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Travel to Unrecognized Countries
What are they and can you really go there?

Imagine going into a London train station and asking for a ticket to Hogwarts, Harry Potter's mythical school. You might get a bit of a stare.

You'll probably get a similar stare if you try to buy a ticket to certain unrecognized countries, countries no one recognizes as such, countries which don't legally exist. 

Kyrenia Harbor in TRNC, an unrecognized countryThe resort town of Kyrenia Harbor in TRNC, the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, a relatively new country recognized by Turkey alone. Photo jpatokal via Wikimedia Commons

I love less trodden places. If my friends visit Croatia, I go to Albania. If Tanzania is high on the list, chances are you'll find me in Nigeria.

Going to a non-country has a particular appeal. Few people visit: these countries tend to be small, difficult to reach, and often not exactly at peace.

Great reasons to visit, don't you think?

So what exactly are unrecognized countries?

They are often small, usually conflict-ridden or only recently peaceful, with borders few others even admit are there. Some are former territories or provinces, others are stand-alone quasi-states but they all have one thing in common: they don't, in fact, exist - at least not legally.

Just because unrecognized countries don't exist doesn't necessarily mean you can't go there.

I'm captivated by them; status-free today but maybe next week or next month their newly-uniformed border guards will be stamping your passport with an entry visa. 

Who knows - they might end up sitting at the United Nations!

Female fighters of the Algerian-backed Polisario Front in the Western Sahara, a region at the heart of a dispute with Morocco. Western Sahara was a Spanish territory and is now under Moroccan tutelage; the native Sahrawi want full independence. Photo Robert la Rocher via Wikimedia Commons

Western Sahara and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)

On a recent visit to Southern Morocco my guide was Mohammed, a young Sahrawi man from the town of Mhamid. Together we visited the spot where Polisario soldiers had once tried to invade his town - several decades ago but the memory is still vivid.

The friction around Western Sahara is palpable in this part of Morocco, which has overseen the area since 1975 when Spain handed it over. Not everyone is pleased: not the Polisario, who want independence; not Algeria, which backs the Polisario; and not the UN, which has failed to break Morocco's hold on the country. It doesn't help that phosphates and fish are abundant and oil may lie offshore.

Despite the disputes over who rules what, travel to Western Sahara is certainly possible, according to Mohammed. In fact I'm kicking myself for not having begged for a detour to the capital El Aaiún/Laayoune (depending on where you sit politically). There's also Tarfaya, where Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, was stationed. And then there's the desert itself.

Islamic extremists have been seen in the area, and some foreign officials worry the attacks on Mali and the French intervention there could lead to retaliation in the Western Sahara. As in Algeria, the desert can hide anyone and kidnapping is a real threat. That said, plenty of travelers visit regularly without any trouble at all.

Still want to go? You don't need a visa (as long as you come from one of these countries) since Morocco considers this part of its territory and you can either fly in from Morocco proper or take a bus from Marrakech. Best, if you can afford it, is to bring a car and driver who can negotiate the dusty, rough-topped roads or even better, bring your own car.

Curious? This photo essay will give you a taste of Western Sahara. Next time I visit Morocco, I'm going.

The Berm, in Western SaharaFacing the Berm, the 2700km sand wall separating the Western Sahara from Morocco. The Berm is believed to be the world's longest minefield. Photo Michele Berenicetti via Wikimedia Commons

Nagorno-Karabakh

Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave within Azerbaijan but run by neighboring Armenia. Remember the war?

It was during the late 1980s and early 90s, when the Soviet Union was falling apart. Nagorno-Karabakh, on the border with Armenia, was part of Azerbaijan but its Armenian majority chose to leave Azerbaijan, a choice dismissed by the Azeris despite rulings and referendums. The result: an uneasy truce and a stalemate in a region most governments warn you not to visit.

Yet it does sound rather delightful: hiking across the country along the marked Janapar Trail, mountains, and plenty of monasteries which I imagine to be relatively untouched, not to mention the supposed relics of St George the dragon slayer. The few travelers who have visited and written about it see no reason any of us should stay away (here's a vivid account by Dan Hamilton, dated 2013).

Nagorno-Karabakh, one of several unrecognized countriesA monastery in Askeran province, intriguing and wild. Photo Vahag851 via Wikimedia Commons

Entry formalities are relatively straightforward. It seems the only way to arrive is via Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where the official representation of Nagorno-Karabakh is located - and where you get your visa. Just remember that the visa will get you into trouble in Azerbaijan, so if that country is on your travel plan, get your visa stamped on a separate piece of paper.

Like any conflict or post-conflict zone this is the one piece of advice I would both give and take myself: stay away from the border, in this case the border with Azerbaijan. Until things settle down, sniper attacks are possible, landmines do exist, and the possibility of encounters with unfriendly armed forces remains a reality.

Republic of South Ossetia

South Ossetia is one of three breakaway Caucasus republics, the other two being Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia. The region declared independence from Georgia in 1990: Russia for, Georgia against, the result being war for nearly two decades.

Things are calm now but only five countries recognize South Ossetia, and one of those is Abkhazia, another unrecognized country.

This is not the safest part of the world to visit and while I'd have no hesitation about a trip to Nagorno-Karabakh (see above) I'd think twice about South Ossetia, especially since Georgia passed a law making travel there illegal unless you're involved in humanitarian or security work.

This video is one of the less-biased looks at South Ossetia I've come across...

Georgia is so set against South Ossetia's independence it tried to take it back, with fighting erupting as recently as 2008 (a ceasefire is in place now but...).

Yet it does sound intriguing, and South Ossetia even has a website describing its cultural attractions. Several travel agencies, like this one and this one appear to organize tours there. I'm not quite convinced it's time yet.

Abkhazia

Nearly a decade after South Ossetia tried to leave Georgia, it was Abkhazia's turn.

Unlike South Ossetia, Abkhazia can be reached easily overland via its border with Russia - from Sochi, to be precise - or from Georgia. Given its status as a breakaway province I'd be careful about crossing back and forth to Georgia - Georgians might not look too kindly on your visiting a country they don't see as one.

Entry formalities appear relatively straightforward and a visa application can even be downloaded from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

There also seems to be quite a bit to see: abandoned, war-battered buildings (some excellent photographs on this blog); the Black Sea; Stalin's former dascha; beautiful scenery and intriguing architecture; places of worship; and the scientific research center that trains monkeys sent into space - I'll pass on that one.

Few countries recognize Abkhazia so the same constraints apply: don't get into trouble because no one will be able to help you from the outside.

Abkhazia, an unrecognized countryThe restored Novoafonsky Monastery, a major Orthodox center in pre-revolutionary Russia. Photo Artem Topchiy via Wikimedia Commons

Transnistria

As I write Putin has annexed the Crimea (birthplace of my father's Tatar ancestors, in passing) and observers are wondering whether Transnistria might be next, given the ongoing presence of Russia's 14th army there. If anything were to worry me about visiting Transnistria, it might be the potential of Russian military action to 'liberate' its pro-Russian population.

Otherwise, this small self-declared country along the Dniester River is squeezed between Moldova and Ukraine. It broke away from Moldova (which itself was once part of Romania) in 1990 and has since struck out on its own, recognized by no one but itself. It has been by all accounts a peaceful little place since around 1992.

According to visitors, this is the place to go for Soviet nostalgia so if you missed the Soviet Union the first time around, you can still catch it here on the fringe. And despite its size - larger than Luxembourg but smaller than Palestine - there seems to be plenty to do and see (you'll find an excellent roundup on The Bohemian Blog).

The easiest way to visit Transnistria is on a day trip from Chisinau in Moldova. Just hop on the bus, get to the border, fill out some papers, pay a 'fee' (yes, you can call it a bribe), and enter.

Transnistria does have a tourism website that offers a wide variety of tours of the area. The capital Tiraspol is small enough to see in just a few hours.

Left, Transnistria coat of arms (Photo The Flying Dutchman). Right, Temple of Sts. Joachim and Anna, in the town of Bender (Photo Ivo Kruusamägi).  Both courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)

Northern Cyprus is a de facto state in the northern third of the island of Cyprus and is recognized only by Turkey. It's easy to get to - you can fly in to Ercan Airport or take a ferry from Turkey or Israel.

TRNC, for short, came into being when Greece tried to annex Cyprus in 1974. Turkey retaliated with an invasion and the island was partitioned between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot populations.

The UN has set up a buffer zone between the island's two sectors but most Western citizens can get a visa at the border. Find out more about how to get to the area and what to do when you get there. It's out of the way, and according to visitors it's not like the rest of Cyprus at all - more like a cross between Turkey and Greece on the Mediterranean. As the tourist board calls it, "the Mediterranean as it used to be." Sounds rather nice.

Somaliland

Somaliland, on the other hand, sounds a lot less nice but not irretrievably horrible, contrary to what I thought. When Somalia collapsed in 1991, Somaliland split and declared itself independent from the rest of the country. Like other unrecognized countries, it's... unrecognized.

But you can visit. If you're in the US you can download a visa application (you can do that in London as well) or get one in person in Addis Ababa. It appears you can also get one on arrival but I wouldn't want to go all that way to find out I was wrong.

If you've always wanted to visit the Horn of Africa this might be your chance. Somaliland is a better bet than Somalia, and it has a nascent tourism industry. For travelers who actually visit, the experience seems enjoyable - and relatively safe. I have to say I'm tempted.

Somaliland, a country not recognized by the rest of the worldA tailor sews a Somaliland flag (Wikimedia Commons)

Before you go... remember:

  • Unrecognized countries are just that: no embassies, no consulates, no help if you get into trouble.
  • Because these are often offshoots of other countries, medical facilities may be limited.
  • Your travel insurance might only be valid for recognized countries - check first!

Have you ever visited an unrecognized country? I'd love to hear about it. And if you haven't - would you?

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