There are over 50 unrecognized "countries" around the world, says Nick Middleton
Ranging from tiny islands to trans-national stretches of land, some make great travel destinations
Unusual travel experiences are nothing new, and some are becoming so common their mystique is losing its luster.
North Korea? No big deal. Bhutan? Not so secretive any more. But visiting a country that doesn’t even exist – now that would be niche.
We’re not talking Narnia or Oz, but places here on planet Earth. And there’s at least 50 of them.
“Everyone’s familiar with the political world map,” says Nick Middleton, travel author and Oxford University geography fellow.
“It looks as if the entire planet’s surface is carved up, every square centimeter accounted for – which it is, in one sense. But what that map doesn’t show you is the large number of wannabe nation states, which are also there, but seldom get a look in.”
Middleton has compiled a collection of these unrecognized nations in his book “An Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist: A Compendium of Fifty Unrecognized and Largely Unnoticed States.”
It’s a tour of the world’s forgotten, shunned and unrecognized corners. “They’re all intriguing in their own different ways,” he says.
Some are politically contentious; some, such as Forvik in the Shetland Islands, are microscopic; others, for example Greenland, hide in plain sight.
What’s clear is that many make great destinations for travelers. So where to go?
Here are the highlights (passport not always required):
A social experiment that began in 1971, Christiania was founded in central Copenhagen by a group of Danish hippies squatting on a former military barracks.
Declaring the 0.34-kilometer-square site the Freetown of Christiania, the citizens of this highly democratic community were known to dabble in hard drugs.
Yet within a year the Danish defense ministry had granted them use of the land in return for paying their utility bills.
“It’s the ultimate liberal paradox,” Middleton explains. “In one regard the government likes having this experimental commune on their doorstep, but on the other hand they don’t like it because they don’t adhere to the rules.”
Despite having built schools, houses and a variety of businesses, today Christiania’s population of 850 faces a moral dilemma: Pay the Danish government for the land outright by 2018, or face eviction.
In the meantime, visiting is straightforward, and Christiania says it receives more than one million guests every year.
With no border control, entry is simple – anyone can just walk in.
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Located in the Horn of Africa, the 3.5 million people of Somaliland have sought independence from Somalia since 1991.
The would-be nation is an “island of tranquility, relatively speaking, compared to the rest of the country,” according to Middleton. There are direct flights available from Nairobi.
Somaliland’s self-declared borders reflect those of the former British Somaliland Protectorate.
Its capital Hargeisa is abuzz with an optimism not always felt by its Somalian counterpart Mogadishu – remarkable considering the former was largely destroyed in the 1980s civil war.
With 850 kilometers of coastline there’s no shortage of beaches, as well as Laas Geel, a collection of 5,000-year-old cave paintings, only discovered in 2002 and located just 50 kilometers from Hargeisa.
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Deep in the heartland of Central Asia, Tuva (or Tyva) was once an independent nation, but experienced a seismic overhaul under the rule of General Secretary Salchak Toka in the 1930s and ’40s, when the country tilted towards Soviet principles.
Tuva eventually asked for admittance into the Soviet Union and is now part of modern-day Russia, but still retains many of its own cultural practices.
Known for its forests and steppe, this area of southern Siberia is a summer playground for President Vladimir Putin, who has been photographed hunting and fishing in the rugged and largely untamed region.
Spa tourism is popular, as is wildlife spotting. The region’s rich fauna includes lynx, ibex and wolverine.
Tuvan throat singing is also not to be missed.
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Nick Middleton says that “of all the 50 that I’ve included in the book, Greenland probably has the best chance of gaining independence in my lifetime.”
It will come as a surprise to some that Greenland is not a recognized country, but instead a 2.23-million-square-kilometer autonomous part of Denmark – itself over 50 times smaller.
Only in 2009 was Greenlandic – spoken by nearly all 57,000 residents – recognized as the island’s official language, along with the decision by Denmark to allow self-rule (seen as the last step towards full independence).
Ilussant Icefjord is among the UNESCO-recognized highlights of any trip to the territory, or Uummannaq, where the World Ice Golf Championship is hosted every year.
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Situated close to the Italian border with Monaco, Seborga is indebted to Giorgio Carbone, once head of the flower-growers’ cooperative, who discovered the town wasn’t mentioned in documents written up at the formation of Italy.
Carbone became a prince after a 1995 referendum, and took the title of His Tremendousness until his death in 2009. His loyal subjects continue his legacy – despite still paying taxes to the Italian government.
Visiting the hilltop town in the Liguria region is easy. There are stunning views over the Mediterranean and plenty of olive groves. St. Bernard’s Feast on August 20 is a cultural highpoint.
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Defying the United Nations, Mayotte in the Comoros Islands rebuffed decolonization – and its neighbors in the archipelago – when it opted to stay within French control, despite its independence in 1975.
Although located 8,000 kilometers from Paris, the island is administered by France as if it were a territory in Europe.
Mayotte is a regular stop on the French presidential campaign trail, attracting the likes of Francois Hollande, and it’s easy to see why.
Its 213,000 inhabitants live in a beautiful tropical jewel in the Indian Ocean.
Densely populated, it’s nevertheless extremely biodiverse.
Visitors can hike up 594-meter-high Mont Choungui or scuba dive in the pristine waters, where turtles and whales make appearances.
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Middleton describes this ancient territory as “straddling parts of Argentina and Chile,” but the Mapuche people, despite formal recognition by the Spanish empire, lost control of their territory to both nations in the 19th century.
Many of the Mapuche – “people of the land” – have forgone their rural lifestyle, moving to cities.
Its nominative capital Temuco, in southern Chile, is now home to a large chunk of the 1.7 million Mapuche population.
Mapuche textiles and craftwork are easily available in Temuco. Attractions in wider Mapuche include Parque Nacional Conguillio and Pucon in the Chilean Lake District, with its forests of Monkey Puzzle trees.
The Patagonia Highway also passes through the region.
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“An Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist: A Compendium of Fifty Unrecognized and Largely Unnoticed States” by Nick Middleton is published in the UK by Macmillan, and is due for release in the U.S. in fall 2016.