I'm sure this used to be the border

Who owns Kashmir? Or Belize, for that matter? Contentious political questions, for sure, and they remain so for the sensitive map-maker, as Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet guidebooks, reports

Keep one side happy and you offend the other; they're a nightmare, a political minefield, a no-win situation. Maps, that is. For guidebook publishers, they're something you simply cannot get right.

Keep one side happy and you offend the other; they're a nightmare, a political minefield, a no-win situation. Maps, that is. For guidebook publishers, they're something you simply cannot get right.

Take Kashmir – which is exactly what both India and Pakistan would like to do. In fact, neither side controls all of the region. The famous Vale of Kashmir – Srinagar, Dal Lake and all those beautiful houseboats – is in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and part of India. But another third of Kashmir lies to the west of the "line of control", the ceasefire line that actually divides the subcontinent's fractious neighbours. That's Azad, or "Free" Jammu and Kashmir, and under Pakistani control.

So where do we show the border on our maps? What we'd like to do is show reality. We'd like to say: "There's the line of control. East of that line you'll need an Indian visa, west of that you'll need a Pakistani one." But we can forget about selling the Lonely Planet India guide in India if we show it that way. So, our general map of India goes along with the official New Delhi fiction that all of Kashmir is under India's control.

You may already have seen the catch: our cartographic compromise that allows us to sell in India makes the same book unsaleable in Pakistan. The sad reality is that few people are going to Pakistan in these troubled times, so the commercial consequences of the ban on our India book in Karachi and Islamabad are minimal.

In fact, the sorry history of Kashmir is more complex than an India-Pakistan squabble. Off to the far east of the disputed territory is a chunk controlled by neither state; the Aksai Chin region is under China's control. Back in 1962, when the Chinese marched in, this area was so remote that the Indians didn't even realise it was no longer theirs until the Chinese had built a highway right across it. A little war didn't sort the problem out; today, if you travel by road from western Tibet to the remote Xinjiang city of Kashgar, you'll cross right over a piece of territory which Indian maps insist is still part of India.

The Kashmir dispute is mirrored all over the world. Some good news is emanating from Latin America, where some of the traditional wrangles look like they're coming to amicable conclusions. Guatemala is about to give up on its long-standing claim to Belize, which came about because the Spanish used to claim the whole show. Since the Spanish gave up and went home in 1821, the dispute has lasted for nearly two centuries. In practice, Belize was really an unofficial British colony, and the Belizeans still speak English as their first language, unlike all the rest of Spanish-speaking Central America.

Peru and Ecuador have finally sorted out where their border is, although they had a frontier battle about it as recently as 1995. Go further south and you'd better remember that those inhospitable islands off to the east of Tierra del Fuego are the Islas Malvinas, not the Falkland Islands. That is, if you want to sell your Argentina guide, or your South America guide, or you Antarctica guide in Argentina.

If you're in North Africa, don't even whisper the words "Western Sahara" around the Moroccans. Having fixed up all the maps inside our Morocco guide for one edition, we failed to notice that a careful designer had pointed out on the back cover that the desert out on the left side of the country was correctly (but unpolitically) the "Western Sahara".

There's no more cartographically sensitive region of the world than the Middle East. Once upon a time, there was no better way to offend the Israelis than to refer to those Israeli-held areas of the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank as the "Occupied Territories". The Sinai has gone back to Egypt these days, but titling the West Bank and Gaza the "Palestinian Territories" still rankles many Israelis who would prefer "Palestinian Authorities" – less of a territorial claim, you know. Of course, over the other side of the border it would be better to pretend that Israel doesn't exist at all. Simply leaving that area just west of Jordan and Syria as a big blank on the map would be the best thing from many an Arab's point of view.

In Asia, please don't pretend that island off the China coast is an independent country by the name of Taiwan, although you can still call Hong Kong by its name, even if SAR (for Special Administrative Region) might be more politically correct. Surprisingly, the North Koreans, who are usually so disputatious about everything, are fairly even handed about their border with the south. Their maps simply show the two Koreas as one, without making any fuss about who is actually in control.

Still, it's hard to find anybody more sensitive about borders than the Indians. Even showing the borders where the Indian government wished they would be isn't good enough, because even the Indian government isn't really sure where they'd like the borders to be. Maps of India in books sold in India have to include a little statement to the effect that "the external boundaries of India on this map have not been authenticated and may not be correct". That's true when the map shows bits of India which are actually occupied by citizens of China and Pakistan.

In recent years, the Indian government's paranoia about what people might think about their borders grew so severe that it became all but impossible to buy an atlas in India. In New Delhi one day, an Indian bookseller showed me an Indian children's history book with a map of India as it was under the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, 2,500 years ago, complete with the statement that the borders on the map "have not been authenticated and may not be correct".

Map-makers would need a time machine as well as surveying equipment to get that map right.

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