Country Facts #1: Afghanistan to Bhutan

I like the world. I think it’s a pretty interesting place. Being a geography graduate, and generally a bit of an obsessive when it comes to learning about the planet, I’ve read rather a lot about all sorts of weird and wonderful places over the years. And it got me thinking: could I catalogue an interesting fact, stat or random anecdote about every country on earth?

It turns out that, if you delve deeply enough, every single nation on our little planet is noteworthy in some way- yes, even Belgium. There’s an awful lot of extraordinary stuff that’s gone on all over the planet: from peculiar people to nightmarish animals, odd policies to freak natural phenomena, heartwarming successes to gut wrenching failures.

The hope, then, is that most of the stuff on this huge list I’ve compiled is of interest to anyone who reads it- the popularity of shows like QI suggests people like a bit of random information in their lives. Perhaps you’ll even learn something which will be of use in the future; maybe next time an awkward silence descends in a conversation you can simply declare, “Tiger penises are popular in China!” It’ll go down a storm.

I’ve done my best to ensure everything I’ve compiled is accurate, but the law of averages dictates that I’ve probably made the odd factual error. So, y’know, sorry about that. I was dropped on my head as a baby and have been occasional mistakes every day ever since.

Afghanistan – One of Afghanistan’s most popular sports is Buzkashi, which has been popular all across Central Asia for centuries. It’s basically polo, except the “ball” is a headless goat carcass. The word Buzkashi itself literally translates from Persian as “goat dragging”. READ MORE

There’s a “ball” in there somewhere… Buzkashi / Peretz Partensky / CC-BY-SA 2.0

Albania – Despite its 600km long Adriatic and Ionian Sea coastline, speedboats are currently banned in Albania. The reason for this is related to the heel of the Italian boot which juts out into the sea just 75km to the west. Albania is a major transit point on smuggling routes bringing migrants and drugs into the EU from outside, and smugglers commonly used speedboats to quickly transport their lucrative cargo across the narrow sea channel. READ MORE

Algeria – The Algerian national anthem was written in 1956 by a revolutionary poet named Mufdi Zakariah while he was held in jail during the French colonial period. Lacking a pen and paper, he wrote the lyrics on his cell wall using his own blood. The anthem is unusual that the lyrics actually refer to another country, France, rather ominously pointing out to it that “the day of reckoning is at hand”. And it was- within six years Algeria was independent and almost one million French settlers had returned to their homeland. READ MORE

Andorra – The tiny Pyrenean principality of Andorra has a rather unique monarchy. Since an agreement in 1278 it has been presided over by two princes, one from each of its neighbours: the Bishop of Urgell from Spain, and the president of France. READ MORE

Angola – In September 2012, a man fell to his death from a British Airways flight coming in to land at Heathrow Airport in London. He had apparently sneaked onto the under section of the plane before it departed from the Angolan capital Luanda, but fell as the plane’s wheels were unfolded for landing- though it was assumed that by this stage of the journey he was probably already dead. It was especially tragic that the man had been forced to take such risks to find a better life abroad- Angola has vast oil wealth, yet it is concentrated with an elite few and most Angolans live in poverty. READ MORE

Antigua and Barbuda – The Caribbean twin island state of Antigua and Barbuda has come up with a novel way of boosting its struggling economy. The government allows foreigners to buy citizenship with a $200,000 donation to charity, or simply by investing at least $400,000 in the country. In an interesting development in 2014, a property developer in the United Arab Emirates began to offer citizenship to the Caribbean country- almost 12,000km away- for anyone who bought one of their houses. READ MORE

Argentina – There are some 50,000 people of Welsh ancestry in Argentina, up to 10% of whom continue to speak the Welsh language. They are the descendants of an emigrant community which settled in Patagonia in the 19th Century, in an attempt to create an outpost of Welsh culture far from the English speaking world. READ MORE

Armenia – One of devoutly Christian Armenia’s foremost national symbols is Mount Ararat, the mountain on which Noah’s Ark is said in the Bible to have landed. It has been a common feature on everything from the national coat of arms to banknotes and football club badges. And yet the 5,000m landmark, which is visible throughout much of the country, is actually across the border in Turkey. READ MORE

Ararat viewed from the Armenian capital- so close yet so far away – Yerevan With Ararat / Roger Zenner / CC-BY-SA 2.0

Australia – The deserts of Australia are notoriously barren and featureless, and it seems that the roads that run through them are equally monotonous. The Eyre Highway in Australia’s south western desert contains one of the world’s longest stretches of straight road. It runs for 145km without even a hint of a change of direction. READ MORE

It may be straight, but at least there might be a few kangaroos to spot! Nullarbor Warning Signs / Bahnfrend / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Austria – In 2011, an Austrian man was granted permission to appear on his driving licence photo wearing a pasta sieve on his head. Niko Alm, a political activist and subscriber to the satirical, anti-creationist Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, argued that his unconventional choice of headgear was a religious requirement. The so-called Pastafarian’s wish was eventually granted, but only providing that he could provide a certificate from his doctor proving he was mentally fit to drive. READ MORE

Azerbaijan – Caucasus neighbours Azerbaijan and Armenia share perhaps the world’s most bitter national rivalry. Feelings run so strongly that in 2009, the Azerbaijan Ministry of National Security located and interrogated the 43 people who had voted for the Armenian entry in that year’s Eurovision Song Contest. READ MORE

Bahamas – The first country visited by Christopher Columbus on his ground-breaking voyage across the Atlantic were the Bahamas, a group of around 700 islands off the coast of Florida (though he maintained to his dying day that he had arrived in the Far East of Asia). This first meeting of civilisations set the tone for the subsequent colonization of the continent- the entire 40,000 population soon succumbed to disease or was enslaved, and the islands remained uninhabited for over a century afterwards. Incidentally, Columbus wasn’t actually the first European to reach the Americas- the Vikings had beaten him to it centuries earlier- and he did not reach the mainland of the continent in either of his first two voyages. READ MORE

Bahrain – After being acquitted of child molestation charges in 2005, Michael Jackson flew to the Gulf nation of Bahrain to recover from the rigors of the trial (it was later alleged he would have escaped there had he been convicted anyway). As a guest of the royal family the bankrupt star discussed property investments and record contracts, before getting cold feet and returning to Los Angeles. He was later sued for $7 million by his former hosts. READ MORE

Bangladesh – Poverty stricken Bangladesh is the world’s centre of ship breaking. Due to low labour costs, lax environmental laws and a disregard for worker safety, shipping companies from around the globe send their retired vessels to the Bangladeshi coast to be broken up for scrap metal. Each year, 84 million tonnes of metal from around 200 ships are scrapped, and the industry employs around 200,000 people. But worker conditions are dire, and fatalities are a weekly occurrence. READ MORE

Ship Breakers of Chittagong - 2010-11-22_17708_places.jpg
A partly dismantled ship in Chittagong, Bangladesh – Photo by Carinlilly / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Barbados – Barbados were participants in perhaps the strangest game of football ever played. Facing Grenada in a decisive qualifying match 1994 Caribbean Cup, a strange quirk of the tournament’s unconventional rules meant that towards the end of the game both teams attempted to score in their own goals as well as their opponents. The bizarre encounter ended with Barbados the 4-2 victors. READ MORE

Belarus – Belarus is often referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe- though Vladimir Putin would probably have something to say about that- and its repressive tendencies have ensured that the Belarusian opposition has become the world’s longest government in exile. Since it was ousted in a 1919 Red Army coup, the government of the former Belarusian Democratic Republic has waited overseas for its chance to return- the Belarusian exiles are currently based in Toronto. But their legitimacy to run the country is a little shaky: not only has the organisation been out of power for almost a century, but it was only ever in power for 13 months in the first place. READ MORE

Belgium – Thanks to a 19th Century treaty, the border between Belgium and the Netherlands is perhaps the most intricate boundary on the planet. The Belgian town of Baarle- Hertog, based on 24 Belgian “islands” located several kilometres north of the border in Dutch territory, is the most extreme example of this. So complex is the border that it divides a number of houses in the town between the two countries. READ MORE

Belize – Tiny Belize made global headlines in 2012 thanks to the escapades of eccentric American computer programmer John McAfee (of McAfee antivirus fame). After one of his neighbours was found shot dead, McAfee vanished, claiming the Belizean police were planning to kill him. When he resurfaced in Guatemala the following month he was deported to the US for illegally crossing the border. He then embarked on a failed bid for the US presidency. READ MORE

Benin – Around 40% of Benin’s 9 million people practice Vodun religious rituals, commonly referred to in the West as Voodoo. But one thing they don’t do is stick pins into dolls to harm their enemies- that’s a myth propagated by Hollywood movies. READ MORE

Bhutan – Until 1999, television broadcasting was banned in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. It was the last country on earth to embrace TV, and by all accounts it has had a negative effect by eroding the traditional way of life and values. But at least now they can watch The Simpsons. READ MORE

If you have anything to add to any of these entries, you can offer a better one, or you just want someone to talk to, please leave a comment!


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