:21 pm
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For a number of years I had been planning to complete a pilgrimage to the holiest Muslim sites, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Hajj comes at a very expensive cost and it wasn’t something I was prepared to do alone, so I decided to give Umrah a go in the fall of 2017 and feel the experience out. Originally I had planned to visit Northern Iraq (Kurdistan) along with Saudi, but just weeks before my departure the Kurds pressed forward with the independence referendum and Baghdad (along with many other players in the region) put their foot down and blocked all international flights too and from Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, leaving no way for most foreigners to access Kurdistan. Even overland via Turkey was off limits because of their block on Visa stickers for American citizens. This left me in a predicament as I had a flight to Cairo and nothing more.

In order to acquire an Umrah visa, KSA requires full travel plans including airfare and hotels. In fact when I finally made a destination decision, I sent just the flights in and out of Saudi, and they requested all flights, starting in the USA and returning there.

Since I couldn’t just wing this trip and Iraq was out, I went to the drawing board:
• The ‘Stans - I couldn’t get a visa or the flights were very costly.
• South Sudan is very against photography, I’ll wait a bit for them to warm up.
• Eritrea was originally going to be part of this trip too, but I decided to hold off and go with some friends.
• I didn’t want to visit India alone.
• Ethopia seemed like a good option, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

All that being said, I basically didn’t have many options left, so Somalia and Djibouti it was!

Tourism is nearly non existent in Mogadishu (Hargeisa in Somaliland has some but I wanted to go all out!) It seems there are currently three options for visiting Mogadishu as a tourist: Untamed Borders, Visit Mogadishu and the Peace Hotel. I also emailed a contact from a connection on flyertalk who organizes security details for business folks. Besides the prices being 3x (yes I know you can’t put a price on safety) it also seemed very restrictive and I would never be allowed outside of the armored vehicle and had to wear safety gear. Untamed Borders was very organized but their price seemed too high, with their services the same as what Omar from Visit Mogadishu was offering. A few quick emails back and forth and we agreed on a price, and sites to see. For the record even though things cost pennies and inflation is sky high in Somalia, I still paid $750/day, all inclusive. I paid a slight premium to bring along my camera, cell phone only would have saved a bit.

Now that I had a destination, it was time to book some flights and apply for visas. And think up a cover story to tell mother!


I had my previous Cairo return booked and QR would not budge on changing the destination to Djibouti no matter how much I pleaded. On the outbound I was able to convince them to swap my origin to Khartoum so I figured this would be just as easy, not so much.

In order to get to Mogadishu my options were limited and the only realistic choice was Turkish via Djibouti (how I decided to visit Djibouti), but cost was still an issue. TK wanted $1200 for a roundtrip from Istanbul. I also discovered I could book an award in economy for 10,000 TK miles each way, but the taxes were still ~$600. Plus I didn’t have a way to quickly get 20k miles. Instead I opted for using United miles, even though it cost 60K miles, there was no fuel surcharge and it allowed me to tag on two (otherwise expensive) flights from Kuwait to Istanbul and Istanbul to Medina. The savings in YQ and the two flights that UA let me tag on the trip with a stopover in Djibouti made spending so many miles for economy palatable.

Back to Qatar, I was able to convince them to let me fly to Kuwait and end my journey there (had I continued on to Cairo, they were only offering economy on Kuwaiti). I would have preferred to fly my Qatar flight to Istanbul, but doing so would put me in United’s Europe, and I wouldn’t be able to have my stopover in Djibouti for free. So I would have to fly QR F to KWI and spend the day there, then economy on Turkish to Istanbul.

Once in Medina, I would overland to Mecca and eventually Jeddah before flying out to Cairo on Saudia, to catch a BA J fare back home to the USA. For less than $100 I slummed it on Southwest from Baltimore and concluded my journey.

The final route

For a previous trip I had quite a bit of Visa drama and was a bit scared these destinations would prove equally as difficult, but it was the exact opposite.

Kuwait was visa on arrival or evisa. I had read horror stories of the VOA situation in Kuwait and opted to be prepared with an evisa. I was able to fill in their confusing webform the night before I departed and had my details ready for arrival.

Somalia still doesn’t really have a tourist visa, but my guide was able to procure an Entry Permit for a business visa and even though no one ever asked for it, I had it ready for when I landed in MGQ.

Somalian Entry Permit

Saudi involved the most work, but was very straight forward and easy to understand. One concern was the beginning of Umrah season not being set. Following Hajj, the MFA usually takes 1-2 months to clean up and prepare for the upcoming Umrah season. There is no definitive date they begin issuing visas again and many agencies said I was trying to go too soon, but I finally found one with correct info and I would be able to acquire a visa for my intended dates. (maybe I had a week to spare) The Saudi Embassy does not take personal applications for Hajj and Umrah Visas, so one must go through an approved Hajj and Umrah agency. I opted for Chicago Hajj and Umrah and their service was top notch. I received prompt follow ups and clarification to my questions. They even called within minutes of it being posted to let me know it was approved and I should receive my passport back soon. Their fee since I did not book any travel with them was $200. The Saudi Government recently changed their fee schedule and Business visas are very expensive. Hajj and Umrah Visas are free of charge if you have not made a pilgrimage in the prior year, otherwise it too is costly. They are trying to bring their numbers down (particularly for Hajj) to control crowds. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t very nervous, but with four days to spare, my visa arrived, and I was all set for this crazy trip.

Saudi Visa

Djibouti was a simple VOA for American citizens, so I didn’t bother to worry about this one, but it wound up almost disrupting my entire trip.


In Somalia I didn’t have much say in my hotel, and would not have picked this one if given the choice, but was staying at the Sahafi Hotel. The hotel was bombed by Al Shabab in 2015 but was rebuilt to be even more secure. That being said, the Safari Hotel, just half a km away, was leveled just 12 days before I arrived in what was Mogadishu’s largest terror attack, with over 500 reported killed. The hotel was one of the few higher end hotels for foreigners outside of the secured airport compound. I wouldn’t call the hotel high end, though the staff and security were great.

Hotels in Djibouti, much like everything else, is filthy expensive. I finally found the Residence Lagon Bleu in the heart of the city and was pleased with the property, location and price of $75 per night.

Medina and Mecca have no shortage of hotels ranging from dorms to ultra luxury. My priority was location as I know the two Mosques can be very crowded and I wanted to minimize my walking. In Medina I was happy to find the Hilton Medina for about $125 a night. The service was top notch but felt like a run down American Hilton. In Mecca I had always planned to stay in the world’s third tallest building, the Royal Clock Tower. There are many hotels, but the Fairmont occupies the majority and has the prime views. I booked a room for about $175 per night, but used a suite upgrade certificate (possibly for the last time) and a third night free. This moved me to a stellar Kaaba View Junior Suite. Marvelous vantage point of such an inspiring destination.

Jeddah also had no shortage of hotels but I wasn’t really sure where the best place to stay was. I finally settled on Dyar Inn Al Hamra and wasn’t disappointed. The AC was cold, and the location was as good as I could expect as a ‘tourist’ in Jeddah. For business or other needs, there may be better locations, but I was in a nice area with plenty around.

Once I made it to Saudi, I knew not much would get in my way on this trip, so I booked a night at the Le Meridian Cairo Airport before my morning flight back home. Just over $100, but I was a bit sick, so mostly just maximized sleep.
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Last edited by rivlinm; Nov 29, 18 at 2:25 pm
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Old Jan 22, 18, 8:29 pm
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Looking forward to hearing reading more of these interesting locations.
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Old Jan 23, 18, 1:35 am
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Look forward to this TR, but really cannot understand why somebody would go to a place like Mogadishu right now.
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Old Jan 23, 18, 2:05 am
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Sounds interesting, more please.....
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Old Jan 23, 18, 6:20 am
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Wow, seriously impressed with the Umrah visa, a modern day Sir Richard Francis Burton!
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Old Jan 23, 18, 6:57 am
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Looking forward to it but can I suggest you remove / redact your date of birth and Visa number. I see you’ve already removed your passport number ��
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Old Jan 23, 18, 9:36 am
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The day finally arrived and I was all set to head to the airport. But I soon realized I had to pack. Eventually I did so and got a ride to the airport for my delayed flight. Originally I had been booked on a later flight to Boston with only 90 minutes to make my connection, but thanks to JetBlue’s Mosaic I was able to same day change to a 14:00 flight that was initially delayed to 15:00 and finally began boarding at 15:00 thanks to Boston’s fog and a bird strike upon arrival. I was welcomed to my exit row seat by name and thanked for my loyalty. (Status match) JetBlue continues to find ways to shine. When will they build a route network worthy of my loyalty?! Of course after that shining customer service the pilot announced a further ground delay of 70 minutes and a passenger from the back went off the plane in a panic attack. Off to a good start. As we waited over an hour on the tarmac I noticed my original flight to Boston was delayed as well and would have gotten me there at 22:03 for a 21:40 departure on Qatar. The flight was rather choppy but my exit row with the middle seat empty made for a comfy ride.

My ride on California Blue

Free Snacks!

Given my destination and the delay you’d think I’d be a bit on edge, but I was overwhelmingly relaxed and eager to finally arrive in Mogadishu six flights later. About two hours behind schedule I arrived in Boston and made my way to get a boarding pass for my flight to Doha. The BA lounge was unable to print my Qatar boarding pass so I had to exit to ticketing and reclear security to get back to the lounge. Qatar offers use of the dungeon like Air France lounge but I chose to visit the newly renovated British Airways lounge across the hall from my gate. By far it was the best BA lounge I had ever visited.

Much better option than the underground AF lounge

BA is really stepping up its lounge game

I got stuck behind the wheelchair procession during boarding but in no time I was comfortably seated in seat 2A. Sir Casper Nelson welcomed us aboard the 787 (swapped from an a350 this month) and we headed out just on time for our 11 hour 55 minute flight. Shortly after take off I watched The Circle (not very good) and got underway with dinner. After an unknown amuse bouche I selected the roasted butternut squash and feta cheese salad. I wasn’t overwhelmed with the entree selections (I really enjoy their biryanis) so settled for the seared fillet of snapper with roasted sweet pepper sauce.

First QR 787 J ride

Lately gotten hooked on the QR welcome drink

The flight attendant had to clarify it was pink to recognize breast cancer awareness month

Hearty offering of nuts

Mystery amuse bouche

Roasted butternut squash and fetta cheese salad

Seared fillet of snapper with roasted sweet pepper sauce

Cheese, cheese and cheese

Exactly two hours in I tucked myself in and slept for a solid six hours before waking up for some spinach and ricotta filled pasta with alfredo sauce while watching the Secretive Scripture. Thirty minutes before arrival I indulged in a smoothie and sweet corn pancakes with smoked salmon. Overall the flight was relaxing and I got some sleep, which was paramount with a lot of medium haul economy flights ahead.

Spinach and ricotta filled pasta with alfredo sauce

Qatar doesn’t understand the term ‘trio’

Sweet corn pancakes with smoked salmon

Almost there

Obligatory bear

Once in the First Class lounge I was handed from staff to staff only to learn I would be unable to change my flight. (I wanted to leave later and cut out my time in Kuwait so I could sleep in Doha) Knowing that, I decided to have a meal and maximize my sleep in a day room (max six hours). When I asked for a list of non-alcoholic beverages it was suggested I try the NA sparkling wine. For dinner I opted for the seafood bisque and fatayer. For my main I selected chicken machoboos.

My first visit to Al Safwa Lounge

Big and empty

Nearly silent besides the fountain

Complete with its own Persian influenced art exhibits

I’ve still never found a BA lounge with a working printer, so had to use the business center here

Children’s play room

Game room with half of an F1 car

Dining room

Not everyday you come across a NA sparkling wine

Table settings

Seafood bisque and fatayer

Chicken Machoboos – I’ve had better, even in the air

Just before retreating for the evening I had a few macaroons and slept soundly for about five hours. I was awoken by the staff ringing the doorbell and grabbed a shower and one last meal. I made a much better choice with the Thai seafood curry and blueberry cheesecake. My gate wasn’t too far away and I was welcomed aboard a mostly empty first class cabin for the one hour flight. The menu was just a small sampler of canapés so I chose sleep over calories. The flight wasn’t nearly long enough and I was on the ground in Kuwait much sooner than I wanted.

Bedtime snack

Dayroom for six hours – Is there nowhere in the world to escape US politics?

Shower room

Thai seafood curry

Over garnished blueberry cheesecake

All sub one hour flights need seats like these

The extent of my gastronomic enjoyment on this flight

I had gone back and forth about staying airside or checking out the city and at the last second decided to use my evisa. At immigration I was told to go back upstairs and get my visa. That entailed going to a large dirty empty room and getting a number (DMV style) and handing the lady at the desk my evisa details (without you would have to fill out a form to proceed with VOA and theoretically a different/longer queue). She gave me my visa but asked me to wait (even though I had been stamped in) for her colleague. He eventually showed up and processed me quickly. Back downstairs I was waved through since I already had my stamp. The taxi mafia is strong in Kuwait and they required 8 KWD (over $25) for the 15 minute ride to the city. (N.b.: I must admit in periods of heavy traffic my ride could easily become an hour).

Not the best, nor worst airport
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Old Jan 23, 18, 1:25 pm
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This looks like an incredible adventure. Looking forward to the rest of the TR.
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Old Jan 24, 18, 9:58 am
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I asked my driver to drop me off at the Grand Masjid hoping to make the morning’s fajr prayer at 4:51. As I was getting out of the taxi the azhan (call to prayer) was called and I found my way inside. To my surprise, the world’s eighth largest mosque only had about ten worshipers at this early hour. And not even in the central prayer hall. After doing my two rakats, I snapped a few photos but was asked to return at 9:00 if I wish to take photos. Outside a fellow brother struck up a conversation and was interested in my photography. He too was an avid photographer and said he would like to drive home to get his camera gear and join me on my quick jaunt around the city. He was ethnically Egyptian but born in Kuwait, a common practice in Kuwait.

Kareem and his friend

Before he returned I wandered around the area checking out the library, some high rise banks, Sief Square and Palace. The palace is now just a collection of government offices, including the MFA. It is reserved as the home for the Emir’s residence, but is seldom used as such.

Good morning Kuwait City

Al Hamra Tower – Tallest building in Kuwait, 23rd in world and tallest carved concrete structure

372 m tall Liberation Tower in the distance

Would be fascinating to see this skyline had the Iraqi invasion not halted development in the 1990s

Lots of patriotism

Crown Prince Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (L) and the 5th Emir, Sabah IV Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (R)

Grand Masjid of Kuwait, built in 1986

Listed as the 8th largest by capacity, over 11,000 inside and reports of over 100,000 in couryards


Quiet streets

Sief Square

Even the fountain was still asleep at this hour

Closed to the public, this is the main entry to Sief Palace, and I was quickly gestured to move along by security

Directly across from the Grand Mosque is the only view a tourist can see of the palace

The face of the clock and much of the palace was destroyed during the invasion, but quickly rebuilt

When Kareem returned he offered to drive around and our first stop was Souk Sharq. Even though it was just a mall, and wasn’t even open yet, it was right on the water and had a pier that offered a nice view of the skyline. Sharing parking lots and smells, was the fish market. No doubt one of the most pungent smelling fish markets I’ve encountered, but it was also the most clean and orderly. Not surprising, it was completely run by and for men, although I doubt hardly anyone there was actually Kuwaiti.

Pier in the Kuwait Bay

Distant view of the skyline

The Grand Mosque and Sief Palace

Fish market near Souk Sharq

Impromptu auction

The goods

Hitting the scales

Shrimp sorting

”Smoked fish”


Not on my radar, Kareem suggested we visit Al Shaheed Park. We parked in the most green parking garage we could find and headed to see the city’s skyline from the small desert oasis. The park has all sorts of walking trails and monuments about the Iraqi invasion and their constitution praising their leadership in regional democracy and civil rights.

Garden garage

Constitution Monument in Al Shaheed Park

Commemorates Kuwait being the first in the region to develop a constitution in pursuit of democracy

The 183 articles of the constitution are designed to represent a ladder reaching higher

The skyline from the south

Al Tijaria Tower

Al Hamra Tower

Construction of the National Bank Kuwait (NBK) tower

Liberation Tower

The ‘must see’ attraction of Kuwait is arguably the Kuwait Towers. Opened in 1979, the three unique towers each serve a specific role in the site. The tallest, and two orb tower, has a restaurant and spinning observation deck. The one orb tower is simply a water tower, while the spire only tower is all about the esthetics and lights up the other two each night. Before going up we enjoyed a strawberry Barbican on another pier overlooking the towers. Kareem, my unexpectedly gracious host, refused to let me pay the 3 KWD fee to visit the observation orb. The view up top was rather clear with blue skies. The towers were damaged during the Iraqi invasion nearly three decades ago. The price of tea up top was 10x the price as the 250 Fills below, but still nothing on UAE prices for afternoon tea.

Skyline from the shore


The closest thing to a beer in Kuwait

Kuwait Towers

They sustained heavy damage during the invasion

Upper orb



View from the revolving floor

Kuwait City



Water park below (green water and all)


Kareem snapping a selfie

With the sun nearing its zenith it meant my Kuwaiti layover was nearing its end but not before returning to the Grand Mosque to see the real prayer hall. In the morning I used the smaller (500 worshipers) hall while the main hall can handle 10,000 and is only used during the month of Ramadan. It was built in 1986 and features a private entrance for the Emir who visits during both Eid holidays.

Main courtyard

Inside the main prayer hall

The carpet was made in Egypt and not Iran like many of the other mega mosques

Singular dome




View from perch atop the minbar (pulpit)

No extravagant chandeliers

Fantastic tour and services for tourists to experience this masjid

Very satisfied with my visit and impromptu tour, Kareem offered to drop me off at the airport on his way home. His graciousness and hospitality was certainly very appreciated and after a bit of traffic, I was at the airport on time for my Turkish flight to Mogadishu.
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Old Jan 24, 18, 11:33 am
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Very impressive city and (again) pictures!
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Old Jan 24, 18, 2:28 pm
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Exit immigration was a breeze and after three passport checks I was airside. I opted to visit the Kuwait Air lounge which had great service, food and above all, a place to sit. When I left the lounge I discovered every gate is segmented into a pen with the only terminal seating inside. Flights don’t open the pen until just moments before boarding so the hallways are clogged with passengers.

Without lounge access, KWI is not a pleasant airport

Elegant display

Starving, I was happy to eat anything, but the food was actually quite enjoyable

Overall, a quality lounge

Outside the lounge, not so much. Next to no seating

Today’s chariot

We eventually boarded and I was seated beside a young child with two parents, aka four humans and three seats. Fortunately a two seat exit row was open so I snagged that and spread out. In typical Turkish fashion, the crew asked a passenger to leave his shoes on during take off (stated it is the rule), I was asked to remove my headphones and phone from the usb outlet during takeoff, but a toddler was permitted to sit in the exit row. The Turkish DO&CO meal was leaps and bounds above most airline economy catering but left a bit to be desired for Turkish. The flight flew by and before I knew it we were landing in Istanbul.

I will sorely miss DO&CO

On the ground I headed to the primeclass lounge in search of a shower but was informed the airport was out of towels and hot water. Good grief. I mostly just sat around the busy lounge until it was time to board and made the short walk toward the gate bound for Mogadishu. Visas were checked for those continuing beyond Djibouti and boarding was a bit chaotic as I braced for the next eight hours of airtime.

Lounges not affiliated with TK are severely lacking in Istanbul, it feels like just a home for over entitled credit card holders

It’s happening!

Once airborne I fled the confined sauna and claimed 8D with an open middle. Three strangers in 7C, 7D and 8C were loud as could be the entire flight even after repetitive pleas from the crew. Meals were served in a mildly barbaric fashion and with about three hours remaining I was able to doze off.

Great selection of IFE

Even better meal, but maybe a larger portion would have been nice – Didn’t notice if they serve alcohol on this route for those interested

We landed at Djibouti as the sun was rising and I’d say 80% of the passengers deplaned while they still could! Time on the ground was a bit over an hour and they haphazardly had each passenger point out their cabin baggage. We took on maybe five additional passengers for Mogadishu and began our pushback at 6:40. A sandwich or cake was on offer soon after takeoff and I enjoyed the rest of the flight in lieflat Y.

AF Cargo while on the ground in Djibouti

Quick snack on the two hour flight to Mogadishu

Turning to land on Runway 05 (23 is overland and never used to reduce the risk of anti-aircraft fire)

Jazeera Beach on approach

Southern outskirts of Mogadishu

Hull just outside the MGQ complex from US military contractor Bancroft’s Dornier 328JET that crash landed in May 2017

Welcome to Aden Adde Airport, named after Somalia’s first President
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Old Jan 24, 18, 5:18 pm
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Originally Posted by DanielW View Post
Wow, seriously impressed with the Umrah visa, a modern day Sir Richard Francis Burton!
Takes one to know one, Sir Daniel!
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Old Jan 24, 18, 6:59 pm
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Wow. Great pics of Kuwait and the mosque. What were your feelings upon descent into Mogadishu? Excitement? Fear? Anxiousness? All three?

Thanks for sharing this trip report.
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Old Jan 24, 18, 8:50 pm
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You made Kuwait interesting. That's no easy feat. Great job on the TR so far.
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