Category Archives: Rest of the World

Hvorfor lærer jeg norsk? Hvorfor ikke?!

Why am I learning Norwegian? Why not?!

The last 12 months have been something of a downer, but as somebody with alarmingly little going on that could serve as a distraction from the Covid-19 bad-news jamboree and the never-ending restrictions of lockdown, last spring I decided that I’d need to do something – anything – with all this free time spent at home. That something, it turned out, would be to learn a new language. I know that’s very cliché, but I’m never going to learn the clarinet or how to sew, so it had to be a language, okay? I’ve always felt like a bilingual person trapped inside a monolingual person’s body (I know that doesn’t really work but you know what I’m ham-fistedly trying to say), and if I was ever going to do something about it, now seemed like the time.

But why Norwegian? Why a language spoken by only five million people, almost all of them in just one country (guess which one)? Why not Mandarin? Why not Russian? Why not Spanish, a language spoken not just in Spain but throughout the Americas? Why not French, the one language other than English I have some basic knowledge of?

The truth is, I could have chosen any language, but having been to Oslo and learned a handful of basic beginner phrases and rather liked the sound of it, I decided to take that tiny leg-up and run with it. And why not? One day, I’ll go back to Norway and the feeling of being able to speak even a little bit of the language will make it seem worthwhile. Not only that, but Norwegian’s closeness to Swedish and Danish means it’s a good head start should I wish to try and pick those languages up too. After almost a year of learning Norwegian, I can already understand basic written Danish and Swedish, although not their spoken versions.

For a native English speaker, there is much that makes Norwegian quite an accessible language. As a Germanic language, there is plenty of cognate vocabulary, while its grammar is generally quite familiar, at least in the early stages. Indeed, there is very little verb conjugation in Norwegian to wrap your head around. Take the verb å være – to be:

I am = jeg er

you are = du er

he/she is = han/hun er

it is = den/det er (depending on the grammatical gender of the “it”)

we are = vi er

you (pl.) are = dere er

they are = de er

Notice how am/is/are become er all the way through.

Unlike German, there is also no grammatical case system to grapple with in Norwegian, although there are three grammatical genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. That said, the feminine form is somewhat optional and can be substituted for the masculine.

However, for all the similarities that come with learning Norwegian, it is categorically not mutually intelligible with English, and there are plenty of challenges too. To begin with, learning any language is difficult unless you’re especially gifted. Norwegian adjective forms must agree with the grammatical gender and number of the noun they’re describing. Norwegian prepositions are notoriously difficult for learners to get right, as they don’t correspond easily with their English equivalents. I’m not sure I will ever master Norwegian prepositions. As well as this, pronunciation varies wildly depending on which part of Norway the speaker is from, which makes learning to understand the spoken language quite a hurdle.

There is no standard form of spoken Norwegian, which means there is no equivalent of Britain’s Received Pronunciation or Standard American English. Instead, all dialects are of equal standing, and when two Norwegians from different parts of the country meet, they speak in their own dialect to one another. There is no standard language to turn to for help if it gets difficult. In practice, this doesn’t cause too much difficulty for native Norwegian speakers, as they are quite well exposed to most dialects, but it can be tricky even for natives, especially where very rural dialects are involved.

There are, however, two written forms of the language, Bokmål and Nynorsk, and most spoken dialects are closer to or more distant from one of these written forms. Bokmål is comfortably the most commonly used, and is very similar to the Danish written language. Nynorsk was developed when Norway gained its independence and is based on traditional Norwegian dialects in an attempt to pull the language further away from that of Denmark. Nynorsk is more common in western Norway, while Bokmål has a stronger presence around Oslo and eastern Norway, as well as being prevalent to some degree throughout the country. Neither written form is a spoken language, but most non-natives will learn one of these forms – usually Bokmål – before attempting to master a dialect. Were that student to then speak using their knowledge of Bokmål, they would be understood anywhere in Norway, but they can categorically not expect to be responded to in Bokmål. The response will come in whatever dialect happens to be the speaker’s local form. This is not rudeness, this is the Norwegian way, and every single dialect form carries equal weight. This, arguably, is the hardest element of learning the language, especially when outside Norway.

Fortunately, in the 21st century, the internet helps language learners bridge these gaps in ways that were barely imaginable when I started school in the early 1990s. For a start, the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK has made lots of its content available overseas, which is great for creating an immersive environment. As well as this, there are now numerous apps for language learning – some free, most not – of varying quality and usefulness. And perhaps above all, websites like italki mean it’s possible to access native speakers for language classes and conversation practice from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.

I very quickly found that, although apps can be very useful for absolute beginners, they all have deep flaws and, once you reach a certain point, outlive their usefulness. This is not to say I don’t still use language apps – I do. But I quickly realised that what I needed was greater immersion in the language so that I could absorb it and actually reproduce it myself when called upon. For me, there’s no substitute for speaking practice, and I’ve had lots of it, but it’s not just about speaking. It’s very easy with speaking partners to continually reinforce what you know without actually expanding your ability in the language. As such, I also try to consume news in Norwegian, and I cannot stress how important I have found it to read in Norwegian. It’s never the case that I understand everything, but the bits I do understand help me piece the meaning together and introduce new elements of the language and show me how things are structured. I also try to listen to podcasts, radio and other sources, but I’m also careful not to choose material that is not too far beyond my level. I try to gradually increase what I’m able to understand and stretch myself just a little. There’s no doubt that understanding the spoken language is the hardest part due to the wide variety of accent and dialects, so I accept that I may never be great at this.

I’ve also found creating flashcards helpful. I like to have an image on one side and the Norwegian word on the other. I avoid English on my flashcards as much as possible. That way I learn the Norwegian word from its association to a picture, which helps me get out of the habit of constant translation and creates more vivid memories and neural connections that improve recall. I’ve recently begun to focus more on expanding my vocabulary at the expense of grammar study. It’s not that grammar isn’t important, but it’s definitely easier to make yourself understood if you know more words. It’s that simple. I’m still absorbing grammar through my study, but I’ve found that building on my vocabulary is the single thing that speeds up my ability to actually speak and understand.

In nine months, what have I achieved? Well, I can sit and read simple Norwegian texts, especially those aimed at non-native speakers. I can listen to slowly-spoken Norwegian and grasp the meaning, even if I don’t fully understand. And best of all, I can hold simple conversations with native speakers in which I can describe myself, my work, my hobbies and how I’ve been spending my time, and can even stutter my way through higher concepts such as expressing opinions or giving explanations. At times I’ve felt frustrated, sometimes very frustrated. Norwegian is said to be one of the easiest languages for an English speaker to learn, but this certainly doesn’t make it easy. However, I’ve managed to stick with it and form a positive new habit. I have plenty still to learn. Indeed, with language-learning, there is always more to learn. But when the chance to travel returns and I can take my new skills to Norway and put what I’ve learned into practice, all of the frustration, the hours of creating flashcards and the stilted stumbling Skype calls will seem worth it.

Vi snakkes!

Around in the world in five posts: H-J

Three years ago, at the end of part two, I pondered whether part three would appear before 2018. It did not. Nor did it appear in 2019. But 2020 is all about having lots of time on our hands and not being able to go anywhere, so the imaginary adventure continues at last…

 

Haiti flag

Haiti

Haïti • Ayiti
  • Official Name: Republic of Haiti
  • Capital City: Port-au-Prince
  • Population: 10,604,000
  • Language: French, Haitian Creole
  • Currency: Haitian gourde
  • Continent: North America

What’s Haiti like?

The second-most populous country in the Caribbean region, Haiti occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the larger, more prosperous Dominican Republic. Heavily influenced by a combination of French colonial rule and African cultures and traditions, Haiti is a beautiful but poverty-stricken nation that is also prone to devastating natural disasters. At one time, Haiti was, by some measures, the richest colony in the world. However, conditions for the thousands and thousands of slaves brought over from Africa to work the sugar plantations were grotesque. Modern, independent Haiti has suffered through numerous periods of violence, military coups, and brutal dictatorships, and UN peacekeeping troops have been in position in Haiti since violence erupted following an election in 2004. The country has, in the past, invaded and occupied neighbouring Dominican Republic, and relations today can be tetchy. Of particular concern is the status and conditions of Haitian refugees over the border.

Haiti map
Haiti

Haiti is a deeply religious society. While the majority of Haitians are Catholic, there is also a sizable and growing  Protestant minority. However, the country is perhaps best known for the practice of Vodou (or Voodoo), a mysterious and sometimes misunderstood tradition with its roots in west Africa, that was brought over by slaves. Many Catholics also practice elements of Vodou, although it is more heavily frowned upon in Protestant circles. French remains widely spoken, alongside a local Creole. The country is largely mountainous, and lies in the hurricane belt, exposing it to severe storms. In 2010, hundreds of thousands of Haitians lost their lives in an earthquake, the consequences of which are still felt a decade on.

One cool thing about Haiti

The country was the site of Christopher Columbus’s landing in the New World. However, Columbus was at first convinced that he had arrived in India. A statue of Columbus stands proudly in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

One sad thing about Haiti

More than half of all Haitians are considered to be living in abject poverty, while around 80% fall under the poverty line to some degree. Haiti is ranked as the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Neighbours Textbox
Haiti’s only land border is to the east with the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. Cuba, meanwhile, lies roughly 60 miles away across the North Atlantic to the northwest, and Jamaica is 120 miles to the southwest. Between Haiti and Jamaica lies the tiny island of Navassa, administered by the United States, but claimed by Haiti.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

It would be a mistake to assume that the country’s history of social strife, poverty and lack of infrastructure have left it isolated. In truth, Haiti is a moderately popular tourist destination, with the potential for considerable development. This would, however, pose a real challenge to an ecologically and environmentally fragile country. Haiti is famous for its beautiful coastline and pristine beaches, and its resorts are often surprisingly luxurious and exclusive. Indeed, the Labadee area has been leased in its entirety to the Royal Caribbean cruise company and is fenced off from the rest of Haiti. The area around the country’s second city, Cap Haïtienne, is especially popular with beachgoers.

Haiti passport
Haitian passport

The country’s towns and cities are blessed with beautiful colonial architecture, although the chaos and open poverty will prove a shock to those not prepared. Haiti is also home to a large number of ruined palaces and forts that hark back to the various civilisations and powers that have ruled over the island of Hispaniola. The mountains, meanwhile, offer stunning scenery and will please any enthusiastic trekker, although safety precautions must be taken. The likelihood of falling ill while in Haiti is high, so it’s best to be fully prepared before travelling. There is still much devastation from the 2010 earthquake, including in the capital, which can make getting around difficult. Despite the challenges, the remarkably warm welcome offered by the locals, plus the undeniable beauty of their nation, make Haiti a real bucket-list destination.

Haiti
Citadelle Laferrière, Cap Haïtienne

 

Honduras flag

Honduras

  • Official Name: Republic of Honduras
  • Capital City: Tegucigalpa
  • Population: 8,249,574
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Lempira
  • Continent: North America

What’s Honduras like?

One of the poorest countries in the Americas, Honduras is synonymous with gang violence, murder and social strife. The country has also been to war with neighbouring El Salvador – a conflict known at the “football war”, having started during a football match – and has been on the receiving end of deadly natural disasters. Despite its troubles, Honduran society is vibrant and dynamic, with a culture influenced by Mayan and other Mesoamerican civilisations, as well as Spanish colonisation. As well as conflict with neighbouring nations, Honduras has also experienced periods of authoritarian rule, several military coups, and was a site of proxy conflict between the left and the right during the Cold War. It remains a key player in the transit of drugs between South and North America, and is still attempting to overcome a constitutional crisis that began in 2009 through a coup.

Honduras map
Honduras

Rather like other countries in the region, the Honduran landscape is dominated by mountains and rainforest. The country has a long coastline on the Caribbean Sea, dotted with lively port towns and attractive beaches. In the south is the short, more remote, Pacific coast on the Gulf of Fonseca. Honduras is seismically active, with volcanoes and regular, mostly mild earthquakes. Hurricanes are less frequent than in other areas of the Caribbean region, but as Hurricane Mitch demonstrated in 1998, they can be catastrophic when they hit. Thousands of Hondurans lost their lives in the storm, which also severely hampered the country’s fragile development.

One cool thing about Honduras

Every Good Friday in the colonial city of Comayagua, local people create spectacular religious tapestries out of wood shavings, which are then trampled out of existence under foot as soon as they are complete.

One sad thing about Honduras

The country has the highest murder rate in the world outside of conflict zones. Gang violence is rampant throughout the country, and although most of it is not targeted at ordinary people, it is not difficult to get caught in the crossfire.

Neighbours Textbox
Honduras has a western border with Guatemala, while El Salvador lies to the southwest. The country’s longest border is with Nicaragua in the southeast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Honduras shares with its Central American neighbours a rich culture and history, as well as abundant natural beauty, that make it a spectacular destination for travel.  The country has some impressive ruins from the Mayan civilisation, in particular at Copán in the far western region, near Guatemala. Picturesque towns such as Gracias and Comayagua abound with attractive colonial architecture. Honduras’s big cities, such as the capital Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, can be quite dangerous and come with shockingly high crime rates, but with careful planning, they offer an insight into modern Honduran life. San Pedro Sula is well known for its vibrant nightlife.

Honduras passport
Honduran passport

The Cusuco National Park is popular with backpackers and offers breathtaking mountain scenery. Away from the interior, Honduras has beautiful Caribbean beaches, as well as idyllic islands renowned for snorkelling and diving opportunities. Honduras also has a UNESCO World Heritage site at the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in the northeast of the country. The area is resplendent with tropical wildlife, and transport is almost entirely by boat. As with other parts of Central America, care must be taken when travelling in Honduras. However, the violence that makes so many local lives miserable is rarely aimed at tourists, and with adequate planning, Honduras is far from off-limits.

Honduras
Roatán, Bay Islands

 

Hungary flag

Hungary

Magyarország
  • Official Name: Hungary
  • Capital City: Budapest
  • Population: 9,797,561
  • Language: Hungarian
  • Currency: Forint
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Hungary like?

A former eastern bloc country with a unique language and heritage, Hungary has, with the fall of communism, developed into a modern central European state with a strong economy. The Hungarian people are linguistically, culturally and ethnically distinct from their neighbours, with origins in central Asia. Their language is from the Finno-Ugric language family and is distantly related to Finnish and Estonian. Numerous ethnic Hungarians also live in neighbouring countries, particularly Slovakia, Romania and Ukraine. Within Hungary, notable minority groups include Slovaks, Romanians, Germans and Roma. The country at one time formed one of the great European powers as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ultimately collapsed having being on the losing side in the First World War. Much of the latter half of the 20th Century was spent under the yoke of Soviet communist influence, with the Hungarian uprising of 1956 one of this period’s most significant events.

Hungary map
Hungary

Hungary is small, and mostly consists of flat plains and rolling hills. In the west of the country is Lake Balaton, one of the largest lakes in Europe. All of Hungary falls within the flood plain of the mighty Danube, which flows through the country’s majestic capital city, Budapest. Some low mountain ranges can be found in border areas, including the very eastern edge of the Alps in the far west, near Austria. Although agriculture plays an important role in the economy, Hungary has achieved impressive growth since the collapse of communism and has fully transformed into a modern market economy, with an increasingly urbanised society.

One cool thing about Hungary

In 2011, Elvis Presley was posthumously made an official citizen of Budapest in commemoration of his drawing attention to the Hungarian uprising of 1956. There is a road in the city named after him, although it is more of a dusty track than an impressive boulevard.

One sad thing about Hungary

The 1956 Hungarian uprising was an attempt to throw off the country’s oppressive Soviet-aligned regime. Sadly, the revolution was crushed, with the loss of around 3,000 civilian lives.

Neighbours Textbox
Hungary may be small, but it still has seven neighbours for company. To the north is Slovakia, while there is a short border with Ukraine in the northeast. Romania  lies to the east. All three countries are home to significant Hungarian minorities, a legacy of when Hungarian territory was much larger than today’s republic. To the south are frontiers with Serbia and Croatia, while Slovenia is to the southwest and Austria is to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Hungary’s long history, unique culture and position in central Europe make for a fascinating tourist destination. The country’s capital, Budapest, has boomed with the advent of budget European air travel to become one of the continent’s most visited city-break spots. The city competes comfortably with the great cities of Europe in terms of its architecture and cultural influence, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. The banks of the Danube are renowned for their beautiful bridges and magnificent buildings, including the spectacular Hungarian parliament building, the largest in Europe. The Castle Quarter is also not to be missed. The city also has numerous parks and hills that make for some impressive views of the urban landscape.

Hungary passport
Hungarian passport

Away from the capital, the Hungarian countryside is pleasant and green, rather than spectacular. Lake Balaton, one of Europe’s largest lakes, is great for walking and sunbathing in the summer, and is surrounded by wine-growing regions and quaint traditional villages. Many of Hungary’s smaller towns and cities possess pleasing old towns and attractive centres with impressive architecture. It’s worth taking the time to experience Hungary’s hearty cuisine, dominated by paprika – a central ingredient to Hungarian dishes – and including such world-renowned dishes as goulash. Hungary is also famous for its bath houses and spas, which can be found almost anywhere in the country.

Hungary
Budapest

 

Iceland flag

Iceland

Ísland
  • Official Name: Iceland
  • Capital City: Reykjavík
  • Population: 332,529
  • Language: Icelandic
  • State Church: Church of Iceland
  • Currency: Icelandic króna
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Iceland like?

Perched at the top end of the North Atlantic Ocean, Iceland is a rocky, geologically active and starkly beautiful island, much of which is barren and uninhabitable. The country’s small population of around 330,000 is found mostly around the coast, with roughly three quarters of Icelanders living in and around the capital city, Reykjavík. The country’s interior is desolate – a land of mountains, geysirs, waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes and barren rocky wastelands. Despite its name, Iceland is relatively temperate. Winters are cold, but considerably milder than other locations at the same latitude. Summers are cool and wet. Earth tremors are fairly common in Iceland, although they tend to be mild. Volcanoes, however, pose a threat to life and infrastructure.

Iceland map
Iceland

Iceland was first settled by celtic people from Great Britain and Ireland, alongside Vikings from Norway. The country gained independence from Denmark in 1944. The Icelandic language is remarkably close to Old Norse, and is difficult even for speakers of other Nordic tongues. Today, Iceland is an affluent country, often cited as one of the world’s most stable and prosperous societies. The country has a Nordic social welfare model and has in recent years become an attractive destination for immigration. Despite the fast pace of change that Icelandic society has gone through in the last few decades, the country holds firm to its traditions, including numerous examples of Icelandic folklore. Fishing plays a major role in the economy. Iceland suffered a mighty economic crash in 2008 that devastated the economy and led to widespread protests and political turmoil. In recent years, an unprecedented tourist boom has helped the country to bounce back in spectacular fashion.

One cool thing about Iceland

The country recently launched an app that allows frisky Icelanders to make sure that they are not too closely related to a potential partner – an ever-present risk in such a small, isolated country.

One sad thing about Iceland

The financial crisis that began in late 2008 was the largest in economic history, relative to the size of Iceland’s economy, and triggered a severe depression. All three major banks collapsed, the country’s economy collapsed and unemployment soared. The already high suicide rate increased as a consequence. Thankfully, Iceland appears to have navigated itself out of those dark days.

Neighbours Textbox
Iceland has no land borders and is surrounded by the chilly waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. It’s nearest neighbours are Greenland, 550km to the northwest, and the Faroe Islands, 450km to the southeast. Both territories are part of the Danish kingdom.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The tourist industry in Iceland has experienced an unprecedented boom since 2011, helping both to rescue the local economy after the economic crash, and to put considerable strain on this small country’s infrastructure. Reykjavík heaves with tourists, even in the dark, chilly depths of the Icelandic winter, with new hotels and guesthouses springing up all the time. Icelandic roads are having to cope with ever-increasing demand from buses and hire cars transporting visitors from the capital to the island’s many natural wonders.

Iceland passport
Icelandic passport

Most visitors come to Iceland in the hope of experiencing the northern lights (at least outside of the summer season). The Blue Lagoon is currently struggling to accommodate the number of visitors hoping to take a dip in its steaming waters. Þingvellir National Park has one of the world’s most spectacular, eerie landscapes, sitting along the boundary between two tectonic plates. Many also flock to witness the spectacle of the country’s geysirs. Reykjavík, meanwhile, has earned a reputation for some of Europe’s best nightlife.

You can read about my February 2016 trip to Iceland here.

Iceland
Reykjavík

 

India flag

India

भारत (Bhārat)
  • Official Name: Republic of India
  • Capital City: New Delhi
  • Largest City: Mumbai (formerly Bombay)
  • Population: 1,326,572,000
  • Language: Hindi, English, thousands of regional languages
  • Currency: Indian rupee
  • Continent: Asia

What’s India like?

It’s often said that India was never really supposed to be a country, a reference to the bewildering array of peoples, ethnic groups, religions, languages and cultures that co-exist in the world’s second largest nation. Yet somehow, despite all those differences, modern India has managed to forge the world’s largest democracy, with a growing economy that has lifted millions out of poverty and continues to do so. The outsourcing boom and the rise of the tech sector mean India is more plugged into the global economy than at any time in its history, with well-educated Indians driving forward the country’s rise as an economic force, with increasing geopolitical clout to boot.

India map
India

Despite this progress, problems remain. Democratic though its politics may be, India is a notoriously difficult place to govern, with so many competing aims and interests across vastly different regions and cultures. Poverty remains a problem, as does social cohesion and religious tension, which sometimes turns violent. The country is still mired in a stand-off with Pakistan and China over Kashmir, but it also faces other, lesser-known insurgencies across its vast territory. It’s a wonder that India holds together while so many forces push and pull it in different directions. But it does.

The country’s geography is as diverse as its populace, with some of the world’s tallest mountains in the north, as well as coastal ranges plunging towards the sea on both east and west coasts, with deserts and plains in the interior, rainforests, mighty rivers such as the Brahmaputra, Yamuna and the Ganges, and glaciated summits. India also includes tropical islands in the Indian Ocean, some of which are home to mysterious and barely contacted people groups and tribes. The country is also home to a diverse array of animal and plant species, with perhaps the best known being the Asian tiger, which is a major tourist draw. India is susceptible to natural disasters including flooding and drought, while earthquakes occur in the far north and cyclones can be devastating. The country’s large agricultural sector – including its subsistence farmers – remain reliant on the monsoon rains.

India2
Golden Temple, Amritsar

India is a majority Hindu nation, but the country is also home to a significant minority of Muslims (indeed, India has the third highest Muslim population in the world, despite them only making up around 20% of the Indian population), as well as being the home of the Sikh faith. There are also significant numbers of Jains, Buddhists, Bahai’is and Christians in India, as well as other smaller faiths.

Modern India is known worldwide for its cuisine, which differs depending on region, but has had a major influence on parts of the world – particularly Britain – that have interacted with the subcontinent in the past. Part of the colonial legacy of India is one of the world’s largest rail networks, a system of government based on that of Westminster, and a passion for cricket.

One cool thing about India

The Golden Temple at Amritsar in Punjab is officially recognised as the most visited place in the world, receiving over 100,000 Sikh devotees to their holiest shrine every single day.

One sad thing about India

The country has certainly achieved impressive economic growth and even has a space programme, but poverty remains a huge problem. In the region of 800 million people in India are considered poor by some international measures, and around two thirds of the population live on $2 a day.

Neighbours Textbox
India’s long northwestern border with its eternal enemy Pakistan is one of the most militarised in the world. In the north, things get complicated due to territorial disputes over Kashmir with Pakistan and China, as well the disputed Arunachal Pradesh, which India controls but which is claimed by China. If all of disputed Kashmir was considered to be part of India, then there would be a short border with Afghanistan. However, this area is controlled by Pakistan.
In the north, there is a border with Nepal while, in the northeast, there are borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar (Burma). The island nation of Sri Lanka lies off India’s far southern tip, while the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands are relatively close to Myanmar and Indonesia.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

There’s no doubt about it, India will challenge the uninitiated Westerner. Indeed, it can seem almost designed to provide the most intense culture shock for the outsider. Its crowded cities teem with life, while its transport networks and infrastructure still lag far behind what visitors might be used to. However, once the visitor acclimatises to the sights, sounds and intensity of modern India, the country offers the kind of experiences the memories of which will last a lifetime. From the beaches of Goa to the mountains of the Himalayas, the rainforests of the tropics and the hustle and bustle of some of the world’s largest cities, India has it all.

India passport
Indian passport

As one of the cradles of human civilisation, India has a long history, meaning there’s an abundance of historical and architectural sights to take in. The country – especially in the north – boasts thousands of forts that bear testament to the empires and civilisations that have prevailed throughout the subcontinent. The Taj Mahal at Agra – built in the 17th century by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as the tomb for his favourite wife – is arguably the most recognisable example, and is considered among the most beautiful buildings in the world. The country’s cultural traditions and diverse religious heritage are another draw, with plenty of visitors arriving on what might be termed spiritual journeys, while the many sites of religious significance – Hindu and Sikh temples, churches, mosques and more – inspire awe and wonder. Others want to experience the frenetic energy of the country’s markets and festivals – indeed, festivals are an almost daily fact of life around this vast nation. The country’s array of spices and flavours that define its cuisine have extended their influence far beyond its borders and are another major draw.

Adventurous tourists are also pulled to India by the towering peaks of the Himalayas, though much of this area is in Kashmir, where travel can be risky. Others are captivated by India’s miles and miles of golden sands that stretch north to sound on both coasts, with the state of Goa – formerly a Portuguese colony – arguably the centre of India’s beach tourism trade. Visitors also come to witness the country’s national parks and the wildlife that dwells therein. There’s no question that an adventurous spirit goes a long way when visiting India, but one thing is for sure, the memories and experiences that the country has to offer will always stay with those who come..

India
Me at the Taj Mahal, Agra

 

Indonesia flag

Indonesia

  • Official Name: Republic of Indonesia
  • Capital City: Jakarta
  • Population: 267,670,543
  • Language: Indonesian, more than 700 regional languages
  • Currency: Indonesian rupiah
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Indonesia like?

A nation of different people groups, diverse cultures and hundreds of different languages, Indonesia is a nation-state occupying thousands of islands across a vast archipelago in southeast Asia, a few of which it shares with other nations. One of the largest nations on the planet, with a population of nearly 270 million, Indonesia is a developing nation with a growing economy, heaving cities (especially its capital, Jakarta), but also traditional ways of life preserved in the many rural communities scattered about this patchwork of islands. Away from the cities, many parts of Indonesia remain poor, while some regions face civil unrest. Despite all this, a strong sense of Indonesian nationhood has developed since independence from the Dutch Empire, when the region was known as the Dutch East Indies. This huge country with its incredible diversity of peoples and cultures holds together and continues to develop. Most Indonesians are Muslims, and the national language is Indonesian. However, most people, particularly away from cities, will speak a local tongue such as Javanese, Sundanese, Acehnese, Balinese and hundreds more. The famous backpacker destination of Bali is unusual in Indonesia in that the population is majority Hindu rather than Muslim. In fact, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country.

Indonesia map
Indonesia

The country is a fragile, fledgling but increasingly vibrant democracy that is stumbling its way out of the dark days of dictatorship under Suharto, whose policies encouraged economic growth, but under oppressive political conditions. In 2014, the country elected its first president from outside the elite cabal that had controlled it for most of its independent history, and the economy continues to flourish.

Much of the country, across most of the islands, is lush and mountainous, with incredible biodiversity. Natural disasters are a fact of life in Indonesia, where volcanoes and earthquakes are a threat to live. The Boxing Day 2004 earthquake and tsunami caused devastation on the island of Sumatra, almost completely destroying the city of Bandar Aceh. The capital city, Jakarta, on Java, is sinking, and the government has begun the process of building a new capital in East Kalimantan province on Borneo. The country’s large and growing population is causing significant environmental problems in this biodiverse nation, leading to deforestation, soil erosion and pollution problems that sometimes impact on neighbouring nations.

One cool thing about Indonesia

Despite its relatively small size, 140 million residents squeeze onto the island of Java, making it the most populous island in the world. The island includes the capital, Jakarta. The population of this one small island is about equal to that of the whole of Russia.

One sad thing about Indonesia

The Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami of 2004 killed an estimated 230,000 people across seven countries, and the worst affected was Indonesia – specifically the province of Aceh and its capital, Bandar Aceh. Upper estimates suggest almost 170,000 Indonesians died, mostly in this region, and many more were displaced from completely destroyed settlements.

Neighbours Textbox
Spread over 17,000 islands across 1,904,569 square kilometres (735,358 square miles) of southeast Asia, Indonesia inevitably has plenty of neighbours. Let’s start with the ones with which it shares islands: on Borneo, the country has a long border with the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia; at the far eastern end of the archipelago, the country shares the island of New Guinea roughly equally with Papua New Guinea; while the small island of Timor has been shared between Indonesia and East Timor since the latter became independent in 1999.
The Straits of Malacca separate the island of Sumatra from peninsular Malaysia, while Singapore is also nearby. The country shares the island of Borneo with Brunei, but the two countries do not have a border, as they are kept apart by Malaysian territory. In the northeast, Indonesian Borneo and Sulawesi are separated from Mindanao island in the Philippines by the Celebes Sea, while northern Australia lies to the south, across the Timor Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As you’d expect from a country spread out across so many islands, Indonesia caters for all manner of tourist experiences. Backpacking is big in Indonesia, especially on the island of Bali, arguably the country’s best-known tourist hotspot, where beaches, nightlife and hedonism are the order of the day. The country’s biodiversity means that its rainforests are a huge draw, where people come to see national parks and reserves for animals including orangutans, elephants, tigers and the komodo dragon, while offshore, the country’s waters are a wonderland for divers. Indonesia features the world’s largest volcanic lake at Lake Toba, which offers stunning views and hiking opportunities for the particularly adventurous.

Indonesia passport
Indonesian passport

Culturally, the country is famous for festivals and traditional cultural events that fascinate visitors, while temples and religious sites abound. The major cities can be heavily polluted and smog-covered, especially Jakarta, but they are still a draw, offering the usual cultural sites, nightlife and urban amenities. With so much territory spread out over so many islands, it is no surprise that Indonesia has so much to offer, and as a growing economy in a part of the world crisscrossed by backpackers, gap year travellers and tourists from all corners of the globe, the country is an increasingly significant tourism proposition. The big question for Indonesia is how it will reconcile its growing tourist trade – and its economic development in general – with commitments to protect the environment.

Indonesia
Ulun Danu Beratan Temple, Lake Bratan, Bali

 

Iran flag

Iran

ایران
  • Official Name: Islamic Republic of Iran
  • Capital City: Tehran
  • Population: 83,183,741
  • Language: Persian (also known as Farsi), regional and minority languages
  • State Religion: Shia Islam
  • Currency: Rial
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Iran like?

The behemoth of the Middle East with over 80million inhabitants, enigmatic Iran is a nation of complexities, where parliamentary politics meets authoritarianism, ethnic and religious diversity intermingle under a strictly-enforced state faith, and one of the world’s largest young populations strives to build a future under the gerontocratic rule of the mullahs. With a long and endlessly fascinating history in which Iran has been a huge influence on the region and beyond, Iranians are rightly patriotic and proud of their national identity. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran’s relations with the West have been deeply antagonistic, with periods of high tension, but this would be the wrong lens through which to see the country as a whole. The country is home to an ancient civilisation and has been the centre of several great empires that spread far beyond the borders of modern Iran. Today, Iran is a middle power that strongly influences other states in the Middle East. International sanctions mean the economy has struggled to fulfil its potential, and poverty is widespread, especially outside the big cities. The country has a controversial nuclear programme which it claims is peaceful, but which is often feared by outsiders to be aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability. Iran is a major oil and gas producer, but international sanctions mean much of the potential wealth this could generate has failed to materialise.

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Iran

The landscape is dominated by two huge mountain ranges – the Alborz in the north and the Zagros in the west. Most major populations centres sit in valleys or plains between these major mountains chains. Iran is one of the most mountainous countries in the world, but it becomes increasingly desolate and desert-like in the southeast. The country has a long coastline on the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, and has a strategic position at the Strait of Hormuz, a major global shipping route. Iranians themselves are mostly ethnic Persians who follow Shia Islam, but the country has significant minority ethnic groups and religions.

One cool thing about Iran

Evidence suggests that the first postal mail system may have been invented in Iran back in 550BC.

One sad thing about Iran

The country is the most earthquake-prone in the world, and in 2003, a quake struck around the city of Bam in central Iran that killed 30,000 people.

Neighbours Textbox
In the northwest, Iran borders Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. Part of its border with Azerbaijan-proper is with the breakaway ethnic-Armenian republic of Artsakh, which is internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan. In the northeast is a long border through the desert with Turkmenistan, while the country’s eastern frontier is shared with Afghanistan and Pakistan. To the west is a long border with Iraq.
The country is separated from Kuwait by Iraq’s narrow al-Faw peninsula, while Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are a short distance across the Persian Gulf. Oman is fairly nearby across the Gulf of Oman, while the Strait of Hormuz separates Iran from Oman’s Musandam exclave.


What’s it like for tourists?

You might assume that Iran – with its authoritarian regime and international pariah status – is closed off, but that is far from the case. Iran receives many tourists, and although visa application processes can be cumbersome, there is nothing to prevent visitors from going to Iran. Unfortunately for Americans, Brits and Canadians, these nationals can’t travel freely around the country, instead needing an approved guide at all times. However, all other nationals are free to roam (with certain restrictions) once they’ve been issued a visa.

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Iranian passport

As the historical centre of some of humanity’s greatest civilisations, Iran has been left with a legacy of sites of historical interest and religious significance, especially to followers of Shia Islam. Vast ancient city complexes reveal the scale and power of the dynasties that have ruled over huge swathes of territory and peoples. Meanwhile, the array of different landscapes attracts visitors to the country’s natural beauty, especially the ski resorts of the mountains, one of which is among the highest in the world. Iran also possesses islands in the Persian Gulf that are major draw to Iranian tourists and have less stringent entry requirements for outsiders than the mainland. Persian hospitality is world-renowned and visitors can expect a warm welcome from the Iranian people.

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The holy city of Qom

 

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Iraq

اَلْعِرَاق(al-ʿirāq) عێراق‎ (Êraq)
  • Official Name: Republic of Iraq
  • Capital City: Baghdad
  • Population: 38,433,600
  • Language: Arabic, Kurdish, regional and minority languages
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Currency: Iraqi dinar
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Iraq like?

The borders of modern-day Iraq encompass the fertile plains between the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers that are one of the cradles of civilisation, and the cities of this region – particularly Baghdad – have played a major role in humanity’s cultural, religious and scientific development. The land between these great rivers was known as Mesopotamia and gave rise to some of the earliest and most powerful civilisations. The modern Iraqi nation-state emerged in the 20th century and has suffered under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, an eight-year-long war with Iran in the 1980s, the Gulf War of 1991 and the American-led invasion of 2003. Since the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime, the country has been perennially unstable and racked by conflict, with parts of the country falling into the control of militant groups.

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Iraq

Most Iraqis are Arab Muslims, with the Shia forming a majority and the Sunni a significant minority. In the northeast are the Kurds, who have a high degree of autonomy in the territory they control. Other much smaller minority groups include the Turkomens and Assyrians. Iraqi Kurdistan has consistently been the most stable part of the country since 2003. The country possesses large oil reserves, but international sanctions and perpetual war and instability mean that many Iraqis live in poverty and suffer from poor public services. While the central region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is fertile, much of the rest of Iraq is sparsely populated desert. However, the northeast is mountainous. Summers in Iraq record some of the hottest temperatures anywhere in the world, with 50c (122f) a regular occurrence.

One cool thing about Iraq

The world’s first written story – the Epic of Gilgamesh – was written circa 1800BC and is about a ruler who fought to save an ancient Mesopotamian city in what is today Iraq.

One sad thing about Iraq

Suffering and tragedy are a daily fact of life, and there are many historical events that could apply here. One example would be the tragedy of the Marsh Arabs, who Saddam Hussein punished in 1991 for rebelling against him by draining their lands, which permanently altered their way of life and resulted in huge ecological consequences.

Neighbours Textbox
In the north is a contentious border with Turkey, while in the east is a long border with Iran. In the southeast, the country shares a border through the desert with Kuwait, while in the south and southwest is another long frontier, this time with Saudi Arabia.
In the remote far west, Iraq borders Jordan, while there is a long border with Syria in the northwest in one of the world’s most dangerous and volatile regions.


What’s it like for tourists?

With so much history and culture, Iraq could and hopefully one day will be a captivating destination. However, most governments advise their citizens not to travel to Iraq for non-essential reasons due to the security situation. The threat of kidnapping and terrorist attacks remains high and could strike at any moment almost anywhere. The vast majority of visits to Iraq are made by Shia Muslim pilgrims heading for the country’s holy sites. Beyond that, there is little infrastructure for tourism, especially outside of Baghdad. Checkpoints make moving around Iraq extremely difficult and time consuming. Nevertheless, the Kurdish region, which is almost entirely self-governing, has achieved a higher degree of stability and is considered safer than the rest of the country. Most Western tourists who decide to visit Iraq head for this region.

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Iraqi passport

In other circumstances, ancient cities such as Babylon, Ur, Ctesiphon and Hatra would teem with tourists, but decades of dictatorship and conflict have had the dual effect of discouraging visitors and damaging heritage. In the future, it may be that these places will no longer seem so off-limits and visitors may be free to explore the cradle of civilisation, but for now, they remain at the mercy of the security situation. Shia Muslims will no doubt continue to descend in large numbers on the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, but even this activity can be unsafe. Visitors to Kurdistan will find a more stable atmosphere and will have the chance to experience Kurdish culture amidst the mountains of northwestern Iraq.

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Baghdad

 

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Ireland

Éire
  • Official Name: Ireland
  • Capital City: Dublin
  • Population: 4,921,500
  • Language: English, Irish
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Ireland like?

Known as the Emerald Isle for its lush green landscape, the island of Ireland lies to the west of Britain in the North Atlantic off the coast of northwestern Europe. Despite its small size, Irish culture and traditions are familiar to millions around the world and have had an influence well beyond the island’s shores. The island itself is currently partitioned between the sovereign state often referred to as the Republic of Ireland – which this item is about – and the six northeastern counties known as Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom and will dealt with in the UK entry. The partition is a legacy of the island’s long history with Great Britain and settlement by people from Britain. The republic regularly scores highly on measures of quality of life and human development, but the 2008 financial crash caused substantial economic trauma that the country is still recovering from.

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Ireland

The Irish people are known for their friendliness and unique sense of humour, as well as their cultural traditions. Irish pubs and Guinness beer can be found throughout the world and are symbols of Irish identity. English is the main language in Ireland, but a minority of citizens still speak the Irish language – indeed, in areas known as Gaeltachta, Irish is usually the primary language. Major historical events that have shaped Irish identity also include the Irish Famine and the War of Independence that aimed to throw off control from Britain. The country has its own traditional sports including Gaelic football and hurling, while rugby union and football (soccer) are also very popular. In recent years, the country’s economic success – especially as it has begun to recover from the catastrophe of 2008 – has seen it become a desirable destination for immigration, with Dublin in particular becoming increasingly diverse. Irish towns and cities are often attractive and well-kept, while the Irish countryside features a long, spectacular coastline, mountainous regions, bogs and rolling green fields. The lush green landscape has given Ireland a strong, successful farming sector.

One cool thing about Ireland

The country has won the Eurovision Song Contest seven times – more than any other participating nation. However, its last victory was in 1996.

One sad thing about Ireland

The Great Famine (sometimes referred to as the Potato Famine) of 1845-1849 had a huge impact on Ireland, with one million dying and another million being forced to emigrate. The population has never recovered to pre-Famine levels.

Neighbours Textbox
Ireland’s nearest neighbour is the United Kingdom. The two countries share a land border on the island of Ireland, separating the sovereign state from Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. To the east is Great Britain, with Scotland to the northeast and England and Wales to the east. As well as this, the self-governing British Crown Dependency of the Isle of Man is nearby in the Irish Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourist infrastructure in Ireland is very well developed and the country is a major tourist destination. The pubs and bars of Dublin throng with visitors from all around the world, despite the astronomical drinks prices! Other towns and cities are much smaller than the capital, but they still pull in tourists to their pubs and charming centres. The Irish welcome is one of the warmest and friendliest anywhere in the world, and many visitors, particular from North America, arrive to investigate the land of their roots.

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Irish Passport

As well as the people and the pubs, Ireland is also beautiful, with large areas of unspoilt countryside, breathtaking coastal views and excellent walking and hiking opportunities, though the weather can never be relied upon! The Wild Atlantic Way is a scenic drive down Ireland’s Atlantic west coast, from Donegal to County Cork, and takes in sheer cliffs, mountain vistas, sea air and traditional Irish-speaking communities. The land is also dotted with sites of historical interest, from castles and forts to scenes of significant battles. Despite its small size and high level of development, there’s plenty of adventure to be had on the Emerald Isle.

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County Donegal

 

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Israel

יִשְׂרָאֵל‎ (Yisra’el) إِسْرَائِيل‎ (Isrāʼīl)
  • Official Name: State of Israel
  • Capital City: Jerusalem
  • Population: 9,187,200
  • Language: Hebrew, Arabic
  • Official Religion: Judaism
  • Currency: New shekel
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Israel like?

This strip of Levantine land on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean is the centre of one of humanity’s most intractible conflicts – a land of ancient history populated today by several people groups, but principally by Jews and Arabs. It is the world’s only majority Jewish state, but has a large Arab Muslim minority as well as smaller groups of other faiths and ethnicities. The modern state of Israel came into existence in 1948, but the land on which the state was formed has been populated by different people groups since ancient times and is sacred to the world’s Jews, Muslims and Christians. This melting pot of faiths and ethnicities has been mired in conflict to varying degrees ever since the state was declared, and the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank remains controversial. Israel is also frequently criticised for its policies towards the Palestinians. Other issues include the final status of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, Israel is an established democracy with high standards of living and a reputation for investment in research and development that have helped create a successful economy. Arabs living within Israel are full Israeli citizens and political parties representing Arab interests sit in the Knesset – Israel’s parliament.

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Israel

Israel is a small country in the region of the Middle East known as the Levant. Much of it is desert, and summer temperatures inland can get very hot indeed. However, the coastal strip is cooled somewhat by the presence of the Mediterranean. The country is home to some of the world’s oldest and most historically significant settlements, with important religious sites, winding allies and tight streets, not least in the bustling capital, Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the coastal city of Tel Aviv is the heart of liberal Israel, a city of gleaming towers, pristine beaches and teeming nightlife.

One cool thing about Israel

Perhaps it’s not surprising in a country with so much history, but Israel has more museums per head of the population than any other country in the world.

One sad thing about Israel

Plenty of people – Jewish, Arab, Druze and others – have experienced trauma and strife in this much-fought over slice of the Middle East. Picking a single fact out might seem one-sided, so perhaps the mere fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has proven so enduring and has wrought so much suffering should stand on its own as the saddest thing about this region.

Neighbours Textbox
Many of Israel’s border areas are, understandably, off-limits to visitors with a major security presence in place. In the north, the country borders Lebanon, while in the northeast is the disputed Golan Heights, controlled by Israel and claimed by Syria.
In the east is Jordan, while in the southwest, the country borders the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Israel-proper also borders the West Bank, which contains both Jewish settlements and Palestinian-administered territory, and the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian militant Hamas organisation.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The answer to this question differs depending on the security situation, but at the time of writing, most visitors to Israel encounter no trouble. Some outsiders might get a culture shock from the sight of so much security infrastructure, but this is the day-to-day reality for ordinary Israelis and is more mundane than it might appear. Citizens of countries that don’t have relations with or don’t recognise Israel won’t be able to get in, and evidence of travel to many of these countries will prevent tourists from being admitted to Israel. For others, the country is open and is well adjusted to receiving visitors, though airport security will seem more stringent than in many other countries.

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Israeli Passport

Once in, visitors are spoiled for choice. The city of Jerusalem, holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, is a hotbed of history and sites of historical and religious significance. On the other hand, Tel Aviv is Israel’s hedonistic beach and party capital, with a world reknowned nightlife scene. The Dead Sea – famous for its properties that allow bathers to float on the surface – is a major draw and can be accessed from Israel and the West Bank. The country’s small size and well-developed transport infrastructure mean it’s easy to get around, from the mountains of the north to the barren deserts in the south and the resort town of Eilat on Israel’s short strip of Red Sea coast.

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Jerusalem

 

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Italy

Italia
  • Official Name: Italian Republic
  • Capital City: Rome
  • Population: 60,317,116
  • Language: Italian (numerous dialects and regional languages exist)
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Italy like?

The boot-shaped Italian peninsula gave birth to one of the greatest empires in human history and has historically been home to numerous people groups and cultures. A hub of enlightenment thought and philosophy, Italy is where the Renaissance began, and it was also here that the Catholic faith emerged. However, for much of its history, the land we now know as Italy lacked a single common identity, with various city-states and powers holding sway across different parts of the peninsula and islands that today make up Italy. As a result of this, Italy is diverse, with a wide variety of dialects and minority languages, and strong loyalty to its regions. While northern Italy is a hub for high culture, finance, fashion and industry, southern Italy is poorer, more rural and less developed, which leads to tension and even separatist sentiment among some. Despite these regional inequalities, the country nevertheless has one of the world’s largest economies, with a high life expectance and a lifestyle that is the envy of many around the world. Italians are known for their vibrant culture, passion, artistic flair, design and, of course, their world famous cuisine.

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Italy

As well as the peninsula, Italy also includes numerous islands, including Sicily and Sardinia, which both have their own languages and distinctive local cultures. In the far north are the Italian Alps, below which is the Italian plain, home to cities such as Milan, Verona, Bergamo and Venice. This is Italy’s most economically important region. The Appennine mountain chain runs down the centre of the country, while the far south becomes more arid. Anywhere in Italy can get hot during the summer, though coastal areas are often tempered by sea breezes. Winters are cool in the north and mild further south. The long Italian coastline features spectacular cliffs and pristine beaches, with colourful traditional villages clinging to the hills as they rise from the sea.

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Florence

Some of the biggest challenges Italy faces include the wide gap between the richer north and poorer south, separatism in some regions, the influx of migrants crossing from north Africa and arriving in southern Italy, pollution – especially in the northern plains, political volatility and economic stagnation. Despite these problems, Italy can boast high living standards and a culture admired around the world.

One cool thing about Italy

There are 55 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy, the most of any country in the world, a reflection of its status as a cultural and historical powerhouse.

One sad thing about Italy

The country is one of Europe’s most seismically active, and earth tremors are common. There have been many damaging quakes over the years, with the most recent major event being the 2009 earthquake centred on L’Aquila in central Italy, which killed over 300 people and saw the collapse of numerous buildings in a region where many structures are not conditioned to withstand major tremors.

Neighbours Textbox
In the northwest is Italy’s border with France, while the microstate of Monaco is also not far away along the French coast. Italy shares mountainous northern frontiers with Switzerland and Austria, while Slovenia is to the northeast.
The island of Sardinia lies to the immediate south of the French island of Corsica, while the Adriatic Sea separates Italy from Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and a tiny strip of coastline belonging to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Malta is due south of Sicily, with Tunisia further away to the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The fifth most-visited country in the world, Italy is a global tourism hotspot thanks to its history, culture, cuisine, natural beauty and remarkable 55 UNESCO World Heritage sites. From the ski resorts of the Alps in the far north through cosmopolitan cities like Milan and Turin, the canals of Venice and the Renaissance splendour of Florence and the ancient history of Rome, down to traditional villages of the far south and Sicily, Italy arguably has something for everyone.

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Italian passport

Italy’s great cities combine all the vibrance and energy of modern European conurbations, but with fascinating history and breathtaking architecture, while its long coast offers stunning sea views dotted with small colourful villages that seem to cling to cliff faces. Rural Italy is still very traditional, while the cuisine and wines of the country are among the world’s most famous and are not to be missed. Italy is a land where tradition and modernity truly meet, where the visitor can experience the hustle and bustle of the markets and shops of the big city, then head into the countryside to find small sleepy traditional villages or tiny fishing communities.

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Cefalú, Sicily

 

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Ivory Coast

Côte d’Ivoire
  • Official Name: Republic of Côte d’Ivoire
  • Capital City: Yamoussoukro (political); Abidjan (economic)
  • Largest City: Abidjan
  • Population: 23,740,424
  • Language: French, regional languages
  • Currency: West African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Ivory Coast like?

A former French colony in west Africa, Ivory Coast once constituted numerous kingdoms and states, but is today a presidential republic that is a diverse mix of ethnicities, language groups, religions and cultures that has seen its fair share of instability over recent years. For much of its history as an independent nation, Ivory Coast has built a reputation for relative peace and harmony in comparison to other countries in the region, but religious strife and even civil wars have flared up from time to time, the most recent being in 2010-2011 after a disputed presidential election. Like many other west African states, Ivory Coast was heavily impacted by the slave trade, and as the name suggests, the country was also a major centre of the ivory trade. The country’s ethnic and religious diversity mean that there is no one dominant culture, with different art forms, musical styles, cuisines and festivals to be found in different regions. While French is the national language, different people groups tend to speak their own native language.

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Ivory Coast

Much of the country’s economic activity is centred on the largest city, Abidjan, on the Atlantic coast, while rural areas are dominated by various forms of agriculture. Much of the country is flat or made up of rolling plains, rising gradually the further one gets from the coast, while there are hillier regions in the northwest. The climate is warm to hot all year round, with marked dry and wet seasons. Inland, the country is generally more arid, especially in the far north.

Although the country is generally known in English as “Ivory Coast”, the government has stated that its name in English is the same as in French – “Côte d’Ivoire.”

One cool thing about Ivory Coast

The country’s political capital, Yamoussoukro, is home to the world’s largest church. The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, at an area of 30,000 square metres, is even bigger than St Peter’s in the Vatican City.

One sad thing about Ivory Coast

The Second Ivorian Civil War of 2010-2011 left around 3,000 people dead and shattered the country’s economy. The rebuilding process is ongoing.

Neighbours Textbox
The country borders five other west African nations. In the northwest is a winding frontier with Guinea, while in the north, the country borders Mali and Burkina Faso. In the east is the border with Ghana, while to the southwest is Liberia.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The instability brought about by the civil war, combined with the general threat of armed groups in the region and the country’s poverty have served to make Ivory Coast a fairly challenging place to visit. However, the return of political stability after the Second Civil War has seen an increase in the number of visitors, and there is certainly plenty to see here.

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Ivorian passport

Some of the main attraction in Ivory Coast are the country’s long sandy beaches, which in places are rather unspoiled and luxurious, plus traditional villages and the local culture therein, and opportunities for safari and wildlife spotting. The city of Abidjan is the country’s most cosmopolitan urban centre with Ivory Coast’s main nightlife scene, though caution is required here. The world’s largest church in Yamoussoukro is a must-see while in west Africa. UNESCO World Heritage Sites include the former colonial town of Grand-Bassam, several national parks, and the towering Mount Nimba.

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The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, Yamoussoukro –
RyansWorld / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

 

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Jamaica

Jumieka
  • Official Name: Jamaica
  • Capital City: Kingston
  • Population: 2,890,299
  • Language: English, Jamaican Patois
  • Currency: Jamaican dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Jamaica like?

This small Caribbean island nation of almost three million people has had a cultural impact on the world that defies its diminutive size. Jamaica is the birthplace of reggae music and culture, as well as the Rastafari religion, and Jamaicans are renowned for their sporting prowess, particularly in athletics and cricket. Its culture and society is vibrant and unique, yet at the same time quintessentially and unmistakably Caribbean. Most Jamaicans speak English, a legacy of the island’s status as a former British colony, but there is also a Jamaican patois. The majority of Jamaicans are descended from Africans brought over to work on plantations during colonial rule, but there are also small numbers of Chinese and Indian descendants of indentured workers, and even a handful of white Jamaicans.

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Jamaica

An upper middle-income country, modern Jamaica is heavily reliant on the tourist trade, especially in the luxury and cruise sectors. Since independence in 1962, the country has struggled with violent crime, especially in the larger urban areas, though in recent years there has been some improvement in this area. While the country is moderately well-off, poverty does exist. The island’s position in the Caribbean Sea exposes it to hot, tropical conditions all year-round, with occasional hurricanes. This climate has led to a diverse array of plant, animal and marine life. The Jamaican interior is lush and mountainous, while the coast is lower-lying and ringed by sandy beaches and deep-blue Caribbean waters.

One cool thing about Jamaica

Author Ian Fleming bought land in Jamaica and wrote his first ten James Bond books here. He called his home Goldeneye.

One sad thing about Jamaica

The country has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with much of this crime being linked to the ‘Yardies’, local criminal gangs.

Neighbours Textbox
Jamaica is an island nation with no land borders, but it does have some near-neighbours. In the northwest, across roughly 200 miles of the Caribbean Sea, are the Cayman Islands, a British overseas territory. To the immediate north is Cuba, while Haiti is about 130 miles to the east.
Situated between Jamaica and Haiti is Navassa Island, a tiny uninhabited island claimed by Haiti but controlled by the United States.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As with most of the Caribbean, many tourists come to Jamaica to find a slice of paradise, but they are also drawn by the country’s unique culture and interesting history. Many visitors arrive on cruise ships and go directly to resorts, while others arrive on package holidays, often aimed at the luxury end of the market. Jamaican resorts are well known for their high-end villas and private tropical beaches, and the country is among the leading destinations for honeymooners. Nevertheless, there is plenty to experience beyond the resorts. Fans of reggae make the pilgrimage to Jamaica, particularly to Trenchtown in the capital, Kingston, where reggae and rastafarian culture were born, as well as Nine Mile, where Bob Marley was born and is buried.

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Jamaican passport

Jamaica’s mountainous interior is renowned for walking and hiking, as well as its awe-inspiring scenery and wildlife. Many visitors head for the famous Dunn’s River Falls, a  cascading 600m waterfall that runs off into the Caribbean Sea. Jamaican cuisine is famous for jerk seasoning and has a reputation for being hot and spicy, but it is also diverse, with many flavours, and is always delicious. Jamaicans themselves are renowned for the warmth and friendliness of their welcome.

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Dunn’s River Falls, Ochos Rios –
Banja-Frans Mulder / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

 

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Japan

日本国 (Nippon-koku or Nihon-koku)
  • Official Name: Japan
  • Capital City: Tokyo
  • Population: 126,150,000
  • Language: Japanese
  • Currency: Japanese yen
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Japan like?

An archipelago stretching from the cold waters of the Sea of Okhotsk to the tropical climes of the Philippine Sea, Japan is home to an ancient, unique culture, world famous traditions, the world’s largest conurbation centred on Tokyo, a cohesive society and one of the world’s most innovative, modern and powerful economies. Japan’s culture, from its long tradition of martial arts to its more recent innovations in videogames, comic books, cartoons and pop music – as well as its world renowned cuisine – have gained large followings around the world, all while Japan’s rulers have sought to maintain a high degree of isolation from external influences.

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Japan

After World War II, with the Japanese Empire militarily defeated and its people reeling from the atomic bombs that were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan set about a programme of rapid development and economic growth that transformed it into a highly-developed first world nation. Today, Japan is a byword for quality electronics, while many of the world’s biggest and most innovative companies are Japanese. The country’s automotive industry exports reliable motor vehicles around the world. Meanwhile, Japan’s transport system, particularly its system of bullet trains, or shinkansen, are the envy of the world. Japanese people have the highest life expectancies in the world, but they are also faced with one of the world’s lowest birth rates. In recent years, economic growth has been stagnant. Organised crime is a problem in Japan, but in general crime rates are remarkably low for a large industrialised nation.

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Tokyo

Japan sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is highly susceptible to natural disasters, from potentially devastating earthquakes to tsunamis and powerful typhoons. To counter this, Japanese building standards are among the most stringent in the world, with most buildings designed to withstand substantial tremor activity. Nevertheless, in the most severe instances, large numbers of lives are lost, and this is a threat that the Japanese simply have to live with. The country has a large population, including the largest urban agglomeration in the world, yet much of the country is mountainous and heavily forested in places. Most Japanese are crammed into cities that sit in valleys and face the coast. Winters are cold and snowy in the far north, particularly on Hokkaido, while in the far south, a more subtropical climate prevails. Summers are warm and humid everywhere in Japan.

One cool thing about Japan

The world’s shortest escalator can be found in a department store in Kawasaki. It rises a mere 83cm and features just five steps.

One sad thing about Japan

The 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War, but they also killed somewhere between 130,000 to 226,000 people, the majority of whom were ordinary civilians.

Neighbours Textbox
Japan is a nation made up of islands in east Asia, and has no land borders. The mainland of Russia lies to the northwest, while the Russian island of Sakhalin lies to the north. In the northeast, Russia’s Kuril Islands chain stretches north from Hokkaido up to the Russian Kamchatka peninsula. Japan claims these islands.
In the far south, Japan’s Ryukyu Islands chain reaches as far as Taiwan, while China lies across the East China Sea to the southwest. North Korea and South Korea lie to the west, across the Sea of Japan.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

For those with an active interest in Japanese customs, traditions and culture, a trip to Japan is often seen as the adventure of a lifetime. Visitors are mesmerised by the bright lights and technological advancement of the major cities. Historically, Japan was a closed-off country that received few visitors, but the modern nation is among the 20 most-visited in the world. The country is served by some of the most futuristic infrastructure on Earth, from unique and sometimes eccentric hotels and restaurants to its efficient and punctual transport network. However, it certainly isn’t all about modernity in Japan. This is an ancient culture that maintains numerous longstanding traditions, many of which can seem daunting and impenetrable to outsiders. Away from the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle are sites of religious significance, especially in Buddhism and the Shinto faith, including beautiful temples.

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Japanese passport

Japanese cuisine is world famous and the country has some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world. Rice and noodles are staples, while fish and seafood are major sources of protein, along with soybeans. Food is generally eaten with chopsticks, and there are many customs and unspoken rules to be taken account of while dining out in Japan.

A mountainous country, Japanese scenery is often spectacular, and the country has numerous ski resorts, though most visitors come from inside Japan. The country is also famous for its beautiful colourful gardens, often resplendant with cherry blossoms. One of Japan’s most popular attractions is Mount Fuji, an active volcano and the seventh-highest peak on Earth, which is visible from Tokyo on clear days.

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Mount Fuji

 

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Jordan

لأردن (Al-ʾUrdunn)
  • Official Name: Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
  • Capital City: Amman
  • Population: 10,407,793
  • Language: Arabic
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Currency: Jordanian dinar
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Jordan like?

An island of stability in a volatile region, Jordan is one of the most successful modern Arab states and has largely avoided the turmoil and conflict that have afflicted its near neighbours. In turn, this has left it one of the Arab world’s more prosperous economies outside of the oil-rich Gulf states. Once part of the Ottoman Empire, Jordan became an emirate under British protection after the First World War, before gaining independence in 1946. It has been ruled by the Hashemite dynasty ever since. The country is home to large communities of refugees from war-torn nations nearby, especially Palestinians, many of whom have lived in Jordan for decades. Indeed, the descendants of Palestinian refugees now outnumber the original Jordanian people. More recently, refugees from conflicts in Iraq and Syria have found their way to Jordan. The instability of the wider region and the need to absorb so many refugees has often hindered Jordan’s economic development, but the country remains broadly socially cohesive.

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Jordan

Tourism is a major industry in Jordan, and the country has numerous sites that draw large numbers of visitors. Health tourism is also common, owing to Jordan’s well-resourced healthcare system. Most Jordanians live around the capital, Amman and along the stretch of highway that cuts south from Amman towards the Red Sea. However, there are nomadic and semi-nomadic Bedouin communities in the Jordanian desert. The country is largely arid, though it is named after the Jordan river which runs along its western border. There is a very short strip of coastline on the Gulf of Aqaba, and the country has a shoreline on the Dead Sea. The country experiences long, hot summers, especially in the desert, while winters are generally mild. Most rain falls during the winter.

One cool thing about Jordan

Earth’s lowest point on dry land is in Jordan at the shore of the Dead Sea (which is actually a saline lake) at an incredible 420m (1,378ft) below sea level.

One sad thing about Jordan

Though terrorist attacks are rare in Jordan, in 2005 three major hotels in the capital, Amman, were bombed, resulting in 57 deaths and 115 injuries.

Neighbours Textbox
In the west, Jordan borders Israel and the West Bank, while in the north is the frontier with Syria. Jordan’s northeastern border with Iraq is a remote desert area, while the country’s longest border is in the southeast and the south with Saudi Arabia.
The Sinai peninsula in Egypt lies a short distance across the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea from Jordan.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

With little in the way of natural resources, tourism is Jordan’s lifeblood, and fortunately the country has plenty to offer. Not only that, but the country’s relative stability makes it one of the safest destinations in the Arab world. The country abounds with Roman architecture and sites linked to Roman civilisation, but undoubtedly the most famous attraction in Jordan is the ancient city of Petra, a fully-preserved Nabatean city carved into the pink rocks of the Jordanian desert. This spectacular location has been used in Hollywood films, most notably Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”

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Jordanian passport

The city of Jerash is famous for its well-preserved Roman architecture, while Amman, a cosmpolitan and modern city, boasts the Temple of Hercules, an amphitheatre and a citadel, as well as some of the best shopping in the Middle East. The resort town of Aqaba on the Red Sea is a major watersports destination, while the Dead Sea is a must visit to experience the sensation of floating unaided on the water. The desert mountains of Wadi Rum feature some of the world’s most unique landscapes and are associated with TE Lawrence.

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Petra

 

So there we have it, part three out of the way at long last. Hopefully part four won’t be so long in the making, but I won’t be making any promises.

Around the World in Five Posts: Bonus Post

It’s over year ago since I last pulled my finger out and posted in my Around the World in Five Posts series. If you read the second entry, you may remember that I jokingly pondered whether the next post would appear before 2018 arrived. Well, it’s now June 2018 and it still hasn’t happened! I will be returning to it soon, though. In the meantime, I thought it would be interesting to look at some constitutional and geopolitical goings-on that could require me to alter my already published posts in the series, and that could also see some new countries emerge in the next few years.

Bye bye Swaziland, hello Eswatini.

Let’s start with something that’s already happened. You may or may not recall that the series broadly follows alphabetical order, based on Wikipedia‘s List of Sovereign States. However, one of those countries has recently changed its name, which means entry number two in the series will require editing in order to insert it.

On April 18th, 2018, King Mswati III changed Swaziland’s name to Eswatini. Actually, that’s not technically correct. Eswatini has always been the country’s name in the Swazi language and is derived from the name of 19th century ruler King Mswati II. Swaziland was simply the country’s official name in English. Swaziland and Eswatini essentially mean the same thing – “land of the Swazi people.”

Mswati
King Mswati III of Eswatini

The decision to ditch Swaziland as the country’s official name in English and replace it with Eswatini was made in order to mark 50 years since independence. It is also viewed as a way of helping to avoid confusion with Switzerland – a very different country with a similar name to Swaziland.

The United Nations has since accepted the change of name and acknowledges the Kingdom of Eswatini. Wikipedia are sticking with Swaziland for the time being – at least for the header of their article on the country – but this is presumably down to the fact that Swaziland will remain in much wider colloquial usage until Eswatini catches on. Nevertheless, I’ll be breaking with my convention of following Wikipedia‘s list and will be sure to install Eswatini into the second post.

FYROM/Macedonia vs Greece – is a solution finally in sight?

One of the countries that emerged from the disintegration of Yugoslavia calls itself Macedonia. Or, to give it its full name, the Republic of Macedonia. A majority ethnic Slavic country with Albanian and other minorities, this newly-independent state claims a connection to Alexander the Great, or Alexander of Macedon. It uses symbols associated with the historical region of Macedonia, including in its flag. It has renamed roads and infrastructure after Alexander the Great and has asserted that traditional Macedonian symbols and historical figures form part of its legacy and identity.

Macedonia
The flag of the Republic of Macedonia featuring
the Vergina Sun, a historically Greek symbol

But there’s a problem with all this, especially if you’re Greek. Alexander the Great wasn’t a Slav. He was a Greek. The historical region of Macedonia today spans both countries, but the majority of its territory is in northern Greece. Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, is in Greek Macedonia. For many Greeks, the fact that that their northern neighbour calls itself the Republic of Macedonia suggests a claim over Greek territory, as well as an attempt to appropriate Greek Macedonian culture and history. The Greek response to this has been to veto efforts by the Republic of Macedonia to join international institutions, including the EU and NATO. Nationalist sentiment in both countries has crystallised around the naming issue.

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Republic of Macedonia and Greece’s Macedonia region

For Macedonia (the majority Slavic state, not the Greek region), this is a problem. The country is the poorest to have emerged from the former Yugoslavia (unless you count Kosovo, but that’s another issue). It is keen to increase its ability to trade internationally and to join global institutions to help boost its economy. But the Greeks won’t allow this while it continues to call itself Macedonia. The country is a member of the United Nations, but only under the clunky compromise name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM for short).

For over two decades, the two sides have been locked in a bitter dispute, with nationalists on both sides refusing to back down. Talks have dragged on under American supervision without ever coming to a solution. However, in early June 2018, an agreement was finally reached which would see the majority Slavic state renamed as the Republic of Northern Macedonia. This name would make it clear that the country makes no claim on Greek territory. The change would remove all barriers to Macedonia joining international institutions and would speed up its EU accession process. For Greece, its northern border would be normalised and it could begin to trade openly with its majority Slavic neighbour.

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Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras of Greece (left) and Zoran Zaev of Macedonia

There are hurdles to clear first, however. In the Republic of Macedonia, the proposed name change will be put to a referendum in autumn of 2018, and it is by no means guaranteed that its citizens will support the move, containing as it does numerous concessions beyond simply inserting “Northern” into its name. The Republic’s president has also vowed not to sign the agreement, which would prevent it from coming into law. Indeed, the President has been pretty scathing about his Prime Minister’s endorsement of the deal. The agreement will also need to clear the Greek parliament, which is far from certain given the objections of several parties therein.

So watch this space. You may have to get used to saying Northern Macedonia in the future. Or, if things don’t progress, you may have to accept the continuation of the current state of awkward confusion that currently exists. As things stand, Macedonia will come under “M” in our series – not because I want to piss off Greeks or am interested in taking sides, but because that’s where it is on Wikipedia’s list. However, should the name change go through, the country will appear among those countries beginning with “N”, and will be referred to as Northern Macedonia.

A South Pacific Referendum

France is in Europe, right? Well, most of it is. But France has territory in several locations around the world, from Latin America and the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. Some of these territories are very remote, but all are integral parts of the French Republic. They possess differing statuses within the republic which define the level of self-government they enjoy, but they are, essentially, parts of France.

France and New Caledonia flags
The flags of France and New Caledonian

One of these territories is New Caledonia in the south Pacific. A group of islands scattered off the eastern seaboard of Australia, with a population of 270,000, New Caledonia is the only one of France’s overseas territories recognised as a “special collectivity”, giving it a unique status within the French Republic. But in November 2018, the people of New Caledonia will vote on whether to remain a part of France or become an independent, fully-sovereign state. Should they vote in favour of such a move, the family of nations will welcome a new country into the world.

New Caledonia and France
The distance between New Caledonia and Paris is 10,289 miles

The referendum is compulsory under the terms of the Nouméa Agreement, a 1998 deal named after the territory’s capital city, that was designed to help deal with demands for greater automony among the islands’ native Kanak people. However, most preliminary polls seem to indicate that the public is likely to reject independence.

Not Another South Pacific Independence Referendum?!

Oh yes. If you like your geopolitics, there’s plenty to get your teeth into at the moment! Chances are you’ve heard of Papua New Guinea at some point, but it’s less likely you’ve heard of Bougainville. While the majority of Papua New Guinea is on the island of New Guinea (which it shares with Indonesia), it also possesses a number of smaller islands, including Bougainville.

Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea with Bougainville in the east

Geographically, Bougainville is part of the Solomon Islands, but it is politically part of Papua New Guinea. Since Papuan independence, Bougainville has had an uneasy relationship with the government in Port Moresby, and these tensions have bubbled over into war in the past. The allocation of resources is a major factor behind this trouble.

Today, Bougainville has a high degree of automony from the rest of Papua New Guinea, and governs itself in a broad range of areas. The island is scheduled to hold a referendum some time before 2020 on whether to become independent. However, there are conditions that the island must meet before the vote can be held, and some observers doubt whether these can be met before 2020. Bougainville has a large informal economy and is a hub for illegal weapons trafficking – a problem that must be curbed before the vote goes ahead.

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Current flag of Bougainville province

Unlike in New Caledonia, there is a strong possibility that, should the vote take place, the people of Bougainville will back independence. It could still take time to create a viable sovereign state in that event, however. What does this mean for the series? Well, here’s hoping I’ve finished all five posts before 2020! Even if not, a newly independent Bougainville would have to be inserted into the already published first entry.

 

The third post in the series is well under way. I’m also aware of changes I really should make to the previous two. All of this will hopefully appear soon. But I’m an excellent procrastinator so I make no promises!

Site Update

It can’t have escaped your attention that a blog dedicated to an English guy’s reflections on living in Belfast and Northern Ireland almost never talks about Belfast and Northern Ireland. There’s a reason for this and I’m going to have to come clean about it – I haven’t lived in Northern Ireland since September 2015.

The original idea was to share with the internet how fond I was of my adopted home on the other side of the Irish Sea. The problem is that, not long after getting started, I took a job in London and the whole premise of the blog was compromised. And by compromised, I mean ruined. Fundamentally altered.

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Church near where I lived in South Ealing, west London

Given that we’re approaching 2018, I probably should’ve gotten round to rebranding the blog by now (apologies if “rebranding” sounds a bit grandiose), but it just never happened.

These days I live back on home territory in Liverpool, but the option of a return to Northern Ireland at some point in the future is something I keep open as I was very happy over there and think I would be again. What I don’t fancy is redesigning the blog just to have to change it all back again if and when I move back to Belfast. So you’re just going to have to accept, for the time being, that An English Guy in Belfast is written by an English guy in England.


 

A couple of years ago I did one or two posts about anxiety – a condition that, since leaving Belfast, has had a major impact on my life. I prefer not to talk about it too much on the blog as I came to a conclusion pretty quickly that I don’t want to give this pain in the arse of a condition any more attention that I absolutely have to. But I did write a piece that used a pretty terrible boxing metaphor to describe what having anxiety is like.

Since then, I’ve noticed that I often get referrals from Google from people searching the terms “boxing” and “anxiety” together. I did wonder about removing the piece or altering it in some way so as to prevent anxious young boxers finding their way to what is mainly a travel blog and wondering what on earth happened and how a story about my underpants in Norway is meant to help them. But then I thought, you never know, the stuff about anxiety might help someone somewhere (boxers or otherwise), so I’ve left it up, but I wanted to let anyone who finds my blog this way know that I am sorry if you arrive here and feel misled. It’s interesting that boxing is so often about bravado and machismo, yet clearly there are plenty of amateur fighters out there for whom their chosen sport can lead to levels of tension and anxiety that cause them to seek help online.

Anyway, I just wanted to clear a couple of things up. Oh, and part three of our trip to every country in the world is on the way. Eventually. It’s a lot of research and I get tired. I’m a bit stuck on India. Can you imagine trying to condense India into a bitesize chunk? It’s one of the most complex countries on earth and I’m terrified of excluding anything important for the sake of brevity. Also, I’m getting more nervous the closer I get to Israel. I’m gonna piss someone off no matter what I say there, aren’t I?

Thanks for reading,

Michael

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Formby Point, Formby, Liverpool – home

 

Oslo: the City on the Fjord

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“We’re a little stricter about this type of thing in Norway”, says a polite but firm border guard at Torp Airport, with the air of a veteran school headmistress. Apparently I look suspicious arriving in the country with only a backpack to my name. It’s just convenience, I assure her. I’m only in Norway for four days and I can travel very light when I want to. Travelling with hand luggage alone is great, except that things that might ordinarily be in a larger suitcase for the hold have instead been stuffed unceremoniously into a backpack, increasing the chances of you having to expose your racing-green, fox-head embroidered boxer shorts, or the blue pair with bright yellow smiley faces, to full public view during an airport inspection. Pictures available on request, if you absolutely insist.

Sandefjord Airport, Torp, as it’s officially known, is referred to by Ryanair as “Oslo Torp”, in line with their policy of sometimes flying you to airports located far away from your intended destination while just about being in the same country. It sits just outside the town of Sandefjord, about 70 miles to the south of Oslo. As well as Ryanair, it’s served by budget carrier Wizz Air and local commuter airline Widerøe. It’s great being able to fly to Norway for £40 return, but the drawback is that when you land, you’re only about halfway through your journey. It’s a bit like getting off the train about five stops away from where you actually intend to go. I land at roughly 9:20pm, with a cramped bus ride ahead of me and an undercurrent of low-key angst about what might happen if I get to Oslo after the metro has stopped running. An online review I read before leaving said it’s best not to arrive alone in the middle of the night due to the “dodginess” of the area around my hostel. Gulp. How dodgy can anywhere in Norway really be, though?

The bus ride itself was pretty uneventful. In daylight hours, it might have been a nice opportunity to stare out of the window and watch Norway pass by – a first chance to set eyes on a new country. For some reason, I get a kick out of seeing road signs in foreign languages displaying directions to exotic-sounding locations – a reminder that you’ve arrived somewhere outside of your comfort zone. In Bratislava, Slovakia, I remember seeing signs directing traffic to Győr in Hungary and Wien (Vienna) in Austria and being fascinated by the idea that some people’s lives require them to regularly cross international borders as if they were driving into the next town, which they may very well be doing. Growing up on an island, you never see that. I guess the same is probably true if you grow up in the middle of a huge country like the US. I’m assuming you don’t see signs for Tijuana or Toronto in Missouri. Am I the only one who notices stuff like this?

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Oslo city centre

Anyway, in the dark, there was nothing to see but my own vaguely careworn reflection and the occasional set of headlights from traffic on the other side of the carriageway. Few of those on my flight seem to be using the bus to get to wherever they need to go next, leaving it pretty empty and very peaceful. For some reason, I spend the whole journey with my backpack on my lap, as if I half-expect the border guard from the airport to reappear and have one last rummage through my smalls. In front of me is an English family consisting of a mum and dad and an adult daughter, with accents implying Mancunian origins. Their dynamic seems to revolve around exchanging what, to be fair, is quite witty banter, but that dries up as they are lulled to sleep. Behind me, a Norwegian father and his daughter of about eleven or twelve share quiet conversation. She spends most of the journey crying and eating sweets. I don’t know if she’s left someone behind in Manchester and isn’t taking it very well, but when I see the same duo waiting to board the return flight four days later, it seems like that probably isn’t the case. Maybe she’s just a bit sad. Sometimes even Norwegians get sad.

I arrive in Oslo city centre (or do I call it downtown Oslo?) with just enough time to catch my metro train, but I instantly throw this happy development into jeopardy by walking out of the bus station at the wrong end. Sometimes in life, you follow the correct signposted directions, and yet somehow, something goes wrong. When I eventually find the metro station, I’m not done with my bumbling. It’s a pretty straightforward system involving a loop in the city centre, but I manage to board a train going in the wrong direction. By this point, all I want to do is get to my hostel, check in, find something convenient to nourish me and then go to sleep.

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A view from the Anker Apartments roof terrace

Oslo’s east side is supposedly the grittier district. Norway, of course, is among the world’s wealthiest nations, with some of the most impressive indices for social and economic equality. Nevertheless, Oslo, as the capital and by far the biggest city, does have some social problems, the most pressing of which are in the east. As I emerge from the subterranean world of the metro system into Carl Berner’s Plass at about 1am, however, any concerns for my safety triggered by the offending hostel review are immediately laid to rest. If anything, there’s a gentle buzz about the area. You can see the diversity that has become a hallmark of modern Oslo almost immediately in the faces of the locals. The area is mainly made up of apartment buildings, but unlike in many British cities, they aren’t ugly. Nondescript, yes, but not ugly.

The main problem I’m confronted with by this point is that my hostel appears to be in a bit of a ghost town. At least during the night. There are no late-night shops, no takeaway food establishments, and the hostel doesn’t serve as much as a sandwich. The Irish pub across the road is in complete darkness. If I’d had dinner before my flight, I’d have just gone to bed, but there’s no way I can sleep on a stomach this empty. Essentially, I’m in one of those make-or-break moments where you’re faced with two diverging choices. In this case, the easy one would be to concede defeat and get some sleep, but the more challenging and infinitely more exciting option is to wander the streets of this alien district of a city I’ve just arrived in, in the hope of finding some grub. Listening, as always, to the wants and needs of my ample midriff, I take the latter option.

By this point, the streets are largely deserted. There’s an early autumn chill in the air that keeps my walking pace brisk. It turns out that, contrary to my original impression, I’m actually based in Grünerløkka, one of the east end’s trendiest districts. A former bastion of Oslo’s working class, gentrification has bestowed Grünerløkka with all manner of bars and eateries, as well as appealing public spaces and attractive buildings. Most of the restaurants are closed as I show up, but I soon find a 7/11 convenience store where I can splash out 100kr (about £10) on a sandwich and a can of Coke. No, Norway isn’t a budget destination.

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Grünerløkka

Gentrification can be a touchy subject. In Berlin, I learned about the strength of opposition there often is to it, and even saw a counter-cultural demonstration in which protestors stand against many things, including the gentrification of numerous districts of the German capital. Some will tell you that it sanitises whole city districts, while driving up prices, forcing out local residents and changing the whole social identity. Whether Grünerløkka is better or worse off for this process, all I know is that I like the place. I love how the quaint, slightly worse-for-wear, trams rattle along the streets, scooping up passengers who presumably never stop to think about how they’ve basically just boarded a small train in the middle of the street and how cool that is. The shops and bars make the area feel like somewhere people go specifically to enjoy themselves and relax. I found the colours and styles of the facades to be quite charming. Grünerløkka is the kind of city district I always imagine myself feeling at home living in, but it’s never quite happened as of yet.

It’s 7am the following morning. I’ve been asleep for about four hours, but all that is about to change. A jolting, terrifying screech launches me out of my dream-state, sending me from comatose to upright in a matter of seconds. I race around the room like I’ve misplaced a winning lottery ticket, in a frantic search for the source of the unbearable din. Still stuck in a strange hinterland between sleep and wakefulness, I’m convinced it’s emanating from somewhere in my room and that I’ll be able to turn it off if I can just find it. In this bizarre mental state, I feel like somehow I’m going to be to blame for waking the whole hostel. My heart is pounding out of my chest as if I’m in the middle of a raging panic attack. Then it hits me. It’s the fire alarm, and I’ll presumably be toast if I don’t pull myself together. It’s a fortunate intervention, as it happens. Not because there’s a fire. There was no fire. Just lots of bleary-eyed hostel guests standing in the cold early morning air waiting to go back to bed. No, it’s worked out well for me because I have a walking tour to go on in two hours and I’d forgotten to set my own, slightly less intense, alarm. Drama over, I’m left to ponder over the strange behaviour being woken from a deep sleep induces.

It turns out I’ve hit the jackpot with the weather. The morning’s pretty chilly, but there isn’t a cloud in the sky and the day only gets warmer until, by mid-afternoon, it’s pushing 20c. Not at all bad for Oslo in October. You can tell it’s a major bonus to those who live here. Everybody not in a suit or uniform of some kind has firmly grasped this unexpected chance to revisit their summer wardrobe. The Oslo waterfront is brimming with people out for a stroll in the autumn sunshine. The city just feels as if it is in a good mood. Walking tours are a brilliant way to get acquainted with a new city. There’s often a free one, although I think you’ve got to be pretty miserly not to chip a little something in. My first impression of the Norwegian capital is that it feels as if it’s been designed with humans and their wellbeing in mind. The metro is reliable, modern, easy to use and very comfortable. The trams are regular, if perhaps a little cramped. The roads are not choked with traffic, and the cars you do see are more likely to be powered by electricity than any other city in the world. There’s plenty of cycle lanes, but you never get the feeling you do in Amsterdam that crossing the road is a death sport involving you, a neverending stream of cyclists and rampaging trams. The great thing about the public transport system is that it is all integrated. A 24-hour ticket gets you unlimited rides within that period on the metro, the trams, the buses and even the ferries that shuttle between the city and the islands out in Oslofjord. The ferries are literally just another part of the public transport system.

Oslo isn’t blessed with an array of jawdroppingly beautiful buildings. Much of what makes it special is its laidback, welcoming and friendly atmosphere. A walking tour tends to cover the main sights you’d want to see, and the city centre is small enough to get around on foot. At the northwestern end of Karl Johannes Gate – the main street that runs through the centre of the city – is the Royal Palace, a suitably impressive building that sits within a large park. This is the residence of Norway’s ruling monarch and, while quite imposing, certainly feels less ostentatious than Buckingham Palace. Facing the palace is a large open square that, as you’d expect, throngs with tourists. The street runs from this point through the centre of the city, terminating at the central train station, which is a big help with orientation. During my stay, this area overflows with inebriated but good-natured Northern Ireland football fans, in town for a crucial World Cup qualification fixture with Norway. Some of them are very drunk, which must have cost them a fortune…

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Royal Palace

Further along Karl Johannes Gate, you pass the Nationaltheatret – perhaps Norway’s most significant venue for the dramatic arts and, in my opinion, probably the most beautiful building in the city. A little further still is the Storting building, home to Norway’s national parliament, placed firmly in the very heart of the city. It’s an understated but elegant affair, and I would argue that you may not even realise its significance were you not to know beforehand what it stood for. Each time I pass by, the small square to the front has been colonised by more Northern Ireland football fans.

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National Theatre

One of the best things about Oslo is the easy access to some truly breathtaking scenery that lies on its doorstep. Norway is a spectacularly beautiful country. It stretches from the temperate waters of the North Sea, where Oslo and the far south are within easy sailing distance of Britain, Denmark and the Low Countries, to the barren Arctic north, where it even has a short border with Russia. The coast is heavily indented by magnificent fjords, giving Norway one of the world’s longest coastlines. In summer, huge ships ply the cruise trade in and out of the fjords. Coastal Norway is kept relatively mild in winter by the influence of the Gulf Stream, meaning the city of Bergen on the Atlantic coast can often be as much as ten degrees celsius warmer than Oslo in January. The north of the country is where the harshest weather is to be found. Summers are short and cool, with almost 24 hours of daylight. Winters, on the other hand, are long, dark and cold. The capital, meanwhile, is situated at the top of a long fjord and surrounded by mountains in the southeast of the country, and has colder winters than areas of the south and southwest. But even here, it tends to stay warmer than many other places at the same latitude around the world. The mountains on the city’s doorstep make for superb hiking opportunities in the summer and world-class winter sports during the colder months. The ski-ramp at Oslo Winter Park – the country’s busiest ski resort – is visible from many vantage points around the city.

With only four days in Norway, I don’t have time to explore much beyond the confines of Oslo, but you can still get a taste of the country’s natural beauty without technically leaving the city. I’m lucky in that the weather is still on my side to the extent that I face the genuine prospect of going home from Norway in October with a bit of a suntan. To the southeast of the city is Ekebergsparken, a large area of parkland offering views out over the city and across the fjord below. On a warm, sunny autumn day, I can no longer think of anywhere I’d rather be. It’s awkwardly located to access on foot, despite not being far from the city centre. Fortunately, there is a tram stop right outside the park, which means you can board your tram in the heart of the city and enjoy the ride up the hill. (By “fortunately”, I mean “conveniently” – I don’t think the tram stop appeared there by accident). My favourite area of the park looks south, down the fjord – a beautiful sparkling blue beneath clear autumn skies – across the islands, flanked on either side by rocky peninsulas. The paths are also lined with strange and interesting sculptures. In fact, this isn’t the only sculpture park in Oslo. It’s also a good spot to gaze out over the city, from the industry of the port at the foot of the hill to the skyscrapers of Oslo’s booming business district, and the ski resort on the mountains in the distance.

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Oslofjord from Ekebergparken

Away from the dizzy heights of Ekebergsparken, I drop down into one of the most vibrant parts of Oslo. The waterfront has undergone enormous regeneration in order to become the kind of place people would want to hang out, and it’s a really lovely place to pass some time. At the far eastern end, you’ve got the brand new opera house, a modern, whitewash building now serving as one of Oslo’s premier cultural venues. The bright white of the exterior can be quite dazzling on a sunny day, but it’s an impressive piece of modern architecture. The design incorporates two long slopes either side of the main construction, allowing visitors to access the roof and take in views over the fjord.

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The Opera House

Moving west, you arrive at Akerhus Fortress, a medieval castle and grounds built on the edge of the fjord that once served to protect the city from marauding invaders. This part of Oslo can be quite noisy, but step away from the busy street and behind the castle walls, and you enter an altogether more peaceful setting amidst the medieval fortifications and cobblestoned walkways. A little further along still is the Rådhus – Oslo City Hall – where the local government sits. The scale of the building is undeniably impressive, but its brutalist style is also quite challenging and certainly not to everybody’s taste. Even the tour guide says it tends to divide people. It’s worth a look inside, though, as this is where the real beauty of the building lies.

Keep moving west and you pass the Nobel Peace Centre, a pretty building housing a museum dedicated to the Nobel Peace Prize. At this point, the harbour opens out into a large square, criss-crossed by tram lines and teeming with locals and tourists enjoying the incredibly laidback atmosphere. Ferries shuttle between the docks and the islands in the fjord, while, to the western side, a modern development consisting of desirable apartment buildings with ocean views and numerous high-end restaurants stretches out. I take a walk down along the water, noting how the air becomes quieter and quieter the further into the distance you advance, until all you’re left with is the fjord and your thoughts. It’s a beautiful place just to sit and watch the ferries and gaze out toward the islands, especially in weather like this.

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The harbour, with the Rådhaus to the left and Akerhus Fortress to the far right

In the summer months, it’s possible to island-hop using just your regular public transport ticket, as ferries dart between each island and eventually return you to the mainland. However, in October, services are winding down, so I explore only Hovedøya, the largest of Oslofjord’s islands. The ferry ride lasts about 15 minutes, but at the other side, it’s like being in a different world. Hovedøya is awash with the colours of mid-autumn, bathed in warm sunshine and lapped by the calm waters of the North Sea. I walk a ring around the island, at one point straying from the path just enough to get lost. I’m forced to climb a steep cliff face, aware by this point that others have assumed I know where I’m going. Funnily enough, by the time we get to the top, they’ve decided to stop following me. Still, I’m sure the exercise did us all some good, even if my leisurely stroll has turned into a grimace-inducing rock climbing event. If I lived in Oslo, this is where I’d come to get away from it all. Do the locals know how incredibly lucky there are to have this on their doorstep? I’d love to see it in winter, coated in a thick layer of Nordic snow.

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Autumn on Hovedøya

It’s my last night in Oslo. The sun has gone down, the stars are out, and it’s gone cold. I’m surrounded by people in thick coats, red and white scarves and woolly hats. And then  there’s the Northern Ireland fans. Some of them are also well wrapped up, but others look like they’re preparing for a foam party in Magaluf. Undeterred by Norwegian beer prices, it looks to me like they’ve drunk Oslo dry. I’m outside Ullevaal Stadion, the home of the Norwegian national football team. Tonight, Norway are hosting Northern Ireland. It’s a meaningless game for the hosts, who can’t qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Russia even with a win. For Northern Ireland, a win would see them seeded in the draw for the play-offs, theoretically resulting in an easier opponent in November. It’s more than thirty years since Northern Ireland went to a World Cup, and the fans have descended on the Norwegian capital in good numbers, hoping for yet another good night. It’s been a remarkable few years for Northern Ireland.

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Ullevaal Stadion

I don’t think much of Ullevaal Stadion. It’s a modern, shiny, unbroken ring, lined on the outside by shops, including a Domino’s pizza restaurant. There’s little in the way of character. If anything, it looks a bit like a spaceship from a 1980s sci-fi movie. But it’s an interesting experience for a football fan like myself to attend a World Cup qualifier in another country. My seat is behind the goal, in with the Norway fans. There’s plenty of empty seats, as you’d expect for a match on which little rides for the home side. The pre-match atmosphere is fairly subdued, with most of the noise coming from the opposite end of the ground where the exuberant Northern Ireland fans are making themselves heard. Things ratchet up a notch towards kick-off when everyone around me launches into song, accompanied over the PA by a mid-tempo rock number that everybody here seems to know. Spine-tingling stuff. I think about how my souvenir red and white scarf with “Norge” on one side and “Ja vi elsker” on the other cost the equivalent of £20, and how I didn’t even consider not buying it. I vow from now on to see it as the best scarf in the world. What else can you do?

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Looking from my seat toward the Northern Ireland fans

The match itself was rubbish. Norway won 1-0. The quality of the football was terrible. I loved every minute of it.

I learned something interesting at the football. In keeping with a theme in many countries around the world, there’s some resentment in parts of Norway outside the capital towards Oslo. At the match, it came out as frustration on the part of a fan I spoke to from Bergen who explained how he wishes the team would sometimes play in other parts of Norway. To him, the national football team seems as if it exists mainly just for people in Oslo. I guess that’s the problem with having a dedicated national stadium – it has to be used. Norway is a deceptively large country. It is also around eighty percent mountainous, which makes creating nationwide transport links challenging. Even cities like Bergen, Trondheim or Stavanger can seem a long way from Oslo, separated by  forbidding geography. The prosperity of the Oslo region, combined with its economic dominance, can make people from areas outside the capital feel marginalised. Consider cities like Tromsø in the north, accessed from Oslo mainly by plane. Or the remote city of Kirkenes in the far northeast, much closer to the Russian port city of Murmansk than to Oslo. A theoretical road trip from Kirkenes to the capital would take you through vast swathes of Finnish and Swedish territory, before re-entering Norway only right at the end. Norway is an affluent country, fuelled by large oil reserves and social policies designed to minimise inequality. As such, most Norwegians live fairly comfortable lives, in Oslo or well outside of it. Nevertheless, I can understand how many Norwegians get frustrated at Oslo’s centrality and prominence, just as residents of, say, Inverness or Carlisle or Truro feel remote from the machinations of Westminster back home. It’s an interesting brief insight to get at the football!

And then it was time to fly home. (Not literally – I went to bed first and then had breakfast the next morning). By this point, I have a cold. Not a sniffle. Not even the manflu. Okay, maybe manflu, if you still find that whole thing funny. But I’ve got a proper full-on cold. If you’re wondering why this matters, don’t worry, I’ll get there. Oh god, how it matters.

As you’ll know if you were paying attention at the start of this essay, Torp airport is nowhere near Oslo. To get there, I’ve decided to enjoy one last little adventure by taking a suburban train. The line runs from the central station to the small town of Skien, stopping at a dedicated station for Torp Airport, where a shuttle bus picks you up and takes you to the terminal building. Spoilt as I was by the punctuality and reliability of public transport, I assumed this would be a painless experience.

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A friendly welcome awaits at the train station

Nope. Even Norwegian trains go awry sometimes. Half the tracks in Oslo are out of use due to an electrical fault. It’s peak time in the afternoon, the station is heaving with sweaty, anxious commuters, and I’m standing there, wondering if I’ll make my flight. To their credit, the local rail company offers constant updates, and there are members of staff dressed in smart red uniforms who seem furnished with remarkably niche information about individual journeys. In the hullaboo, I could just as easily be at Manchester Piccadilly or – shudder – London Euston, but I don’t think you’d get this level of information and assistance back home. I’m impressed with that at least.

My train does eventually depart, absolutely jam-packed with commuters stopping off at the various satellite towns along the rail line that runs southwest away from Oslo. As time passes, the crowd thins out, but by this point, I’m dripping with snot, coated in sweat, I smell like a dustbin and there’s still the anxiety about whether my flight is going without me or not. I wanted an authentic experience, though…

By the time I’m sat on the plane, a sense of relief pervading my entire being, I’m under the impression the drama is over. For the next hour and half, it is. But then things take a sinister turn. I make no apologies for being over-dramatic at this point. Have you ever flown with a cold? It’s usually okay on take off and during level flight, but the descent is a descent into hell. When the Eustachian tubes in your ears are blocked, your head can no longer adjust for the increasing air pressure on the outside as you begin to descend. This, to put it bluntly, is a nightmare. In severe cases, this can lead your eardrums to perforate and blood to dribble from your ears, nose, or even your eyes.

Even if this doesn’t happen, some temporary hearing loss is likely, and the pain is excruciating. For the entire fifteen minutes of our descent, I sat there in a world of misery, lightning bolts of pain flashing across my sinuses and through my ear canals, desperately hoping – praying even – that my eardrums would hold up. At one point, a flight attendant brought me two plastic cups with warm damp toilet paper in the bottom (dear God, I hope the warmth and the damp came from a tap…), to place over my ears. This made me look like a complete lunatic, but apparently it lessens the impact of the pressure change and allows the ears to slowly adjust. I’ll be honest, I think that intervention was the difference between my eardrums perforating or not. My advice? Don’t fly with a severe cold. You’ll regret it. Think I’m overdoing it? Okay, go for it. Let me know how it goes.

By the time I get off the plane, I’m left with about five percent normal hearing. I’m almost entirely deaf. The terminal building at Manchester seems as if it has been covered in that egg box stuff they use in recording studios. My ears feel as if they’ve been packed with gauze. Every now and then, I get another little jab of pain from my sinuses. It takes a week for my hearing to return to normal. I’m left to wonder if I’m the first person to go to Oslo for a city break in October and come home with a suntan and hearing loss. Maybe. I don’t care. I had a great time.

One day I’d like to live in Grünerløkka, the trendy, up-and-coming city district where I lodged. It’s the kind of place I can really imagine myself feeling at home. Aside from that, I really hope I get to see more of Norway beyond the capital. I mean, I always think it’s a real shame when people visit Britain and don’t leave London. How could you come here and not want to see, for example, Cornwall or Snowdonia or Edinburgh or the Lake District? But I also want to go back to Oslo, to sit in the sun in Ekebergsparken or watch the ferries on the fjord. I don’t think I’m done with Norway quite yet.

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Plovdiv: Europe’s best kept secret?

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Built over seven hills on an otherwise wide open plain in south-central Bulgaria, the city of Plovdiv is quite possibly the most beautiful city you’ve never heard of. Let’s face it – the name alone makes it a difficult sell, to the English-speaking world at least. Plovdiv just doesn’t sound right. Yet this, apparently, is the oldest still-inhabited city in Europe, and today features what must be one of the continent’s most charming old towns, alongside Roman ruins and some truly spectacular views.

I rolled into town on a bus from the capital, Sofia, on a baking hot early Saturday afternoon. The city’s “Jug” bus station is a dusty collection of ticket offices and stalls selling cheap snacks and cold drinks, next to a busy road opposite the train station. The surrounding buildings are cracked and grubby, with peeled paint, broken pavements and that cute air of ramshackle that Bulgaria – one of Europe’s poorest countries – does in spades. A kind of sweaty lethargy engulfs you as soon as you leave the air conditioned haven of the bus.

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Quaint Kapana (aka “The Trap”)

Central Plovdiv is walkable from the bus station, but I decide to hop in a taxi anyway, on account of not really knowing where I am. (Incidentally, not really knowing where I am is one of my favourite travel experiences.) My poor driver looks at me in bafflement as I ask him to take me to “Zagreb”. I do my best to explain that I’m not asking for a lift to the capital of Croatia, and that my accommodation is much more conveniently located on Zagreb Street in central Plovdiv. It takes a while, but he gets the message. Zagreb Street is in the heart of Kapana (“The Trap“), Plovdiv’s recently-restored cultural and artsy hub that once served as home to the city’s craftsmen. The colourful streets of this district are lined by worskhops, galleries and plenty of appealing bars and restaurants painted in light hues of yellow and pink that make the area one of the most charming things about Plovdiv. Bunting flutters in the midsummer breeze. Only recently, the area had been in a state of disrepair and dereliction, much of which can still be seen on Google Street View. However, the city’s successful bid to be named European Capital of Culture for 2019 has seen Kapana transformed into what I would describe as one of my favourite city centre neighbourhoods that I’ve encountered anywhere on my travels.

The main shopping street extends from the southern edge of Kapana, past the city’s central mosque (the second-oldest in Europe), numerous eateries and bars, and the beautiful Municipal Building, before reaching the enormous Garden of Tsar Simeon. New to the city and desperate for some shade, this seems like the perfect place to while away a couple of hours among the locals and other holidaymakers enjoying the sunshine and tasty local ice cream. Numerous paths criss-cross each other under the trees, and the sparkling splish-splash of the “singing fountain” offers a welcome hint of freshness. Never underestimate how much of a shock to the system hot weather is to a blonde-haired Liverpudlian.

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The hazardous cobbles of Plovdiv’s old town

Plovdiv is a laid-back city with a completely different character to the frenetic, traffic-choked capital Sofia, 80-or-so miles to the northwest. (Don’t worry if you’re going to Sofia – I liked it there too). The main reason people head to this somewhat remote corner of the Balkans – and the main reason I’ve stopped by – is the picturesque old town and Roman amphitheatre. Perched high across three of the city’s seven hills (technically six, as I’m told the seventh was destroyed to provide building materials), Plovdiv’s old town is quite a demanding walk up steep streets, and the uneven cobblestones and the large gaps that separate them, require careful negotiation. Lonely Planet describes the streets as “beyond cobbled”. Fair enough. In the summer heat, you will need a drink at the top, but the area is well served by bars and restaurants offering traditional Bulgarian grub and quite simply gorgeous views over the rest of the city. And Bulgarian beer is pretty refreshing, as it happens.

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A view of the old town from one of the city’s many hills

The beauty of Plovdiv is its array of historic architecture, from antiquity to Ottoman and Bulgarian Revival, juxtaposed with the aforementioned views of the wider city, the plains beyond, and distant mountain ranges in all directions. During my stay, towering cumulonimbus clouds seemed to hover over the peaks to the south, threatening storms and a break in the blistering heat, but never quite reaching Plovdiv. The Roman amphitheatre was excavated as recently as 1960 and is in use for performances today. Indeed, I had the pleasure of seeing the stage hands preparing for an evening performance of Chicago. With views of Kapana and central Plovdiv in the foreground, and the Rhodope mountains punctuating the skyline in the distance and descending toward the border with Greece just beyond, it must make for a breathtaking venue for a show, just as it would have done in ancient times (although the Romans, as far as I know, missed out on Chicago).

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Getting ready for a show at the amphitheatre

The place at which I most fell in love with Plovdiv was Nebet Tepe, a rocky hill at the northern end of the old town surrounded by the remains of ancient walls. This is the oldest part of the city, originally settled by Thracians some 6,000 years ago. From here, you can take a vantage point and gaze out across the city in a westerly direction to the famous clock tower without a clock and the monument to Russian soldiers that liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. On the other hand, you could pick a spot that looks north, and instead watch the modern city go by, across the Maritsa River, dominated by seemingly hundreds, if not thousands, of communist-era tower blocks. For company, you’ll have other equally spellbound tourists taking photographs and babbling excitedly as they clamber about the ancient fortifications, as well as young Plovdiv folk enjoying the romance of a warm summer’s evening amidst the magic of their pleasant city. Watching the sun set from Nebet Tepe, dipping slowly behind the urban forest of concrete towers, and then ultimately the horizon, I wondered why anybody who lived in Plovdiv would ever leave. As the shadows grew, extending their reach across the ancient city, it felt good to be alive.

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Sunset over Plovdiv

Plovdiv is not an off-the-beaten track destination. During my three days in the city, I spoke to travellers from the USA, Canada, Britain, France, Australia and Ukraine, as well as other parts of Bulgaria. With European Capital of Culture to come in 2019, it seems that more and more tourists will descend on Bulgaria’s second city. However, this is no Prague or Budapest. It’s not even Sofia. It’s too small to take off in the same way as these cities have done with the advent of budget air travel and the fall of the Iron Curtain. There’s still a sense of the obscure about Plovdiv. Tell a friend you’re going to Plovdiv and see what they say. Then you’ll know what I mean. The time to visit is surely now, before it does really takes off. My tour guide from my first day in the city said of Kapana that “I feel this area has a bright future”. I think she was right, but she could have said the same about the whole city. It feels modern, secure, youthful and optimistic, while at the same time preserving the gifts bestowed upon it by its long history. I loved Plovdiv, and one day, I’ll go back. I’m sure of it. Another thing I’m sure of is that it won’t remain Bulgaria’s Europe’s best-kept secret forever.

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Around the world in five posts: D-G

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Denmark

Danmark
  • Official Name: Kingdom of Denmark
  • Capital City: Copenhagen
  • Population: 5,707,251 (5,812,444 including Greenland and Faroe Islands)
  • State Religion: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark
  • Language: Danish (Faroese, Greenlandic and German spoken locally)
  • Currency: Danish krone
  • Continent: Europe (Greenland is in North America)

What’s Denmark like?

A small, low-lying northern European country with a long history, modern Denmark is among the world’s wealthiest countries, with a remarkably high standard of living. The country consists of an archipelago in the North Sea and a peninsula on mainland Europe that borders Germany to the south. The cosmopolitan capital city, Copenhagen, is relatively distant from the mainland territory, which features rolling hills and an abundance of farmland and tends to be more rural than the Danish islands. The Danish realm also includes the autonomous self-governing countries of the Faroe Islands and Greenland, both of which have languages and cultures distinct from Denmark-proper and have fairly significant independence movements.

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Denmark

The country is synonymous with the Vikings and has a long seafaring history based on both warfare and trade. The Denmark of today is world-renowned for the benefits bestowed on the country by the Nordic social model, which involves high taxation and high public spending, and has helped create one of the most cohesive societies in the world. Danes are also among the richest people on the planet. However, citizens living in Jutland – the peninsular region of Denmark – sometimes feel marginalised and remote from the centre of the country’s economic and political life in Copenhagen, and these rural regions tend to be less well-off than those closer to the prosperous capital. In recent years, Denmark has seen quite high levels of immigration. Autonomous Greenland, meanwhile, has the world’s highest suicide rate.

One cool thing about Denmark

The country is increasingly well-known for the phenomenon of hygge, a term which lacks a direct English translation but is often explained as a state of cosiness. Danish dedication to this way of life is often said to be one reason why the country scores well in surveys of global happiness.

One sad thing about Denmark

The country has the highest rate of cancer in the world. This is sometimes attributed to the Danish taste for processed pork, especially bacon (also a major export product).

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Denmark’s only land border is with Germany at the southern end of Jutland. However, the country is connected by road bridge to Sweden. Greenland, meanwhile, lies to the northeast of Canada, across the freezing waters of Baffin Bay. The Faroe Islands are fairly isolated in the middle of the North Atlantic.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Denmark’s small size, highly-developed road system and efficient public transport make it an easy country to get around. Most visitors head to the capital city of Copenhagen on the island of Zeeland in the far east of the country, connected to Sweden by the world’s longest road bridge. The city is Denmark’s only real metropolis and has all the trappings of a modern European capital, including a lively nightlife scene. Copenhagen is also home to the world’s longest and oldest pedestrianised street, excellent for shopping, while many visitors come to see the canals and enjoy the attractive buildings that line the city’s famous waterways. Architecture and museum enthusiasts are also well catered for in the Danish capital.

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Danish passport

Beyond Copenhagen, the country becomes more rural, and perhaps more authentically Danish. Modest towns and farming villages are the order of the day, while there are also plenty of opportunities to enjoy the scenic Danish countryside. Denmark also has its fair share of high quality beaches – not much fun during the chilly Scandinavian winter, but a lovely way to while away a long, sunny summer’s day. The windswept Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic are popular with birdwatchers and are famous for their striking scenery. Greenland, meanwhile, is the world’s largest island and has a tiny population clinging to existence around its coastline. The Greenlandic interior is covered by an enormous glacier and is uninhabitable. The unique nature of the Greenlandic people and their country’s geography make it a fascinating and worthwhile destination.

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Copenhagen

 

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Djibouti

جيبوتي‎‎ (Jībūtī) • Jabuuti • Gabuuti
  • Official Name: Republic of Djibouti
  • Capital City: Djibouti City
  • Population: 846,687
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Language: French, Arabic, Somali, Afar
  • Currency: Djiboutian franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Djibouti like?

A small country in the Horn of Africa region, Djibouti is a former French colony with religious, linguistic, ethnic and cultural links to neighbouring Somalia and Ethiopia, as well as to the Arab and Islamic worlds. Most Djiboutians live in and around the capital, where the blistering heat is moderated by coastal breezes. The Djiboutian interior, meanwhile, is desolate, dusty and scorchingly hot. Despite its small size, Djibouti plays an important role in global trade due to its position on the Gulf of Aden, through which major shipping lanes pass.

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Djibouti

Djibouti is made up of multiple ethnicities, and an armed conflict was brought to end by a power sharing deal in 2000. The largest single ethnic group in the country are the Somalis, but there are numerous smaller groups speaking a wide variety of languages. The political atmosphere in Djibouti is authoritarian, and the government has been criticised by human rights groups. Opposition parties do exist, but have chosen to boycott the political process due to a perceived lack of fairness. The Djiboutian economy is relatively stable despite a lack of agricultural land and concerns over access to water. Outside investment is encouraged, while the Port of Djibouti plays a major role in the economy. Djibouti City is one of the Horn of Africa’s more cosmopolitan urban centres. Nevertheless, unemployment is very high and poverty remains a problem.

One cool thing about Djibouti

Poetry is an important tradition in Djibouti (and wider Somali culture), and it is common for local poets to compose and memorise poems exceeding 100 lines.

One sad thing about Djibouti

Unfortunately, female genital mutilation is rife in Djibouti, with an estimated 93% of the female population having been subjected to the practice.

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Djibouti’s longest frontier is with Ethiopia to the south and west. The country also has short borders with Eritrea to the north and Somalia to the southeast. The Bab al-Mandab Strait, where the Red Sea meets the Arabian Sea, separates Djibouti from Yemen.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

A blisteringly hot destination, especially away from the coast, and largely undeveloped outside of the capital city, Djibouti is not a hotbed of international tourism. Visitors should be aware that travel outside the capital is uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Djibouti City, home to 76% of the country’s people, is by far and away the most straightforward part of the country to visit. The city is architecturally unremarkable, but it does have a certain cosmopolitan appeal, and even has a casino. The city’s beaches offer a pleasant respite from the heat and dust of the busy highways and bustling markets.

Djibouti passport
Djiboutian passport

Banditry is common away from the capital, so care should be taken when planning trips. However, no visit to Djibouti would be complete without an excursion to the salty Lac Assal, the second-lowest point on Earth. It’s a bumpy ride to get there, but the views are worth every potential bruise.

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Lac Assal

 

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Dominica

Dominique • Wai‘tu kubuli
  • Official Name: Commonwealth of Dominica
  • Capital City: Roseau
  • Population: 72,324
  • Language: English, Dominican Creole, French
  • Currency: East Carribean dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Dominica like?

One of the most rugged – and arguably one of the most beautiful – of the Caribbean island nations, Dominica (pronounced Dom-in-EEK-ah, with emphasis on the third syllable) is still being formed by geothermal activity and is home to the second-largest hot spring in the world. It is also a haven for a diverse array of flora and fauna, much of which is protected by an extensive national park system. Much of the island is covered in lush mountainous rainforest, with spectacular waterfalls and gushing rivers. Dominica is not as well-renowned for beaches as other, flatter, Caribbean islands, but there are still typical sandy retreats to be found, particularly in the north of the island. The country receives year-round warm Caribbean sunshine. However, it is also prone to hurricanes.

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Dominica

France was the first colonial power to take possession of Dominica in the face of fierce opposition by the native Carib people. In 1763, Great Britain ousted the French and the island became part of the British Empire. English became the main language on the island, but French retains a presence to this day. Independence came to Dominica in 1980, and the country has become modestly well-off, with an economy that relies heavily on tourism, offshore finance and agriculture (particularly banana production).

One cool thing about Dominica

The country’s national bird is the Sisserou parrot, which can be found nowhere else in the world. Indeed, it is can only be found within a 35 sq mi area of the island’s rainforest.

One sad thing about Dominica

The country is regularly hit by powerful hurricanes. In August 2015, Tropical Storm Erika killed more than 30 people, a sizable number in a country of just 70,000 people. The storm also caused catastrophic damage to infrastructure and the economy.

Neighbours Textbox
As an island nation, Dominica has no land borders. It’s closest neighbours are the French Caribbean island territories of Guadeloupe to the northwest and Martinique to the southeast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Dominica’s economy relies heavily on the tourist trade, and as a sun-drenched Caribbean island, it is popular with cruise passengers and well-heeled holidaymakers. As such, the island is well used to catering to guests. However, the landscape makes Dominica a more adventurous destination than some of the lower-lying Caribbean islands, with hiking and mountain-climbing among the most popular activities, and there is a remarkably diverse array of jungle wildlife to discover. Nevertheless, beachgoers will have no trouble finding their own slice of paradise.

Dominica passport
Dominican passport

Most visitors to Dominica head either to the beaches or into the mountains, but it is worth taking some time to explore the charming and friendly towns that dot the island, especially around the coast. The capital, Roseau, has a small-town feel, and is home to plenty of traditional Caribbean churches and markets. The historic French Quarter is particularly picturesque.

Dominica
Windsor Park cricket ground, Roseau

 

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Dominican Republic

República Dominicana
  • Official Name: Dominican Republic
  • Capital City: Santo Domingo
  • Population: 10,075,045
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Peso
  • Continent: North America

What’s the Dominican Republic like?

One of the most successful economies in Latin America, the Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean with the much poorer country of Haiti. It’s a mountainous country with a Caribbean climate and significant biodiversity. At one time a Spanish New World colony, the country has also known brutal occupation at the hands of neighbouring Haiti in the late 1800s and was also occupied by the United States after the First World War. The post-World War II Dominican Republic has seen dictatorship, civil war, another period of US occupation and finally a move towards democracy. The Dominican people are a diverse mix of Taino Indian, Spanish and the descendants of African slaves.

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Dominican Republic

The last two decades have seen impressive economic growth in the Dominican Republic, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the western hemisphere. This is in sharp contrast to its poverty-stricken neighbour, Haiti, and a large number of Haitians have become refugees in the Republic, forced across the border by poverty and natural disasters that have ravaged their homeland. Addressing the Haitian influx is a major challenge facing the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, a large number of Domincans and their descendants live overseas, especially in the United States. The capital city, Santo Domingo, is the hub of the nation’s political and economic life.

One cool thing about the Dominican Republic

Although not widely enforced, it is still technically against the law in the Dominican Republic to share a kiss in front of a police officer.

One sad thing about the Dominican Republic

The country has become home to large number of immigrants from Haiti, and many of these Haitians lack official status as citizens in the country. Since 2015, deportations have been underway, and vigilante groups have become involved in trying to intimidate Haitians.

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The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with its western neighbour Haiti. The US overseas territory of Puerto Rico is a short distance from the Dominican Republic’s southeastern tip.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

There must be a reason why the Dominican Republic is the most visited destination in the Caribbean. For a start, the capital city, Santo Domingo, is home to the first cathedral and castle built anywhere in the Americas. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city is home to many more remarkable examples of colonial architecture and buildings of historical significance. The country is also the home of the merengue – the Dominican national dance, while lively bars jump to the sound of bachata music.

Dominican Republic passport
Dominican passport

The country also draws visitors to Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean, while the striking Dominican coastline has seen the growth of beach resorts that have become an increasingly significant part of the economy. The country is also renowned as a golfing destination, with hundreds of high-quality courses to enjoy. The most popular sport in the Dominican Republic is baseball, and a visit to a local baseball game offers a chance to rub shoulders with ordinary Dominicans in an authentic setting.

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Catalina Island

 

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East Timor

Timor-Leste • Timór Lorosa’e
  • Official Name: Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
  • Capital City: Dili
  • Population: 1,167,242
  • Language: Portuguese, Tetum, numerous indigenous languages
  • Currency: United States dollar, East Timor centavos
  • Continent: Asia

What’s East Timor like?

A small former Portuguese colony that shares the island of Timor with Indonesia, East Timor became the first newly-independent country of the 21st Century in 2002. However, decades of war with Indonesia prior to independence left the new country impoverished and unstable. The East Timorese originally declared their independence from Portugal in 1975, but were invaded and occupied only days later by Indonesia. Thus began a long fight between Indonesian government troops and pro-independence militias in East Timor that devastated the country and left up to a quarter of a million people dead. It was in 1999 that a UN-sponsored referendum saw the people of East Timor vote to break away from Indonesia, a result that triggered a civil war and saw Australian and United Nations troops step in to bring order.

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East Timor

Foreign troops and NGO staff have been a common sight on the streets of East Timor in the decade since independence. The desperately poor country has begun to stagger to its feet in recent years, and the number of overseas staff required to keep order and help build the country has been decreasing. Nevertheless, East Timor remains one of Asia’s poorest and least urbanised nations. Hopes that the fledgling oil and gas industry might bring greater prosperity have not so far been realised, and many citizens remain completely dependent on subsistence farming. Portuguese is spoken to some degree in the cities, but the diverse peoples and ethnic groups of East Timor tend to speak their traditional language. Better-educated East Timorese often emigrate, particularly to Australia.

One cool thing about East Timor

The word “Timor” is derived from the Malay word for “east”. This means that East Timor can literally be translated as “East East“.

One sad thing about East Timor

The country is frightfully poor and underdeveloped, and about half of all citizens continue to live in abject poverty.

Neighbours Textbox
East Timor shares the island of Timor with Indonesia, which lies to the west. Indonesia also encloses the East Timorese exclave of Oecusse on three sides. The country also has close ties to Australia, which lies to the south across the Timor Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

There is no reason why, as the country becomes more stable, East Timor should not begin to show up on the itineraries of backpackers in Southeast Asia, especially due to its proximity to Australia and the backpacker hotspot of Bali. However, the country is still in a stage of reconstruction and nation-building, with tourist development a distant ambition rather than an emerging reality. For now, tourists are a rare sight even in the capital city, Dili, and in rural areas would draw considerable interest and attention from curious locals.

East Timor passport
East Timorese passport

The country has serious potential as a tourist destination, with its long history and culture, heavily influenced by Portuguese and Indonesian colonisation, but with a distinctive Timorese flavour. With its tropical climate and mountainous terrain, East Timor is beautiful and will surely one day enchant greater numbers of visitors. Who knows? Now may be the best time to visit.

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Tasitolu, near Dili

 

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Ecuador

Ikwadur
  • Official Name: Republic of Ecuador
  • Capital City: Quito
  • Largest City: Guayaquil
  • Population: 16,144,000
  • Language: Spanish, Quechua
  • Currency: United States dollar
  • Continent: South America

What’s Ecuador like?

Nestled between Colombia and Peru in the northwest of the South American continent, Ecuador is, as its name would suggest, an equatorial nation. It is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries and is especially famous for the Galápagos Islands, home to the unique animal life that Charles Darwin studied in forming his Theory of Evolution. The Ecuadorian mainland is often mountainous, with the capital city, Quito, perched high in the Andes. The Amazonian rainforest also reaches into Ecuador, while the coastal strip is the country’s warmest region and features plenty of attractive beaches. The country is very much a part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which means powerful earthquakes are an ever-present risk that Ecuadorians must live with.

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Ecuador

As with much of Latin America, the people of Ecuador are a diverse mix that reveals much about the country’s history. The majority of Ecuadorians are mestizos, but there are also black Ecuadorians, descended from African slaves, as well as direct descendants of Spanish colonialists and indigenous peoples. The country’s democracy has been volatile and lively. The country has, since 2006, been run by socialist President Rafael Correa, who has steered it in a more leftwards direction and has had some success in improving the economy. However, inequality remains a major challenge in Ecuador. Agriculture and hydrocarbons play a key role in the Ecuadorian economy.

One cool thing about Ecuador

The country ratified a new constitution in 2008 that was the first in the world to recognise the natural world as having legally enforceable rights.

One sad thing about Ecuador

Earth tremors are a sad fact of life in Ecuador, and in April 2016, the joint-most powerful earthquake of the year struck the northwest of the country. At least 673 people were killed, with tens of thousands injured. In a more densely-populated area of the country, the death toll would likely have been considerably higher.

Neighbours Textbox
Ecuador borders two other South American nations: to the north is Colombia, while Peru lies to the east, south and southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Those with an interest in exploring South America are unlikely to be disappointed by a country as beautiful, diverse and fascinating as Ecuador. The capital city, Quito, occupies a stunning location high amongst the Andean peaks, and features the best-preserved historic centre in Latin America. The mountains themselves offer plenty of opportunities for trekking, hiking and taking in the spectacular scenery. The country is also home to the world’s tallest active volcano. The east of the country is dominated by the Amazon rainforest and features numerous national parks that reveal the country’s biodiversity in all its splendour.

Ecuador passport
Ecuadorian passport

Beachgoers are well-catered for along the Pacific coastline, where the country’s largest city, Guayaquil can be found, as well as plenty of historic colonial cities. The Galápagos Islands, out in the Pacific, are famous for their unique flora and fauna, and are a must-see destination for anybody with a particular interest in the natural world. The cities can be chaotic and often gridlocked, while rural infrastructure varies in quality, but the country’s remarkable scenery and culture make it worth any extra hassle.

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Quilatoa crater lake

 

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Egypt

مِصر‎‎ (Miṣr) • مَصر‎‎ (Maṣr) • Ⲭⲏⲙⲓ (Kimi)
  • Official Name: Arab Republic of Egypt
  • Capital City: Cairo
  • Population: 92,167,000
  • Language: Arabic
  • Currency: Egyptian pound
  • Continent: Africa (the Sinai peninsula is part of Asia)

What’s Egypt like?

At the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, Egypt has one of the longest histories and richest archaeological heritages on Earth. Modern Egypt sits on the site of some of humanity’s oldest and most influential civilisations, and is today one of the most economically and politically significant countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The country’s large population continues to grow, placing ever more pressure on the packed cities of the Nile delta, especially Cairo itself. Most Egyptians live along the fertile banks of the Nile and its delta in the north of the country, and overcrowding is a tremendous problem. Away from the river, much of Egypt is sparsely-populated desert, including the Sinai peninsula, which sits to the east of the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most important waterways.

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Egypt

Today’s Egypt grapples with numerous political and social problems. The Arab Spring of 2011 led to the demise of the authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak. However, the new Egypt that emerged from these events has been wracked with instability as different forces vie for control and influence, from secular liberals to the Muslim Brotherhood and the always-powerful army. Meanwhile, a violent Islamist insurgency persists in the Sinai Peninsula, occasionally spilling out into other parts of Egypt and beyond. The economy has suffered greatly in the wake of the Arab Spring, with the important tourist trade especially hard-hit. Nevertheless, Egypt remains an intoxicating and vibrant country that continues to hold a significant place in the popular imagination.

One cool thing about Egypt

The country’s famous pyramids are often said to have been built by slaves. However, this is a myth disseminated by Greek historian Herodotus. All workers on the pyramids were paid, often in beer!

One sad thing about Egypt

The eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011 brought hope for a brighter future to Egypt. However, the chaos and violence that preceded the fall of the Mubarak regime led to 800 deaths, and democracy has failed to take root since.

Neighbours Textbox
Egypt’s southern border with Sudan and its western border with Libya are mostly straight lines through open desert. The Sinai peninsula in the northeast borders Israel and the Gaza Strip. The narrow Gulf of Aqaba separates the Sinai from Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Few countries can match Egypt when it comes to cultural and historical treasures, from the Great Pyramid of Giza to the Sphinx, to the ancient tombs of Luxor. Many visitors take the opportunity to cruise the mighty Nile from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan in the south, stopping to take in the various sights that line the banks of the river and to visit traditional Nubian villages. Adventurous types often head off into the Egyptian Sahara on guided tours, stopping to replenish their energies at picture-postcard oases. For sun-worshippers, Red Sea beach resorts such as Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh offer perfect weather year-round, as well as superb watersports opportunities.

Egypt passport
Egyptian passport

Many Egyptians rely on the tourist trade for their livelihoods, so it is sad that, in recent years, the instability that has followed the Arab Spring, as well as a handful of high-profile terrorist attacks in the region, has delivered a major blow to the industry. Unemployment, already a major problem in Egypt, has risen as visitor numbers have dropped. Security at major resorts and tourist sights is heavy, as it is across Cairo and the country’s other cities. Despite the downturn, Egypt remains open for business. Tourists are more welcome than ever, and the absence of crowds at the country’s main sights means now may be the best time to visit.

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The Sphinx and the Great Pyramid, Giza

 

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El Salvador

  • Official Name: Republic of El Salvador
  • Capital City: San Salvador
  • Population: 6,377,195
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: United States dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s El Salvador like?

The tiny, densely-populated Central American country is often associated with gang violence, lawlessness and poverty – issues it shares with several of its larger neighbours. Sadly, the country regularly comes near the top in surveys of global homicide rates, and the capital city, San Salvador, has been ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous cities. A brutal civil war in the 1990s led to tens of thousands of deaths and drove many Salvadorans to seek a new life abroad, particularly in the United States. The political scene is much more stable today as the country tries to shake off its reputation for violence. Efforts to expand an economy that was once heavily dependent on coffee exports have met with some success, while attempts to steer young Salvadorans away from gangs are ongoing. El Salvador is seeking to leave its traumatic past behind and to build a brighter future.

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El Salvador

The majority of Salvadorans are the descendants of European colonists and indigenous peoples. They inhabit a densely-populated country squeezed between Guatemala, Honduras and the Pacific Ocean, a land of lakes, volcanoes, mountains, jungle and a spectacular coastline. Sitting on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, El Salvador is geologically active.

One cool thing about El Salvador

The country’s name translates into English as “The Saviour“. It is the only country in the world whose name directly references a religious figure.

One sad thing about El Salvador

The 1980s weren’t kind to El Salvador. A civil war between government forces and leftist guerillas resulted in the deaths of 75,000 people and led many to flee abroad. The legacy of the war can be seen in the poverty and violence that still mar the country, although great strides have been made over the past two decades and El Salvador is now a politically stable country.

Neighbours Textbox
El Salvador is the only country in Central America without a coastline on the Caribbean sea. In the northwest, it has a border with Guatemala, while Honduras sits to the north and east. Nicaragua is a short distance away across the Gulf of Fonseca.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

El Salvador is an adventurous destination. The issue of safety is prescient, but the violence so often associated with life in the country is rarely aimed at tourists, meaning that normal levels of vigilance when visiting a poorer country are required. Most ordinary Salvadorans are friendly and welcoming: foreigners are still a rare sight in the more remote parts of the country.

El Salvador passport
Salvadoran passport

For such a small country, El Salvador packs plenty into the tourist experience. Colonial towns and villages dot the spectacular mountainous terrain, in which hiking opportunities abound. Mayan ruins give visitors the chance to walk in the footsteps of an ancient civilisation. The country has numerous lakes and volcanoes, and its national parks are largely unspoiled. The coastline is breathtaking, and is becoming increasingly popular with surfers. Should the country’s reputation improve – and there are signs that it is doing so – expect El Salvador to take of as a must-see backpacker and ecotourism destination.

El Salvador
Estadio Cuscatlán, San Salvador

 

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Equatorial Guinea

Guinea Ecuatorial • Guinée équatoriale • Guiné Equatorial
  • Official Name: Republic of Equatorial Guinea
  • Capital City: Malabo
  • Largest City: Bata
  • Population: 1,222,442
  • Language: Spanish, French, Portuguese, indigenous languages
  • Currency: Central African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Equatorial Guinea like?

The only Spanish-speaking country in Africa, Equatorial Guinea is a small, steamy country in west-central Africa. The country consists of a roughly square-shaped section of the African mainland on the Gulf of Guinea called Río Muni, as well as two islands – Bioko and Annobón – separated from each other by the independent island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. The capital city, Malabo, is on Bioko island, while the biggest city, Bata, is on the mainland. A new capital city is under construction in eastern Río Muni, to be known as Oyala upon completion. Much of the country is dense equatorial rainforest, with hot and sultry weather all year round. The island of Annobón, though hot, is renowned as one of the cloudiest places in the world.

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Equatorial Guinea

Once one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world, with a history of violent conflict and political instability, the discovery of oil in the mid-1990s has helped bestow Equatorial Guinea with the highest GDP per capita in Africa. This boom has seen major infrastructure projects to all parts of the country, including the area where the new capital is being built. However, the regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been criticised for the uneven spread of this new-found wealth, much of which remains in the hands of a small elite surrounding the president. Most Equatoguineans remain poor, often without access to clean drinking water. Meanwhile, the country is also heavily criticised internationally for the almost complete absence of political freedoms.

One cool thing about Equatorial Guinea

A legacy of colonial times, Equatorial Guinea is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. Around two thirds of the population can speak it. Of course, numerous local languages are also spoken, while there are also communities that speak French, Portuguese and an English Creole.

One sad thing about Equatorial Guinea

The country has a tragic past, but perhaps the saddest thing about the Equatorial Guinea of today is its low ranking on the UN Human Development Index. In a country awash with oil money, it is estimated that more than 50% of people lack access to clean drinking water. An astonishing 20% of Equatoguinean children die before their fifth birthday.

Neighbours Textbox
Río Muni – the part of Equatorial Guinea on mainland Africa – is bordered to the south and east by Gabon, while Cameroon lies to the north. The islands of Bioko and Annobón are separated in the Gulf of Guinea by the sovereign nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. Bioko lies just off the coast of Cameroon.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The oil boom of the last two decades has brought overseas workers from every corner of the globe into Equatorial Guinea, making foreign faces a more common sight than they once would have been. Nevertheless, there is little in the way of tourist infrastructure, and few tourists visit the country. Those who do might be shocked to discover how expensive it is, while getting around can be challenging due to poorly-developed roads and corrupt officials at checkpoints. Travelling with a guide is often recommended.

Equatorial Guinea passport
Equatoguinean passport

The country doesn’t want for natural beauty however, with scenic stretches of beach along the Atlantic coast and lush, often unspoiled rainforest, home to a wide range of African wildlife. The Equatoguinean islands are volcanic in nature. Visitors may enjoy immersing themselves in a culture infused with African and Spanish flavours, and would find the locals friendly and hospitable should they wish to try out their language skills. A visit to Annobón island will also bring visitors into contact with Equatorial Guinea’s significant Portuguese-speaking population.

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Annobón

 

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Eritrea

ኤርትራ (‘Eertra) • إريتريا (‘Iirytria)
  • Official Name: State of Eritrea
  • Capital City: Asmara
  • Population: 6,380,303
  • Language: Tigrinya, Arabic, Italian, English, numerous local languages
  • Currency: Nakfa
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Eritrea like?

A relatively small country in northeast Africa on the Red Sea, Eritrea is a former Italian colony that was annexed by Ethiopia after the Second World War. Independence from Ethiopia was finally achieved in 1993 following a brutal war that left the larger nation landlocked. Hopes that peace would follow were soon dashed, as Eritrea and Ethiopia entered into a border war, and the boundary between the two countries remains disputed and undemarcated to this day. Tensions between the two neighbours remain high and periodically threaten to spill over into renewed fighting. Eritrea requires all citizens, including women, to carry out military service, often for long periods, partly as a show of strength against Ethiopia.

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Eritrea

The country is roughly evenly-split between Muslims and Christians, and is home to numerous ethnic groups. A wide range of languages are spoken, including, to some extent, Italian – the former colonial language. Many buildings in the capital, Asmara, serve as an architectural reminder of the Italian colonial period. Most Eritreans live inland, in the highlands and the fertile northwest. Much of the Red Sea coastline is arid and inhospitable due to the effects of dry, dusty winds blowing in from the Arabian Peninsula. Since independence in 1993, the country has been ruled with an iron fist by President Isaias Afewerki, who has been heavily criticised for his human rights record. Despite the harsh political atmosphere and relatively high levels of poverty, the mining sector has helped fuel strong economic growth in recent years.

One cool thing about Eritrea

The country is the only one in the world to designate its entire coastline a protected reserve in an attempt to halt desertification and protect the many fish and wildlife species that call the area home.

One sad thing about Eritrea

Reporters Without Borders rank Eritrea as the most dangerous environment in the world for journalists – below even North Korea!

Neighbours Textbox
Eritrea has a long, volatile southern border with its long-running adversary, Ethiopia. In the southeast, the country touches Djibouti, while its northwestern border is with Sudan. A short distance away across the Red Sea is Yemen.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As a young country finding its way in the world, with a fairly restrictive visa regime and an oppressive political scene, Eritrea remains well and truly off the beaten path. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the country is closed to the outside world. Most nationalities can obtain a visa, and those who do make it to Eritrea find a beautiful country of imposing mountain peaks, fertile northern plains, stark, arid deserts in the south and a striking coastline on the Red Sea. The capital city, Asmara, is like a slice of Italy in Africa thanks to the beautiful Italian architecture and presence of the Italian language.

Eritrea passport
Eritrean passport

Diving is growing in popularity along the coast and around the remarkable Dahlak archipelago, a series of islands in the Red Sea notable for the Ethiopian weapons dumped after the war that have created an artificial reef. Away from the coast, the Eritrean interior features many ruins, monasteries and other historic buildings that hark back to the various powers and civilisations that have come and gone in the region. The Eritrean mountains are beginning to open up to hiking, while national parks abound with a diverse range of wildlife. Eritrea, like so many countries in Africa, harbours much potential as a tourist destination, and is just waiting to be discovered.

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Mountains near Asmara

 

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Estonia

Eesti • Эстония (Estoniya)
  • Official Name: Republic of Estonia
  • Capital City: Tallinn
  • Population: 1,317,797
  • Language: Estonian, Russian
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Estonia like?

The smallest and most northerly of the three former-Soviet Baltic states, with a landscape featuring rolling hills, charming islands and pretty beaches, Estonia has a long history of domination by major powers, including the Soviets, Germans, Danes, Russians, Poles and Swedes. The modern republic gained independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the country hasn’t looked back since. Estonia has developed into one of the world’s most successful democracies, with a strong economy, a reputation for innovation in IT, and a highly-rated education system. The country’s move into the Western sphere of influence has seen it join NATO and the European Union, much to the chagrin of the neighbouring Russians.

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Estonia

Ethnic Estonians are culturally and linguistically linked to the Finns, and many Helsinki residents regularly cross the Gulf of Finland to take advantage of the lower prices to be found in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, and other towns along the north coast. However, a quarter of Estonia’s population are ethnic Russians, who retain strong cultural and emotional ties to Russia. Some Estonian towns, especially near the Russian border, are home to more Russian speakers than Estonian speakers. There is some grievance among this section of Estonian society about the direction the country has taken since independence.

One cool thing about Estonia

It may be small, but Estonia is a global leader in information technology. Skype is an Estonian invention, while Tallinn is sometimes referred to as Europe’s Silicon Valley. It was the first country in the world to introduce online voting.

One sad thing about Estonia

As with other countries in the region, Estonia suffered major losses during World War II. Just over seven percent of the country’s population was killed, while another ten percent were sent to Soviet labour camps.

Neighbours Textbox
Estonia has two land borders: to the south is Latvia, while Russia lies to the east. The narrow waters of the Gulf of Finland separate Estonia from Finland.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The main attraction in Estonia is Tallinn’s old town, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was built by German crusaders in the Middle Ages. The city’s walls and towers are some of the best-preserved in Europe, and tourists have begun to flock to the city since independence opened Estonia up to the outside world. The advent of budget air travel has helped bring a tourist boom to Tallinn. Outside the capital, there are plenty of historic sites, including numerous medieval castles, that tell the story of Estonia’s history of conquest and resistance.

Estonia passport
Estonian passport

A relatively flat country, Estonia’s countryside is pleasant, with rolling hills inland and a number of beach resorts that become very popular during the short summer season (winters can be bitterly cold). The country also has a large number of attractive islands in the Baltic Sea, some of which are populated by ethnic Swedes. Despite the small size of the country, there are several national parks to explore, and the country also has shorelines on Lakes Peikus and Pskov. Estonia really is a Baltic gem.

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Old Town, Tallinn

 

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Ethiopia

ኢትዮጵያ (Ītiyop’iya)
  • Official Name: Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
  • Capital City: Addis Ababa
  • Population: 99,465,819
  • Language: Amharic, hundreds of regional languages
  • Currency: Birr
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Ethiopia like?

The giant of east Africa, Ethiopia is a remarkable country of diverse landscapes and diverse people. The oldest independent country in Africa, Ethiopia is also the only country on the continent to have never been colonised by outside powers, despite the Italians’ best efforts in the 1930s. Ethiopia is thought by some historians to be the birthplace of humanity itself thanks to the discovery of some of the oldest human fossils ever unearthed. Modern Ethiopians are an incredibly diverse mix of ethnic groups, all with their own customs, cultures and traditions. With such diversity comes a similarly wide range of languages and religious beliefs. Much of the country is mountainous, with the Great Rift Valley making violent earth tremors a regular problem. The further east one goes, the drier and more arid the country becomes.

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Ethiopia

The second-biggest country in Africa by population, Ethiopia came to world attention during the 1980s, when a disastrous famine triggered by war and ruinous economic policies gave rise to the Live Aid charity rock concert. Although the country remains one of the world’s poorest, it has come a long way since those dark days and consistently records impressive economic growth. Nevertheless, the border conflict with Eritrea regularly threatens to spill over into renewed fighting, and the country’s ethnic Somali population, a majority in the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia, remains restive. An insurgency rumbles on in this part of the country. Despite these constant tensions and the ever-present poverty that still persists, Ethiopia is an increasingly assertive and self-confident nation, proud of its history, with a growing urban middle-class.

One cool thing about Ethiopia

We’ve already mentioned that Ethiopia was never colonised, successfully fending off the Italians, and becoming the only African country to avoid this fate. This has made the country a symbol of African resistance in general, and explains how red, green and yellow became the colours of the African resistance movement. These colours are found on the Ethiopian flag, and those of many other African states.

One sad thing about Ethiopia

The infamous Ethiopian famine of the 1980s led to one million deaths. The brutal Communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam had even used hunger as a weapon to maintain his rule and crush opposition.

Neighbours Textbox
Ethiopia has a disputed border with Eritrea in the north, while Sudan and South Sudan lie to the west. To the south is Kenya, while the country’s long eastern border with Somalia is disputed and dangerous. There is also a short border with Djibouti in the northeast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Ethiopia teems with historic sites, a legacy of its long history, and possesses numerous spectacular national parks. The east of the country is best avoided, due to the Somali insurgency, and there are other areas where intermittent, localised violence mean caution is required. Despite these challenges, the Ethiopian tourist industry continues to develop, and the country is becoming an increasingly popular destination for adventurous travellers. The capital city, Addis Ababa, is a typically vibrant, chaotic, African metropolis, with a growing middle class and a strong economy.

Ethiopia passport
Ethiopian passport

However, much of what people really come to see lies outside Addis Ababa. The country’s national parks are home to a wide variety of African wildlife and offer breathtaking views of mountain scenery or tropical forest. The countryside is dotted with historic towns with roots that stretch far back in human history. Historic mosques and churches, monasteries and tombs, tell the story of one of the world’s oldest civilisations. To cap it all off is the famous Great Rift Valley, which cuts through the heart of Ethiopia, creating some of Africa’s most spectacular geography.

ethiopia
Rock-hewn church, Lalibela

 

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Fiji

Viti • फ़िजी (Fiji)
  • Official Name: Republic of Fiji
  • Capital City: Suva
  • Population: 909,389
  • Language: English, Fijian, Hindi
  • Currency: Fijian dollar
  • Continent: Oceania

What’s Fiji like?

An archipelago in the South Pacific that was once a part of the British Empire, independent Fiji combines a tropical climate and landscape with a fractious social and political scene. A part of the wider Melanesian region, a narrow majority of Fijians are indigenous ethnic Melanesians. However, a legacy of British rule is that a large section of the population is of South Asian origin, descended from workers brought over from the Indian subcontinent by the colonialists. Since independence in 1970, Fiji has struggled to marry these two very different cultures, and the tensions periodically lead to political strife. Military coups are not unheard of in Fiji.

Fiji map
Fiji

Over 300 islands make up the nation of Fiji, roughly a third of which are inhabited. The capital, Suva, is a teeming, often troubled, always lively city on the most heavily-populated island, Viti Levu. Away from the capital, Fiji is resplendent with rainforest, idyllic beaches, coral reefs, volcanic mountains and far flung paradise islands. Although the land, particularly coconut plantations, plays an important role in the Fijian economy, tourism is the country’s economic mainstay. Political instability has hindered economic development since independence, so most Fijians are relatively poor.

One cool thing about Fiji

The International Date Line runs right through the Fijian island of Taveuni. This means that you can literally stand with your legs in two different dates.

One sad thing about Fiji

When military dictatorship came to Fiji in 1987 with the intention of preventing the rise to power of an Indian-dominated party, large numbers of Fijians of Indian origin felt forced to leave the country.

Neighbours Textbox
Fiji has no land borders. Its nearest neighbours in the South Pacific are New Zealand, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, plus the French overseas territories of New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The name Fiji is synonymous with the exotic – warm blue seas, friendly locals, tropical sunshine and spectacular scenery. As a result, it is no surprise that tourism plays a major role in the economy. Nevertheless, the country’s political travails and its turbulent recent history mean that its potential as a tourist destination has not been fully tapped. Most resorts lie well away from the country’s unpredictable capital, Suva.

Fiji passport
Fijian passport

Despite the challenges, tourism still plays a key role in Fiji’s economy, with numerous resorts springing up along the coasts of the main islands. The country has developed a reputation as a destination for romantic getaways and honeymoons, as well as the traditional laidback beach holiday. There is plenty of mountain scenery to enjoy on the main islands. Adventure sports such as kayaking and skydiving are also popular.

Fiji
Nacula Island

 

Finland flag

Finland

Suomi
  • Official name: Republic of Finland
  • Capital City: Helsinki
  • Population: 5,488,543
  • Language: Finnish, Swedish, Sami
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Finland like?

Lying in the European Union’s chilly northeastern corner, Finland is an affluent country that maintains close ties to the other Nordic countries, while remaining culturally and linguistically distinct from its neighbours. With a history that includes periods of domination and rule by its larger neighbours Sweden and Russia, modern Finland is a peaceful, prosperous nation with a fully-developed, Nordic-model welfare state. The country scores highly on various indices of wellbeing, especially in the areas of social cohesion and education. The majority of Finns speak Finnish, but there is a sizable Swedish-speaking minority, and northern Finland is also home to the Sami people. The Åland Islands, in the Gulf of Bothnia, are a self-governing archipelago that, while part of Finland, are entirely Swedish-speaking.

Finland map
Finland

The majority of Finns live in the southern region, especially around the capital, Helsinki. Much of the country is dominated by forests and lakes, which become very popular with locals during the short summer. The Finnish winters are notoriously harsh, with heavy snow and subzero temperatures, especially in the north. A largely flat country, there is some skiing in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle, a region that reindeer and Santa Claus also call home.

One cool thing about Finland

The quirky Finns are renowned for strange sporting events and festivities. Perhaps the oddest of all is the annual Wife-Carrying World Championships, which draws couples from all around the world to tackle a challenging obstacle course.

One sad thing about Finland

The country does so well in so many global surveys, you could be forgiven for thinking that everything is rosy. However, Finland’s economy has hit the buffers in recent years, and more Finns find themselves struggling to make ends meet.

Neighbours Textbox
Finland shares borders with its Nordic neighbours Norway to the north and Sweden to the northwest. The country also shares a long eastern border with Russia, while Estonia is a short distance away across the Gulf of Finland.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The distinctive nature of the Finnish people and their country’s wide open spaces make Finland a fascinating and worthwhile tourist destination. Finland is one of those countries that offers visitors a pretty strong chance of seeing the Northern Lights, if you can stand the freezing local winter. You can also experience the midnight sun in summer, especially in the north. Roughly ten percent of Finland’s land area is made up of lakes, and the country’s rolling hills and vast expanses of open countryside and woodland make for some beautiful summer strolls. In the winter, the northern ski resorts become popular, as does the legendary home of Santa Claus in Lapland.

Finland passport
Finnish passport

The capital, Helsinki, is Finland at its most cosmopolitan, but the city still retains something of a small town feel. Helsinki is a popular stopping-off point for Baltic cruises, and the city is especially welcoming in summer, when the warmer weather lures the locals out to the many cafés and bars that line its streets. Helsinki is somewhat renowned for its lively nightlife. There are also a handful of UNESCO World Heritage sites dotted around the country, including the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress outside Helsinki.

Finland
Helsinki

 

France flag

France

  • Official Name: French Republic
  • Capital City: Paris
  • Population: 66,991,000 (including overseas territories)
  • Language: French
  • Currency: Euro (CFP franc used in New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna)
  • Continent: Europe (with overseas territories in North America, Africa and Oceania)

What’s France like?

A cultural giant with a long history, France is a major European power, one of the driving forces at the heart of the European Union, and has left its cultural and imperial mark across the world. France lay at the heart of the Renaissance, and the political thought and ideals that arose from the period continue to define and shape the modern western world. The country has also been at the heart of some of Europe’s major conflicts, including the World Wars of the Twentieth Century, its own religiously-driven civil wars, and numerous conflagrations with neighbouring powers. Northern France is littered with battlefield memorials to the dead of the World Wars. Modern France’s relations with its neighbours, including the United Kingdom and Germany, are cordial, and often warm. The country also possessed the second-largest empire ever assembled, and continues to wrestle with the legacy and consequences to this day. France was particularly prominent in North and West Africa, where French is still widely spoken, and government is often based on the French system. The French colonial period also left its imprint on North America, especially Canada, where the French language enjoys joint-official status with English. Parts of the United States, too, have been heavily influenced by French language and culture.

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France

The French are renowned for their art, high culture, philosophy and cuisine. French philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Descartes, Derrida and Foucault have left an indellible mark on the country and beyond. France also has a formidable legacy in literature thanks to the likes of Diderot, Jules Verne, Sartre, Camus and many more, and has produced household names in the art world, including Monet, Cézanne, Gaugin and Renoir. The country’s culinary scene is admired the world over, with French chefs in demand in the world’s top kitchens. The French take food very seriously, and even small towns will often have a Michelin-starred restaurant. France is arguably the world’s best-renowned wine producer, with prize-winning vineyards all over the country – especially the Bordeaux region.

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Eiffel Tower, Paris

Modern France remains one of the world’s leading political and military powers. Its cities are architecturally striking, but many also struggle to provide work for their urban young, especially in the so-called banlieues, the tough suburbs mainly populated by people of North African origin. In recent years, the country has struggled to tackle the rise of violent fundamentalist Islam, as demonstrated by a number of significant terrorist outrages. Away from the cities, the French countryside is especially beautiful, featuring rolling hills, open plains, mighty rivers, forbidding mountain ranges and long coastlines. The country also has a number of overseas territories that are considered fundamental parts of the French Republic, including French Guiana, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martin, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Mayotte, and Réunion.

One cool thing about France

The most popular tourist destination in the world is… France! The French themselves are not major travellers, as sure a sign as any that what they have at home is pretty special.

One sad thing about France

By some measures, France has the highest levels of depression in the world, with one in five citizens having experienced a depressive episode at some point.

Neighbours Textbox
Metropolitan France (i.e. the part in Europe) borders Belgium and Luxembourg to the northeast, Germany and Switzerland to the east, and Italy to the southeast. There is also a border with the tiny independent principality of Monaco on the French Riviera, and southern borders with Spain and Andorra. The Channel Islands lie just west of Normandy in the north, and there is a link to the UK via the Channel Tunnel between Calais and England’s Kent coast. The French island of Corsica is just north of the Italian island of Sardinia. France also has international borders in other parts of the world: French Guiana borders Brazil and Suriname in the jungles of South America; while the tiny Caribbean island of Saint Martin is divided between France and the Netherlands.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As mentioned earlier, France welcomes more tourists than any other country in the world. The rich and famous are drawn to the upmarket beaches of the French Riviera, while the long Atlantic coast is one of the world’s surfing hotspots. Camping in the beautiful French countryside is popular with locals and visitors from the country’s near-neighbours, while the French Alps and Pyrenees offer world-class winter sports opportunities. Gourmands find their food heaven in the cafés, restaurants, bakeries and markets of the diverse cities, towns and even small villages up and down the country, while wine enthusiasts are drawn to the Loire Valley and Bordeaux.

France passport
French passport

French towns and cities are famous for their imposing churches and cathedrals and attractive central squares. The former battlefields of the north allow visitors to explore a region that saw such suffering and sacrifice during the World Wars. And at the heart of it all is Paris, one of the world’s greatest cities, famous for its food, its fashion, its architecture and must-see sites, including the Louvre, the Champs Elysées, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc du Triomphe. Paris is considered by many to be the world’s most romantic destination. When all is said and done, there really is something for everybody in France.

France
Strasbourg

 

Gabon flag

Gabon

  • Official Name: Gabonese Republic
  • Capital City: Libreville
  • Population: 1,475,000
  • Language: French, Fang, Myene, Punu, Nzebi
  • Currency: Central African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Gabon like?

A former French colony on central Africa’s west coast, Gabon has exploited oil riches to become one of the wealthiest countries on the continent. Indeed, only Equatorial Guinea and Botswana have a higher GDP. Unfortunately, the proceeds from this boom have not been dispensed evenly, leaving Gabon with a small but wealthy elite alongside significant levels of poverty. However, these disparities have not prevented the country from avoiding the regular turmoil and strife that often engulf its near-neighbours in west Africa. Gabon did experience a period of autocratic rule, if not dictatorship, from the late 1960s until 2009 under President Omar Bongo. In recent years, reforms to Gabon’s political system have helped to improve governance somewhat.

Gabon map
Gabon

The Gabonese live in one of Africa’s more sparsely populated countries. Roughly half the population lives in the capital city, Libreville, which is comfortably the biggest city in the country. Rural Gabon is almost entirely covered by rainforest, including the highlands, and the climate is sultry all year round. These forests are home to several species of monkey and other African wildlife, and the country has done a good job of protecting its natural environment. The people hail from a diverse range of tribes and ethnic groups, and speak a correspondingly wide range of languages. Nevertheless, French remains widely spoken, a legacy of France’s colonial rule over the region.

One cool thing about Gabon

The country is home to around 80% of Africa’s gorilla population. So if you want to see gorillas in the wild, Gabon seems like the place to start!

One sad thing about Gabon

Despite its large oil reserves, the Gabonese economy has failed to deliver widespread prosperity. Jobs are scarce, and the country has been criticised for over-regulating business and preventing the emergence of an entrepreneurial class.

Neighbours Textbox
Gabon has a long frontier in the east and south with the Republic of the Congo. It also borders Equatorial Guinea in the northwest and Cameroon in the north.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Gabon has the potential to be one of Africa’s most successful tourist economies. With incredible rainforest, towering mountains, a long coastline and year-round tropical conditions, Gabon has plenty to offer. Unfortunately, it has not yet developed the necessary infrastructure to cater to large numbers of guests. Hotels are relatively rare outside the main cities of Libreville and Port-Gentil, and paved roads are few and far between outside of the main cities. Despite these obstacles, the country’s relative prosperity and stable political climate make it a welcoming place to visit, especially for those new to travelling in Africa.

Gabon passport
Gabonese passport

Gabon overflows with national parks, home to diverse flora and fauna, including gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, exotic birds, turtles and deer. The national parks are arguably Gabon’s biggest draw, but the country’s Atlantic coastline, with its miles of pristine, often deserted, beaches should not be ignored. Gabon also possesses some spectacular mountain scenery, featuring breathtaking waterfalls and plunging rivers.

Gabon
Fruit market, Libreville

 

The Gambia flag

The Gambia

  • Official Name: Republic of The Gambia
  • Capital City: Banjul
  • Largest City: Serekunda
  • Population: 1,882,450
  • Language: English, Mandinka, Fula, Wolof, Serer, Jola
  • Currency: Dalasi
  • Continent: Africa

What’s The Gambia like?

As the map below shows, The Gambia is one of the world’s more oddly-shaped countries. The smallest country on mainland Africa in terms of area, The Gambia is a small sliver of land that follows the course of the Gambia river inland from the Atlantic Ocean and is surrounded on three sides by Senegal. This strange arrangement is a legacy of colonial competition and administration in the region. The first to set up a colony here were the Portuguese, but the territory soon ended up under British administration. An agreement with France, which controlled much of surrounding west Africa, cemented British control of the Gambia river colony. Independence came to The Gambia in 1965. The country joined with Senegal in the 1970s to form the state of Senegambia, but this arrangement quickly unravelled.

The Gambia map
The Gambia

Most Gambians live around the largest city, Serekunda, and the capital, Banjul, at the western end of the country by the Atlantic Ocean. The further inland one goes, the more sparsely populated The Gambia becomes. The country is generally rather poor, with foreign aid an important part of the economy. However, agriculture, industry and tourism have contributed to economic growth. In December 2016, Yahya Jammeh, Gambian president for the previous 22 years, was defeated at the ballot box. Jammeh had declared The Gambia to be an Islamic republic and had instituted harsh social policies that earned him considerable criticism. Despite refusing to hand over power, he was eventually removed with the help of neighbouring Senegal. The Gambia has since renounced its Islamic republic status and has returned to the Commonwealth, from which it had been suspended.

One cool thing about The Gambia

One explanation often given for The Gambia’s odd shape is that, when the British and the French were vying for control of the region, British ships sailed up the Gambia river while firing cannons off either side, and that the cannonball’s landing positions became the borders we know today. It’s unlikely that this happened, but ships did play a part in the rivalry between the two colonial powers in the region.

One sad thing about The Gambia

Why was this part of Africa so highly sought after? In a word, slaves. The Gambia river gave ships access to more and more territory from which local people could be taken as slaves. As many as three million people are thought to have been transported from The Gambia to the New World as part of the slave trade.

Neighbours Textbox
The Gambia has just the one neighbour, Senegal, which it borders in the north, east and South. To the west is a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Gambia river.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The recent disruption caused by the December 2016 election saw tourists fleeing The Gambia en masse. However, the situation is considerably more settled at the time of writing (April 2017), and countries have lifted their travel advisories against The Gambia. This will be a relief to the many Gambians who rely on the tourist trade. The Gambia has become a popular exotic destination for European holidaymakers, drawn by the year-round warmth and pristine beaches. The Gambia’s short Atlantic coastline is the centre of the country’s tourist trade, and the vast majority of visitors head for the resort areas that have sprung up over the past two decades.

The Gambia passport
Gambian passport

Few people venture out of the resorts, which means most of The Gambia is off the beaten track. This is especially the case inland, where tourists are a rare sight. However, those looking for a more adventurous Gambian experience can explore the country’s national parks and take in its remarkable wildlife. Nowhere in The Gambia is far from Senegal, which means it is possible to cross the border, provided you have the necessary documentation.

The Gambia
Mangroves in Makasutu

 

Georgia flag

Georgia

საქართველო (Sakartvelo)
  • Official Name: Georgia
  • Capital City: Tbilisi
  • Population: 3,720,400
  • Language: Georgian
  • Currency: Lari
  • Continent: Europe (Eurasia)

What’s Georgia like?

A mountainous country in the often volatile Caucasus region, Georgia straddles the boundary between Europe and Asia. A former Soviet state, the country gained independence upon the demise of the USSR, and it has experienced a fair amount of turmoil since, including a brief war with Russia in 2008. The country has increasingly looked towards Europe and away from its giant northern neighbour in recent years, an outlook that has drawn the ire of Moscow. There are two breakaway regions in Georgia: Abkhazia in the northwest, which is home to the Abkhaz people; and South Ossetia in the north. Both regions are internationally recognised as part of Georgia, with the exception of a handful of countries, including Russia. Georgia recognises Abkhazia as an autonomous region under Georgian sovereignty.

Georgia map
Georgia

Despite these difficulties, Georgia has achieved strong economic growth since independence. Living standards are still low by European standards, but much improved from the 1990s. The country has been successful in attracting inward investment, and has also shown a keenness to increase the number of people entering Georgia to visit and to study. The country is especially intent on strengthening ties to Europe. The Georgian people themselves are something of an enigma, with a language, script and culture not linked to or derived from any of their neighbours. Some scholars suggest a connection to the Basque people, but little evidence of this has come to light. This makes Georgia a particularly fascinating country.

One cool thing about Georgia

The world’s deepest cave can be found in Georgia. Krubera Cave can be found in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, and plummets to an astonishing 2,197m (7,208ft).

One sad fact about Georgia

Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin, was born in Gori – then part of the Russian Empire but now in Georgia – in 1878. He would go on to lead the Soviet Union and was responsible for some of humanity’s worst atrocities.

Neighbours Textbox
Georgia sits in a politically febrile neighbourhood, with the Russian North Caucasus republics on its northern border, Azerbaijan to the southeast, Armenia to the south, and Turkey to the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

It’s opening up. Indeed, now might be the best time to visit Georgia, before it really takes off. With incredible mountain scenery, a burgeoning wine industry and an alluring Black Sea coast, Georgia’s future as a tourist destination looks bright, and the country has been working to improve its infrastructure to cater to a higher number of visitors. Of particular interest to adventurous guests may be the numerous Orthodox churches that cling to plunging mountainsides and overlook spectacular valleys. The capital city, Tbilisi, is increasingly cosmopolitan and serves as a welcoming, friendly, attractive and interesting hub for travel in the region.

Georgia passport
Georgian passport

It would be wise to consider caution when travelling in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where the Georgian government has no practical control. Abkhazia is generally safe, has a beautiful Black Sea coast and a pleasant climate, but consular services are limited should they be required. South Ossetia is a very traditional society made up mostly of poor mountain villages, and security conditions are arguably less amenable to tourism than in Abkhazia.

Georgia
Sameba Cathedral, Tbilisi

 

Germany flag

Germany

Deutschland
  • Official Name: Federal Republic of Germany
  • Capital City: Berlin
  • Population: 82,175,700
  • Language: German
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Germany like?

A truly global economic powerhouse at the very heart of the European Union, Germany is an affluent, diverse country with a long history and a rich cultural heritage. The country has played a central role in the development of western art, literature, philosophy and medicine, while its classical musicians are some of the world’s most renowned. The country’s 20th century history is dominated by its roles in the two world wars and subsequent division into two separate states, East and West Germany. Since reunification in 1990, Germany has become a key figure in international diplomacy, a desirable destination for immigrants, and a true economic giant. The country is one of the world’s biggest importers and exporters, and is particularly well-known for its efficient motor-vehicle industry and for wine production. Much of the country is forested, but there are also significant mountain ranges, major rivers, wine-growing regions, flat coastal plains and rolling hillsides.

Germany map
Germany

While countries such as Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and The Netherlands were busily assembling and administering colonial empires during the 18th and 19th centuries, Germany as a singular nation-state had not yet formed, and the German people lived in various empires, city-states and vassal states scattered around northern, central and eastern Europe. Germany can trace its roots in part to the Holy Roman Empire, a 19th-century European power that took in large swathes of northern Europe, but this was not a formal German entity. The struggle of the German people to understand their place in the world and to be seen to compete with other European powers ultimately led the German Empire – as it was at the time – to become increasingly militarily assertive, a major factor in the triggering of World War I. The devastating defeat inflicted upon Germany gave rise to the weak, unstable and impoverished Weimer Republic, which was swept away by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) movement. The Second World War brought further death and destruction to Europe as the Nazis attempted to expand German territory, subjugate other nationalities and even to exterminate certain minority groups.

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Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Germany’s defeat in the Second World War saw the western part of the country subsumed into the western family of nations as West Germany, while the east became the Soviet client state of East Germany. Berlin itself was also divided between the two. Reunification came in 1990. Modern Germany has done much to leave its difficult past behind it, and has recently welcomed over one million refugees from conflicts in the Middle East. The German economy is the engine of the European Union and the single market, though this has led to criticism that Germany is too powerful and too able to dictate to other members. The Germans themselves are increasingly diverse, with large Turkish and Arab minorities in many major cities.

One cool thing about Germany

The city of Reutlingen is home to what is officially the world’s narrowest street. Spreuerhofstraße is 31cm (1ft) across at its narrowest point, so stay trim if you plan to visit!

One sad thing about Germany

The 1972 Olympic Games in Munich were the scene of tragedy when terrorists murdered members of the Israeli team at their hotel.

Neighbours Textbox
As a large country at the heart of Europe, Germany has quite a few neighbouring countries. To the north is a short border with Denmark, which prevents Germany’s two coastlines from connecting. Germany has eastern frontiers with Poland and the Czech Republic, while Austria and Switzerland lie to the south. In the southwest is France, while in the west, Germany borders Luxembourg, Belgium and The Netherlands.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

With its diverse regions, stunning scenery, beautiful towns and cities, and highly developed, efficient infrastructure, Germany can boast a lot. Outsiders may arrive in Germany with stereotypical ideas about the country and its people, but the federal structure and regional identities that prevail mean that what might apply to one part of Germany is completely irrelevant to another. If you’re looking for beer halls and lederhosen, head to Bavaria and its vibrant capital, Munich, in the southeast of the country. But don’t expect to find these things in Berlin or Hamburg, for example.

Germany passport
German passport

There are simply too many attractions to list here, but among the many reasons to visit Germany are its lively cities, superb beers and wines, picturesque towns and villages, majestic castles, scenic mountains and ski resorts, its tasty range of sausages and sausage-based dishes, and its numerous events and festivals. Munich hosts the world’s biggest festival – Oktoberfest – which actually takes place every September and celebrates German – especially Bavarian – culture and, of course, beer. The capital, Berlin, is a fascinating metropolis, particularly for those with an interest in Germany’s 20th century history. Parts of the Berlin Wall still stand, and give a real insight of what Berlin might have been like as a divided city. As for the Germans themselves: whatever pre-conceived notions you may have, you can expect to find a warm and friendly welcome everywhere.

Germany
Hohenzollern Castle, Baden-Württemberg

 

Ghana flag

Ghana

  • Official Name: Republic of Ghana
  • Capital City: Accra
  • Population: 27,043,093
  • Language: English, numerous local languages
  • Currency: Ghanaian cedi
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Ghana like?

Relatively prosperous by sub-Saharan African standards, Ghana is one of the continent’s more stable and successful countries, with an increasingly diverse economy and sound democratic credentials. A former Dutch and then British colony on west Africa’s Gulf of Guinea coast, Ghana was once known as the Gold Coast, and was, for a time, at the heart of the slave trade. In 1957, Ghana became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve independence. Despite early strife and economic problems, the country managed to chart a path to a more stable future, and democracy has developed firm foundations.

Ghana map
Ghana

The Ghanaian people are almost all black Africans, but there are numerous ethnic groups within the country that fall under that umbrella. English is quite widely spoken, but regional and local languages are common. A largely Christian nation, a sizeable Muslim minority exists, especially in the poorer northern regions. Ghana’s north is mostly open savannah, while the centre and south become progressively more humid and more heavily-forested. Numerous rivers flow out of the enormous Lake Volta in eastern Ghana.

One cool thing about Ghana

As has already been mentioned, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in 1957, with Kwame Nkrumah becoming president.

One sad thing about Ghana

The World Health Organisation and UNICEF have ranked Ghana among the world’s least hygienic countries, with high rates of infant mortality linked to poor sanitation and unclean drinking water.

Neighbours Textbox
Ghana is bordered in the west by Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Burkina Faso in the north and northwest, and Togo in the east. In the south is a coastline on the Gulf of Guinea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

First-time visitors to sub-Saharan Africa could do a lot worse than start in Ghana. With its friendly people, relatively good infrastructure and moderate levels of poverty, Ghana can prove a less challenging first exposure to the continent for those raised in more affluent parts of the world. The Ghanaian coast is dotted with so-called slave castles – forts built by various European powers to service the slave trade, some of which have received UNESCO World Heritage status. It is also possible to visit mosques, fortifications and other remnants of civilisations that pre-date the arrival of Europeans in what is now Ghana.

Ghana passport
Ghanaian passport

The country is also blessed with national parks, home to elephants, big cats and other African wildlife. The coast offers attractive beaches, while Lake Volta is a natural wonder. The city of Kumasi, in south-central Ghana, offers a glimpse into the history and culture of the Ashanti people. The capital, Accra, meanwhile, is a heaving metropolis that burgeons with lively markets and sights and attractions dedicated to the country’s history, independence movement and local culture.

Ghana
Elmina slave castle, Cape Coast

 

Greece flag

Greece

Ελλάδα (Elláda)
  • Official Name: Hellenic Republic
  • Capital City: Athens
  • Population: 10,955,000
  • Language: Greek
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Greece like?

A beautiful country at the southern end of the Balkan peninsula in southeastern Europe, Greece is considered the birthplace of Western civilisation, with an ancient culture that gave rise to the concept of democracy, as well as the Olympic Games, Western philosophy, drama and theatre, literature and political thought. Modern Greece may not quite be the mighty civilisation of its ancient forebears, but the country is still an important regional player with a distinctive culture and language. Greeks are some of the most politically active people in Europe. The country was at one time part of the Ottoman Empire during the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, and has experienced war, population exchange with Turkey, military dictatorship and periods of economic strife. Greeks have suffered some of the worst consequences of the 2008 financial crash, as the country endured swingeing cuts, a ferocious recession, rampant unemployment and wage repression.

Greece map
Greece

While the country is largely at peace with its neighbours, the possibility of conflict with Turkey over Cyprus remains, and the country also disputes the name of the Republic of Macedonia to the north. The country is famous for its cuisine, its long, hot summers, its many ancient sites, its mountainous terrain and its many hundreds of idyllic islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas. The capital city, Athens, is Greece’s main metropolis – a heaving, traffic-choked, cosmopolitan, historic and striking centre of an ancient culture. However, much of Greece is rural, with small, traditional villages, rugged mountains and pleasant forest. The islands in particular are renowned for their beautiful beaches, and play a major role in the country’s economic life.

One cool thing about Greece

The first Olympic games took place in Greece in 776BC, which seems astonishing when you think about it. The first person to win an Olympic event was a cook by the name of Coroebus, who won the sprint race.

One sad thing about Greece

It is estimated that around $1billion was wiped out of Greece’s economy following the financial crash of 2008. The consequences have been devastating: poverty, unemployment, and a national debt larger than the country’s economy. Ordinary Greeks continue to suffer the fallout.

Neighbours Textbox
Greece has a dispute with its northern neighbour, Macedonia, over that country’s name. Greece claims that the use of the name “Macedonia” suggests a territorial claim over the northern Greek region of the same name. Greece’s other neighbours are Bulgaria and Turkey to the northeast and Albania to the northwest. Many of Greece’s most easterly islands also hug the Turkish coast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Greece is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and its not hard to see why. The biggest sector within the country’s tourist industry is focused on the beach resorts of the islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas, some of the most significant of which are Corfu, Zakynthos, Rhodes, Crete, Kos, Lesbos and Skiathos. The Greek mainland also includes a long, deeply indented coastline, with the beach resorts of Chalkidiki in Greek Macedonia in the north of the country especially popular. The main appeal of the islands is their warm, sunny weather, moderated by sea breezes, as well as their charming, traditional village communities and sandy beaches. Some islands, most notably Rhodes, Crete and Corfu, also include resorts that cater to the 18-30 party scene and are not always for the fainthearted!

Greece passport
Greek passport

However, Greece is about far more than package tourism. With its ancient history and culture, there are numerous historic sites, including Olympia, where the first Olympic Games took place, and the ancient Parthenon atop the Acropolis in central Athens. The country’s architecture, ancient and modern, is famous around the world, while many are drawn in by the fresh, flavoursome cuisine, heavily influenced by seafood, lamb, olives and feta cheese. The capital city, Athens, offers all the trappings of a modern city, while the country’s second city, Thessaloniki, immerses the visitor in Greek Macedonian culture.

Greece
Akropolis and Parthenon, Athens

 

Grenada flag

Grenada

La Grenade
  • Official Name: Grenada
  • Capital City: St. George’s
  • Population: 109,590
  • Language: English, French, Grenadian Creole
  • Currency: East Caribbean dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Grenada like?

The so-called “Spice Island” of the Caribbean due to its substantial nutmeg export industry, Grenada (pronounced Gre-NAY-da) is another small, idyllic island nation in the West Indies. The country is made up of one major island on which the majority of the population resides, plus two smaller islands and a handful of islets. Aside from the spice industry, Grenada shares with other small Caribbean island countries a reliance on high-end tourism, especially from cruise ships. The main point of entry is the capital city, St. George’s, in the south west of the main island, also known as Grenada, on which most of the population resides. The Grenadian interior is mountainous, while the coast is lined with beaches, many of which are black due the island’s volcanic geography. Grenada is the largest island in the Grenadines chain, but is not a part of the separate sovereign state of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Grenada map
Grenada

The country shares with many other black Caribbean nations a history as a British colony. It briefly came to global attention during the 1980s, when a Marxist coup triggered an invasion by the United States and other Caribbean nations. The invasion was criticised by the UN and many other countries, including the former colonial power, Britain. Despite the turmoil of the period, Grenada has developed into a stable democracy that has been able to deliver respectable economic growth. However, the country lies in the path of substantial Atlantic hurricanes and has been almost entirely destroyed on several occasions.

One cool thing about Grenada

Despite its small size, the country is the world’s second-largest nutmeg producer, accounting for twenty percent of the world’s supply. The national flag even depicts the crop, such is its importance to the economy.

One sad thing about Grenada

The islands managed to go 49 years without a direct hit from a hurricane until September 2004, when Hurricane Ivan smashed into the country, levelling an incredible ninety percent of homes.

Neighbours Textbox
As an island nation, Grenada has no land borders. It’s nearest neighbour is St. Vincent and the Grenadines, whose southernmost islands lie just north of the Grenadian islands of Carriacou and Petite Martinique.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Grenada shares with many other West Indian destinations a reputation for high-end tourism, attracting well-heeled Americans, Canadians and Europeans, often aboard mighty cruise liners. With its year-round tropical warmth and clear blue seas, it’s no surprise that the country’s beaches are a major draw. But there is plenty more to do in Grenada than laze on the beach. The interior is dominated by spectacular mountains, plunging waterfalls and beautiful lakes. The country’s spice and rum estates also make for popular tourist spots.

Grenada passport
Grenadian passport

Grenada is an increasingly popular location for couples seeking somewhere romantic to tie the knot, with a growing wedding industry. Ecotourism has begun to take off in the country, while diving and other watersports are, of course, a major draw. There a several historic forts dating back to colonial times to pique the interest of history lovers. Grenada also produces some of the world’s finest dark chocolate, which is bound to be worth trying.

Grenada
St. George’s

 

Guatemala flag

Guatemala

  • Official Name: Republic of Guatemala
  • Capital City: Guatemala City
  • Population: 16,176,133
  • Language: Spanish, numerous Mayan and non-Mayan regional languages
  • Currency: Quetzal
  • Continent: North America

What’s Guatemala like?

With a distinctive culture influenced by Spanish colonisation and indigenous Mayan civilisation, the Central American republic of Guatemala makes for a fascinating destination. The country’s remarkable history has left a legacy of historical treasures, while the landscape and geography are often breathtaking. Most Guatemalans speak Spanish and are a mix of indiginous Central American peoples and those descended from European colonisers. The country is mountainous and covered in steaming tropical jungles, but it also possesses attractive coastlines on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Guatemala map
Guatemala

Despite the country’s cultural and natural riches, Guatemala has struggled to shake off a reputation for instability and violence. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, Guatemala was engulfed in a vicious civil war involving state-sponsored murder, particularly of civil rights activists and Mayan peoples. Although the war ended in 1996, Guatemala continues to grapple with high rates of crime, including violent crimes, as well as poverty. The country is also a central player in the drugs trade, serving as a home and a base to various drug-smuggling gangs involves in shipping narcotics to the United States. There is, however, hope that Guatemala’s young democracy will take root and help to deliver both economic growth and a more stable and peaceful existence for its 16 million citizens.

One cool thing about Guatemala

The country can claim one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind – the chocolate bar. The first ever bar was invented during the Mayan civilisation, and chocolate residue dating back to around 470AD has been found in a vessel in Guatemala. Thank you, Guatemala.

One sad thing about Guatemala

The country’s civil war was the longest in the history of Latin America – a region that knows a thing or two about civil war. The fighting involved government forces, right-wing militias and Marxist rebels, and resulted in about 200,000 deaths.

Neighbours Textbox
The country’s longest border is in the north and northwest with Mexico and features quite a few straight lines and some sharp turns. To the northeast is Belize, a country that Guatemala claims in its entirety. Honduras lies to the east, with El Salvador in the southeast. The country also has a Pacific coast in the southwest and a short Caribbean coastline in the east.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

There’s no getting away from the fact that a trip to Guatemala requires careful planning. The biggest threat to visitors is from kidnappings and robberies, which can turn violent. Sadly, events such as these do sometimes occur around popular tourist sites. Nevertheless, with plenty of caution and good planning, Guatemala is a staggeringly beautiful destination for travel. The country is renowned for its numerous Mayan ruins, often in remote mountain locations. Some sites require quite substantial treks across challenging terrain, but it is certainly worth the effort. And the landscape itself, with towering mountain peaks, majestic rainforests and awe-inspiring waterfalls and lakes are just as rewarding.

Guatemala passport
Guatemalan passport

Arguably Guatemala’s most popular tourist attraction is Lake Atitlán, surrounded by volcanoes and remote Mayan villages. The city of Antigua, near the capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a rustic colonial gem that was once the capital of Central America. Many tourists also come to see the beautiful Rio Dulce, or Sweet River, which winds its way into the Caribbean Sea through forests and mountains near the borders with Honduras and Belize.

Guatemala
Arch of Santa Catalina, Antigua

 

Guinea flag

Guinea

Guinée
  • Official Name: Republic of Guinea
  • Capital City: Conakry
  • Population: 11,628,972
  • Language: French, Maninka, Fula, Susu
  • Currency: Guinean franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Guinea like?

A former French colony in west Africa, Guinea has had a troubled experience as an independent nation, mired as it has been in corruption, sporadic violence, underdevelopment and high levels of poverty. Furthermore, Guinea has occasionally been destabilised by the spillover of conflicts in neighbouring nations, particularly Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. The various regimes that have ruled Guinea since independence in 1958 have all drawn criticism for their autocratic governance and poor human rights records. The country is only just beginning to overcome the affects of the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Guinea map
Guinea

Agriculture and mining are at the heart of the Guinean economy. The land is rich in natural resources, but much of this potential remains untapped, and Guineans remain amongst the world’s poorest people. A majority Muslim country, French is still the most widely-spoken language, although many local languages are also spoken by particular ethnic and tribal groups. The country’s landscape is quite diverse, with a tropical coastal strip, forests and mountains, stretching inland to the more arid Sahel region. Pretty much all of Guinea experiences hot, humid weather conditions year-round, with pronounced dry and rainy seasons which differ depending on region. Cooler conditions are not unheard of at higher altitudes.

One cool thing about Guinea

The country’s capital, Conakry, is the wettest capital city in the world, receving nearly four metres of rain a year.

One sad thing about Guinea

The recent outbreak of Ebola, which began in 2014, has taken the lives of an estimated 2,500 people in Guinea. Although the disease appears to have been brought under control as of May 2017, its impact on the country’s economy and society will be felt for years to come.

Neighbours Textbox
For a fairly small country, Guinea has quite a few neighbours. In the northwest is the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, while Senegal lies to the north and Mali to to the northeast. In the southeast is Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), while Liberia lies to the south and Sierra Leone to the southwest. There is also a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Guinea has little in the way of tourist infrastructure and generally only appeals to the most fervent enthusiast for African travel. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to see French tourists exploring this fellow Francophone nation, especially around Conakry and along the coast. And the country certainly possesses its share of natural beauty and attractions for the intrepid traveller. Like many west African countries, Guinea has its share of national parks offering the chance to take in the native wildlife, including chimpanzees, elephants and hippos. The Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve on the border with Côte d’Ivoire is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Guinea passport
Guinean passport

The country’s coastline includes miles of largely unspoilt sandy beaches with quiet resorts that are popular getaways for expats based in Conakry. Wildlife viewing is also possible in this region. The area of Foutah Djallon offers spectacular hiking amongst heavily forested hills, with striking geography and scenery. The capital, Conakry, is chaotic, with heavy traffic and the constant hubbub of daily life in a large African city. Its beaches provide locals and expats with a pleasant escape from the frenetic inner city, and many visitors to the city take time to experience the local music scene. It may be a poor country, and the usual precautions required when visiting west Africa certainly apply here, but there is no doubt that Guinea has plenty to offer, including a warm welcome.

Guinea
Foutah Djallon

 

Guinea-Bissau flag

Guinea-Bissau

Guiné-Bissau
  • Official Name: Republic of Guinea-Bissau
  • Capital City: Bissau
  • Population: 1,693,398
  • Language: Portuguese, Upper Guinea Crioulo, numerous local languages
  • Currency: West African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Guinea-Bissau like?

A tiny, impoverished republic in west Africa, Guinea-Bissau is a former Portuguese colony and the only Portuguese-speaking country on the west African mainland. The name of the capital city, Bissau, was added to the country’s name in order to differentiate it from its larger neighbour, Guinea. Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s poorest and least developed nations, with little in the way of infrastructure. Despite this, recent signs of economic growth have given a sliver of hope that the lives of the country’s citizens may slowly begin to improve. The people themselves are a diverse mix of ethnic and tribal groups who speak a number of different languages – Portuguese, despite being the official language, is not widely understood, especially outside of Bissau. The vast majority of Bissau-Guineans are employed in agriculture.

Guinea-Bissau map
Guinea-Bissau

The country became independent from Portugal in 1974 and has experienced considerable political turmoil ever since. No elected president has ever succeeded in serving a full term. This instability has helped to entrench poverty in the country. Guinea-Bissau experiences hot, muggy conditions all year-round, and is mostly flat coastal plains with mangrove swamps along the complex coastline, which is lined with many tropical islands. There are some forested areas further inland. The country faces numerous environmental challenges, particularly soil erosion and deforestation.

One cool thing about Guinea-Bissau

The country is the world’s sixth-largest producer of cashews – not bad for such a small country with a population of just 1.5m.

One sad thing about Guinea-Bissau

The country has one of the lowest scores for economic freedom in the world, which serves as a reflection of the poverty many Bissau-Guineans sadly have to live in.

Neighbours Textbox
Guinea-Bissau borders Senegal to the north and Guinea to the southeast. The country also has a coastline on the Atlantic in the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

It may be small, poor and underdeveloped, but the country packs a punch for the adventurous traveller. The Jemberem forests are home to a national park featuring an array of local wildlife. Another great location for wildlife spotting – as well as a warm Mandinka welcome from the locals – is the Boé region in the southeast. Off the coast, the Bijagós islands are an increasingly popular ecotourism destination abounding with tropical scenary, hippos, turtles, beaches and fishing lodges.

Guinea-Bissau passport
Bissau-Guinean passport

The capital city, Bissau, is worth seeing for the Portuguese colonial architecture that makes it feel like a slice of the Mediterranean with an African twist. It is also worth taking in the bombed-out former presidential palace and colonial fort. Other towns dotted around the small country, while much smaller than Bissau, also possess interesting colonial architecture. The country’s deep poverty and numerous endemic tropical diseases mean that the standard precautions when visiting poorer countries should be observed here. However, the vast majority of Bissau-Guineans offer a warm and friendly welcome.

Guinea-Bissau
Jemberem forests

 

Guyana flag

Guyana

  • Official Name: Co-operative Republic of Guyana
  • Capital City: Georgetown
  • Population: 735,909
  • Language: English, Guyanese Creole, regional languages
  • Currency: Guyanese dollar
  • Continent: South America

What’s Guyana like?

Another creation of colonial machinations, Guyana was once a Dutch territory, before falling into the hands of the British. Despite being on the South American continent, Guyana’s cultural, political and social links are with the Afro-Caribbean island nations to the northwest, rather than with neighbouring Latin American nations. Black Guyanese are the descendents of slaves brought to the region to work sugar plantations. Today they rub shoulders with the descendants of indentured servants brought over by the British from the Indian subcontinent following the abolition of slavery. Since independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, the country has struggled to forge a coherent national identity, as the ethnic divide continues to play a major role in Guyanese society. There is also a sizeable Amerindian population, as well as groups of mixed ethnicity.

Guyana map
Guyana

Most citizens live in and around the capital city, Georgetown, and along the coast. The Guyanese interior is almost entirely made up of Amazonian rainforest, often mountainous, with smaller pockets of savannah in the southwest. Despite its small size, areas of the country remain untouched and barely explored due to the challenging rainforest terrain. Guyana enjoys a hot, steamy, humid climate, with spectacular tropical storms. Infrastructure is limited away from the coast. Sugar remains a major foreign currency earner, with agriculture and mining the most important sectors of the Guyanese economy.

One cool thing about Guyana

It might be in South America, but with its distinctly Caribbean flavour, you’re far more likely to find Guyanese playing or watching cricket than football (soccer).

One sad thing about Guyana

In 1978, nearly 1,000 members of an American cult who had evaded law enforcement in the US by escaping to Guyana, perished in a murder/suicide instigated by their leader, Jim Jones. The event became known as the Jonestown Murder/Suicide (or Massacre), and saw parents willingly poisoning their own children before taking their own lives.

Neighbours Textbox
Guyana has a long border through the Amazon rainforest with Brazil in the south and southwest. It also neighbours Venezuela to the northwest and Suriname to the east. The North Atlantic lies to the north.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Guyana is a truly spectacular tourist destination, with a significant ecotourism sector. With its vast acres of rainforest, teeming wildlife, beautiful coastal strip and awe-inspiring geography, Guyana leaves a profound impression on those who visit. Most tourists head into the rainforest on organised treks, hoping to catch a glimpse of the country’s unique wildlife and to admire the numerous plunging ravines, waterfalls and mountains. However, the country’s beaches are also worth exploring.

Guyana passport
Guyanese passport

The capital city, Georgetown, is more of an arrival point into the country than a destination in itself, but its pleasant colonial core is charming enough and worth a stroll around. The city especially comes alive during carnival season, and also possesses some interesting museums and markets. Guyana’s mix of natural wonders and cultural diversity make it a fascinating destination.

Guyana
Kaieteur Falls

 

Better late than never, that’s a wrap on Part Two. Will Part Three appear before 2018? Stay tuned to find out…

Around the world in five posts: A-C

If I had one wish (forgoing the usual three), it would be to visit every country in the world. But seeing as I’m unlikely to come into the millions of pounds needed to make this happen, here’s the first of five posts offering a virtual tour of our planet’s sovereign states, based on what information I could be bothered to cobble together from freely available online sources.

Obviously I haven’t been to most of these countries, but I’ve done my best to provide a brief outline of what they’re all like and what tourists who visit might expect. So sit back, relax, and get ready to visit every country in the world with me.

Defining the term “every country in the world” is problematic. There are plenty of countries that aren’t sovereign or independent, but still qualify as countries. For this reason, I’ve decided to stick with Wikipedia’s list of sovereign states, with a couple of exceptions that will come to light in due course. Thanks!


 

afghanistan-flag

Afghanistan

افغانستان (Afġānistān)
  • Official Name: Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
  • Capital City: Kabul
  • Population: 32,564,342
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Language: Dari, Pashto, Uzbek, Turkmen
  • Currency: Afghani
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Afghanistan like?

Forbidding. The country has a long history of conflict, much of it involving various local tribes and ethnic groups, but also dragging in outside powers, from the British and the Russians during the so-called Great Game of the 1800s, to the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the Americans and their allies in the wake of the September 11th attacks in 2001. Those attacks were planned from Afghanistan for a reason – its remote landscape and lightly-governed territory made it a perfect base for terrorist organisations to operate from.

Afghanistan map
Afghanistan

Everyday life for ordinary Afghans is dominated by the strict social mores and religious codes that have been the cornerstone of the various peoples living within the country’s borders for centuries. The country remains one of the poorest and least developed in the world, while a weak central government struggles to project its authority beyond the capital, Kabul. The south of the country, as well as the Pakistani border region, is dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group and is the homeland of the Taliban. However, Afghanistan is home to numerous ethnic and religious groups, including Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north, Persians in the west, and the oppressed Shia Hazaras in the centre.

One cool thing about Afghanistan

It may be one of the world’s poorest countries, but Afghanistan has two KFC restaurants, which apparently stands for Kabul Fried Chicken.

One sad thing about Afghanistan

The country is the world’s leading exporter of opium, the plant from which heroin is derived. While many Afghans literally depend on the crop to survive, there’s no doubting the untold misery it causes around the world.

Neighbours Textbox
Afghanistan’s borders bring it into contact with regional and global powers. To the northwest is Turkmenistan, to the north is Uzbekistan, and to the northeast is Tajikistan. The Wakhan Corridor in the northeast has a short border with China. In the east and south, the Durand Line separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, while in the west, the country borders Iran.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Challenging. Although not all regions of Afghanistan are as volatile as others, the lack of governmental authority much beyond the capital, the poor and often dangerous infrastructure, the lack of basic services, including medical facilities, and all the usual hazards associated with mountainous countries make it an off-the-beaten-track destination. In particular, the south and east of the country are best avoided. However, each year, a few hardy souls do find their way to Afghanistan, usually as part of a well-planned organised tour group involving specialist security arrangements.

Afghanistan passport
Afghan passport

By far the safest part of Afghanistan for visitors is the Wakhan corridor, a strip of remote, rugged territory that protrudes from the country’s northeastern corner between Pakistan and Tajikistan, touching China’s western border. Far removed from the conflicts that have plagued the country for so much of its history, this beautiful region does draw in adventurous tourists seeking solitude, clean air and breathtaking scenery.

kabul
Kabul and the Hindu Kush

 

albania-flag

Albania

Shqipëria
  • Official Name: Republic of Albania
  • Capital City: Tirana
  • Population: 2,886,026
  • Language: Albanian
  • Currency: Lek
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Albania like?

The country is still emerging from decades of isolation during the austere socialist rule of Enver Hoxha in the latter half of the 20th century. Under Hoxha, life for most Albanians was tough. With the fall of communism and the collapse of the socialist state in Albania, the country has opened up to the world, and living standards have been rising since the 1990s. In 1997, the country took a major hit when protests broke out after a series of pyramid schemes collapsed.

albania-map
Albania

Despite the progress that the country has made and the improvements in everyday living standards that came with the fall of communism, Albania continues to grapple with corruption and gangsterism, and remains one of Europe’s poorest countries. However, the country will need to tackle these issues head on as it pursues a journey towards European Union membership at some point in the future. Most Albanians are Muslim, but the state is secular, and minority rights are protected in law.

One cool thing about Albania

Albanians nod their heads to say ‘no’ or to disagree, and shake their heads to answer in the affirmative, which can get confusing for unsuspecting visitors!

One sad thing about Albania

In some of Albania’s more remote regions, stunting still exists due to malnutrition, which seems hard to believe for a modern European country just a short hop across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.

Neighbours Textbox
Albania borders Montenegro in the northwest, the partially-recognised republic of Kosovo in the northeast, and Macedonia in the east. To the southeast is Greece, while Italy lies a short distance away across the Adriatic Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Closed off from the world for much of the 20th century, Albania is finally being discovered by adventurous tourists, and those who visit enjoy a warm welcome, beautiful weather (in the summer, anyway) and breathtaking scenery. Albania’s coastline has much to offer in the way of sunshine and sand, while the interior is often mountainous and resplendent with stunning river valleys and dense forests.

Albania passport
Albanian passport

Architectural and historical sights abound. The capital city – Tirana – is a happening, up-and-coming destination, while many visitors to the nearby Greek island of Corfu take day trips aboard ferries to the country’s southern beaches. It seems likely that interest in Albania as a tourist destination will only grow, so the time to visit may be now, before the hoards discover everything it has to offer.

berat
Berat

 

algeria-flag

Algeria

الجزائر‎‎ (al-Jazā’ir) • ⴷⵣⴰⵢⴻⵔ (Dzayer) • Algérie
  • Official Name: People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria
  • Capital City: Algiers
  • Population: 40,400,000
  • Official Religion: Sunni Islam
  • Language: Arabic, Berber, French
  • Currency: Dinar
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Algeria like?

Most Algerians are a mix of Berbers (considered to be the country’s indigenous people) and Arabs, and the country very much identifies with the Arab world. At one time the jewel in the crown of the colonial French, a vicious civil war following independence made the country one of the most dangerous and unstable Arab states. The 1990s saw terrible internecine strife when elections were cancelled after it appeared Islamists would win them. Low-level violence continues to this day, and militant Islamist organisations remain a significant threat. Nevertheless, Algeria is a more peaceful and stable country than it used to be.

Algeria map
Algeria

The majority of Algeria’s 40-odd million inhabitants live along the rocky coastal strip, while much of the vast interior is uninhabitable, dominated by the mighty Sahara desert. Surprisingly, the country remained pretty quiet during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, and the country’s political life is dominated by the elite that surrounds the authoritarian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The country is rich in natural gas and is a major supplier to European markets. Pressing problems include a rapidly expanding population, chronic unemployment (especially among the young) and the delivery of reliable services.

One cool thing about Algeria

Despite the patriarchal culture prevalent in many Arab countries, women play a major role in the Algerian economy. As an example, an impressive 70% of the country’s lawyers are women.

One sad thing about Algeria

Estimates suggest that up to 150,000 people were killed in the Algerian civil war from 1991 to 2002. Let’s hope that the worst of the violence remains in the past.

Neighbours Textbox
Algeria shares borders with fellow Arab states Morocco in the northwest, Tunisia in the northeast and Libya in the east. Meanwhile, the country has long, largely undemarcated desert borders with Niger in the southeast, Mali in the southwest and Mauritania in the west. It also has a very short border in the west with the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Western governments continue to issue pretty scary-sounding warnings about visiting Algeria. However, with the improvement in the security situation since the end of the war, visitor numbers have increased and Algeria is beginning to emerge as a tourist destination. As one would expect from such a large country (the biggest in Africa by area), Algeria has plenty to offer visitors. Roman ruins are a particular draw in the north, as are the colonial buildings of the towns and cities, while the coastal mountain ranges are being opened up to hikers.

Algeria passport
Algerian passport

The sparsely populated deserts of the south and centre also receive a modest stream of tourists on guided trips, usually by 4×4, or involving camels. While most visits to these areas are trouble free if carefully planned in advance, occasional kidnappings and sometimes lethal attacks against tourists do, sadly, still occur.

Algeria
Constantine – the “city of bridges”

 

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Andorra

Andorre
  • Official Name: Principality of Andorra
  • Capital City: Andorra la Vella
  • Population: 85,470
  • Language: Catalan, Castillian Spanish, French, Portuguese
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Andorra like?

Tiny Andorra – one of the very smallest countries in the world – is perched high in the Pyrenees mountains on the border between France and Spain. The country has an unusual system of government in which the highest office in the land – that of Co-Prince – is held jointly by the president of France and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia. Most Andorrans communicate in Catalan, but Castillian Spanish and French are also commonly heard.

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Andorra

One of the wealthiest countries in the world, Andorra’s economy is heavily geared towards tourism, and the country’s geography makes it a perfect winter sports destination. The small population of just over 85,000 enjoy some of the world’s highest living standards, with very little in the way of crime or pollution. The principality’s tax haven status also plays a major role in the economy.

One cool thing about Andorra

According to some sources, Andorra has the highest life expectancy in the world at 81 years, an obvious benefit of the country’s prosperity and excellent healthcare facilities.

One sad thing about Andorra

There isn’t much to be sad about in Andorra, but despite having almost no agricultural land to speak of, the country produces a quantity of tobacco well in excess of what one would expect for such a small country and remains a key European smuggling hub for tobacco products.

Neighbours Textbox
High up in the Pyrenees, Andorra borders France in the north and the autonomous community of Catalonia in Spain in the south.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Something of a playground, to be honest, with steep mountains and plunging valleys. The country receives about 10 million visitors a year, which is incredible for a land of just 85,000 people. Winter sports are the mainstay of the Andorran economy and the main reason people visit the principality, but the warm, sunny summers have a pull of their own as well.

Andorra passport
Andorran passport

Traditionally, tourists have also been keen to take advantage of Andorra’s duty-free status. However, the tourist economy did take something of a knock during the global economic crisis of 2008, when a drop in prices over the border in Spain reduced Andorra’s competitive advantage in this area.

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Andorra la Vella

 

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Angola

Ngola
  • Official Name: Republic of Angola
  • Capital City: Luanda
  • Population: 25,789,000
  • Language: Portuguese, numerous indigenous languages
  • Currency: Kwanza
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Angola like?

Poverty is widespread in the southwest African state that was once a Portuguese colony. The country’s development was held back for decades thanks to a brutal civil war that broke out on independence in 1975 – a war which didn’t end until 2002. Many rural citizens were displaced during the conflict and now struggle to get by in slums in the capital, Luanda. The country is blighted by a lack of basic services, especially outside the capital, food insecurity, low literacy levels and a violent insurrection in the exclave of Cabinda, which is cut off from the rest of Angola by a sliver of territory belonging to Congo (DR). Despite these troubles, Luanda is often ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live.

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Angola

Angola does, however, have one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies thanks to a resource boom focused mainly on diamond mining and oil production. Luanda in particular has seen an explosion in construction as shiny new towers emerge and more and more roads are paved. While these resources offer hope for a brighter future for a more peaceful Angola, much of the wealth they have generated so far rests in the hands of a tiny minority, while most Angolans continue to live in abject poverty, especially those living outside Luanda.

One cool thing about Angola

Angola is the only place in the world where one can find the giant sable antelope. The species was only recently discovered, and the really cool thing is that it had been believed to be extinct!

One sad thing about Angola

The country has the highest mortality rate on the planet. Every year, 23 out of every 1,000 die. Will the economic boom help to bring health and prosperity to Angola?

Neighbours Textbox
Angola has a long border in the north and northeast with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also borders Zambia in the east and Namibia in the south. The Angolan exclave of Cabinda is separated from the rest of Angola by a small piece of territory belonging to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and also borders the Republic of the Congo. Angola has a long coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Decades of war kept Angola firmly off the tourist trail for much of its post-independence history. Whilst the country is more peaceful nowadays, its onerous visa requirements discourage all but those most determined to visit. Indeed, those who do travel to Angola are trailblazers and, should they explore beyond Luanda, will almost certainly meet people who have never encountered foreigners before.

Angola passport
Angolan passport

Luanda itself is sometimes referred to as the “Paris of Africa“, but it is also one of the most expensive cities in the world. Beyond the capital, the large country has several spectacular national parks and an abundance of wildlife. Angola’s long Atlantic coastline and warm climate mean there is much scope to expand and develop the tourist sector.

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Luanda

 

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Antigua and Barbuda

  • Official Name: Antigua and Barbuda
  • Capital City: St. John’s
  • Population: 91,295
  • Language: English, Antiguan Creole
  • Currency: East Caribbean dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Antigua and Barbuda like?

The island nation in the West Indies comes pretty close to what many people think of as a tropical paradise. Year-round sunshine, unspoilt sandy beaches, warm deep-blue sea, palm trees and Creole culture make this small nation a magnet for well-heeled tourists. Much of the country’s economic and cultural activity centres on Antigua, with its smaller companion Barbuda a little less developed and slightly more isolated.

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Antigua and Barbuda

The islands are a Commonwealth realm that gained independence from the British in 1981 after more than 350 years of colonial administration. The islands have a history of slavery linked to sugar plantations, although the practice was abolished in the 1830s. Today, the people of Antigua and Barbuda live relatively comfortable, if not always affluent, lives.

One cool thing about Antigua and Barbuda

The country’s highest point used to be called Boggy Peak until August 4th, 2009, when it was renamed Mount Obama after the 44th President of the United States. He may not yet have his face on Mt. Rushmore, but there’ll always be a piece of him on Antigua!

One sad thing about Antigua and Barbuda

The country’s national sea creature – the Hawksbill turtle – was once hunted for its shell and, although the practice has now ceased, the species is considered to be endangered.

Neighbours Textbox
Antigua and Barbuda is an island nation with no land borders. It’s nearest neighbours are Montserrat to the southwest and St. Kitts and Nevis to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

See above! Antigua is, by some measures, the most prosperous of all the Caribbean islands, and owes much of this to the advent of high-end tourism. Gigantic cruise ships are a common sight in the harbour at St. John’s. The island’s beach resorts, with their five-star hotels and pristine sands, cater to affluent guests seeking the archetypal Caribbean idyll.

Antigua and Barbuda passport
Antiguan passport

Barbuda is much less developed than its larger counterpart and is often visited by daytrippers making the short ferry hop from their base on Antigua. However, it does have a number of exclusive resorts of its own. Much effort has been made on Barbuda to maintain its quieter, more laid-back demeanour.

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A beach on Barbuda

 

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Argentina

  • Official Name: Argentine Republic
  • Capital City: Buenos Aires
  • Population: 43,417,000
  • Language: Spanish, various regional languages
  • Currency: Peso
  • Continent: South America

What’s Argentina like?

Stretching from the subtropical centre of the South American continent to its chilly southern tip, Argentina is a land of geographical contrasts. From the scorching deserts of the far north, to the strident peaks of the Andes in the northwest, to the temperate Pampas region surrounding the capital, to the sparsely populated plains and spectacular glaciers of Patagonia and the rocky,  remote Tierra del Fuego in the far south, Argentina’s borders encompass a wide variety of climates, topography and geographical features.

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Argentina

The country gained independence from Spain in 1816 and has, by and large, been one of the more prosperous in Latin America. However, political and economic turmoil have been constant features of Argentine life, and protests and demonstrations are a common sight, especially in Buenos Aires. Argentines are not shy about making their views known, especially when it comes to the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas), over which the country fought with Britain in 1982. Football (soccer) is also a national obsession. Economic crisis in the early 2000s ravaged the country, and although things have improved in recent years, inflation remains a problem.

One cool thing about Argentina

There is a small Welsh-speaking community in Argentina in a relatively remote area of Patagonia. Place names such as Y Wladfa, Trelew and Trevelin stand out in this otherwise Spanish-speaking part of the world.

One sad thing about Argentina

It may be among the richer nations of Latin America, but since 1913, Argentina has gone from being the world’s 10th richest country to its 54th richest. Economic mismanagement and political instability are at the heart of the country’s difficulties.

Neighbours Textbox
Argentina has a border stretching 5,300km (3,300m) with Chile in the west – the world’s third-longest international border. It also borders Bolivia to the north, Paraguay and Brazil to the northeast and Uruguay to the east. The British-administered Falkland Islands, known to and claimed by Argentines as Las Malvinas, lie in the South Atlantic off Argentina’s southeastern coast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As befits the eighth-biggest country in the world, there is lots to entice visitors to Argentina. Walking and hiking opportunities abound, and there is skiing in the Andes during the winter months. The country’s vast national parks offer scenic beauty, including the chance to see and explore glaciers in the south.

Argentina passport
Argentinian passport

Most visitors will spend at least some of their time in the vibrant metropolis of Buenos Aires. Colourful, open, tolerant and welcoming, Buenos Aires is the lifeblood of the country and always leaves an impression. Argentina is also not the easiest place for guests to keep vegan – the country has the world’s second-highest consumption of beef, and the meat plays a central role in Argentine cuisine.

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Ushaia, Tierra del Fuego

 

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Armenia

Հայաստան (Hayastan)
  • Official Name: Republic of Armenia
  • Capital City: Yerevan
  • Population: 2,998,600
  • Official Religion: Christianity (Armenian Apostolic Church)
  • Language: Armenian
  • Currency: Dram
  • Continent: Europe (Eurasia)

What’s Armenia like?

Armenia is a small, landlocked republic in the often volatile Caucasus region. Much of it is mountainous, though there is also an abundance of forest and even borderline desert in the far south near Iran. The country also has a shoreline on Lake Sevan. Culturally and linguistically unique, Armenia straddles the blurred lines between Europe and Asia. Often linked culturally to the former, it sits geographically in the latter.

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Armenia

The Armenians are an ancient people with a unique language and script. The vast majority of the population adhere to the Armenian Apostolic Church – the oldest Christian church in the world. Armenians have experienced much strife in their history, including the Armenian Genocide in Anatolia during the First World War, and the hardships of life as a Soviet republic until independence in 1991. The country’s relations with Turkey are frosty, and a war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s hindered its post-Soviet development.

One cool thing about Armenia

Armenia has a large diaspora, especially in the United States. Notable ethnic Armenians include the Kardashians, and in 2015, Kim and Khloe holidayed in Armenia to learn more about their ancestry. And yes, they were joined by Kanye West.

One sad thing about Armenia

It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians were killed during the Armenian Genocide, which took place in 1915 while under Ottoman rule. The legacy of the Genocide lives on in Armenian identity and folklore and continues to poison relations with modern Turkey.

Neighbours Textbox
Armenia borders Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east and Iran to the south. It also borders the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan in the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The country is far from the radar of mass tourism, but it is a very rewarding destination for those who do visit. Stunning mountain scenery, ancient churches, historic buildings and friendly people make Armenia a welcoming place to explore. While the capital, Yerevan, has all the trappings of a modern, mid-sized city, much of Armenia is rural and unspoilt.

Armenia passport
Armenian passport

Yerevan lies in the shadow of the magnificent Mount Ararat, the holiest site in Armenian Christianity, which lies just over the border in Turkey, and on a clear day  makes for some superb views. Armenia, especially Yerevan, also makes a great place to take in café culture and watch the world go by.

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Yerevan and Mount Ararat

 

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Australia

  • Official Name: Commonwealth of Australia
  • Capital City: Canberra
  • Largest City: Sydney
  • Population: 24,200,000
  • Language: English
  • Currency: Australian dollar
  • Continent: Oceania

What’s Australia like?

One of the world’s largest countries in terms of area, Australia’s interior is mostly desert, with rainforest in the tropical north. The vast majority of Australians live around the coast, especially in the southeast. The country is one of the most urbanised in the world, although some Australians do make a living from the harsh Outback. In much of the country away from the populated coastal areas, it is possible to go for days without seeing civilisation. The country is well known for being home to some unique wildlife found nowhere else on Earth, including kangaroos, wallabies and some of the world’s most venomous spiders.

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Australia

Australia performs consistently well in various measures of national well-being and is considered to have some of the highest living standards anywhere in the world. Modern Australia is very multicultural, with 25% of its residents born overseas. The Australian economy is buoyed by a booming mining sector, and has ridden out the global economic downturn well. However, the country’s Aboriginal peoples have not shared in the prosperity and remain marginalised, and a slowdown in the Chinese demand for raw materials is one major problem Australia will need to be prepared for.

One cool thing about Australia

Estimates suggest that Aboriginal people have been in Australia for up to 60,000 years, making it the oldest culture in the world.

One sad thing about Australia

Australia has the highest rates of gambling in the world. While this does contribute to economic growth and most Aussies who gamble do so responsibly, it nevertheless comes with all the usual downsides associated with impulsiveness and addiction.

Neighbours Textbox
Australia has no land borders. Its nearest neighbours are New Zealand across the Tasman Sea in the southeast, New Caledonia in the Coral Sea to the east, and Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea to the north.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Australia has a very highly-developed tourist economy. The country is especially popular with adventurous young Europeans, who will often travel up or down the east coast, or perhaps explore the Outback, before heading to Southeast Asia. The country offers vibrant, multicultural cities, unique landscapes and wildlife, beaches with world class surfing and the majesty of Uluru, or Ayers Rock. Care is, of course, required when travelling around Australia, where distances between settlements and potential assistance can be enormous. The country’s natural wonders, from its diverse wildlife to the remarkable Great Barrier Reef, are also a major draw.

Australia passport
Australian passport

While the country is often seen as synonymous with beautiful warm sunny weather, the southwest and southeast of the country do have discernible winters, and there are plenty of opportunities for winter sports enthusiasts in the mountains of New South Wales and Victoria. Australia’s major cities have developed into youthful, vibrant multicultural metropolises that provide excellent bases for those exploring the country, and offer plenty of amenities to those who enjoy the buzz of the urban environment.

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Uluru

 

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Austria

Österreich
  • Official Name: Republic of Austria
  • Capital City: Vienna
  • Population: 8,726,000
  • Language: German
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Austria like?

A prosperous, mountainous, German-speaking Central European republic perhaps best known for The Sound of Music, Mozart, winter sports and it’s beautiful capital city, Vienna. The country has played a major role in European military and political history and was part of one of the world’s most powerful empires in the shape of Austria-Hungary. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is widely seen as a key trigger for World War One, and the country was also invaded by Nazi Germany in 1938. Since the restoration of full sovereignty in 1955, the country has pursued a policy of neutrality.

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Austria

Modern Austria is a wealthy country with high living standards. Most Austrians speak Bavarian German dialects, and the country has in recent years welcomed economic and political migrants, particularly from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia. The country’s cities are world-famous for their classical architecture and long histories. However, Austria also has one of the most influential far-right movements of any European country.

One cool thing about Austria

Arnold Schwarzenegger is originally from Austria, which is pretty fantastic. He lives in California now, though, and hasn’t confirmed he will ever “be back”.

One sad thing about Austria

Adolf Hitler was originally from Austria, which is not quite so cool. Hitler may, for obvious reasons, be more heavily associated with German history, but he was born and raised in Austria and saw the distinction between different German-speaking peoples as phony.

Neighbours Textbox
Austria may be small, but its location at the heart of Europe means it has plenty of neighbours. Germany and the Czech Republic lie to the north, Slovakia is to the northeast, with Hungary to the east and Slovenia to the southeast. To the south is Italy, while Switzerland and the tiny principality of Liechtenstein are to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Some of the highest peaks in the Alps are in Austria, and the country is one of the world’s most popular winter sports destinations. Outside of the skiing season, the mountainous nation offer spectacular views to walkers, hikers and climbers.

Austria passport
Austrian passport

Each year, millions of tourists are attracted to the country’s capital, Vienna, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with a rich cultural heritage and a proud history. The city is renowned for its stunning Baroque architecture and its prominent role in the history of classical music.

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Belvedere Palace, Vienna

 

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Azerbaijan

Azərbaycan
  • Official Name: Republic of Azerbaijan
  • Capital City: Baku
  • Population: 9,754,830
  • Language: Azerbaijani
  • Currency: Manat
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Azerbaijan like?

A former Soviet republic in the southern Caucasus, Azerbaijan is rich in oil and natural gas, and has used these commodities to achieve impressive economic growth since independence in 1992. However, much of the wealth that this boom has delivered is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite surrounding the country’s authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev, who has been accused of human rights abuses. Most ordinary citizens remain poor.

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Azerbaijan

The country also smarts from the fallout of its war with neighbouring Armenia and the loss of control over a substantial swathe of territory in the west to the de facto independent ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Despite these travails, the country is increasingly ambitious and has begun to raise its international profile, while the Tour of Azerbaijan has become one the most prestigious events on the cycling calendar. Football fans may have seen the country’s tourist board advertised on the shirts of FC Barcelona.

One cool thing about Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is known as the Land of Fire, and fire is a big deal in the country. The first known fireplace – dating back as far as 700,000 years – was discovered in a cave in the country, and there is a mountain which is permanently ablaze due to escaping natural gas.

One sad thing about Azerbaijan

Human rights groups have criticised President Aliyev and his government for cracking down increasingly harshly on dissenting voices and failing to tackle corruption as the country’s resource boom fails to improve the lives of most ordinary Azerbaijanis.

Neighbours Textbox
Azerbaijan borders Georgia to the northwest, Russia to the north, Iran to the south and Armenia to the west. There are several tiny pockets of Azerbaijani territory surrounded by Armenia, and vice versa. Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchevan also gives the country a short border with Turkey.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The government is ambitious about developing the country’s fledgling tourist industry and has dedicated itself to making Azerbaijan a popular tourist destination. The country is beginning to restore its reputation after the Nagorno-Karabakh war of the 1990s had a negative impact on its tourist industry.

Azerbaijan passport
Azerbaijani passport

Visitors will find Baku to be an increasingly modern and shiny oil city on the Caspian Sea, but it still retains the charms of its attractive mosques and Islamic history and culture. Outside of the capital, winter is a great time to visit the mountains of Azerbaijan, where the country’s ski resorts continue to develop and expand. Meanwhile, the Tour of Azerbaijan draws cycling enthusiasts from around the world.

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Baku

 

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The Bahamas

  • Official Name: Commonwealth of the Bahamas
  • Capital City: Nassau
  • Population: 392,700
  • Language: English
  • Currency: Bahamian dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s The Bahamas like?

Often thought of as a typical Caribbean nation, the hundreds of islands and cays that make up The Bahamas actually lie in the North Atlantic, just to the north of Cuba and the island of Hispaniola, and to the south east of the US state of Florida. However, despite this geographical distinction, the people of The Bahamas share much in common with other Afro-Caribbean nations of the West Indies in terms of culture, history and identity.

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The Bahamas

The islands became a British colony in the 18th century and went on to become a new home for freed African slaves either rescued from slave ships or brought over by “owners” fleeing the US following the American War of Independence. The majority of Bahamians are the descendants of freed African slaves. Today, The Bahamas is one of the wealthiest countries in the Americas, with an economy built on financial services and a high-end tourist industry that takes advantage of the islands’ idyllic setting.

One cool thing about The Bahamas

When Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, his first landing point was in The Bahamas, rather than on the American mainland, although this was probably less cool for the native Arawaks, who were to be forcibly relocated to Hispaniola by the Spanish.

One sad thing about The Bahamas

The islands are sometimes subjected to some pretty hefty hurricanes. In August 2004, Hurricane Frances became the first hurricane since 1928 to pass over the entirety of The Bahamas, almost wiping out the country’s agricultural sector and causing widespread damage to property. Earlier this year, Hurricane Matthew landed a direct hit on The Bahamas.

Neighbours Textbox
The Bahamas is made up of hundreds of islands and cays and, as such, has no land borders. The US state of Florida is nearby to the northwest, while Cuba lies a short distance away to the southwest. The British overseas territory of Turks and Caicos lies to the southeast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The occasional monster hurricane aside, The Bahamas offers year-round sunshine, warm seas, excellent diving opportunities and an array of upscale beach resorts. The harbour at Nassau, the country’s capital, often resembles a car park for cruise ships, and luxury cruise passengers make up just shy of three quarters of the islands’ annual visitor numbers.

The Bahamas passport
Bahamian passport

Nassau itself dominates the islands’ cultural, economic and political life, and is home to enormous hotels and casinos, although most come for the more tranquil atmosphere and picturesque setting of the islands and cays beyond the capital.

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Long Island

 

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Bahrain

البحرين‎‎ (al-Baḥrayn)
  • Official Name: Kingdom of Bahrain
  • Capital City: Manama
  • Population: 1,378,000
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Language: Arabic
  • Currency: Bahraini dinar
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Bahrain like?

Bahrain is a small island nation in the Persian Gulf that lies just off the coast of Saudi Arabia – to which it is linked by the King Fahd Causeway – and to the west of Qatar. The country is a major oil producer, but its reserves have never been as vast as those of its neighbours. Bahrain has attempted to address this by developing its tourism sector and attracting financial institutions to its capital, Manama. Like other countries in the Gulf, its imported labour – mainly from the Indian Subcontinent – are considerably less well-off than native Bahraini Arabs.

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Bahrain

By Gulf standards, Bahrain’s absolute monarchy is relatively permissive, and it is common for young Saudis to cross the causeway to take advantage of the relative freedoms on offer in their near neighbour. However, Bahrain became restive during the 2011 Arab Spring, when the Sunni Muslim monarchy suppressed protests that emanated particularly from the country’s Shia Muslims, who make up a large majority of the population and, especially outside Manama, tend to live less comfortably than their Sunni compatriots. While things are quiet again now, the grievances for many have not subsided.

One cool thing about Bahrain

The British School of Bahrain holds the world record for the largest simultaneous coin toss after 1,117 staff and students participated in the effort in 2010 to mark World Maths Day.

One sad thing about Bahrain

It seems a shame that in a hot island nation, only 5% of its beaches are open to the public. The rest are in the hands of the ruling family or private investors.

Neighbours Textbox
Technically and island nation without land borders, Bahrain is directly linked to Saudi Arabia in the west via the King Fahd causeway. Meanwhile, Qatar lies a short distance away across the Persian/Arabian Gulf to the southeast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Bahrain’s summer heat can be oppressive, with temperatures sometimes reaching 50c. However, outside the hottest part of the year, Bahrain is a great winter sun spot that blends modern Middle Eastern culture with a wealth of archaeological treasures. Most visitors come from surrounding Arab states, but the country draws visitors from further afield with its opportunities for diving, birdwatching and sailing.

Bahrain passport
Bahraini passport

Bahrain is also on the Formula One motor-racing calendar, although its circuit has come in for criticism from some quarters for not being demanding or exciting enough. The country’s comparatively relaxed social scene make it something of a playground for young partygoers from more conservative nearby states, especially Saudi Arabia.

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World Trade Center, Manama

 

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Bangladesh

বাংলাদেশ (Bāṃlādēśa)
  • Official Name: People’s Republic of Bangladesh
  • Capital City: Dhaka
  • Population: 168,957,745
  • State Religion: Islam
  • Language: Bengali (or Bangla), English
  • Currency: Taka
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Bangladesh like?

An intoxicating, crowded country, Bangladesh is roughly comparable in size to England, but with a population bigger than that of Russia! The land is extremely fertile thanks to two of Asia’s mightiest rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, both of which flow into Bangladesh, forming a huge delta system as they empty into the Bay of Bengal. However, the country is prone to severe storms and often devastating flooding.

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Bangladesh

Bangladesh began life as an independent nation in 1971 when, following a vicious war, it broke away from Pakistan. After the British gave India its independence in 1948, partition gave rise to two new states – India and Pakistan. The latter was made up of two wings – a western wing and an eastern wing. However, the more populous eastern wing remained restive, eventually rising up and breaking away from Pakistan to form a new country – Bangladesh. Whilst progress has been made, and the country has considerable natural resources, poverty remains an endemic problem in the bustling, crowded country. In recent times, a rise in attacks by Islamists, especially against secular bloggers, has presented a new challenge, although most Bangladeshis practice a tolerant brand of Islam.

One cool thing about Bangladesh

Bangladesh is home to the world’s longest beach at Cox’s Bazar in the southeast country, near its border with Myanmar (Burma).

One sad thing about Bangladesh

The country is very agricultural, but it is also one of the world’s leading textile and garment manufacturers. Sadly, worker protection and safety standards are often poor, and a huge fire at a garment factory in the capital, Dhaka, in 2012 killed over 100 staff and resulted in more than 200 injuries. Then, in 2013, a complex that was home to multiple factories collapsed and 1,100 workers lost their lives.

Neighbours Textbox
Bangladesh is bordered by India to the west north and east. The border between the two countries becomes mind-bogglingly complex in places, with parcels of one country’s territory often surrounded by the other. There are many enclaves within enclaves. It’s a fascinating border for those with an interests in quirky political geography. Bangladesh also has a short border with Myanmar (Burma) in the southeast. Nepal and Bhutan are separated from Bangladesh in the north by narrow stretches of Indian territory.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Bangladesh’s chaotic infrastructure, political volatility and endemic poverty make it a challenging destination for tourists. However, the country does receive a steady stream of visitors every year, and it has an abundance of natural, cultural and historic treasures.

Bangladesh passport
Bangladesh passport

The vast Sunderbans mangrove swamps is a UNESCO World Heritage site, while Cox’s Bazar is home to the world’s longest unbroken beach. The country’s national parks are home to a fascinating array of flora and fauna, while the intense, frenetic, colourful and, occasionally, dangerous capital, Dhaka, boasts a number of impressive forts and mosques.

Bangladesh
Cox’s Bazar

 

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Barbados

  • Official Name: Barbados
  • Capital City: Bridgetown
  • Population: 277,821
  • Language: English
  • Currency: Barbadian dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Barbados like?

The island of Barbados is a former British colony, technically in the North Atlantic, but widely considered to be a quintessential Caribbean nation. A relatively low-lying island, especially when compared to some of its neighbours, Barbados lies outside the path of most Atlantic hurricanes, and its year-round warm weather, multitude of beach resorts and laid-back Caribbean pace of life make it a hugely popular tourist destination.

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Barbados

Most Barbadians enjoy a relatively high standard of living in one of the western hemisphere’s wealthier countries. However, small pockets of poverty do still exist in some parts of Barbados, and the country’s reliance on tourism does put it at the mercy of industry downturns. The vast majority of Barbadians are of Afro-Caribbean descent, but there also South Asian and Chinese minorities on the island.

One cool thing about Barbados

The pop star Rihanna was born in the parish of Saint Michael and raised in the Barbadian capital, Bridgetown. Since 2009, she has been an honorary ambassador for youth and culture on the island.

One sad thing about Barbados

In 2006, a “ghost” ship was brought into port in Barbados. The eleven occupants had been adrift in the Atlantic for four months and died from starvation. The boat appeared to have originated in west Africa and to be attempting to reach Spain’s Canary Islands.

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Barbados is a fairly remote island in the North Atlantic, geographically separate from the chain of Caribbean island nations it is generally seen as being a part of. It’s nearest neighbour is St. Vincent and the Grenadines to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Barbados is something of a tourist mecca, with the majority of visitors well-to-do Brits looking for some guaranteed sunshine. The island is also popular with Americans and Canadians. For most, the chief appeal of Barbados is its luxury beach resorts, but the country also contains interesting towns and villages featuring attractive colonial buildings.

Barbados passport
Barbadian passport

The island’s less visited east coast is an altogether different affair as giant waves crash against rocky cliffs, making this one of the most scenic parts of the island.

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The Barbadian parliament, Bridgetown

 

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Belarus

Беларусь (Biełaruś)
  • Official Name: Republic of Belarus
  • Capital City: Minsk
  • Population: 9,498,700
  • Language: Russian, Belarusian
  • Currency: New Belarusian ruble
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Belarus like?

Often referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe, Belarus has been run since independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union by its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko. The country retains strong ties with Russia, with some observers speculating that the two may reunite one day to form a single state. However, relations between the two have soured somewhat in recent years. Belarus’s relations with the West have been tetchy due to criticisms of the regime’s human right record. One of the better-off parts of the Soviet Union during the Cold War period, the country experienced an economic crisis after independence, but rebounded fairly well in the late 1990s, and has a relatively low rate of unemployment.

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Belarus

Geographically, Belarus is heavily forested, with a fairly flat landscape featuring numerous lakes and the occasional rolling hillside. Most people speak Russian in everyday life, although there is a Belarusian language, and both language have official status. The term “Belarus” literally translates into White Russia.

One cool thing about Belarus

The massively-multiplayer online game World of Tanks was created by a Belarusian firm, and a Belarusian was also heavily involved in developing the popular instant messaging app, Viber.

One sad thing about Belarus

The 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, severely impacted Belarus, which received about 60% of the nuclear fallout. The country continues to struggle with the affects of environmental pollution.

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Landlocked Belarus borders Poland in the west, Lithuania in the northwest, Latvia in the north, Russia in the east and Ukraine in the south.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourism is a very small sector of Belarus’s economy, and the country receives relatively few Western tourists. Most visitors come from Russia. Many Western visitors find the presence of such an authoritarian state in Europe surprising, but tourists are unlikely to run afoul of the authorities during a brief stay. Getting a visa to enter Belarus can be tricky.

Belarus passport
Belarusian passport

The country does have plenty of pleasant countryside to enjoy, while there also UNESCO World Heritage sites waiting be discovered and an array of attractive churches, historic fortresses and imposing castles. Belarus is not without potential as a tourist destination.

Belarus
Minsk

 

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Belgium

België • Belgique • Belgien
  • Official Name: Kingdom of Belgium
  • Capital City: Brussels
  • Population: 11,250,585
  • Language: Dutch, French, German
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Belgium like?

Home to major European Union institutions, the site of infamous First and Second World War battlefields, modern Belgium is a prosperous northern European country with a growing immigrant population. Belgian politics and society are somewhat fractious, with three different language communities – Flanders (Dutch-speaking), Wallonia (French speaking) and the small German speaking community – often pulling in different directions. On occasion, this has left Belgium without a functioning government, and the possibility of break-up in the future cannot be ruled out. The country is renowned for its waffles, beer and especially for producing high quality chocolate.

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Belgium

In common with the other Low Countries (Netherlands and Luxembourg), most of Belgium is low-lying, with coastal plains and a central plateau that gives way to the rolling hills of the Ardennes in the southeast. The coast is lined with beach resorts that become very popular in the summer months, while the country’s towns and cities – especially Bruges and Antwerp – are a particular draw for tourists. The port of Zeebrugge is one of Europe’s busiest.

One cool thing about Belgium

The first person to publish what is now known as the Big Bang theory was a Belgian physicist (and, somehow, priest) by the name of Georges Lemaitre. Small country, major contribution to our understanding of the universe!

One sad thing about Belgium

The country was occupied by Germany during both World Wars and is home to many war graves, especially around Ieper (Ypres).

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Belgium has an intriguing border with the Netherlands in the north, which includes a number of enclaves and exclaves and even runs directly through the middle of buildings in places. The country also borders Germany in the east, Luxembourg in the southeast and France in the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Belgium packs a lot into its relatively small territory, and possesses world class infrastructure, making it a simple country to get around. The major towns and cities, including Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp, feature numerous Gothic-style buildings and attractive central squares, although Brussels itself is not always considered Belgium’s most enticing destination. Nevertheless, the quirky (some might say bizarre) Atomium is worth a look.

Belgium passport
Belgian passport

Arguably the most scenic part of Belgium is the Ardennes, where hillsides, valleys and forests host tiny villages and impressive castles. The Belgian coast becomes popular during the summer months and is served by the world’s longest tramline. French fries, despite their name, were invented in Belgium, and they are delicacy when served with mayonnaise.

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Bruges

 

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Belize

  • Official Name: Belize
  • Capital City: Belmopan
  • Largest City: Belize City
  • Population: 368,310
  • Language: English, Spanish, Belizean Creole
  • Currency: Belize dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Belize like?

A small Commonwealth realm and former British colony on the Central American isthmus, Belize is remarkably diverse, and possesses an impressive array of land and marine life. Culturally, the country has taken on much from the British and Spanish influences in the region and retains strong links to both Latin America and the Caribbean nations. Belize is considered a middle-income country, and social inequality is less pronounced in Belize than in other countries in the region. A constant thread running through the country’s post-independence history is its tense relationship with neighbouring Guatemala.

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Belize

The country’s jungles and coastal waters are home to a wide variety of plants and animals, and has taken some steps to try and protect its ecosystem. However, pollution and global warming remain a constant threat. The country is regularly hit by severe hurricanes and earthquakes are also a risk.

One cool thing about Belize

A culinary delicacy in Belize is gibnut, which is a type of rodent. This appetising treat is sometimes referred to as the royal rat, having once been served to Queen Elizabeth II!

One sad thing about Belize

Relations between Belize and its western neighbour, Guatemala, are so bad that the countries do their best to shame each other on the world stage, and Guatemala lays claim to more or less all Belizean territory.

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Diminutive Belize borders two other Central American nations – Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south. To the east is a long Caribbean coastline.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourism is an important part of Belize’s economy, and it has plenty to offer. The country draws visitors from all around the world to explore its many Mayan ruins, to marvel at its diverse flora and fauna and to experience world class diving off its coast. Belize is home to the Great Blue Hole – the world’s largest sinkhole – a paradise for keen divers.

Belize passport
Belizean passport

The country is a thriving ecotourism destination, and the government of Belize has made further development of the sector an important goal.

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Great Blue Hole

 

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Benin

Bénin
  • Official Name: Republic of Benin
  • Capital City: Porto-Novo
  • Largest City: Cotonou
  • Population: 10,879,829
  • Language: French, Yoruba, Fon
  • Currency: West African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Benin like?

A small, relatively narrow country on the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa, Benin was once the centre of the great Dahomey kingdom, one of the most powerful and influential west African realms. It is also the birthplace of the Verdun faith, perhaps better known as Voodoo. The country abounds with historic palaces and temples that serve as a reminder of its glorious past, while the French language and colonial architecture of the big cities recall the country’s days as a French colony.

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Benin

Most Beninese live along the narrow coastal strip in the city of Cotonou and the official capital, Porto-Novo. Much of the country is tropical, but there is an arid region in the far north. Agriculture is hugely important, with subsistence farming commonplace. The country has experienced political turbulence in the past, and spent the early part of its post-independence history under a Marxist government, before transitioning to multiparty democracy in the 1990s. The majority of Beninese remain poor.

One cool thing about Benin

In 1990, Benin became the first African country to make a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy when the Marxist regime of Mathieu Kérékou fell.

One sad thing about Benin

Southern Benin was part of what was once known as the Slave Coast. The powerful Kingdom of Dahomey, of which Benin was a large part, is estimated to have made £250,000 per year selling Africans to European traders.

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Benin borders Togo in the west, Burkina Faso and Niger in the north and Nigeria in the east. It also has a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As a poor country with underdeveloped infrastructure, not many tourists make their way to Benin each year. However, the country’s colonial history and the legacy of the Kingdom of Dahomey mean their is plenty to reward those that do. Especially, in the south, Benin is blessed with numerous ruins that tell the story of the country’s past, while the palaces at Abomey are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Benin passport
Beninese passport

The country also has some small national parks for those looking to enjoy typical west African savannah scenery, and the coastal resort town of Grand Popo, near the border with Togo, is popular with locals and visitors alike.

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Royal Palaces of Abomey

 

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Bhutan

འབྲུག་ཡུལ་ (druk gyal)
  • Official Name: Kingdom of Bhutan
  • Capital City: Thimphu
  • Population: 742,737
  • Official Religion: Buddhism
  • Language: Dzongkha
  • Currency: Ngultrum
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Bhutan like?

Spectacular Bhutan is a small, somewhat isolated, kingdom straddling the borders between India and China (specifically Tibet), dominated by the peaks of the eastern Himalayas, but with subtropical plains in the south. The country never became part of the British Empire per se, but it did cede some authority to British India, and has spent much of its history as an absolute monarchy. However, in 2008, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy, increasing the degree of freedoms open to ordinary citizens and reducing the role of the royal family.

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Bhutan

The country has jealously guarded the isolation afforded by its location to preserve its culture and traditions, much of which remain intact, and the Bhutanese follow a unique strand of Buddhism. A poor country, Bhutan has devised a philosophy referred to as Gross National Happiness, which recognises that the well-being of a society can be measured in more than just economic terms, and regular surveys find Bhutanese to be among the happiest people in the world. However, there is much anxiety about the pace of change as the country gradually opens up.

One cool thing about Bhutan

Thimphu is the only city in the world without traffic lights. A system was piloted in 1995, but Bhutanese drivers found them too impersonal, so they were removed. The city’s road junctions are managed by smartly-dressed officials in white gloves.

One sad thing about Bhutan

Society in Bhutan is pretty harmonious, but keeping it that way can come at a cost. In the 1990s, the government became concerned about a lack of conformity from the country’s ethnic Lhotshampa people and forcibly expelled them all.

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Bhutan’s northern border is with the Tibetan autonomous region of China. To the east is Arunachal Pradesh – administered by India but claimed by China. India also lies to the south and west. Nepal and Bangladesh are separated from Bhutan by small sections of Indian territory.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Historically, Bhutan did not allow tourists to visit out of concern that such contact with the outside world might permanently alter and damage their unique way of life. However, things began to change in the 1970s, and the country is now open to guests. You’ll need plenty of disposable income, though, as the Bhutanese government requires all tourists to be on an organised tour, and a visa costs $250 a day(!) for the duration of your stay.

Bhutan passport
Bhutanese passport

Those lucky enough to have the means can enjoy incredible trekking opportunities in the Himalayas and to take in the country’s charming and often spectacular dzongs, ancient fortresses that often cling to mountainsides, while the scenery is spectacular wherever you are in Bhutan.

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Taktsang Dzong, near Thimphu

 

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Bolivia

Buliwya • Wuliwya • Mborivia
  • Official Name: Plurinational State of Bolivia
  • Capital City: Sucre (constitutional capital), La Paz (seat of government)
  • Largest City: Santa Cruz de la Sierra
  • Population: 11,410,651
  • Languages: Spanish, Quechua, Aymara, Guarani
  • Currency: Boliviano
  • Continent: South America

What’s Bolivia like?

Landlocked Bolivia, by some measures the poorest country in South America, is diverse in terms of both landscape and society. Much of the country’s centre and east is a hot, subtropical plain, while the western part is dominated by the Andes mountains. The Andean region was once part of the Inca empire, and the civilisation’s legacy is evident in the many ruins and temples that remain. A former Spanish colony, modern Bolivia is named after independence hero, Simón Bolívar, who played a major role in the various regional wars for independence from Spain.

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Bolivia

Bolivians are a diverse ethnic mix, and Bolivia is the only country in South America in which indigenous peoples make up a majority of the population. However, much of the country’s wealth and influence lies with the elite, mainly the descendants of European immigrants. Poverty is a major challenge. In 2006, Bolivians elected their first indigenous president, Evo Morales, who is still in power today. Morales has embarked on a programme of renationalisation, and has also altered the country’s constitution in an attempt to begin addressing the huge inequalities in Bolivian society.

One cool thing about Bolivia

Despite being landlocked, Bolivia maintains a navy. This is because the country harbours hopes of one day reclaiming land lost to Chile in the late 19th century, which would give it access to the Pacific Ocean.

One sad thing about Bolivia

The Camino de las Yungas in the Andes is famous – or perhaps infamous – as the most dangerous road in the world. This narrow, unpaved, winding route through the mountains is open to traffic in both directions, despite the precipitous, mostly unguarded, drops. Every year, as many as 300 people are killed on a stretch of road only 50 miles long.

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At the heart of the South American continent, Bolivia has a long border in the north and east with Brazil. It also borders Paraguay in the southeast, Argentina in the south, Chile in the southwest and Peru in the northwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Bolivia is a backpackers dream and has become an increasingly popular part of South American itineraries. Bolivia’s relative remoteness when compared to much of the rest of the Americas, along with its indigenous culture, make it a particularly interesting destination to experience. The Andes hide remote villages, while the city of La Paz is unofficially the world’s highest capital. Everywhere in Bolivia there are stunning vistas to be enjoyed. Bolivia also has the largest salt flats in the world, perfect for attempting to break land speed records or filming Top Gear.

Bolivia passport
Bolivian passport

The country’s Inca and colonial legacies mean there are plenty of interesting sites, both remote and urban, from Spanish colonial buildings in the major cities, to the ruins of ancient Inca palaces and forts. And if you’re really brave, you can take a drive along the aforementioned “death road”, but you’ll need nerves of steel!

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La Paz

 

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Bosnia and Herzegovina

Боснa и Херцеговина (Bosna i Hercegovina) • Bosna i Hercegovina
  • Official name: Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Capital City: Sarajevo
  • Population: 3,531,159
  • Language: Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian
  • Currency: Convertible mark
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Bosnia and Herzegovina like?

Bosnia sits at the heart of the Balkans and was a constituent republic of Yugoslavia until 1992, when the collapse of the authoritarian socialist Yugoslav state precipitated a succession of independence declarations and violent conflicts in the region. The war in Bosnia was particularly vicious, as ethnic Serbs, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats pulled in different directions, each turning on each other in the process. The war raged for three years before the signing of the Dayton Agreement in Ohio brought the conflict to an end and created a state based on a loose confederation of two entities, both of which largely look after themselves.

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Bosnia and Herzegovina

Most Bosnian Serbs live in the Republika Srpska, a majority Serb entity, while Bosniaks and ethnic Croats mostly live in the Federation. These two entities together form Bosnia and Herzegovina, but in reality, they largely take care of their own affairs. Bosnia’s constitutional arrangement is complicated and cumbersome, a direct consequence of the conditions needed to bring about peace. At times, Bosnia remains a highly dysfunctional place, hindering governance and economic prospects. Nevertheless, Bosnia is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination.

One cool thing about Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Bosnian men’s volleyball team won gold at the 2004 Summer Paralympics. Many of the players had lost limbs during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s.

One sad thing about Bosnia and Herzegovina

There were many atrocities during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, but perhaps the most shocking of all was the Srebrenica Massacre, when 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mainly men and boys, were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces. The tragedy was compounded by the fact the UN had declared the town a safe zone, and its forces failed to act to prevent the bloodbath.

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Bosnia and Herzegovina’s longest border is with Croatia, which runs the western and northern lengths of the country. It also has borders with Serbia in the east and Montenegro in the south. The country has a tiny section of coast on the Adriatic Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Bosnia was fairly popular with tourists while part of Yugoslavia, but the break-up of that country and the wars that followed ravaged Bosnia’s infrastructure and made it categorically unsafe. After the war, the threat of landmines remained a serious problem. Happily, the country is beginning to reemerge as a tourist destination, both in its own right, and as a day-trip from the Croatian resort of Dubrovnik. Travel guides increasingly espouse the beauty and cosmopolitan atmosphere of the capital, Sarajevo. Meanwhile, the city of Mostar is famous for its Ottoman era bridge, which was destroyed in the war and restored after the conflict’s end.

Bosnia and Herzegovina passport
Bosnian passport

The country is mostly mountainous and does have a handful of ski resorts. The scenic countryside is full of Ottoman era forts and traditional villages, and the country also has the last remaining jungle in Europe in the beautiful Sutjeska National Park.

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Stari Most bridge, Mostar

 

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Botswana

  • Official Name: Republic of Botswana
  • Capital City: Gaborone
  • Population: 2,155,784
  • Language: English, Tsetswana
  • Currency: Pula
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Botswana like?

A landlocked, sparsely populated country in southern Africa, Botswana is a former British colonial possession that has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to something of an African success story. A mining boom has driven economic growth and made Botswana one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most prosperous nations. Politically, the country has achieved remarkable stability and has a solid democratic record. Despite the positives, Botswana has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world, and although government initiatives have had some success, HIV/AIDS remains a substantial problem.

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Botswana

The country is mostly flat, and is dominated by the Kalahari Desert. Traditional ways of life remain strong, especially in rural Botswana. The Batswana (as the people of Botswana are known) are quite diverse, although the ethnic Tswana make up about 80% of the population. The capital city, Gaborone is a small, modern, fairly affluent and strikingly low-rise city.

One cool thing about Botswana

Botswana is the third biggest producer of diamonds in the world, which partially explains its economic success. Only Russia and Canada produce more diamonds than Botswana. The country also has the world’s single richest diamond mine.

One sad thing about Botswana

HIV/AIDS has had a devastating effect on Botswana. The country used to have Africa’s highest life expectancy at 65 years, but by 2006, this had plummeted to just 35 as a result of the epidemic. However, life expectancy has been rising in recent years.

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Botswana borders Namibia in the west and north, Zimbabwe in the east and South Africa in the south. It also makes the tiniest contact with Zambia in the northeast, across the Zambezi river.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourism is a key component of Botswana’s economy, with visitors drawn to its extensive national parkland and the wide variety of wildlife that live there. Botswana has more elephants than any other country in the world, and there are also sizable populations of hippos, lions, crocodiles, antelope and all manner of bird life. Many tourists also come to see native tribesmen – especially the Bushmen of the Kalahari – in their native attire, although they will often only dress ceremonially for tourists.

Botswana passport
Batswana passport

Botswana is also home to the unique Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta, which is formed by a river flowing not into the sea, but into the Kalahari Desert. The delta system attracts a remarkable array of African wildlife from thousands of miles around.

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Okavango Delta

 

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Brazil

Brasil
  • Official Name: Federative Republic of Brazil
  • Capital City: Brasília
  • Largest City: São Paulo
  • Population: 206,440,850
  • Language: Portuguese
  • Currency: Real
  • Continent: South America

What’s Brazil like?

The fifth-biggest country in the world by both area and population, Brazil is a vibrant, diverse, sometimes chaotic, soccer-mad federal republic – the only Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America. Economically, the country has made incredible strides in the last two decades, and its global influence and profile has been growing. However, the country is politically volatile, while the overheated economy has hit the buffers in the last five years. Many Brazilians live in ramshackle, illegal shanty towns known as favelas on the edge of the big cities, where crime and poverty remain intractable problems, and the country has a vast gulf between the haves and the many have-nots in society.

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Brazil

Brazil is an increasingly urbanised country as more and more rural people seek a better life in the big cities. Descendants of Portuguese settlers rub shoulders with Afro-Brazilians whose ancestors were brought to the country as slaves, as well various mixed race groups and indigenous peoples. Remote Amazonian Brazil has the highest number of uncontacted tribes anywhere in the world. The Amazon Basin itself dominates northern Brazil, where tropical conditions prevail, but the further south one goes, the cooler the country becomes. Winters in the southern city of Porto Alegre can be rather chilly.

One cool thing about Brazil

Brazil has been the world’s leading coffee producer for more than 150 years. No country has done more to help generations of sleepy workers around the globe kick-start their day!

One sad thing about Brazil

Vast sections of the Amazon rainforest are being cut down all the time to create new farmland. This results in the daily extinction of over 100 species and, at the current rate, will have completely destroyed the rainforest by the 2060s.

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The giant of South America, Brazil borders more countries than any other on the continent. In the west, the country borders Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru. In the northwest is Colombia, while in the north, Brazil borders Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and the French overseas department of French Guiana. In the far south, Brazil borders Uruguay, while in the far southwest, there is a relatively short frontier with Argentina. Brazil has one of the world’s longest coastlines on the Atlantic Ocean.

 

What is it like for tourists?

Over six million tourists visit Brazil every year to take in the iconic sights of Rio de Janeiro – Copacabana beach, Christ the Redeemer statue, Ipanema and much more – to experience the hustle and bustle of the country’s biggest metropolis, São Paulo, or to camp in jungle lodges and boat along the Amazon, and many, many other reasons besides. The country’s reputation for passion and exuberance, embodied in the tradition of the samba and the love of soccer, make Brazil an intoxicating destination. Guided tours of the favelas are becoming increasingly popular, and give tourists the chance to see the real Brazil as lived by many of its poorest citizens.

Brazil passport
Brazilian passport

Those with an interest in colonial times will find plenty of interest from Brazil’s days under Portuguese rule. The major cities all possess examples of fine colonial architecture and historic sites, but there are treasures to be discovered in smaller provincial centres too, especially the old gold mining towns.

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Rio de Janeiro

 

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Brunei

Negara Brunei Darussalam
  • Official Name: Nation of Brunei, Abode of Peace
  • Capital City: Bandar Seri Begawan
  • Population: 415,717
  • Official Religion: Sunni Islam
  • Language: Malay, English, Chinese
  • Currency: Brunei dollar
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Brunei like?

A small absolute monarchy surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, Brunei was historically the centre of a powerful Southeast Asian empire, before eventually entering decline and becoming a British colony. Independence was achieved in 1984, and economic growth driven by offshore oil and gas reverses has transformed this once poor nation into one of the world’s richest. Brunei’s absolute ruler – Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah – is one of the wealthiest people on Earth – and while his comfortably-off subjects enjoy almost nothing in the way of political freedom, there is little dissent.

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Brunei

The state religion of Brunei is Sunni Islam, which most Bruneians follow. Ethnically, most Bruneians are Malay, but there are also small numbers of Chinese, Indians and indigenous Borneans. The country also has a sizable expat population working mainly in the oil and gas industry. The country itself is made up of two small slivers of mostly forested, mountainous territory in northern Borneo, separated from one another by a strip of Malaysian territory.

One cool thing about Brunei

According to Forbes magazine, the Sultan of Brunei has a personal wealth of $25billion (other sources go as high as $40billion). He lives in one of the world’s largest palaces and owns hundreds of expensive cars. He also provides free universal medical care for every Bruneian citizen.

One sad thing about Brunei

The country does have a parliament, but no elections have been held since 1962, when a revolt led to the implementation of emergency powers that are still in use today. Even if elections were held, women would likely be barred from voting.

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Brunei sits in the northweat of the island of Borneo and is divided into two sections by Malaysia to the west, south and east, the only country with which it shares land borders. However, Indonesia is relatively close by to the south.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Brunei is a popular, if rather expensive, destination that often appears on backpackers’ Southeast Asian itineraries. Ecotourism is a growing sector of the industry, and many visitors join tours of the Bruneian rainforest to see the various animals – such as monkeys, crocodiles and birds – that call it home. It is also possible to visit Istara Nurul Iman, the world’s biggest currently occupied residential palace to marvel at the opulence in which Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah lives and to admire the stunning views it offers.

Brunei passport
Bruneian passport

The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, is the only major city, and has plenty of beautiful mosques to take in. However, Brunei is a strictly Islamic country, and Bandar is no party city. The sale of alcohol is prohibited. But who needs booze in such a beautiful setting?

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Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, Bandar Seri Bagawan

 

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Bulgaria

България (Bǎlgariya)
  • Official Name: Republic of Bulgaria
  • Capital City: Sofia
  • Population: 7,202,198
  • Language: Bulgarian, Turkish, Roma
  • Currency: Lev
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Bulgaria like?

A former Ottoman province and eastern bloc country, the fall of communism and the introduction of democratic and market reforms have improved the lot of many Bulgarians in what was once a very poor country. However, economic growth has been uneven, corruption and sclerotic government have hindered progress, and the country remains one of Europe’s poorest. It is also wrestling with a demographic crisis, as more and more Bulgarians leave the country for more prosperous parts of the continent. However, the country became a member of the European Union in 2008, and efforts to clean up government have met with some success. It is also a developing tourist destination.

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Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a highly urbanised country, but agriculture still plays an important role in the economy, though efforts to modernise this sector have been hit-and-miss. The country has a beautiful coastline on the Black Sea, while much of inland Bulgaria is mountainous. The capital city, Sofia, is in the far west of the country. Most Bulgarians are a Slavs, and the country uses the Cyrillic alphabet. However, the country has a Turkish community dating back to Ottoman times. There is also a sizable Roma population, who continue to face discrimination.

One cool thing about Bulgaria

The country has a decent track record when it comes to innovation. Bulgarians invented the first electronic computer, the digital watch and car airbag system. Not bad.

One sad thing about Bulgaria

A 2015 survey found that Bulgaria was comfortably the most unhappy country in the European Union. Government corruption, poverty and a high rate of unemployment, coupled with the demographic problems triggered by the country’s “brain drain” have been blamed for Bulgarians’ dissatisfaction.

Neighbours Textbox
Bulgaria borders Romania to the north, Turkey to the southeast, Greece to the south, and Macedonia and Serbia to the west. It also has a coastline on the Black Sea

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The country’s natural beauty, rich history and culture, and pleasant summer weather make it a popular destination. Sun-seeking northern Europeans are discovering the hedonistic Black Sea resorts that provide a cheaper – often much cheaper – alternative to the more established summer getaway locations of the Spanish Costas and Greek islands. But the country’s towns and cities also have plenty to offer: Plovdiv is Europe’s oldest inhabited city with a historic ancient heart and a striking Roman amphitheatre. The capital, Sofia, is an increasingly modern, cosmopolitan European metropolis.

Bulgaria passport
Bulgarian passport

Rather like its Black Sea beach resorts, Bulgaria’s ski slopes also offer a more affordable alternative to pricier Alpine destinations. The country also has a thriving wine industry, with plenty of opportunities to explore its vineyards and try the local vintage.

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Roman amphitheatre, Plovdiv

 

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Burkina Faso

  • Official Name: Burkina Faso
  • Capital City: Ouagadougou
  • Population: 17,322,726
  • Language: French, Mossi, Fula, Mandinka, Bambara
  • Currency: West African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Burkina Faso like?

A dusty, landlocked country in west Africa, Burkina Faso has been the centre of influential African kingdoms in the past, and was also a French colony. The country gained independence in 1960 under the name “Upper Volta“, and has experienced much political and economic upheaval. About 90% of Burkinabé – as the people of Burkina Faso are known – are involved in subsistence farming, and the country is one of the poorest in the world with a scarcity of natural resources. Large numbers of Burkinabé have gone abroad to find work, mainly to France and parts of north Africa.

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Burkina Faso

As a rule of thumb, the further north and east one goes, the more arid the country becomes, with the far north forming a part of the Sahel region. Western Burkina Faso is greener, while the south and centre, around the capital, Ouagadougou, is the most heavily populated. The country can be extremely hot, and has distinct rainy and dry seasons, with frequent droughts in the far north. Most goods and resources consumed in Burkina Faso have to be imported, and tackling poverty remains an enormous challenge.

One cool thing about Burkina Faso

While the name of the country’s capital, Ouagadougou, might be a bit of a mouthful for those unfamiliar with the Mossi language, translation to English reveals it to be arguably the most appealing name of any capital: Ouagadougou literally means “you are welcome here at home with us.” How lovely!

One sad thing about Burkina Faso

Despite its poverty and political turbulence, Burkina Faso has historically been a pretty safe country. However, things took a turn for the worse when, in January 2016, terrorists attacked a hotel and restaurant, killing 30 and wounding at least 56.

Neighbours Textbox
Burkina Faso has a long northwestern border with Mali. In the northeast, the country borders Niger, while Benin lies to the southeast, Togo and Ghana to the south, and Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) to the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

A beautiful, friendly and welcoming country with a rich cultural heritage, Burkina Faso receives only a trickle of tourists, but it has much to offer those with an interest in west Africa. The country is arguably the heart of the west African music scene and hosts an array of music festivals throughout the year. Most towns and cities have traditional markets where excellent bartering skills will be required. There are also numerous excellent hiking spots, and the country offers the chance to see hippos and crocodiles in the wild.

Burkina Faso passport
Burkinabé passport

Many visitors to Burkina Faso head to the country’s second-largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, to see one of the most iconic buildings in west Africa, the mud mosque. Built in the late 1800s (the exact date is debated), the mosque is a fine example of Sudano-Sahelian architecture. Guided tours of the mosque are available.

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Grand Mosque, Bobo-Dioulasso

 

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Burundi

Uburundi
  • Official Name: Republic of Burundi
  • Capital City: Bujumbura
  • Population: 11,178,921
  • Language: French, English, Kirundi, Swahili
  • Currency: Burundian franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Burundi like?

A small, densely-populated country shaped vaguely like a human heart, Burundi is in east Africa’s Great Lakes region. A former colony of Germany and, after World War One, Belgium, most Burundians live in poverty, and, at the time of writing, the atmosphere in the country is tense following violent political unrest in 2015. Burundi shares a similar ethnic make-up and social tensions that helped lead to the 1994 genocide in its northern neighbour, Rwanda. However, while Rwanda has made a great deal of political, social and economic progress since, Burundi has remained blighted by instability, corruption, poverty and occasional bouts of violence. Other major problems include HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking and child labour. Many Burundians have gone abroad to seek a better life.

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Burundi

The country’s main ethnic groups are the Tutsi and the Hutu. Inter-communal relations are fraught, and in 1972, spilled over into a genocide that led to more than 250,000 deaths. The country is heavily forested and fairly mountainous, with deforestation and soil erosion major problems. Burundi’s national parks are home to a wide variety of African wildlife.

One cool thing about Burundi

Burundian athlete Venuste Niyongabo won gold in the men’s 5,000m at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, making Burundi the poorest nation to have ever won a gold medal.

One sad thing about Burundi

The 2016 World Happiness Report ranked Burundi as the world’s most unhappy nation. The poverty in which most Burundians live, coupled with the ever-present threat of civil unrest, violence and the corruption and authoritarianism of the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza, make life extremely tough for most citizens.

Neighbours Textbox
Burundi borders three other countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the west, mostly across Lake Tanganyika; Rwanda in the north; and Tanzania in the east and south.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Most governments advise against visiting Burundi at this moment in time due to the risks posed by the still simmering unrest in the country. In any case, Burundi remains off the beaten path and receives very few tourists. But this should not detract from the fact that Burundi is a beautiful country with people who may not always see eye-to-eye with each other, but who welcome guests with open arms. Political stability, should it ever be achieved, would help Burundi to begin tapping into its considerable tourism potential.

Burundian passport
Burundian passport

Burundi’s main attractions are its national parks and nature reserves, where tourists get to see all manner of African wildlife – from chimpanzees to hippos – as well as the stunning waterfalls, peaks, forests, valleys and views. The capital city, Bujumbura, is the country’s liveliest population centre and lies on the eastern shoreline of Lake Tanganyika.

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Kayanza province

 

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Cambodia

កម្ពុជា (Kâmpŭchéa) • Cambodge
  • Official Name: Kingdom of Cambodia
  • Capital City: Phnom Penh
  • Population: 15,458,332
  • Official Religion: Theravada Buddhism
  • Language: Khmer, French
  • Currency: Riel
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Cambodia like?

Located on the Indochina peninsula of Southeast Asia, Cambodia is a land of awe-inspiring temples, rice paddies, the mighty Mekong river and bustling towns and cities. Despite its rich cultural heritage and beautiful landscape, Cambodia must surely be a candidate for one of the world’s saddest histories, the impact of which is still felt today in one of the poorest corners of Asia. Following independence from France in 1953, Cambodia has had to contend with the overspill of the Vietnam War, the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge under the infamous, savage dictator Pol Pot, a decade-long war with neighbouring Vietnam and the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1997.

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Cambodia

So much turmoil has made economic development almost impossible, and although a degree of stability has taken root, political freedoms are few, and most Cambodians are poor. And it’s not just the Cambodian people who suffer. The country’s forests, wildlife, national parks and environment are at serious risk thanks to a wide range of illicit activities, from illegal logging to construction projects that destroy important natural habitats. On a more positive note, although Cambodia remains extremely poor, its economy has been growing quite rapidly in recent years, and there is even some oil and gas potential still to be exploited.

One cool thing about Cambodia

Cambodians don’t celebrate, and barely acknowledge, their birthdays. Although young Cambodians have begun to take up the practice, many older citizens have no idea of what age they are.

One sad thing about Cambodia

The sheer brutality and mercilessness of the communist Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s is impossible to ignore. In an attempt to realise their dream of a classless, agrarian state, the party carried out a genocide targeting anybody deemed intellectual – wearing glasses was enough of an indicator – and buried them in what became known as “killing fields”. Almost two million people were murdered by the regime in a four-year period.

Neighbours Textbox
Cambodia’s neighbours are Thailand in the north and west, Laos in the northeast and Vietnam in the south and east. It also has a coast on the Gulf of Thailand.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourism has become a major foreign currency earner for Cambodia, and the country receives around two million visitors every year. The biggest draw of all is Angkor Wat, the magnificent temple complex at Siem Reap, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Cambodia abounds with historic and beautiful temples and has found its place at the heart of Southeast Asia’s backpacker trail.

Cambodia passport
Cambodian passport

The capital, Phnom Penh, is a lively, chaotic, but friendly city with a number of worthwhile museums and the splendid Royal Palace. Beach lovers, meanwhile, tend to head to Sihanouk, Cambodia’s main resort area on the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodia is a once-seen-never-forgotten destination that enchants those lucky enough to see it.

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Angkor Wat

 

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Cameroon

Cameroun
  • Official Name: Republic of Cameroon
  • Capital City: Yaoundé
  • Largest City: Douala
  • Population: 22,534,532
  • Language: French, English
  • Currency: Central African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Cameroon like?

Sometimes referred to as “Africa in miniature” due to its wide variety of ethnic and religious groups, languages and landscapes, Cameroon is a west African country that emerged when two colonies – one French, one British – came together in the early 1960s. The country has achieved a high degree of political stability and social cohesion which have helped in tackling poverty. However, the current president, Paul Biya, in power since 1982, dominates Cameroonian political life, and most citizens, especially in rural areas, are poor. Furthermore, the country’s English-speaking areas are increasingly restive and complain of marginalisation. Some campaign for secession from Cameroon.

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Cameroon

The remote, sparsely-populated far north of Cameroon is arid, approaching desert conditions. Cameroon’s Muslims live mainly in the north. The further south and west one goes, the lusher, more tropical, more densely-populated  the country becomes. Equatorial conditions prevail along Cameroon’s relatively short coastline. The seat of government is the city of Yaoundé, but the economic and cultural heart of the country is the coastal city of Douala, which is also the biggest city.

One cool thing about Cameroon

The name “Cameroon” is derived from Portuguese and means Shrimp River. This is because the sailors noticed an abundance of shrimp as they explored the Wouri River.

One sad thing about Cameroon

One of Africa’s most stable, peaceful countries, the last few years have seen a spate of kidnappings and terrorist attacks in the north by militant group Boko Haram, based in the northeast of neighbouring Nigeria.

Neighbours Textbox
Cameroon has a long northwestern border with Nigeria. It also has an arid frontier with Chad in the northeast, as well as borders with the Central African Republic in the east, the Republic of the Congo in the southeast, and Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in the south. The island of Bioko, also a part of Equatorial Guinea, is just off the Cameroonian coast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Cameroon does not receive huge numbers of visitors, but with its diverse society, varied landscapes, political stability and relative safety, it is a worthwhile destination for those with an interest in west African culture. Most of those who do venture into Cameroon at the moment are French and Belgian, but the country has potential to develop wider interest. Many visitors take the opportunity to visit Mt. Cameroon, the tallest mountain in west Africa and a relatively short trip from the country’s biggest city, Douala.

Cameroon passport
Cameroon passport

The country’s national parks offer a great way to experience its geography and landscapes, as well as its diverse array of colourful and fascinating wildlife. Indeed, Dja Faunal Wildlife Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The country’s cities are not particularly geared towards tourism, but they do provide a good opportunity to visit frenetic local markets and to experience thriving west African city life. Douala is a good base for exploring the country’s beaches.

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Mount Cameroon

 

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Canada

  • Official Name: Canada
  • Capital City: Ottawa
  • Largest City: Toronto
  • Population: 36,286,425
  • Language: English, French
  • Currency: Canadian dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Canada like?

The second-largest country in the world by total area, much of Canada is wilderness, from Arctic tundra to expansive plains, untouched forest and majestic mountain ranges. A highly urbanised country, most Canadians live within 100 miles of the border with the United States, but small communities do exist even in the harshest Arctic climes. Canadian society is diverse, and its cities, especially in the east, are home to communities from many different corners of the world. Canada scores highly in surveys of economic performance and prosperity, and ranks as one of the richest countries in the world. Its cities are often regarded as some of the world’s most livable, especially Vancouver. This has been helped by exploitation of the tar sands of the province of Alberta, in which vast quantities of oil lie. However, controversy surrounds the environmental impact of extraction.

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Canada

Wealthy and stable as Canada is, some tensions do exist. An increasingly significant gulf has developed between the liberal east of the country centred on Ontario and Quebec, and the more conservative west, particularly the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. But perhaps the biggest divide in Canada is between French-speaking Quebec and the rest of the country, where English predominates. Culturally distinct from the rest of Canada, Quebec maintains its own identity centred on the French language, and periodic calls for greater autonomy or even independence do arise. However, on the whole, relations remain cordial. Elsewhere, the country’s remote northern communities, often made up of First Nation Canadians, must contend with relative poverty and tough living conditions.

One cool thing about Canada

The world’s most northerly permanent settlement is in Canada. The research station and military base of Alert on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, is populated year-round by Canadian military staff and research technicians. Winter temperatures have been known to drop as low as -50c (-58f), which I think we can all agree is pretty “cool”.

One sad thing about Canada

In 1989, a mentally disturbed young man with a hatred of feminism carried out a massacre at a college in Montreal, Quebec, in which 14 young women lost their lives. The incident led to a tightening of Canadian gun laws.

Neighbours Textbox
Canada has the longest international land border in the world to the south, which it shares with the United States. It also borders the US state of Alaska in the northwest. The nation of Greenland – an autonomous island within the Danish kingdom – lies to the northeast. To the west of the island of Newfoundland in Canada’s southeast is the French overseas department of Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Canada is an extremely popular tourist destination and offers a wide variety of attractions and activities. The Canadian Rockies are home to some of the world’s most famous ski resorts and the country is a world class winter sports destination. However, the summer months are also an ideal time to head into the mountains to admire the breathtaking scenery and enjoy superb hiking opportunities. Ontario is also home to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Quebec is a great place to head for a taste of something different, where the French language predominates and the culture is discernibly unlike the rest of Canada.

Canada passport
Canadian passport

The country’s major cities offer the usual array of museums, cuisines, architecture and nightlife one would expect from modern North American cities. The country’s compact bilingual capital, Ottawa, is home to the iconic, striking parliament building. Cross-country trips are popular, usually originating in Montreal or Toronto and terminating at Vancouver city or on Vancouver Island. The vast expanses of the great Canadian north are much less traveled and require lengthy planning. Distances between settlements are enormous, but the Arctic scenery and unique Native cultures make for a fascinating off-the-beaten-track experience.

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Parliament Hill, Ottawa

 

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Cape Verde

Cabo Verde
  • Official Name: Republic of Cabo Verde
  • Capital City: Praia
  • Population: 525,000
  • Language: Portuguese, Cape Verdean Creole
  • Currency: Cape Verdean escudo
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Cape Verde like?

A volcanic archipelago in the mid-Atlantic off the coast of West Africa, Cape Verde is a former Portuguese colony that won its independence in 1975. The majority of its people are a mix of European (mainly Portuguese) and black African. The country lacks resources and has been forced to focus economically on developing service industries, from financial services to tourism. Despite the challenges this poses, Cape Verde has become arguably the most successful and stable democracy in Africa, winning praise for its governmental transparency and tolerant society. Although still a developing country, living standards are higher than in most parts of the African mainland.

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Cape Verde

As a Portuguese colony, the islands grew rich on the slave trade. However, the abolition of slavery – welcome as it was – caused an economic downturn that brought hardship to the islands and triggered a wave of emigration. Today, a greater number of people of Cape Verdean extraction live overseas, especially in Portugal and Brazil. The islands are mostly rocky and volcanic in nature, with beaches that are beginning to attract European tourists.

One cool thing about Cape Verde

It is considered rude in Cape Verdean culture to eat in public without sharing. This increases social interactions, but does mean that those feeling particularly hungry are better off eating in private!

One sad thing about Cape Verde

The land in Cape Verde doesn’t offer much in the way of resources. Very little of it is suitable for agriculture, and desertification is a mounting problem.

Neighbours Textbox
Cape Verde is a chain of islands in the North Atlantic, off the coast of west Africa. It has no land borders, but its nearest neighbours are Senegal and Mauritania on the African mainland to the east. 

 

What’s it like for tourists?

With year-round warm sunshine and beautiful beaches, it’s no surprise that more and more tourists are discovering Cape Verde. In a country unable to rely on much in the way of natural resources, expanding the tourist industry is a key policy, as attested to by the growing number of resorts throughout the islands. The eastern islands of Sal and Boa Vista are especially popular with sun worshippers, and most of the country’s resorts are laidback getaways rather than hedonistic party destinations.

Cape Verde passport
Cape Verdean passport

Watersports and hiking are popular activities, while the cultural capital, Mindelo, and the modern political capital, Praia, offer a slightly more urban pace of life. Some of the more remote islands are especially tranquil and traditional.

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Boa Vista, Cape Verde

 

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Central African Republic

République centrafricaine •  Ködörösêse tî Bêafrîka
  • Official Name: Central African Republic
  • Capital City: Bangui
  • Population: 4,709,000
  • Language: French, Sango
  • Currency: Central African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s the Central African Republic like?

The modern borders of the Central African Republic encompass mostly African savannah, with arid Sahelian conditions in the far north, and are home to a diverse mix of African ethnicities, languages and religions. At one time a French colony, the Central African Republic achieved independence in 1960, and has suffered under the yoke of autocratic leaders. Violent conflict has been an almost constant in the country’s post-independence history. Although the CAR has considerable mineral wealth and hydrocarbon reserves, it remains one of the poorest, least developed and most unstable countries in the world.

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Central African Republic

In recent years, the country has been accused of ethnic and religious cleansing, targeting in particular its minority Muslim population living mostly in the north. Whilst the country’s capital city, Bangui, is relatively peaceful, much of the countryside is dangerous thanks to armed groups and persistent fighting. A major difficulty in the CAR is getting the 80 various ethnic groups to share and recognise a common identity, living as they do within borders created through colonialism that pay little regard to realities on the ground. Despite the potential for economic development, a lack of clean, reliable and stable government, combined with constant conflict, keeps the country mired in poverty.

One cool thing about the Central African Republic

It may be a sign of the country’s lack of development, but National Geographic has described the Central African Republic as the country least affected by light pollution, making it a great place to be to do some stargazing.

One sad thing about the Central African Republic

There are numerous problems in the Central African Republic. Violence, forced labour, child labour, female genital mutilation – it all goes on. Perhaps the most symbolic example is that there is a law against “witchcraft”, and many women continue to suffer the consequences of accusations.

Neighbours Textbox
The Central African Republic borders Chad in the north, Sudan in the northeast, South Sudan in the east, the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the south, the Republic of the Congo in the southwest, and Cameroon in the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As things stand, the Central African Republic should be considered unsafe for tourism. The country teeters on the brink of civil war, particularly in rural areas. Even in Bangui, access to medical care, in a country with a high rate of disease, is basic. As such, few tourists venture into the Central African Republic – arguably one of the most remote destinations on earth. Once inside the country, moving between towns and cities can be perilous due to the poor quality of the roads and the presence of armed groups and fake roadblocks.

Central African Republic passport
Central African passport

Nevertheless, the country does have plenty of natural beauty, and the handful of visitors that do make it to the Central African Republic enjoy an authentic African experience in its natural parks and amongst its outgoing, friendly people. The country’s potential for development as a tourist destination is real.

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Boali Falls

 

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Chad

Tchad •  تشاد‎‎ (Tshād)
  • Official Name: Republic of Chad
  • Capital City: N’Djamena
  • Population: 13,670,084
  • Language: French, Arabic
  • Currency: Central African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Chad like?

A fairly large country in north-central Africa, Chad can be roughly divided into three clear zones. The northern third is sparsely populated desert, where the Sahara meets the Sahel. The centre of the country is where most people live (though still sparsely) and is dominated by the arid plains of the Sahel. The south, meanwhile, is mostly subtropical lowlands and is the wettest part of the country. Most Chadians are subsistence farmers. There are more than 200 different ethnic groups, many of whom barely identify with the Chadian state. Poverty is deep and widespread. The country’s main export has traditionally been cotton, but this has been replaced in the last decade by crude oil.

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Chad

Chad’s post-independence history has been marred by stratospheric levels of corruption and a string of coups and attempted coups, making it one of the world’s most poorly governed countries. The current autocratic president, Idriss Déby, has a firm grip on power, although his ability to project influence beyond N’Djamena is limited, and his forces have had to fend off a number of attempts to overthrow him. Eastern Chad is also the scene of one the world’s least known humanitarian crises as the war in Darfur in neighbouring Sudan spills over the border and vast numbers of refugees attempt to survive in camps. Violence against women and female genital mutilation are officially illegal in Chad, but are sadly still widespread, as is polygamy.

One cool thing about Chad

Camel racing is popular in Chad, and the Tibesti mountains in the far northwest of the country play host to some of the best camel racing in the world.

One sad thing about Chad

Despite being among the poorest countries in the world, the country hosts a whopping 500,000 refugees who have fled to the country to escape violence in Sudan, Nigeria and the Central African Republic.

Neighbours Textbox
Chad’s northern border with Libya is a long, straight line through the Sahara with one moderate deviation in the northwest. In the east it borders the volatile Darfur region of Sudan, while the Central African Republic lies to the south. In the southwest is Cameroon, while Niger and a short border with Nigeria lie to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourists are a rare sight indeed in this remote, poverty-stricken land. Most Westerners in Chad are diplomats in N’Djamena or humanitarian workers in the refugee camps.Western governments are clear that, although there is no specific threat in Chad, the country’s instability and sporadic bouts of violence make it a risky destination. However, as with almost all countries, some tourists do decide to brave it. Trips to Chad require considerable advance planning and armed guides should be considered. Distances between settlements are enormous and the chance of encountering corrupt officials or armed militia is high.

Chad passport
Chadian passport

Most visitors come to experience Chad’s remarkable landscapes and wide open spaces. Lake Chad is a popular destination, while the Ennedi desert draws a handful of hardy souls to admire its stunning sandstone formations. However, this region of Chad – in the far northeast – is especially isolated, with medical facilities potentially thousands of miles away, and there is the ever-present risk of banditry or armed ambush.

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Lake Teli, northern Chad

 

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Chile

  • Official Name: Republic of Chile
  • Capital City: Santiago
  • Population: 18,006,407
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Peso
  • Continent: South America

What’s Chile like?

One of the world’s most unusually-shaped countries, long, thin Chile extends for thousands of miles from South America’s bone-dry Atacama desert in the north to the rainy, rocky, isolated Cape Horn in the continent’s far south. Chile has a diverse array of landscapes, from Andean mountains to long, Mediterranean-esque beaches, the world’s driest desert and dramatic fjords. The population is most heavily concentrated on the centre of the country, where the capital city, Santiago, as well as the major cities of Valparaíso and Concepción, are located. Chile’s far south includes some of the most remote communities in the Americas.

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Chile

A former Spanish colony, independent Chile’s politics have been dominated by a fierce struggle between left- and right-wing viewpoints. Perhaps the most significant period in the modern country’s history was the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who toppled a left-wing administration and attempted to purge the country of intellectuals and left-wing political and academic figures. Thankfully, since Pinochet’s demise, Chile has developed a stable and successful democracy, although the age-old bitter left-right divide persists. Modern Chile is South America’s most prosperous country.

One cool thing about Chile

It’s been mentioned already, but Chile’s Atacama desert is the driest place on the planet. Some parts of the desert have never seen a drop of rain since records began and are thought to have been completely dry for most of history.

One sad thing about Chile

The country forms part of the Pacific “ring of fire“, which makes it prone to sometimes devastating earthquakes. In 1960, southern Chile was rocked by the most powerful earthquake in recorded history, killing 1,500 people. In a more heavily-populated area, the death toll would have substantially higher.

Neighbours Textbox
Chile has a very long eastern border with Argentina that stretches from South America’s subtropical centre to the continent’s cold southern tip. The country also borders Bolivia to the northeast and Peru to the north. To the west and south is a long, heavily indented Pacific Ocean coastline.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Chile is a remarkably beautiful country that is well used to receiving and accommodating tourists. Culturally, its major cities are modern and increasingly cosmopolitan, but with plenty of colonial squares and buildings that help them to retain their charm. By South American standards, Chilean cities are deemed pretty safe.

Chile passport
Chilean passport

Away from the urban centres, Chile has much to offer. The Atacama gives visitors the chance to experience stark, arid desert landscapes, while the Andean mountains provide great hiking and winter sports opportunities. Chile has also become one of the world’s most significant wine producers, and the country’s central region, where conditions closely resemble the Mediterranean, should be of interest to wine enthusiasts. Further south, lakes, rivers, glaciers and fjords become the main attraction. And, of course, there is Easter Island, the mysterious home of the famous giant stone-carved heads.

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Torres del Paine

 

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China

中国 (Zhōngguó)
  • Official Name: People’s Republic of China
  • Capital City: Beijing
  • Largest City: Shanghai
  • Population: 1,376,049,000
  • Language: Mandarin Chinese, numerous regional languages
  • Currency: Renminbi (also known as yuan)
  • Continent: Asia

What’s China like?

The world’s most populous nation and one of its biggest by area too, China is a political, economic and military heavyweight, famous around the world for its unique cuisine, ancient civilisation, distinctive languages, wildlife and packed cities. Since 1949 and the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War, the country has been a one-party state under the control of the Communist Party. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s brought about severe famine and resulted in millions of deaths. However, in the last two decades, the party has reformed the economy and opened China up to the world, and the subsequent economic growth has had a transformative effect on Chinese society.

china-map
China

Vast swathes of the rural Chinese population have headed for the cities, making China’s eastern seaboard one of the most densely-populated, urbanised, environments on earth. All this progress has also resulted in creating some of the world’s most polluted cities. China is also a centre of global manufacturing, and many countries have experienced the loss of industry to China. The infamous one-child policy – an attempt to control rapid population growth – has recently been liberalised, and has been widely criticised ever since its inception. The country is also looking to increase its international influence and has invested heavily in developing the natural resources of Africa.

hong-kong-sar-map  macau-sar-map
Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Areas

While most Chinese now live in cities in the east and south of the country, much of China’s interior remains rural, with traditional ways of life still strong. Significant minority groups include Tibetans of the southwestern plateau and the restive Uighur Muslims of the far western province of Xinjiang. China also has sovereignty over the economic powerhouse of Hong Kong and the former Portuguese colony of Macau. It also claims sovereignty over the island of Taiwan, although it does not currently have control. Much of China experiences warm summers, with the southeast rather subtropical and the northeast bitterly cold in winter. Earthquakes are relatively common and occasionally devastating, while the coastal regions are sometimes subjected to powerful typhoons.

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Shanghai

One cool thing about China

The Chinese discovered and began using natural gas for heating and energy roughly 2,300 years before it was discovered in the West.

One sad thing about China

The country’s one-child policy, introduced in 1979 by then-leader Deng Xiaoping, was a controversial approach to managing population growth that said couples could only have one child. While debate continues about whether the policy was successful and/or necessary, the negative effects include a skewed sex ratio that means there are far more men than women, and a legacy of forced abortions and punitive sanctions against citizens.

Neighbours Textbox
The People’s Republic of China ties with Russia as having the most amount of bordering nations, some of which are partially or wholly disputed. In the north, China has a long border with Mongolia, while Russia lies to the northeast and northwest. There is also a border with North Korea in China’s northeast. In the south, China borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). China also has a southern and southwestern border with India, which is disputed in places, especially at Jammu and Kashmir. China has a smaller dispute over a part of its southern border with Bhutan, and also borders Nepal in this region. As with India, China’s southwestern border with Pakistan is disputed in the Kashmiri region. A tiny section of China’s western frontier makes contact with the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also lie to the west, while Kazakhstan is to China’s northwest. The island of Taiwan, claimed in whole by the People’s Republic of China but not under its jurisdiction, lies across the Taiwan Strait to the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

With an ancient civilisation, a rich heritage, famous culture, delicious cuisine, vibrant modern cities, ornate, beautiful temples and almost too many sites of historical interest to count, few countries can boast a tourist scene as awe-inspiring as China’s. Only Italy and Spain have more UNESCO World Heritage sites than China. Perhaps the most obvious site of interest is the Great Wall, the famous fortified barrier stretching across a swathe of northern China that was built to protect the country from raiders and warriors to the north. The Wall stretches for thousands of miles and is widely accessible to tourists, though also prone to degradation due to the number of visitors. Beijing’s Forbidden City is a must-see. This former imperial palace was home to numerous emperors, including from the Ming and Qing dynasties, and today hosts a museum. The incredible Terracotta Warriors in the city of Xi’an are designed to recall an imperial Chinese army.

China passport
Chinese passport

China’s cities are choked with traffic and increasingly polluted, but still worth exploring. The capital, Beijing, is the country’s political centre, while its largest city, Shanghai, is China’s principal economic and business centre. Hong Kong falls under Chinese sovereignty, but is largely self-governing, as is Macau. Those looking to enter Tibet should be aware that a separate permit is needed and all visitors must be part of a guided tour. However, the region’s Buddhist culture and temples, and stunning scenery, make it a worthwhile experience. China’s far west is much less-visited, but it is still worthwhile for those looking to experience something a little bit different. The province of Xinjiang is home to the Uighur, a Turkic people of Islamic faith. Visiting Xinjiang can be difficult due to the security situation, but the region is strikingly beautiful.

Hong Kong passport  Macao passport
Hongkonger and Macanese passports

The country also has incredible mountain scenery, from the Himalaya along its borders with Nepal, India and Bhutan, to the Jiuzhaigou nature reserve, with its remarkable karst landscapes. The country abounds with sacred and famous mountains, including, of course, the northern face of Mount Everest.