Places That Don’t Exist

As globe-makers we often get asked how we deal with political issues surrounding certain countries and if we have been asked by customers to add or takeaway cities or states. There are almost 200 official countries in the world. But there are dozens more breakaway states which are determined to be separate and independent.

Personally we have been contacted about Taiwan a couple times via social media. We often get asked to add small cities not usually included on maps… but now we are inspired to add “places that don’t exist…”

These breakaway states have their own rulers, parliaments or warlords, and are home to millions of people, but they are not officially recognised as proper countries by the rest of the world.

Several have their own armies and police forces, and issue passports and even postage stamps which the rest of the world ignores. All of the breakaway states have declared independence after violent struggles with a neighbouring state.

Some now survive peacefully, but others are a magnet for terrorists and weapons smuggling, and have armies ready for a fight. Several could be at the centre of future wars which threaten their regions and the wider world.

In a world of easy adventure tourism, Simon Reeve visits breakaway states & unrecognised nations which don’t usually feature on the tourist trail: Somaliland, Transniestria, South Ossetia, Taiwan, Abkhazia, Ajaria and Nagorno-Karabkh…… Welcome to “Places That Don’t Exist”…

Somaliland and Somalia


In the north of Somalia – one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world – is Somaliland, a stable working democracy which no other nation rrecognisesas a proper country. Somaliland used to be linked to Britain, but joined with Somalia in the 1960s to form one country. When the relationship soured Somaliland sought independence, but had to fight a bitter war against the Somali dictator during which thousands died.

Although this nation of 3.5 million people is relatively stable, with a government, police force and traffic lights, no country recognises it officially. Because Somaliland is not recognised it’s having trouble getting foreign aid to help with the worst drought in decades. Tens of thousands of people are at risk of starvation.

The President tells Simon he runs the country on just a few million pounds a year. Because nobody recognises the government it cannot get loans, making Somaliland one of the few poor countries on the planet not burdened by foreign debt repayments. Because there is no money sloshing around, there’s also little corruption.

Some countries want Somaliland to reunify with Somalia. Over a camp fire, Yusuf warns Simon that this could lead to war, and he would be prepared to fight.

Trans-Dniester – aka Transniestria, Transdniestria, Transnistria

Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Two-thirds of the people are of Romanian descent, and wanted closer ties with neighbours to the West. But the eastern side of the country wanted to stay close to Ukraine and Russia. War broke out, and the east split to form Transniestria, a new country which – even now – remains unrecognised by the world.

Outside the capital, Simon discovers Moldova is beautiful but is also the poorest country in Europe. He finds villages with men who sold a kidney to buy a cow.

Simon then heads east to Transniestria, and discovers a country of 600,000 people where Soviet statues still stand, and a mysterious firm called Sheriff runs much of life. He watches the Transniestria Independence Day celebrations, with the whole Soviet-era army and children singing “our army is the best army”.

Taiwan and China


Taiwan has one of the most powerful economies in the world, but it’s not allowed to have a seat at the United Nations and no major state recognises it as a proper country.

Under Chairman Mao the Chinese Communists defeated Nationalist rivals, who fled to Taiwan and took over. Taiwan has since become a stable democracy, but Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province, and wants it back.
Simon’s journey starts in Beijing and takes him to a main shopping street, where he finds China’s army – the world’s largest – recruiting with help from singers and goose-stepping soldiers. After seeing sights and finding old posters declaring Taiwan must be recovered, Simon heads to Taiwan.

First stop is a Taiwanese air-base, bristling with US-made fighters ready to defend against Chinese attack. China’s absolute determination to recover Taiwan has been largely forgotten by the world, but it could be the cause of World War 3: the US has promised to help Taiwan if China attacks.

The programme finishes with frightening remarks by a senior Chinese government official, who says China is going to get the island back, whatever the cost.

Georgia, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adjaria


The former Soviet state of Georgia has a particular problem with breakaway states. After independence from Moscow three parts of the country – South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adjaria, broke away from Georgia. Conflicts broke out, thousands were killed, and the whole region has suffered ever since. The new President of Georgia, who Simon meets in a lift, is trying to re-unify the country, but he faces a difficult task.

Simon travels across the frontline to visit South Ossetia – a self-declared country which has had its own flag, army and government for 12 years. The Ossetian people speak a different language to Georgians, and their government has vowed to fight to the death rather than rejoin the Georgian fold.

Simon persuades a tough Ossetian Foreign Ministry official to let him have a look around. Tensions are high between Georgia and South Ossetia, and the Ossetians are suspicious of foreigners, particularly when a government guide tells locals in the market that Simon’s from London, America. After his nationality is explained people become friendlier, although locals are tense because everyone has someone they love on the dangerous Georgian frontline and war is imminent. Everywhere Simon goes he’s followed by state security.

Back in Georgia proper Simon realises war is close when he finds a troop train packed with soldiers and tanks. He’s chased away by armed guards.

Heading west to the former breakaway region of Adjaria, Simon visits the palatial home of the former dictator. His son used to race a Lambourghini along the main street of the region, much to the anger of locals earning an average £15 a month.

Elsewhere in Georgia, Simon and his BBC crew are the first film unit ever allowed inside a major former Soviet military base. In a chilling scene, they find thousands of tonnes of explosives unguarded and huge working missiles, any of which could be stolen by criminals or terrorists, and which are capable of destroying skyscrapers.

Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan


Azerbaijan and Armenia became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but a mountainous area of Azerbaijan called Nagorno-Karabkh (NK) triggered war. Historically it was mainly Armenian Christian, and
when it wanted its own independence, Armenian troops helped the Karabkh army push Azeris out. Azerbaijan is still officially at war over NK, and Simon’s journey starts in Azerbaijan on the frontline overlooking NK; he sprints across open ground to avoid sniper fire.

Thousands of people fled during the war. Simon finds Azeri children and the elderly still living in rusty train carriages in a siding. Everywhere Simon goes there are reminders of the war. Everyone mentions it, including the country’s top pop star – a crack-shot with an AK-47.

Simon heads to NK, but the border with Azerbaijan is closed. A massive detour takes him across the border into Georgia, over stunning snowy mountains into Armenia, then south over icy mountain passes into NK. Inside the breakaway state he finds bombed-out villages and abandoned buildings, and Christians who view Muslims with suspicion and fear. In a village locals walk through a minefield in front of him.

Despite mines and war, Simon’s guide tells him NK would have the world’s highest longevity rate if recognized as a state. A graveyard contains endless people aged more than 100, and there is a suggestion of a live 120-year-old. Simon travels to the NK frontline trenches with Azerbaijan. Very few people go from one side to the other; Simon reflects on the stalemate, and the unlikely prospect of peace.

Read more & follow Simon Reeve’s adventures on Shoot & Scribble . com

Bellerby & Co Globemakers

Bellerby & Co Globemakers; Creators of high quality, beautiful handmade world globes. Combining traditional techniques with pioneering design. Handcrafted terrestrial and celestial globes in London. We create models of many sizes and styles, and offer a bespoke service.

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