Where have you been?

How many countries have you visited? These days, with more people travelling to exotic destinations, taking a year out to travel, or going on cruise holidays in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, it’s not unusual to have a few dozen countries under your belt.

A few dedicated travellers set themselves a more ambitious goal, such as to visit 100 countries (a Finnish woman I know devoted a year of her life to achieving this total) or even to visit them all, like Norwegian Gunnar Garfors, the youngest hobby traveller to visit all the world’s countries.

For most of us, it’s fairly straightforward. You go to Spain for a week, that’s one country. You live and work in Australia for a year, that’s another. Last week, thanks to a wonderful opportunity to visit Istanbul, I added a new country (Turkey) to my list for the first time in 7 years, and will add one more next month. But once you start keeping score, you are quickly faced with two questions that turn out to be not so straightforward as they seem:

  • What counts as a country? and
  • What counts as a visit?

Gunnar Garfors explains his criteria as follows:

There are 193 UN member countries in the world. I count all of them. 
There are 2 UN observers. I count both the Vatican and Palestine. 
3 additional countries are recognized by a fair number of the 195 above. I therefore also count Kosovo, Western Sahara and Taiwan. 
But what constitutes a visit to a country? I must have done something there and have a story to tell.It isn’t necessary to stay overnight, but I have to leave the airport or train/bus station. To merely step across the border doesn’t count.

Both of his criteria are necessarily arbitrary, and there will always be borderline cases and room for disagreement. For example, there are still many places in the world which are not themselves sovereign nations but are nonetheless legally distinct from the country to which they “belong”. How should we count Gibraltar, for example, which is not part of the United Kingdom but is a British Overseas Territory? Should someone who has visited Aruba tick the box for “Netherlands” even if they have never been to Europe? Ultimately, you have to figure it out for yourself.

This website is one of many that allow you to display your visited countries on a map of the world. It allows you to select territories of all kinds, in addition to the 198 countries on Gunnar Garfors’s list. For example, the Åland Islands are treated separately from Finland proper; Greenland and the Faroe Islands separately from Denmark.

visited countries

Similarly, Guam and the Isle of Man, while not sovereign countries, are treated as separate “countries” by the geocaching.com website.

cache countries

Sporting bodies such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee each operate their own lists, which may for historical reasons include countries such as Northern Ireland, Wales or Puerto Rico.

Anyway, in today’s blog, rather than talk about countries that I have visited, I thought it would be interesting to mention some places that I’ve seen, but never visited. In this “so near, yet so far” category, we have:

1)      Albania (from Corfu, Greece). In 1989, I travelled around Europe by train with my friend, Conor. The furthest point of our travels was a campsite in the north of Corfu. This Greek island is separated by a narrow stretch of water from the coast of Albania.

Albania was the hermit kingdom of its day, isolated even from its communist neighbours, and our perception of (and fascination with) Albania was similar to that of North Korea today. Seen from Corfu, the Albanian side appeared empty and deserted. At that time it was rare and difficult for tourists to gain entry.

2)      Morocco (from Spain). Mainland Spain and Morocco are only about 15km apart, separated by the Strait of Gibraltar, and the hills and coastline of Morocco are clearly visible from large areas of southern Spain. I visited Spain as a teenager, and was captivated by the thought that that place on the horizon, just over there, was Africa, with all that that entailed.

3)      Greenland (from the air). All my life I have had a huge, almost obsessive, interest in reading about the Arctic regions, the vast emptiness of the High Arctic and the few human settlements at the margins. Greenland in particular fascinates me, to the point of appearing in my dreams. In waking life, however, I have not yet visited.

Flights from Ireland to the west coast of the USA route over Greenland, and during that portion of the flight you will find me with my face pressed against the tiny window pane of the aircraft, peering through the twilight at the frozen landscape below.

Greenland coast

4)      South Korea. This is a marginal case in the “what counts as a visit?” department. Although I don’t consider that I have visited South Korea, I did actually go through immigration, leave the airport and walk around for a short while on the island on which Incheon International Airport is situated. I didn’t see anything interesting.

5)      Russia (from Lithuania). The Lithuanian town of Nida is situated on the Curonian Spit, an interesting geographical feature in its own right. It’s a place of great character and beauty. A short distance south of Nida is the border with Kaliningrad, an exclave of the Russian Federation. I seem to remember the last few hundred metres is off limits, but you can look past the border post into Russian territory. Unfortunately you can’t cross on impulse; a visa is required to enter Russia, and it’s quite a time-consuming and bureaucratic (not to mention expensive) undertaking.

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Wooden carvings in Raganų kalnas (The Hill of Witches) on the Curonian spit

6)      Belarus (also from Lithuania). The highest point in Lithuania is the summit of an unassuming hill called Aukštojas kalnas, only 294 metres high. This lies south-east of Vilnius, just off the road to Minsk. The summit is only a couple of kilometres from the Belarusian border and the eastern margin of the European Union. Standing at the top of Aukštojas and the neighbouring Juozapinė Hill (292 m), we had an unobstructed view into Belarus, but did not venture across.

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Lithuania’s highest point (294 metres)