Did you think the world was a perfect jigsaw of straight lines and solid borders? Think again.
For a subject often treated with such furrow-browed importance by certain politicians, the exact details of where international borders lie can sometimes be a confusing and confounding conundrum. Through either historical quirks, unwanted tracts of land or honest mistakes, there are several locations worldwide that warrant taking a closer look. Gazed at from a satellite above, there would be nothing remarkable about these areas of land but the reality is much different. Here are some of the world’s more curious international border situations.
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The Diomede Islands
WHERE: Bering Strait, North Pacific
Located in the remote center of the Bering Strait between the far eastern tip of Siberia and the far western tip of Alaska, the Diomede Islands are only 2.3 miles apart and are made up of the larger Russian Big Diomede and the smaller American Little Diomede. While the narrow strip of water between the two might be small, they’re also separated by the International Date Line which means there’s an absurd 23 hour time difference spanning those 2.3 miles.
A blunder on the part of 19th century British and American politicians trying to figure out where the American/Canadian border should lie lead to the Tsawwassen Peninsula in Canada being given to the United States despite having no land links. The area these days is now known as Point Roberts and is a curiosity since it’s not an island yet is completely separated from the rest of the U.S. If any of the 1,000 residents of Point Roberts want to visit anywhere else in their home country they have to pass through Canada, crossing two international borders for the pleasure.
A walk through the sleepy border town of Baarle reveals nothing remarkable but a cursory glance at a map reveals a scattered patchwork of seemingly random parcels of territory taking up areas of the town. The cartographic mess dates back to quarreling aristocratic families in the Middle Ages meaning that here in the 21st century there’s an international border running through cafés, schools, and even bedrooms. Helpful white pavement markings are dotted around town with an “NL” on one side and a “B” on the other to denote which country you are standing in.
Thought Russia was only made up of that gigantic frozen landmass to the east of Europe and the north of China? A closer look at a map of Europe reveals a small pocket of land the size of Wales wedged in between Poland and Lithuania. This is Kaliningrad Oblast, an unfortunate victim of the break-up of the Soviet Union and now permanently separated from the Mother Country by Lithuania, Belarus, Estonia, and Latvia (visas are required to travel to Russia by land).
Located in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland, Märket Island is the smallest sea island in the world shared between two countries. The fun really began though in 1885 when the Russian Empire (who ruled Finland at the time) built a lighthouse on the Swedish side of the island by mistake. The dispute was only resolved almost 100 years later in 1981 when a joint Swedish-Finnish survey decided to create a clever zig-zagging S-shaped border that put the lighthouse back on the Finnish side but allowed the Swedes to retain the same amount of land as before.
Following centuries of being passed between various kingdoms and dynasties, the North African port city of Cueta has been a Spanish possession since 1668. Controversially, because it’s one of only two land borders between Europe and Africa (the other being another Spanish enclave, Melilla, 150 miles away), there are large barbed-wire-riddled border fences running along the frontier between Cueta and Morocco. Desperate migrants trying to reach European shores are faced with the daunting challenge of scaling these fences before contemplating anything else.
Is this the friendliest American border? The tiny northern Vermont town of Derby Line and Stanstead in Quebec both contain the amusingly-named Canusa Avenue where American and Canadian houses face directly at each other and the international border itself snakes through gardens and cafes. Residents from either side of the street will frequently mingle together and hang out in local bars and clubs. Although border security has become visibly tighter since 9/11, the ethos of friendship and community between the two sides continues.
WHERE: The Gambia, West Africa
As the smallest country in Africa, The Gambia can be difficult to spot on a map. With a short coastline, its narrow shape following the Gambia River resembles a finger poking into the body of Senegal. It’s somewhat far-fetched but rumor has it that its strange borders are the result of colonial British warships seeing how far they could travel up the river and the distance their cannons could fire either side.
Can’t decide who owns a particular territory? One way around this familiar conundrum is to allow it to change hands between the two parties every six months. That’s the solution that France and Spain came up with in 1659 for the small uninhabited Pheasant Island, located in the Bidasoa River that straddles the border between the two countries in the Basque Country. The quaint ceremony that happens twice a year means that the Island has changed hands over 700 times since the agreement.
Similar to Point Roberts, the Northwest Angle in Minnesota is another cartographic catastrophe from an era in which much of North America was relatively unknown. Following the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Britain and the U.S. agreed on a new border based on a map maker’s error about the source of the Mississippi River. This was updated in 1818, creating the Northwest Angle and making it the only part of the U.S. that’s north of the 49th Parallel. Surrounded only by water and Canada, the Angle juts out from Manitoba and is almost entirely uninhabited wilderness, containing only 119 residents.
Here’s an example of a city that hugely benefitted from its bizarre border situation. The historic German city of Konstanz, located on Lake Constance, is unusual in that the border between Germany and Switzerland cuts right through it. This meant that during the nightly allied bombing raids in World War II, the German side of the city was able to leave their lights on and pretend that they were part of Switzerland, thus avoiding the falling bombs altogether.
WHERE: New York
A symbol of the Big Apple the world over, the Statue of Liberty is as much a part of New York as the Yankees and yellow cabs. Or is it? Liberty Island sits in New Jersey’s waters, making the island technically part of New Jersey, not New York. That doesn’t sound quite as attractive for the legions of tourists who visit the city every year though, so a pact between the two states means that Lady Liberty can stay a part of the City That Never Sleeps.