Ten of the World’s Most Enticing Borders
Borders have always fascinated me. With just one step, you can cross culture, language, food, politics and much more. Some are tense. Some are awash with welcome. Sometimes, there’s the swipe of a biometric code. Sometimes, a creaking pole across a dusty road, miles from anywhere. Here is my random list of ten unusual borders, all with stories, all intriguing and safe to visit.
In a better world, the India-Pakistan border crossing at Wagah would be flowing with traffic along what is flourishingly called the Grand Trunk Road linking the great South Asian cities of Amritsar and Lahore. In this world, it is closed except for a trickle of walkers. At sunset, on either side of a thick white line across the road, immaculately uniformed Indian and Pakistani troops perform elaborate circus-like dance maneuvers, kicking their boots high, inches from the others’ faces. The 1947 partition of India remains unresolved and the threat of war is never far away.
On the 27-hour train journey north from the Chinese capital, Beijing, to the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, you cross the border at the crazy little desert town of Zamyn-uud, stepping out into a dreamlike world, cast in hues of yellow and gray. The rising sun fights with swirling north Asian clouds, and hunched figures wrapped in sturdy desert cloth tread through rivers of sand that cover the streets. You have time because this is also the place of rail gauge change. Your carriage is jerkily hauled up from its rolling stock designed for European rail system (1,435mm) and clunked down onto one chosen by the Russian empire (1,520 mm).
A green line has divided Cyprus since its invasion by Turkey in 1974. Although easy to cross for most of us, it is a frontier of nostalgia and frozen time. The United Nations controls a narrow buffer zone inside which stand abandoned relics from the 1970s, cars, buildings, even the old airport. Turkish northern Cyprus is an unrecognized state. Southern Cyprus is a member of the European Union. Walking back one evening from the northern side, a dinner companion stopped mid-flow of conversation. He explained he was a petty criminal from Britain. Had he gone a step further with me, he risked arrest and extradition.
The border through the island of Ireland winds along 310 miles of countryside with dozens of crossings ranging from country paths to highways. Its original aim was to separate southern Catholic communities from northern Protestant ones, first internally within the United Kingdom then, when Ireland gained its independence in 1922, as an international border. A century on, the border remains a magnet for conflict and has become a central issue in Britain’s leaving the European Union. In many places the only way to tell you are crossing between two sovereign nations are signs specifying the British miles and the European kilometers. At present, there are no border checks.
The ceasefire line separating North Korea and South Korea is one the most dangerous areas in the world. I have seen it from both sides, but I haven’t crossed. The only person I have met who has is Donald Trump. Pale blue huts in the border village of Panmunjon straddle the two countries. Inside a microphone cable strung across a table from the 1953 Korean War ceasefire negotiations marks the actual border. Soldiers from both sides patrol eye ball to eye ball. This border is tense, tranquil and at any moment could take us within a hair’s breadth of nuclear conflict.
Moldova, wedged between Romania and Ukraine, is Europe’s poorest country of chaotic traffic and lethally pot-holed roads, and Moldova itself is partitioned. From the capital, Chisinau, you cross into the weirdest, time-warped world of Trans-Dniester with immaculate wide boulevards and Stalinist monuments. It was set up in 1992 after a brief civil war of the type that wracked many former Soviet states. The 300,000 Trans-Dniesterans use their own currency, the Ruple, and are governed by an institution called the Supreme Soviet. A thousand Russian peace-keeping troops are stationed there, and Trans-Dniester is recognized by no government, not even the Kremlin.
In the Arctic far north, Russia’s border with Norway marks the edge of the territory protected by the NATO western military alliance, set up to counter the threat from Moscow. Yet, Norwegians there describe the Russians as their best friends, saying they have not fought a war for a thousand years. There is only one official crossing along the 121-mile border, just outside the picturesque coastal town of Kirkenes which, strangely, is twinned to the closed Russian naval base at Severomorsk, 200 miles away. A hotel close to the crossing has glass-roofed rooms from which you can see the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. In winter, Alaskan husky dogs can sled you along the border through a glistening vastness of white along frozen rivers and lakes and trails flanked by pine trees.
A huge sprawl of rivers and jungles cover the triple border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, a confluence of natural beauty, global smuggling rackets and fugitives on the run. Between Argentina and Brazil are the awe-inspiring Iguazu Falls with their roaring sounds and swirling lakes. Close by is a narrow bridge linking Brazil’s border town of Foz do Iguazu and Paraguay’s Cuidad Del Este whose Middle East immigrant community was once marked as a focal point for Islamic terror in Latin America. Today, you can watch smuggling vans stop midway on the bridge to drop contraband for waiting boats in the river below.
In the eyes of the world, Taiwan is a renegade province of China, an unresolved flashpoint from the 1949 communist victory. There is constant talk of new conflict. In truth, it is an independent, democratic state, carrying out brisk trade with its supposedly hostile neighbor. From the Chinese east coast mega-city of Xiamen with its glittering high-rise city scape you can get a half-hour commuter ferry to the tranquil, relaxed Taiwanese island of Kinmen which once bore the brunt of Chinese artillery barrages. Now, tourists can buy elegantly forged kitchen knives made from old shell-casings, some carrying the inscription, From Mao with Love.
The United States Russia have some 15,000 nuclear warheads between them, yet their shared border is in the bleak, remote and inhospitable Bering Strait. While their mainland territory is 55 miles apart, the closest points are barely two miles apart, the islands of Big Diomede which is a Russian military base, and Little Diomede, a tiny native Alaskan village. There are no flags, no border markings and no official way to cross. The dateline also runs between them with Russian time 21 hours ahead of American time. Since the Cold War, this frontier between superpowers has been known as the Ice Curtain.
Humphrey Hawksley is a foreign correspondent and author. MAN ON ICE, the first thriller in the Rake Ozenna series, is set on the US-Russia border. Its sequel MAN ON EDGE uses the Norway-Russia border as its backdrop. www.manonice.co.uk