Kate Harris says near the beginning of her book, Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road, by explaining that she believes she was born in the wrong era. After reading her informative and impressive blend of travelogue and history of science and ecology, I agree—but I’m also glad that people with an undaunted desire to go out into the world and bring back their impressions for the rest of us still pop up from time to time. I would never be able to do what Harris and her fried, Mel Yule, did and spend ten months biking (biking!) along parts of the old Silk Road from Istanbul to Leh, in Ladakh. This book gave me the opportunity to tag along, like a Go Pro on their shoulders, on this remarkable journey.
The book opens with a prologue set about five years before Harris and Yule’s epic bike trip. Harris had always wanted to go to Tibet from China which, at the time, was hard to get to. She and Yule sneakily make their way through the checkpoints (mostly under). Once on the other side, Harris marvels at the landscape. She frequently feels an almost mystical connection to the mountains and sky while she pedals away. The trance-like feeling returns when she comes back with Yule from the other direction. For Harris, bicycling is meditative. It eases the restlessness she’s felt since childhood, when she wanted to travel to Mars.
After the prologue, Harris takes us back to her days growing up in Ontario and explains how she ended up on a bike in some of the most desolate places in Asia. It’s partly the fault of Marco Polo and partly Harris’ drive to go places no one else has gone. At first, Harris wanted to go to Mars, until she realized that she loves this planet and its people too much to leave forever if the opportunity arose. She started traveling extensively in college, taking every chance and grant she could to go to the Utah desert, a glacier in Alaska, and dozens of other places. While working on her Master’s at Oxford, Harris starts to study the Siachen Glacier, a contested area claimed by India and Pakistan. The glacier got Harris thinking about how arbitrary borders are and the effects of humans on delicate environments.
Harris breezes quickly through her biography to get to the good stuff: the trip. (The biographical section is very well written, though.) While she talks about the hardships of the road, Harris talks about the history of the Silk Road, flight, pollution, the history of Central Asia, endangered species (plant and animal), space exploration, and much more. I was engrossed by all of it. Most of all, I was profoundly impressed by Harris and Yule’s mental and physical fortitude. They put up with freezing and boiling temperatures, hunger, thirst, and fatigue—as well as doing battle with bureaucracy. But the book zips along so fluidly that I kept forgetting that it took them ten months to do this.
Lands of Lost Borders is one of those rare nonfiction books that I could have happily devoured another couple hundred pages once I finished. (Happily, Harris and Yule created a ten minute video with highlights of their journey that gave me a little more time to ride along on their shoulders.) This book was so full of interesting ideas and events that I would have had a good time. What really made this book for me was Harris’ sense of humor and accessible writing style. She never dwells too long on any one point. She avoids getting preachy, even when it would be very easy to do so. She leaves in just enough of the hard parts to make the book feel real without making us as miserable as she and Yule were on parts of the journey. Best of all, she is great at describing the best parts of the trip: seeing Marco Polo sheep and Caucasian peony, making connections with people when they shared no common language, and following in the footsteps of the brave people who trekked across mountains and deserts over the centuries. I am well away that I’m gushing, but I really enjoyed reading this book.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 21 August 2018.