When we open Google Earth in its pure image, without borders, names, and other map layers, we can see just a beautiful planet, divided only naturally by oceans, continents, and islands. Many travelers and explorers would like to wander freely to every point on the surface of this planet. But unfortunately, it is impossible in the world of humans. We have created restricted areas in the world, and we have done it for various reasons. So, if you want to travel, in many cases you would deal with our human restrictions.
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We know the reality- we can’t travel freely everywhere around the world. Yes, we can travel within our own country, at least around most of it without any limit. But if we want to cross to another country, we have to cross a border. And we need documents to cross it- an ID card, a passport, or a passport with a visa.
Yes, fortunately, not all borders require these documents. Within the Schengen area of the EU, the borders are freely open (in fact, you even don’t know where a country ends and the next country begins), but almost everywhere else around the world, the border is a border.
But that’s not all. There are other types of borders- borders of autonomous regions, occupied territories, natural reserves, local tribe reservations, or military zones. They require even more documents, are more difficult to obtain, and some are completely forbidden for travelers.
Restricted areas in the world
In fact, the whole world is restricted in some way for some people. There is no land territory where everybody can go freely and walk around it without limit (with very few tiny exceptions). In fact, the only territory on Earth that is free from restrictions is the international waters in the oceans. But more on that later.
We humans, including almost every traveler, like dividing the Earth into our purely human creations, called “countries”. Some travelers even compete with “how many countries they have visited”. But again, open Google Earth, disconnect all additional layers, and all the countries will disappear. Only the physical nature will remain. Or maybe not?
More or less, countries are restricted territories. Yes, they are usually not restricted for locals, as well as for some travelers (depending on where are they from), but there are other travelers for sure that need to obtain the necessary documents to enter these countries. There are even travelers from certain countries that are completely banned from visiting other certain countries (like Israelis banned from visiting Iran).
Even if you enter a country, it doesn’t mean that you can travel freely everywhere around its territory. For example, you can enter China, but you can’t enter the Tibetan Autonomous Region just like going from Shanghai to Beijing. Or, you can enter Russia, you can travel from Moscow to Vladivostok (from west to east), but you can’t enter freely Chukotka or Taimyr autonomous regions.
And this is not only for foreign travelers. In many cases, even locals have restrictions (although usually lighter restrictions).
The restrictions depend on the reason for limiting. If it is due to political reasons- separatism, or tensions with a neighboring country, restrictions are usually heavier and more unpredictable. But limiting can be also for other reasons- to protect the unique local culture or nature. In these cases, restrictions are clearer and more stable (but it doesn’t mean entry documents are easier to obtain).
Local ethnic territories
These areas are quite similar to autonomous regions, but usually, they are smaller, they can be within a larger autonomous region, and they are often more restricted. Examples are some Indian and Aboriginal reservations in Brazil, Australia, and some other countries.
Other examples are the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture within Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. Foreigners still can enter this territory, but all the hotels and tourist destinations are restricted for them.
Occupied and disputed territories
These areas are more complicated, and often dangerous. They can be occupied by another country or by a terrorist group (a fresh example was ISIS in Iraq and Syria). Or, they can be disputed territories, claimed by two neighboring countries. Such examples are Kashmere, disputed between India and Pakistan, and Aksai Chin disputed between China and India.
Such areas can be extremely difficult to enter. They can be dangerous due to an active military conflict, or just because they are too sensitive politically. In fact, many of these territories are closed for foreigners and open only for locals (again with restrictions).
These territories are designed to protect the local nature, and this is a much better reason than a political issue (although “nature protection” can be used as a “mask” to cover a political issue).
The largest natural reservation on the Earth is the continent of Antarctica, including all other pieces of land south of the 60th southern parallel. You can’t just freely go there and do what you want, but you still have to obtain a permit.
Other reservations restrict visitors to walk only on the marked trails, keeping the rest of the area “human-free”. However, some reservations are extremely difficult to enter. An example is Changtang in the northern part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
High mountain peaks
Yes, you can’t climb the high mountain peaks just like you hike the neighboring hill out of your city. They are restricted, again for nature-preserving and safety reasons (at least it is what the related organizations claim), and you have to pay tax to climb the summit. Usually, the higher the peak is, the more expensive the tax is. And Mount Everest is the most expensive peak in the world.
But some other peaks are completely forbidden for climbing. These are several sacred peaks in the Himalayas and Tibet, such as Mount Kailash and Mount Machapuchare in Nepal, as well as the high peaks in Bhutan. They are forbidden for religious reasons.
Yes, even some tourist destinations are restricted, at least the more popular of them. You can’t just freely enter inside, but you have to pay an entrance free. Again, this is for nature protection reasons, and it is good.
Some destinations allow only a limited number of visitors per day or year. Other destinations close in certain seasons. But some destinations are closed for foreigners and open for locals (like the destinations in Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture that I mentioned above).
This is understandable. Obviously, if you have a home with a yard, you would not be happy if everybody can cross it freely.
But here I mean some larger private territories like private forests or private islands. Usually, such places belong to people with a lot of money. Maybe they just want to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. It is difficult to determine the moral point of view in this case, but at least, if they protect the nature in their realms, it is good.
These are long strips of land from both sides of most of the borders- not only country borders, but also borders of some autonomous regions and other restricted areas. They are designed to tighten border control.
Usually, there are local villages and fields included within the border areas, and in many cases, the local people can walk there freely (just with a necessary document). But visitors from outside, especially if they are foreigners, usually are restricted to enter there, unless with a necessary obtained document or organized tours. Some border areas are completely forbidden for everybody (except for the army).
I already mentioned some forbidden areas like the sacred peaks in Tibet and the Himalayas, as well as some border and disputed areas.
But there are more. Some of them are partially forbidden (open for locals, but completely forbidden for foreigners). An example is Chamdo Prefecture in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Larung Gar in Sichuan, and Delingha Prefecture in Qinghai, China.
And there are completely forbidden areas, except for certain military personnel or scientists, and even for everybody (except locals). Examples are some military zones, Snake Island in Brazil, and North Sentinel in Andaman Islands, India (home of the North Sentinel tribe).
Borders and checkpoints
All of these restricted areas have their borders. And normally (with some exceptions), they are not only restricted, but also you can’t cross their borders randomly at any point. You can do it only through certain entry points, usually with established check-point stations.
Out of the Schengen area, you can cross into another country only through such checkpoints. You can also hike on some borderlines, but again, only with permits, and under restrictions.
Autonomous regions and prefectures are usually more open and you can cross into them from everywhere (but not in all cases). It is the same with the high mountain peaks.
But concerning the occupied and disputed areas, border areas, natural reserves, and tourist destinations- again, normally, you can enter them only through checkpoints.
A “network of borders”
This causes additional inconvenience for travelers. For example, you can explore the Alps freely, because they are within the Schengen area of the EU. But you can’t do it in Pamir, Hindukush, and Karakoram, because these mountains are shared between China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and also between their border, autonomous, and disputed areas. In fact, there is a “network of borders”, established by humans on these mountains that you can cross only on certain points (if you can cross at all).
First, wherever you go on a trip, you must always bring your basic documents- your ID and your passport (if you go abroad). Fortunately, many areas have light restrictions. You just have to show your ID or your passport at the checkpoint and that’s all- you are free to enter and enjoy. Anyway, it is always good to prepare your documents as a part of your travel checklist before departure.
But there are some additional documents that you have to obtain, and they are specially arranged for the specific territory you want to enter.
Visas are required for some countries from people from some nations. The easiest to obtain visas are the “visas on arrival”- you just buy them (yes, they are usually not free) in the airport or at the checkpoint and enter the new country.
But other visas are not such simple. You have to go to the embassy or the consulate of the country that you want to visit (and some countries don’t have such a presence in your home country), and obtain a visa from there, waiting for 2, 3, or more days.
The most difficult visas require you not only to visit the consulate (at least two times!), but also to obtain other documents, permit letters, bank proofs, or to pass through an interview. And finally, your visa request still can be rejected.
They are required for some autonomous areas, border areas, and reservations. Again, some of the permits are easy to obtain- you just go to the local police station or tourist center and quickly get the permit.
But for others, you have to wait for days, just like applying for difficult-to-obtain visas. Besides, some travel permits can be very expensive. This is usually the case for some natural reservations with a vulnerable ecosystem. The fee for these permits also includes eco-tax and other expenses.
And again, your request for a travel permit can be rejected, even after you have paid for it. They can reject and still don’t return the money you have paid!
There are some other permits that can be obtained only for an organized tour- more on that below.
This is much easier, but not always. Normally, you can buy an entrance ticket at the entry point of a tourist destination. Also, many tourist destinations allow buying an entrance ticket online in advance.
But for the tourist destinations with a limited number of visitors, you have to buy an entrance ticket in advance, otherwise, you risk wasting your time when you go to the entry point and can’t buy a ticket. Such tickets are usually more expensive too.
This is another expense, for climbing the high mountain peaks on the Earth. Usually, it can be paid in the local mountaineering association offices, or just by the guide of an organized expedition.
These fees vary depending on the height and popularity of the peak. They can be just 20 to 50 USD for a 5000-er, and 30K to 120K (!) USD for Mount Everest. Once you pay it, the invoice is your entry document to reach the summit.
Some areas can be accessed only by an organized tour. You still need a visa or a travel permit, but you can’t obtain them independently. Only a licensed travel company can do it for you, and you can travel around the restricted area only by joining their organized tour.
An organized tour doesn’t necessarily mean a “group tour”, although traveling in a group is cheaper. You can still travel solo, but an agent from the travel company must always guide you or at least follow you. This is the case in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and in whole countries like North Korea and Bhutan.
This is the situation in the world of humans. On top of that, there are a lot of unclear, uncertain, and changeable restrictions. Some of the restrictions are clearly explained and published on various media and websites. It is convenient because you can check for them online in advance and prepare earlier.
But other restrictions are not published anywhere online. Only when you reach the check-point, you see the regulation written on paper and taped on their office door, warning you that you must present documents A, B, and C. You discover that you don’t have “document C”, and now you have to back and obtain it. Needless to say, it is a waste of your time, your money, and can seriously harm your itinerary further.
Not only that but in some areas, even the local officers don’t know the regulations clearly. They can be corrupted, and no matter how well you are prepared, everything could depend on their current mood. This is really annoying, but you can’t do anything unless you have enough money…
So, finding as much as possible information from other travelers, from locals, and the internet is always good. Always arrange a “Plan B”, in case that you can’t cross a check-point. When your itinerary includes crossing a border with little or no information, make your travel plan enough flexible and easily changeable!
I hate writing this paragraph, and I will delete it immediately when this pandemic is over!
But unfortunately, this is the current reality. For almost two years, on the existing restrictions for travel, they imposed more restrictions, seriously harming the travel and travel industry. I will not take a side whether it is good or not, or whether these new restrictions are effective or not.
And as we all know, some countries are almost completely closed for travel, in full lockdown. Other countries require negative tests, vaccination certificates, and 2-weeks (or more) quarantine in an expensive hotel (and you pay all the expenses for that!). There are still some countries will lighter restrictions- just a negative test on the border and that’s all.
However, one of the biggest problems is instability and uncertainty. The pandemic comes in waves, and the restrictions can be suddenly tightened without warning.
Needless to say, this situation makes traveling very difficult, at least in some countries. So, again, you have to be flexible. The best thing that you should know is the newest and freshest Covid-19 information, so click on the button below:
A dream for freedom
So, what can we say about all of the above? It is not so nice for us travelers. But again, this is the world of humans. If we could live just a thousand years ago, almost all of the above restrictions would not exist. Of course, there would be many other problems, caused again by humans, by nature, and by the ancient levels of transport and equipment.
However, surprisingly, about 50% of the Earth’s surface is still completely free for travelers! Yes, this is the area of the so-called “International waters”- this part of the Earth’s oceans that don’t belong to any country. Yes, there are still some laws and regulations applied for this territory, but they don’t limit travelers. The problem is that only private sailors (by yachts and boats) can enjoy this freedom.
The current pandemic will be over, sooner or later, and its restrictions should be canceled. But the old restrictions will still remain, maybe even a bit tighter in some places. Why? Because again, this is the world of humans (and yes, some restrictions and fees, designed to protect nature are actually good).
As it is written in the Bible, we are all sinners, and evil always tries to control us. Greed, paranoia, ethnic and religious hate, prejudices, all of these are like another endless pandemic from ancient times.
Humans try to stop these things by borders and restrictions, although they are inside us, more or less. So, the only thing we can do is to search for freedom inside, and just to adapt to the restrictions in the human world.
Check some travel books about adventures around the world!
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.