The flag of Europe's newest country in Pristina, Kosovo


disputed lands

travelling to countries which don't exist


This page takes its inspiration from Simon Reeve's TV travel series 'Places That Don't Exist' and it is from there that I also take the subheading for this article. Below are four 'countries' you may, or may not, have heard of and to which I have travelled; they have either been split apart by war or are rebellious breakaway states. All four disputed lands featured here vary greatly in terms of international recognition - some have the critical mass behind them, others are only recognised by other rebellious, breakaway states with no international recognition themselves. The point is that none of these have full state recognition and are therefore 'countries' in inverted commas only. For now at least. Travel with me to four places which, officially, don't, or only partially, exist.



turkish republic of northern cyprus

a land locked in frozen conflict

Cyprus remains an island with a split personality, having been partitioned into two de-facto halves since the Turkish invasion of 1974; to the south east is the Republic of Cyprus and to the north, the internationally-disputed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Each half has its own flags, governments and currencies. The two sides are kept apart by a UN-enforced buffer zone known as the Green Line which runs nearly two hundred kilometres across the island, chopping the capital Nicosia in two (named 'Lefkosia' and 'North Nicosia'). An uneasy stalemate has existed ever since. The Turkish North of the island, whose full title is the rather mouthful 'Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus' is a self-declared state in the northern half of Cyprus. Turkey is the only country in the world to recognise Northern Cyprus as a state, with the rest of the international community regarding it as occupied land of the Republic of Cyprus. If you want to experience the other half of the island, be sure to take your passport with you - you'll not get through the Green Line checkpoint without it. You'll also need to fill out a short visa application form which gets stamped in and out (and which you get to keep if you're a passport stamp hunter like I am). Flags of the Republic of Cyprus and the EU mark the point at which you leave the European Union and head into, well, somewhere else. It's not clear what you're entering into - a frozen conflict? A part of Turkey, technically? Who knows - what I am sure of is that both sides seem a little tired of it all: on the Turkish side, a guard sits asleep in the sun, on the Cypriot side, the woman waves us through as if we are inconveniencing her by showing our passports at the window of her booth. This is a conflict frozen in time but played out daily by border guards pretending to care. Welcome to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus...

Northern Nicosia can be accessed via the Ledra Street checkpoint which sits incongruously at the end of one of the city's main shopping thoroughfares. Saunter past Topman and Debenhams, coffee shops  ‎and frozen yogurt stalls...and you arrive at a series of white booths manned by security personnel from the Turkish Republic along with threatening looking signs of soldiers holding machine guns and warning that photography is strictly forbidden. Despite the warnings, I managed to get a few shots by using my city map to mask my camera. This is probably the last thing you expect to come across when out for some Sunday shopping. But there it is: a dose of harsh war reality slap bang in the middle of what could be yet another simple, and in my eyes, unadventurous sunny holiday destination. Before you go through to the north, signs high up on walls bemoan the status of this, the "last divided capital city" in the world.

It would be facile and lazy reportage to say that stepping into North Nicosia is like stepping into another world. For the first few streets, cafes and restaurants do their best to match the cosmopolitan feel of Lefkosia. However, this charade soon fades, and derelict buildings and a poor infrastructure soon colour your judgement (oh, and don't drink the water here either).‎ Whilst Lefkosia is scrubbed clean and perfectly pleasant (but unremarkable), North Nicosia's off the beaten track areas are full of dangling cables and dumped rubbish. It is clear to see that this half of Cyprus is way behind the rest of the island - arguably making it more characterful and quirky compared to the southern half of the capital, which lacks a bit of character with its anonymous beige buildings and tidy beige streets. Whilst Lefkosia is smart and boring, North Nicosia is run-down and interesting - a bit of a photographer's dream. Unsurprisingly there is a pervasive Turkish cultural influence in this part of the city evidenced through stereotypical things like Ali Baba tea, kebab shops and Turkish baths.



the palestinian territories

travelling in turbulent lands

Despite your initial impression of the Territories being influenced by hard-nosed military personnel wearing green combat uniforms peering into your vehicle at checkpoints (take your passport), Palestine felt remarkably different once you entered it 'proper'. There was a real respect for the guest, for the tourist who had taken time to visit their land. It was a warm-hearted place. Our guide into Bethlehem was my first introduction to Palestinians and proved to be just like all others that followed; respectful, dignified, calm and always starting with the greeting, "You are welcome..". It is a respectful welcome I have come across in other parts of the Muslim world, most notably Jordan which I was to visit less than a year later.

We travelled around Palestine, also known as The West Bank (being located on the left bank of the River Jordan), in a taxi, taking in key sites such as Jericho, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem. It was truly powerful to see road signs for 'Gaza', 'Hebron' and 'Ramallah' - the places you see and hear so much of back home on the news - for all the wrong reasons. Every tourist is, of course, an outsider to which the hardships and injustices of the Palestinian predicament can be told. Indeed, this telling of the troubles and the inequality between the Territories in the West Bank and the expansionist policies of Israel, is something you should expect to hear. People want you to know - they take time out of their day to relay what it is like on the ground for the average Palestinian. You can't help but feel they are fruitlessly fighting against a far more powerful country. You have to admire their resolve and tenacity - you can't help but feel you are visiting the losing side. This hurts as, on a trip such as this, you realise who really is exacerbating the tensions and the friction. And whilst both sides are hardly squeaky clean, it becomes quickly apparent that it is not Palestine. The West Bank Wall cuts through the Territories like a knife - slicing up and dividing Palestinian from Palestinian. The power struggle is starkly weighted in Israel's favour, serving only to make your trip around Palestine more poignant and its people more endearing.




europe's newest and most controversial country

Is Kosovo a country? Is it just a region of Serbia? Is it semi-autonomous? The States and the UK have accepted that Kosovo is its own country, and that Pristina is therefore its capital after it declared independence back in 2008. Kosovo is a complicated country populated mostly by Albanians - with a small Serbian population. In 1992 Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic attempted to purge the region of all Kosovar Albanians and refill it with Kosovo Serbs in a bid to reclaim the territory - in other words ethnic cleansing. In 1999, after nearly 850,000 Kosovar Albanians had fled into neighbouring countries, some making it to the UK, NATO finally intervened and started bombing raids on Serbian troops, which then withdrew, leaving Kosovo a UN-NATO protectorate. Powers have since transferred from the UN to the Republic of Kosovo government, but Serbia is refusing to let go of its former heartland. The remaining Kosovo Serbs live in guarded areas of the country. On this site I am going to treat Kosovo as a country in its own right: firstly, my own country recognises its independence and, secondly, most of the Kosovo population wishes it. I think it is only a matter of time for Kosovo. 

Controversy can be read in the ubiquitous presence of the EU, UN, NATO and USA flags which fly outside every Kosovo Republic building - as if the flags themselves are shields of protection against any future aggression (politically or otherwise), a visual trumpeting that Kosovo has friends in high places - back off. We saw a dozen UN trucks parked up in a Pristina yard, buildings being refurbished with financial help from the "US People", and the number of buildings in Pristina given over to EU personnel is quite remarkable for such a small city. Kosovo is a country in need of friends - and it appears they have them if these scenes are anything to go by. For this reason I don't think Serbia will ever reclaim Kosovo; links to other supporting agencies are becoming entrenched and deep-rooted. In Prisitina there is now a 'Bill Clinton Boulevard' and even a 'Tony Blair Street'. I kid you not.




the renegade republic of eastern europe

I first heard of Transnistria from Simon Reeve's BBC TV documentary series 'Places That Don't Exist' (watch here). Transnistria, also called Transdniestr or the Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika (PMR) is a self-declared breakaway state running along the eastern edge of Moldova. Following the collapse of the USSR, Moldova looked west. Those living on the eastern bank of the Dniester River stubbornly refused to budge, clinging to their linguistic, political and cultural ties with Russia. Thus, in 1990, in an unremarkable theatre in Tiraspol, its defacto capital city, Transnistria declared independence from Moldova and in doing so triggered a bloody civil conflict. A bitter truce has existed ever since with Transnistria effectively under Russian protection from any further military assaults by Moldova. The Transnistrian side of the river held the lion's share of industry and weapons giving the newly-declared state the upper hand. It's worth pointing out here that Moldova itself broke away from Romania and as far as many Romanians are concerned Moldova is Romanian sovereign territory ("Moldova is Romania" declared one piece of graffiti I saw in Chisinau). Transnistria is, then, a breakaway state of a breakaway state. As far as the international community is concerned, Transnistria is not a country. It's part of Moldova. As far as Moldova is concerned it's part of Moldova. But as far as Transnistrians are concerned theirs is a functioning country with its own currency, passports, flag, police force, army and laws.

As a traveller who has a nasty habit of counting his countries, this leaves me with a problem. Transnistria: to count or not to count? That is the question. The small fact of having to show my passport and obtain a visa to enter the territory are surely reasons enough to count Transnistria as my 70th country? And what a country to clinch the big seven-zero with!

So, on this trip, and depending on who you talk to, I either travelled from one country to another or I never left Moldova at all. Transnistria's lack of international recognition means that the kind of consular assistance available to British travellers in an emergency stops at the demiliaritised zone between Moldova and Transnistria. To put it bluntly, get in to trouble in Transnistria and you're on your own. After all, how can the British have an embassy or consulate in a country which officially doesn't exist? It is advisable that you secure yourself a reliable guide to show you around. Not only is this sage advice in the circumstances but it also means you'll get added depth to your experience and the Transnistrian perspective for a change. My guide came in the form of Andrey Smolenskiy, the owner of, Transnistria's only tour agency catering to foreign visitors. A staunch advocate of his country and a character as intense as you will ever meet, he boomed, in his thick Russian accent, "Let's go to Transnistria!", bursting into a song in Russian about his beloved country as we zoomed towards the Transnistrian capital Tiraspol.



From top left clockwise: A UN checkpoint dressed in barbed wire a mere twenty metres from our restaurant declares "United Nations Buffer Zone: No Unauthorised Entry"; Striking graffiti on the West Bank security wall at Bethlehem, Palestine; In front of one of Transnistria's celebratory displays commemorating its first 25 years and in front of the Kosovo flag in the capital Pristina.



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