Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road

  • By Kate Harris
  • Dey Street Books
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Emily Walz
  • August 17, 2018

A scientist-turned-writer reflects on her past while connecting great literature to the discoveries in her present.

Kate Harris’ debut work, Lands of Lost Borders, opens with a Virginia Woolf epigraph declaring, “We are forever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities,” which is the essential mission behind Harris’ plan to bicycle across Asia, tracing the ancient Silk Road. Her retelling of the trip makes for a travelogue infused with science, history, and literature stretching from sea level to the roof of the world.

Harris links the impulse for the journey to a youthful fascination with Marco Polo, when she would trace and study his route “as it laced and frayed past Constantinople, Trabzon, Erzurum, Bukhara, Samarkand, Badakhshan, Kashgar, Khotan, Cathay, each name an invitation to elsewhere.”

As she grew older, her interest in the great unknown settled on Mars: She planned to become an astronaut, but midway through her Ph.D., realized the life of a Martian colonist was as much about confinement as freedom, and the path there involved a long detour to a windowless basement laboratory. Re-orienting to earth, she was still compelled by the planet’s most otherworldly places, eager to see the harsh hinterlands between Polo’s trading hubs.

Abandoning the lab, Harris reunites with childhood friend Melissa Yule to bike from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent. They pitch their trip as a chance to explore the reality and fiction of the borders they will traverse, as well as to contemplate how science might bring stability to some of the region’s most volatile places.

Carrying “ludicrous quantities of noodles” and Nescafé, they cycle through Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tibet, Nepal, and India. While their longest, this trip is not their first encounter with parts of the fabled route: Some years prior, the two biked a chunk of the Chinese Silk Road, an episode woven into the book along with Harris’ time studying the history of science at Oxford.

While much of Harris’ motivation for going somewhere new — to expand consciousness and increase a sense of connection to the world — is common in the genre, her work belongs to the subset of writers who go beyond leisure traveler into something more like explorer (an anachronistic profession she longs to join), largely by virtue of the effort it takes to propel herself down this road less traveled, a trek riddled with challenges logistical, physical, and bureaucratic.

In explaining where her thirst for wild landscapes comes from, Harris describes a childhood built on an outer life traipsing around Ontario matched with an inner life of books filled with adventure. This pairing is evident throughout her writing — which superimposes the books she read and loved onto the landscape she witnesses — and is one of the most compelling things about her style.

The narrative is peppered with explorers, poets, artists, and scientists, from Alexandra David-Néel (who, in 1924, journeyed across Tibet) to Charles Darwin, Robert Frost, and Annie Dillard. When Harris encounters a bench at an Azeri rest stop that won’t move, it prompts a reflection on interconnectedness that brings her to John Muir, who spoke of how, in trying to pick something up, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” The observance of a drunken Kazakh man on a train segues into the painter Matisse’s thoughts on how exactitude is not truth.

When so much of the book slips effortlessly across planes of thought, through varied disciplines and millennia, the occasional sweeping pronouncement on the “true risk of travel” or deep reflection — like her declaration that money is a false idol created by the heat differential between the head and heart — come off feeling a touch forced.

Harris’ background adds depth to her prose. Her descriptions flip quickly from the observed world to the historical, effortless lessons on planetary and human history. Reaching the chilly lake Pangong Tso that spills across the border of Tibet and India, she sees water “so vast and turquoise it looked tropical,” and reflects that it looks “like a remnant of the ancient Tethys Ocean, whose warm blue waters were swallowed beneath the Indian subcontinent when it slammed into Eurasia fifty million years ago, crumpling the sea floor into the Tibetan Plateau.”

Other landmarks resonate with her former dreams in a way they would for few others: In Central Asia, Harris is aware of passing north of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where the Soviets launched the first people into space.

Beyond her authoritative ability to incorporate lessons historical and scientific into her narrative, Harris has a knack for lovely turns of phrase and crafting memorable images out of small details. After pushing their loaded bikes through the streets of Istanbul, she and her companion set off along the length of Turkey, in for a wet and miserable winter. “For the next month our whole world conspired to water,” Harris writes.

From the shores of the Black Sea, where “most days we felt like we were biking through the scum on the rim of a giant bathtub,” they move onward to snow-covered mountain passes.

Between pedaling a Georgian road cratered with potholes that “cradled skies the colour and texture of porridge,” the national cuisine helps them learn words like shemomedjamo or “I accidentally ate the whole thing.” The train they take to Almaty to sort out a bureaucratic visa tangle convinces her that Kazakhstan is “a fast slide through sameness” with its repeating views of the steppe.

They camp in deserts where the dirt is cracked into repeating polygons and disguise themselves as Han Chinese bikers to slip unnoticed into Tibet, where the road is covered with fallen leaves and equally crunchy paper prayer flags. On one pass, a bus drives past just when the passengers hurl their flags out the window, Harris writes, “so that the prayers stormed down all around me.”

Across many of these stark and stunning landscapes falls the shadow of dark human history. Despite her fascination with the natural world, Harris never loses sight of how entwined the two are, from the landmines marring Tajikistan’s border zones post-civil war; to the fact that Samarkand’s beautiful domes were built by slaves of the cruel dictator Timurlane; to the ongoing reality that the tall peaks of the Himalayas stand in the formerly independent nation of Tibet, now under Chinese control.

There, Tibetans have watched as their borders “expanded and shrank and turned hard against them.” Throughout, she traces the connection between science and war in places like the Siachen glacier, and how its early exploration was followed by military occupation. Atop that chunk of ice and rock, Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been stationed for decades in a standoff, the subject of Harris’ Oxford master’s thesis and the endpoint of the trip.

Passing through some of the planet’s least-forgiving territory, though not without instances of heartwarming generosity from strangers she encounters, Harris pursues wildness rather than wilderness. Wilderness is, after all, a human construct, and she looks more for a state of mind than a place, helped along by a series of revelatory landscapes.

Emily Walz is a writer based in Washington, DC.

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