MOROCCO has always been somewhere on my travel bucket list. Not for the markets in Marrakech, but the easy access it affords to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Turkey is a great destination too. After all, it’s only a short hop from Istanbul to Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
If you’ve never heard of them before, it’s quite possibly because they don’t yet exist as countries in the eyes of much of the world. What is interesting is that these non-states, despite a lack of formal diplomatic recognition, often function as more or less independent nations. Many have their own currencies, governments, and visa procedures for would-be travelers, and some even see a respectable number of tourists each year. For countries that aren’t meant to exist in the first place, that is.
Some are places you can go and explore just like any other. They just happen to be the sovereign version of Schrödinger’s cat. They exist but they don’t. You can visit, but you can’t.
1. Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
Capital: El Aaiún
The world knows it better as Western Sahara, insofar as the world knows it at all.
A former Spanish colony, it was relinquished in 1957 to the joint custody of Mauritania and Morocco. Like any two children given a large and shiny new toy, both countries promptly went to war over it. The UN asked for the status of the area as a country (or not) to be decided by referendum in 1966, but Morocco has consistently refused to allow it, doing its best to stuff the territory with its citizens in the decades since. Sort of like ballot-stuffing before the ballot.
In 1976, the Polisario Front announced that they would take things into their own hands and establish the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, with the Moroccan-held city of El Aaiún as its capital and day to day business conducted from a refugee camp in neighbouring Algeria. In response, Morocco built a 2,700km wall to keep the Polisario confined to their bit, and things have remained in more or less of a stalemate ever since. For the most part, nobody in the rest of the world has noticed, or cared enough to get involved.
How do I visit?
Unfortunately, this one is difficult, bordering on impossible. Morocco considers its share part of the country, so travelers can use a Moroccan visa to travel to the area when the government allows it. Crossing to the Sahrawi Republic proper from the Moroccan side is strictly not allowed, while the Algerian border to the area is officially closed. There are also no commercial flights in.
Matador has published Notes on a Western Sahara road trip.
2. Republic of Kosovo
The Republic of Kosovo was established in the aftermath of the Kosovo War in 1999, but was not recognised by Serbia, prompting a tug of war over the new nation’s identity. Eighty-five UN member states (plus Taiwan, who is recognised in turn by only 23, but was not interesting enough to make this list) say that the Republic of Kosovo is a country. Russia, China, and Serbia disagree.
And so, pending any progress from the diplomats, the sort-of-republic plods along anyhow, signing up to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the meanwhile.
How do I visit?
You can travel to the Republic of Kosovo from most borders that are not Serbia. Trying to enter Serbia afterwards can cause headaches, as Serbia appears to consider entering the country via the Republic of Kosovo as an illegal entry. So if you would like to go, try and get your visit to Serbia out of the way first.
One of the more unusually named of the quasi-nations, Abkhazia was formed out of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in 1992. As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in the late 1980s, and Georgia began moving towards independence, citizens of the Abkhaz region preferred to remain with the Russian Federation. At the end of the war that ensued, the Georgians failed in their attempt to assert control over the region, and it has remained independent ever since.
Very few nations actually recognise Abkhazia (eight actually, of which two are not recognised themselves), but one of them is the the great bear, Russia. And so Abkhazia is allowed to muddle along as a nation in its own right. If you scour the Internet a little, you can find news about the country’s resorts hoping for a return of tourism one day.
How do I visit?
It should be possible to cross from Russia to Abkhazia at the Russian border crossing near the town of Sochi, or to arrive over the Black Sea at the port of Gagra. Crossing to Abkhazia from Georgia is typically either impossible, or a one-way affair. If you are caught in Georgia having visited the area, you run the risk of a fine or unspecified further punishment. Visa information is available on the slick-looking government website.
4. The Republic of South Ossetia
Another small, arguably Georgian statelet with a very large friend in Russia, South Ossetia separated from Georgia after a war in 1990 and has remained independent ever since.
One of the less safe desinations in the Caucasus, South Ossetia was involved in a second war in 2008. Depending who you believe, Russia helped to boot out a Georgian attempt to retake the country, or Georgia attempted to stop a Russian invasion of it. Point being, it’s not the safest neck of the woods. It’s also one of the least credible quasi-states, being recognised by only five other nations, including Abkhazia. So four, really.
How do I visit?
Have I mentioned that you really shouldn’t? In October 2008, Georgia passed a law declaring travel to the area except on humanitarian or security grounds (and with a suitable pass being obtained in advance) illegal. Getting in from the Russian side is a little like traveling to Mordor. The only way between North Ossetia (which everyone agrees is part of Russia) and South Ossetia is via the Roki tunnel through the otherwise impassable mountains. To get permission, you will need to wrangle with the Russian border authorities in the area and hope for the best.
5. Nagorno Karabakh
Nagorno Karabakh sits in the highlands between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As is the case with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it owes its existence to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the scramble for new borders that characterised the early 1990s. Nagorno Karabakh managed to fend of Azerbaijan with the assistance of Armenian forces, to produce the stalemate that exists between the regions today.
Unlike many other pseudo-republics, and despite warnings from the US Department of State, thousands of visitors have a great time hiking and touring in Nagorno Karabakh each year. It’s possible to trek for weeks across the country on the Janapar trail and find yourself interrupted only by local shepherds. Thanks to its shared history with Armenia, itself one of the oldest Christian nations in the world, there is also a wealth of monasteries and religious history waiting to be explored by the sufficiently motivated.
How do I visit?
From Armenia only. If Azerbaijan catches you with a Nagorno Karabakh visa or stamps in your passport, you could be looking at arrest and/or deportation. To get around this, Karabakh border officials can stamp and issue visas on a paper separate to your passport, but this may not always be standard practice – you would do well to ask for this treatment explicitly if you intend to ever visit Azerbaijan on the same passport.
Visas cost roughtly $10 and are available at the Nagorno Karabakh embassy in Yerevan, Armenia. From there, you can take a bus, hire a taxi, or possibly even catch an occasional flight between Yerevan and Stepanakert.
Somalia as a whole has a not-entirely-undeserved reputation as a lawless warzone. In the years since the fall of Mohammed Siad Barre around 1991, the country has been wracked by fighting and remains the definitive example of a failed state. But while African Union, Ethiopian, and more recently Kenyan armies compete with local militias in wrecking the landscape, Somaliland in the north of the country has quietly gone about doing its own thing.
‘It’s own thing,’ in this case, has meant democratic elections, peace and security, running a national university, and even having a shopping mall in the capital, Hargesia. Somaliland has been the most pariahed of all the half countries, being officially recognised by absolutely nobody, yet it continues to receive a trickle of visitors from abroad who find the place rough, but largely safe.
How do I visit?
Not by flying into Mogadishu.
There are international flights connecting Dubai, Djibouti, and other nearby regions to Hargesia, but they can be quite pricy. With taxes and other ‘incidentals’ included, you could pay upward of $250 each way to get to the capital by air. You can also get there by road from either Ethiopia or Djibouti with little trouble. Visas can be arranged either in Addis Ababa, or at the Somaliland mission in London and, like Abkhazia, the government has a website to give you more information.
These six nations are by no means a complete list. From Transnistria to Bouganville Island and Sealand, there are handfuls more spread right across the world, occupying a spectrum from the credible to the crazy. But as far as telling tall stories goes, a Nagorno-Karabakh visa makes a pretty solid conversation starter. Have you been to any of these countries, or others which do not officially exist? What was your experience?
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