On the Road

Just how well-travelled are you?

Think you’re well-travelled? How many of the world’s 872 “countries” have you been to?

Whether they will freely admit it or not, most people who have the travel bug will at some point have counted the number of countries they have visited. That moment might happen when wanting to check whether a milestone has been passed or not, shortly after visiting somewhere obscure like Tajikistan and wanting people to know about it, when whiling away the many hours/days/weeks of boredom waiting to cross the Mongolian-Chinese border by train – or maybe after reading a Road Junky article…

What’s a good number to have achieved? The simple answer is probably never enough, but there are too many variants to create a standard number of countries after which a Road Junky can truly claim to be well-travelled – the figure alone cannot paint a true picture. After all, someone could have crossed Russia’s 11 time zones and visited each of its 89 constituent territories while boasting a measly one, yet some Europeans could be into double figures without travelling more than a couple of hundred kilometres from their front doors.

Then there’s the hardest question of all: what counts as a country? Even the seemingly most failsafe list – the United Nations member states – has its problems; the Vatican City is not listed, but few would argue it isn’t a country. Even Switzerland, around since the 13th century, only joined in 2002. For most of the first 50 years of the UN’s existence, Belarus and Ukraine held seats despite being firmly within the USSR. The entire continent of Antarctica is without representation yet the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which doesn’t even claim any actual territory, participates at the UN and has a number of embassies around the world. How about the State of Palestine, which has a permanent mission in New York, but no international borders to call its own?

Palestine is, however, recognised by over 100 UN members, a figure nearly matched by Western Sahara, and there are several other countries scattered around the globe recognised as independent by at least one full UN member. If you’ve been to Taiwan, Kosovo, or Abkhazia, all disputed territories claimed by other states – do you include them on your list as independent, or part of the claimant?

As normal, football causes problems. Wales? The Faroe Islands? Both have their own international sports teams and anthems, but are parts of other countries. Greenland doesn’t play football, but can count itself far more culturally and geographically distinct from its parent. If you’ve been to Nuuk, have you only visited a bleak bit of Denmark which somehow manages to boast beer even more expensive than Copehagen, or can you add another name to your list?

There are several sites around the web which have turned country counting into a competition and further blurred the definition of what is and isn’t a country. For example, Travellers’ Century Club withholds membership exclusively for people who have visited over one hundred countries, but to reach that number you can throw in trips to Rhodes, Corfu, and Crete to hit three without even ticking the Greece box.

Most Travelled People takes it one step further, splitting the world into 872 “countries” – over a quarter of which are in Europe, so anyone with a bit of Wanderlust can feel like they are Marco Polo.

Twenty-six of MTP’s countries are in Antarctica, and founder Charles Veley visited six at once by standing at the South Pole, raising another question – when looking to tick a country off the list, what counts as a visit? MTP asks for one of three things: a passport stamp, a photo, or a credit card receipt, so by its rules an hour in an airport waiting for connecting flights is fine, even if you haven’t seen the local currency, let alone interacted with a native or experienced a country’s culture.

Of course, it’s all down to personal perception – I have a friend who only claims he has been to a place once he has sampled the local beer, so, despite having lived there for over a year, he won’t include Kuwait on the list. Then there’s the favourite anecdote of many Central Europeans: “I was born in Austria, I went to school in Czechoslovakia, I did my army service in Hungary, followed by a spell in prison in the USSR. Now I am ending my days in Ukraine,” to which his visitor expresses surprise at how much of the world the old man has seen. “No!,” he responds, “I’ve never left this village!”

How about you?

Leon Addie is a journalist who, by MTP’s reckoning, has been to over 250 countries, although he himself considers his personal tally to be considerably lower. He is only persona non grata in one.

Leon Addie