List Words : Nick Middleton | 19 January

10 'countries' that don't actually exist (but you can still visit them)

They’ve got flags, governments and independent spirit – but they don’t officially exist. Add these curious ‘non-countries’ to your bucket list

There is no universally accepted definition of what makes a country a country. When you start looking, you soon discover that the world is full of wannabe states, would-be countries and micronations yearning for recognition. Places that have failed to secure a seat at the United Nations General Assembly, and have no widespread international recognition as a sovereign state.

But many of these ‘non-countries’ have at least the outward trappings of national consciousness, including a flag, some form of government and a claim to territory, as well as a seriousness of purpose. This list will get your adventure juices flowing...

1. Greenland

In 2009 Queen Margrethe II of Denmark travelled to Greenland to give it self-rule. She donned national dress for the occasion: knee-high sealskin boots and a hoodless anorak. She delivered the self-governance law to Greenland’s parliament, so ending 300 years of Danish authority.


Greenland (Shutterstock)

Under the law the Queen remained Greenland’s head of state, but the world’s largest island gained control of its police force and justice system. Greenlandic, spoken by nearly all island residents, became the official language. It was the penultimate step, they say, towards full independence.

But should I visit? Definitely. Access the icy isle by flight or expedition cruise; sail the fjordserrated coast, trek the Arctic Circle Trail, look for whales and learn about Greenlandic culture.

2. Somaliland

In 1960, former British Somaliland became independent for five days before joining the former Italian Somaliland to create the Somali Republic. But persecuted by southerners, Somaliland seceded after a civil war, reverting in 1991 to the boundaries drawn by the Brits.


Hargeysa, Somaliland (Shutterstock)

Somaliland has all the hallmarks of a fully-fledged country: its own parliament, currency, car registrations, even biometric passports. Yet it is unrecognised by any other state. The rest of the world prefers to pretend the Somali Republic is still a viable country.

But should I visit? No, not right now. The FCO advises against all travel to Somalia, including Somaliland.

3. Barotseland

Barotseland is traditionally a mobile kingdom. Every year, as Zambezi River floodwaters seep slowly into their pastures, the people move to higher ground, leaving their waterlogged villages behind. The kingdom’s history stretches back five centuries, but during colonial times Barotseland was a British protectorate, governed alongside Northern Rhodesia but with greater autonomy.


Liuwa Plains National Park (Dreamstime)

When independence came, Barotseland was supposed to maintain that element of self-rule, but successive Zambian governments promised, then failed to honour, the deal. In 2012, the royal household announced a peaceful disengagement from Zambia.

But should I visit? Yes. Far west Zambia is little trodden but home to magnificent Liuwa Plains National Park, where you can camp amid honey-hued grass and witness huge gatherings of wildebeest.

4. Transnistria

This is a time warp back to the days of the old Soviet Union, where the hammer and sickle continues to flutter in the corner of the national flag. A hawk-eyed statue of Lenin still graces the front of the parliament building in Tiraspol.


Transistria (Shutterstock)

Since separating from its neighbour and foe across the river – Moldova – this sliver of land on the left bank has been bolstered by a sense of collective victimisation among its residents. Over 500km from the nearest Russian border, they see themselves as Russians marooned by the collapse of the USSR.

But should I visit? Yes, as a curiosity. Wander around Tiraspol for a glimpse into the Soviet past.

5. Moskitia

The announcement took outsiders by surprise. After selecting a new leader in 2009, the Council of Elders made a declaration: from this day forward, Moskitia would be independent from the rest of Nicaragua.


Corn Islands (Shutterstock)

Local feeling was well expressed by the new top man: the Great Judge of the Nation of Moskitia. Stroking his thin moustache thoughtfully, Hector Williams made reference to 1894, the year his homeland lost its autonomy. “People have been waiting and waiting for this for 115 years,” he explained.

But should I visit? Yes, although bits of the Mosquito Coast are pretty impenetrable – a dense tangle of forest, navigable only with a guide and a riverboat. More accessible are the white-sand Corn Islands, a snorkelling and diving hotspot.



6. Isle of Man

This is the British Isles, but not the United Kingdom or the European Union. They make their own rules here, and have done for a long time. The parliament, the Tynwald, is the world’s oldest continuous ruling body, governing the island since the Vikings arrived in the eighth century.


Isle of Man (Dreamstime)

Their democratic credentials are exemplary, chalking up a world first in 1881 by giving (propertied) women the vote in parliamentary elections. In 2006, they lowered the voting age to 16. Not bad for a country that doesn’t exist.

But should I visit? Definitely. Go for stargazing (IOM has 26 Dark Sky sites), adventurous cycling (FYI: Mark Cavendish hails from here) and basking sharks (May-August).

7. Lakotah

In 1868 the Lakotah Sioux signed a treaty with the US government promising the Black Hills would be theirs forever. A few years later gold was discovered and the government changed its mind, reneging on the deal.


Mt Rushmore (Shutterstock)

Over a century later, a US judge awarded compensation for the land – at 1877 prices plus interest. But the Lakotah Sioux won’t take the money. To them, the Black Hills are sacred and not for sale. And they were stolen anyway. In 2007, the Republic of Lakotah was formed, withdrawing from the treaty. Not so much a secession as a reassertion of sovereignty.

But should I visit?
Yes. The proposed territory encompasses parts of Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana – including Mt Rushmore.

8. Tibet

The spiritual leader of Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. When the Chinese People’s Liberation Army fired artillery shells at his palace in Lhasa, he rode away on a horse under cover of darkness.


Namtso lake in Tibet (Shutterstock)

China’s official explanation was that he had been kidnapped by bandits. Following a course prescribed by an oracle, His Holiness secretly crossed the Himalayan mountains and was offered asylum in India, so beginning more than half a century of exile.

But should I visit? Yes – if you can get in: permits are required, and China can close the region with no notice. Pay-offs include the temples of Lhasa and pristine Himalayan trekking.

9. West Papua

At the end of Dutch colonisation in the 1960s, the Indonesians took over, promising West Papua a plebiscite on their future before the decade was out. When it came, the referendum took an unusual form. Just 1,025 tribal leaders were hand-picked by the Indonesian government to represent nearly a million Papuans.


West Papua (Shutterstock)

The tribal leaders all voted to remain part of Indonesia. Years afterwards, some said the so-called Act of Free Choice had not felt particularly free.

But should I visit? Yes, if you’re feeling intrepid – this wild frontier is largely untouched while the Raja Ampat islands offer some of the planet’s best underwater action. Note, the FCO advises travellers to ‘exercise caution’.

10. Murrawarri

How come Queen Elizabeth II of England, as constitutional monarch of Australia, has the right to govern Murrawarri? A country can claim authority over another territory in just three ways: by winning a war, signing a treaty, or occupying previously unoccupied land. No one in Murrawarri, which straddles the Queensland-New South Wales border, remembered signing a treaty, nor fighting a war. And they’d been living there long before the Europeans appeared.


Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, Culgoa (Flickr C/C: Matt)

So in 2013 the Murrawarri issued a declaration of the continuance of the state of their nation, a fundamental challenge to more than 200 years of colonial rule.

But should I visit? Maybe. The Mitchell Highway dissects the territory, so you might pass through. Culgoa National Park lies within, a place to discover coolabah trees and Aboriginal history.


Nick Middleton’s book, An Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist (Macmillan, £20), is out now

Main image: Isle of Man (Shutterstock)