Last week, I posted a bit of fun nostalgia about My Crazy Traveling Friends…Whom I Love. In the opening paragraph, I suggested that I’ve had to slow down my travel pace so that, for the foreseeable future, my country count will only slowly climb from its current number, 70.
I originally put an asterisk next to that 70, but promptly removed it as I knew the explanation for said asterisk was too lengthy for an already-wordy blog. In other words, I’ve been to 70* countries at last count…but for the sake of travel, just what constitutes a “country,” anyway?
Humor me, por favor. In 2004, I made my first trip to Asia, laying over in Seoul Incheon International Airport (ICN) for a few hours before continuing onward to Hong Kong. Because I never cleared customs and remained in the transit zone, most passport whores would rightly chastise me for claiming South Korea as a country visited. I do claim South Korea, but for a different reason – I spent two multi-day layovers in Seoul-proper on later Asia trips in 2007 and 2008.
That original Hong Kong trip included a very long day trip to Macau, which is independently governed by itself as a former Portuguese colony eventually returned back to mainland China (which Macau touches), in the same way that Hong Kong is independently governed by itself as a former British colony eventually returned back to mainland China (which Hong Kong also touches). Hong Kong deserves several days of any visitor’s time, and I could have easily turned my ridiculously long day in Macau (over on the first ferry of the day and back on the last) into an overnight trip. But I digress.
Each country has separate visa regulations and issues separate passport stamps. As an American, I had to apply for a visa if I wished to visit the PRC (People’s Republic of China), and my first trip to the mainland in 2007 kept me busy with pre-departure paperwork. Hong Kong and Macau require no such visas for Americans, feature different passport stamps not only from each other but from the PRC as well, and issue separate stamps when travelling from one to the other. So my trip to Hong Kong included 1) an HK entry stamp upon my initial arrival from LAX via ICN, 2) an HK exit stamp as I boarded the ferry to Macau, 3) a Macau entry stamp upon docking in Macau – apparently the one-hour boat ride was through “no-man’s land” (I love that term), 4) a Macau exit stamp at the end of the evening, 5) an HK entry stamp as I re-entered Hong Kong around midnight that same night, and 6) an HK exit stamp before continuing to my next country, Japan, which resulted in two more stamps. That’s eight stamps in just over one week, all of them side-by-side on the two most impressive-looking pages of my since-expired passport. It doesn’t even include the LAX arrival stamp marking my return to the U.S. at journey’s end!
So do Hong Kong, Macau, and the PRC constitute three separate countries, or just one? Sites such as Most Traveled People claim one (with HK and Macau listed as “special administrative zones” of China, or some such thing), but I’m not sure I agree. There’s more.
I mentioned South Korea earlier. As crazy as this may sound, I’m also claiming North Korea. That’s right, the land of crazy Kim Jong-il and his (possibly crazier) son, Kim Jong-un. Mighty “republic” of forced starvation and ridiculous propaganda, including the world’s tallest flagpole.
Let me explain. Alas, it is nowhere near as captivating as it sounds.
The de-militarized zone (DMZ) that defines the border between North and South Korea is a fortified “no-man’s land” (there’s that term again) that is probably the most forbidding international border in the world. The main crossing, Panmunjeom, is a scary/colorful place where straight-faced guards from both sides stare down their opposition. In 2007, I had the opportunity to visit both sides of the DMZ at Panmunjeom, via a UN-built “classroom” in which a table straddles the border, with chairs on each side for the countries’ respective delegates to hold sporadic meetings. (“Sporadic” as in “never,” but again, I digress.) Amazingly, these tours still seem to be taking place – amazing in light of heightened tensions between the rival nations over the past three years.
For about 15 minutes, escorted visitors were allowed to cross both sides of the border – in this classroom only – and be photographed with border guards from both sides. There were no actual passport stamps at the DMZ, but there were multiple passport checks – and always by men with guns – so I’m counting it. I even had to sign a waiver acknowledging that a formal peace treaty was never signed at the “wind down” of the Korean War, only an armistice – which means that technically, the two countries are still at war…and that anything might happen to me!
A friend of mine, who claims to be suitably unimpressed by my boasting but whom I know well enough to assume that he is merely jealous (ha!), insists that my visit to North Korea shouldn’t count as I didn’t a) spend the night there, b) eat a meal there, or c) go to the bathroom there. Wait a minute, since when were those the rules that determined if a visit counts as an official country to check off (or add to) the list?!
What about visiting, say, Bora Bora if you’ve already been to France? Does that count as a new country? Or Greenland, if you’ve previously overnighted in Denmark? What about the British Isles? Few will argue that Ireland isn’t its own country, but most Scotsmen, Welshmen, and Northern Irish will passionately insist that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are countries. Does HM Queen Elizabeth II know this? Does the word “country” mean something different in that part of the world? You can cross freely from England into Wales and not be any the wiser if it weren’t for county or road signs to point out otherwise. Then again, I learned whilst visiting Cardiff in 2011 that the Celtic language of Welsh is required learning in all Wales schools…but it certainly isn’t in nearby England. What gives?
I decided – and I think this is fair – that Hong Kong, Macau, and the PRC constitute separate countries – but that the United Kingdom “countries” are really just four territories that are part of a bigger “mother” country. For me, it gives me a country count advantage in the case of “Greater China” and a disadvantage in the case of the UK. But I’m counting North Korea, damn it – all 15 minutes of it!
What do you think, Loyal Reader? What constitutes a country in your mind? And what, to you, constitutes an official visit to a country?
Above pic: Yours truly, in North Korea via the UN’s classroom. Okay, so it’s not Pyongyang, but it was still a cool/surreal experience.
Below pic: The trees at the bottom of this pic are in South Korea. I’m looking across the DMZ (the swampy area – a haven for bird life since no people live there) towards a small North Korean settlement, as well as towards the world’s tallest flagpole. According to our guide, the village you see is completely unpopulated, and was built solely for propaganda purposes.