Most of us think of international borders as invisible, but clear-cut, lines: stand on one side, and you’re in one country; stand on the other, you’re in another country. But here’s a list of five international borders that, for one reason or another, are not quite that simple.
1. The Indian Exclave in Bangladesh That Contains a Bangladeshi Exclave (Which Contains Another Indian Territory)
The Cooch-Behar District, nestled between Bangladesh and India, is one of the most confusing border zones in the world, with 102 mini-exclaves belonging to India splattered on the Bangladeshi side of the border, and 71 exclaves belonging to Bangladesh peppering the Indian side. To further confuse things, inside many of those exclaves, there are other, even smaller exclaves belonging to the other country.
For example, take the Indian region of Balapara Khagrabari. It’s an Indian exclave on the Bangladeshi side of the border, and contains inside of it, a Bangladeshi exclave, which, in turn, contains yet another Indian territory—like a doughnut inside of a doughnut inside of a doughnut. In Bangladesh. Or in non-pastry terms: Balapara Khagrabari is the only place in the world where an exclave contains another exclave that contains yet another exclave.
So why’d the border get drawn like that? It can all be traced back to power struggles between local kings hundreds of years ago, who would try to claim pockets of land inside each other’s territories as a way to leverage political power. When Bangladesh became independent from India in 1947 (as East Pakistan until 1971), all those separate pockets of land were divvied up. Hence the polka-dotted mess.
In 2011, the Indian and Bangladeshi governments signed a treaty that will eventually get rid of all the exclaves, draw a nice clean line between the countries, and allow people living within the enclaves to choose which nationality they’d like to have.
2. Closing Time at the Dutch-Belgian Border
Image credit: Jérôme
Any border buff worth his salt will tell you about the little town of Baarle, which straddles the Dutch-Belgian border. The Belgian portion of town, known as Baarle Hertog, is not so much a hunk of territory as a smattering of tiny exclaves inside of the Netherlands town of Baarle-Nassau. As in Cooch-Behar, many of those Belgian exclaves also contain Dutch exclaves, making a map of the whole town look like one of Jackson Pollock’s crazier designs.
The official border between Belgium and the Netherlands runs through living rooms, yards and cafés, so it’s possible – indeed, it happens more often than you’d think – to sit across a table having a cup of coffee with someone who is actually in a different country.
For a while, a Dutch law requiring dining establishments to close earlier than they did in Belgium laid the foundation for an absurd, nightly charade in some Baarle restaurants. At closing time in the Netherlands, patrons would have to get up and move tables, over to the Belgian side. Like in Cooch-Behar, Baarle’s complex borderline has to do with how regional lords and dukes divided up their land hundreds of years ago.
3. The American Town That's Really in Canada
In 1787, the Treaty of Paris basically laid out which British territories would go to the freshly victorious American rebels, and which would remain part of British Canada. The treaty said that the Americans would get all the British territory “through the Lake of the Woods, to the northwestern most point thereof, and from thence on a due west course to the river Mississippi…” The only problem was, the map they were using wasn’t quite right.
They didn’t know at the time that the source of the Mississippi was actually farther south, so if you follow their instructions to a T, you get this funny, 123 square mile blip of Minnesota up in the middle of Canadian territory, which still exists today. It’s called the “Northwest Angle,” and can only be accessed from the U.S. by land by crossing into Canadian territory first.
The citizens of the tiny Angle Township must check in via videophone to the Canadian customs authorities when they want to leave their village, and with the American customs authorities when they want to come back.
4. The Island Where You Can See the Future
There are two islands — known as the Diomedes, about two and a half miles apart — right smack in the middle of the Bering Strait. One of them, Little Diomede (pictured), belongs to the U.S., and has a hardcore, weather-bitten population of about 150. The other island, Big Diomede, belongs to Russia and is uninhabited. The space between these two islands marks not only an international border, but the International Date Line as well, making it possible for the folks on Little Diomede to wake up on a Sunday, pour themselves a cup of coffee, and peer across the water to Big Diomede, where it’s already Monday.
5. The Little Hunk of Land That Nobody Wants
Image credit: World Geo Blog
In 1899, when the British Empire controlled Egypt and Sudan, the Brits drew a little map. They said that Sudan would get all the stuff south of the 22nd parallel, while Egypt would get all the stuff north of it. It would have been simple enough, except three years later, a different group of Brits drew a different map, which mostly followed the 22nd parallel, but not exactly.
The 1902 map gave Sudan an extra chunk of fertile territory, known as the Hala’ib Triangle, north of the 22nd parallel, while allotting the Egyptians a rather useless chunk of desert, known as Bir Tawil, south of the parallel. One hundred and ten years later, the border is still in dispute.
Not shockingly, the Egyptians insist the 1899 map shows the “real” borders, while the Sudanese say the 1902 map is more accurate. Both countries claim the fertile Hala’ib Triangle, while neither country—or anyone else, for that matter—claims the Bir Tawil.
This story originally appeared in 2011.