‘The end of the road was always just out of sight. Cracked asphalt deepened to night beyond the reach of our headlamps, the thin beams swallowed by a blackness that receded before us no matter how fast we biked. Light was a kind of pavement thrown down in front of our wheels, and the road went on and on. If I ever reach the end, I remember thinking, I’ll fly off the rim of the world. I pedalled harder’.
Kate Harris’ debut travelogue is bursting with the wonder of exploration. Exploration is at the root of her being – the driving force that pushes her to the edges of civilisation from the Pamir to the Tibetan Plateau. Although similar to other travel memoir’s in that Harris’ account is as much about the inner journey she experiences as it is about the physical journey through the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road, there is no pretentiousness or that ever-cheesy ‘soul-searching/finding oneself’ that normally accompanies such genres (think Eat, Pray, Love).
Instead, Harris’ journey confronts us with the very real and damaging issues of artificial and natural borders between countries. Beginning in Turkey with her childhood friend, Mel, Kate Harris traverses through areas of precariousness, strict border controls and places of astonishing beauty through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Tibet and Nepal, finishing her mammoth year-long journey in India. Along the way Harris muses on the impact of the artificial boundaries drawn onto 2D maps as a battle for political dominance despite the natural borders that dissect these attempts at control. However, she recognises the very real consequences these borders can have for the people living in these areas. One striking moment in her narrative is when she is cycling through Tajikistan, where a narrow river cascading from the mountains naturally separates the land with Afghanistan. The river is so narrow that you can see people going about their everyday business on both sides; so narrow that when the artificial border was drawn up, families became separated and divided just like the land itself.
Balancing her whole academic career upon science – studying at prestigious institutes such as Rhodes, Oxford and MIT – Harris had always dreamed of going to Mars; of exploring the unexplored. Coveting stories from the likes of Marco Polo to Fanny Bullock Workman from a young age, Harris soon begins to realise that the age of the ‘explorer’ passed a long time ago. Yet, as she delves further into the field of scientific exploration, she becomes disillusioned with it. So much of exploration is overshadowed and co-opted by political and military motives. So much of ‘exploration’ is about conquering and enforcing control over the land and its people. Although Harris muses on nomadic tribes who traverse these boundaries and how nature powerfully blurs these distinctions, artificial border controls have damaging consequences. Dropping out of MIT, Harris embarks on the Silk Road, after completing the Tibetan section of it a few years previously, to simply wonder at the untouched beauty of the world and whether or not a life of exploration could be done differently with more ‘noble’ intentions.
There is no doubt that Kate Harris’ travel memoir is beautifully and flawlessly written. Read in a few sittings, I was mesmerised by the descriptions of places that have little interception from the outside world, by places that have barely been traversed by intrepid travellers. Tibet has always been a place of fascination for me and Harris just made it more so; Uzbekistan became a place of intrigue in its insularity from the rest of the world; the food in Turkey and Georgia had me obsessed for a few days. However, what struck me most about Land of Lost Borders was Harris herself. I wanted to know more about this interesting and inspiring woman who offers up a possibility of living life ‘differently’. Searching out more information about this author, I stumbled across a beautiful piece by Marsha Lederman: In a tiny B.C. cabin, Kate Harris penned tales of travel along the Silk Road.
‘Lands of Lost Borders’ by Kate Harris will be published on 21st August. Thank you to Dey Street Books – HarperCollins, via Edelweiss+, for the review copy.