'Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road' (book review)

book cover
© K Martinko

Canadian writer Kate Harris describes an epic 10-month bicycle tour across Asia.

If you are looking for a fabulous arm-chair travel read, get a copy of Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road (Vintage Canada, 2019) by Kate Harris. It tells the impressive story of Harris's ten-month biking trip from Istanbul through Central Asia to Tibet, across Nepal and over to Kashmir, accompanied by her intrepid childhood friend, Mel Yule.

Harris grew up in a small rural community in southern Ontario, Canada. She was a Rhodes scholar who completed a master's degree at Oxford, specializing in the history of science. A scientist at heart who dreamed of going to Mars (she'd spent a summer in a Mars simulation in the Utah desert), she transferred to MIT for her PhD, but found the lab work so uninspiring that she quit and called Yule, asking if she was ready for another big bike trip. The pair had already cycled together across the U.S. and the Tibetan plateau, and had talked about doing the entire ancient Silk Road.

The book is so much more than a travelogue. While it does contain humorous descriptions of camp life, traffic nightmares, extreme weather, and nerve-wracking border checkpoints, as well as the wonderful hospitality of families along the way who let them camp in their yards and often invite them in, Harris meditates at length upon the nature of exploration, and what it means to live with the kind of hunger she feels to see and experience the most remote parts of the world. For some people, it's a compulsion, a spiritual search.

Much of Harris's academic research from Oxford comes through in her writing, with long sections devoted to Charles Darwin, Marco Polo, Neil Armstrong, and the Wright brothers, as well as other daring early explorers such as Alexandra David-Néel and Fanny Bullock Workman. She talks about rifts in Central Asian countries caused by random geopolitical lines, about the Tibet-China conflict and the Dalai Lama, about the ongoing standoff between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. She explores the meaning of political borders, their arbitrariness, and the profound effects they have on people's lives.

"There is danger in viewing science and other forms of exploration as essentially noble enterprises. In that sense we're all positivists from the 1870s, convinced that with just a few more facts we'll figure it out, chart the ultimate map, engineer miracles to save us from ourselves. But 'exactitude is not truth,' as the painter Matisse put it, and the notion of science as a neutral search for it should not absolve scientists – or any explorers – of moral responsibility for the facts and maps they unleash on the world."

The book is the best kind of travel story – a dense, heady read that's as educational as it is entertaining, and for anybody afflicted with the urge to explore, a must-read. Learn more at kateharris.ca. Below you can watch a 10-minute video of trip highlights across 10 months, 10 countries, and 10,000 kilometres.

'Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road' (book review)
Canadian writer Kate Harris describes an epic 10-month bicycle tour across Asia.

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