Last month, I crossed into my 44th new country via plane, from Berlin to Brussels. Although I crossed into Belgium from Germany, I cannot actually include Germany on my list of visited countries. I arrived at the Berlin airport on an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland. I have not set foot in Germany anywhere outside of the airport. It is, for all practical measures, just a layover on my way toward my actual destination, and I have no real experience of the place.
Belgium was the final stop on a phase of travel I started the month prior in Kiev, Ukraine. The former Soviet areas of eastern Europe have become tempting to me lately. After Ukraine, I made my way up through Minsk, Belarus, took a train eastward across the Russian border to Moscow, north to St. Petersburg, and then crossed over into Europe’s Schengen Zone by heading back westward toward Tallinn, Estonia. After Tallinn, I took buses southward, stopping for a couple days at a time in Riga, Latvia, and Vilnius, Lithuania, before heading to Warsaw, Poland.
When I travel rapidly to new places like this, I’m looking for something anomalous and notable to make them stand out in my mind. Aside from the silent greenery in the areas outside of Tallinn, I didn’t see any major reason to return to any of them. There was nothing novel to challenge me, either as a traveler or as a person. In most cases, I would rather continue onward to countries I haven’t yet seen than return to unremarkable ones.
Counting the number of countries I have been to is not as straightforward as you might assume. It depends on what one considers to be a country, and also what counts as having been there. By most official numbers, there are presently 196 sovereign nations on Earth. But the dividing lines are not always drawn so clearly. The United Kingdom, for example, exists politically as a single nation, yet is considered by many to be culturally distinct enough for England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland to all be considered their own countries. The politically sovereign nation of Ireland still holds strong in opposition to the UK, despite being surrounded by it. I made it a point to visit each of these at least briefly when I went to the UK last summer.
The UK also holds dominion over 14 British Overseas Territories (BOTs), such as the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda. After a short stay in Morocco, I crossed by ferry back into Spain and stayed the night in the peninsular BOT of Gibraltar. I am happy to include this territory as my 45th visited “country”.
Then there are disputed territories which are considered by the people who inhabit them to be sovereign, but which are overlooked by most world powers. They all have ownership claims imposed on them by stronger political entities. By some counts, there are at least 124 countries engaged in active disputes right now over 105 different territories. Taiwan claims independence from China, and is recognized as such by at least 25 other nations. Try mentioning this to anyone in China though, and you might find yourself deported or getting a free tour of a Chinese prison cell.
Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the disputed territory Artsakh (known in English as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) while researching my family history in Armenia – a nation with a long history of border disputes. While Artsakh is culturally Armenian, it falls just over the Azerbaijani border. Armenians and their descendants are on permanent ban from entering Azerbaijan, and to enter Artsakh through Armenia is considered to be illegally entering Azerbaijan. It is grounds for imprisonment or instant persona non grata status.
To enter Artsakh, I was required to obtain a visa at their embassy in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. Artsakh has its own flag, government, and passport. Yet, because the United Nations does not recognize it, it is left off of almost all official dossiers. However, I am going to include it (along with England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland) in my own personal list of visited countries.
Though I was born a citizen of the United States, I sometimes travel on an Armenian passport. It not only allows me visa-free entry to some former USSR areas which would otherwise be restricted, but even enables indefinite tourist stay in some places. I was fortunate enough to be able to acquire my Armenian citizenship at the start of 2016 due to my ancestry there two generations back through the countries citizenship-by-descent program.
Russia is becoming notoriously stringent about letting Americans in, even as tourists. Intrusive forms must be completed long in advance of any planned trip to secure a visa. I was able to forego all that because Armenia and Russia are on friendly terms. Likewise, if I ever want to go to Uzbekistan, Mozambique, Iran, or even Brazil, I will be treated with hospitality and visa-free entrance that I would not receive as an American.
There is also the question of what it means to have been to a place. If one were to count airport layovers or rapid transit through one country only to arrive at another (such as my situation of quickly passing from Poland to Belgium through Germany), it would be very easy to add numbers to one’s list. It is common for travelers in Europe to pass through several smaller countries over the course of a single 20-hour train ride. But does never having even stepped off the train in a place count as actually having “been” there?
For my purposes, I feel I need to have legally entered the country and spent at least a day observing the lifestyle of the people. I spent a night in Bogota, Colombia on my way from Ecuador back to the United States when I was 20. A few months ago, I took an overnight trip from Zagreb, Croatia to Ljubljana, Slovenia and back again to meet friends. Those both pass the mark for me, though other travelers may employ their own standards.
With nearly 200 countries on our planet, I know that I’ve just barely started on my journey. I don’t think I will ever make it to all of them, but I feel like I have already seen enough to have a great overall sense of how the world works. I’ve spread myself out over as many continents as possible, but there is still more for me to see. In the end, it’s more about the quality of cultural immersion than absolute numbers.