In between studying at Oxford University and MIT, Harris sets off by bicycle down the fabled Silk Road with her childhood friend, recounting the sights, sounds, and thoughts that rush through her mind as she pedals through Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tibet, Nepal, and India.
Kate Harris’ Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road is a compelling, suspenseful, insightful and elegant travel memoir ... The book moves seamlessly between the Silk Road adventure and backstory that led up to it ... The book also moves easily between narrative and philosophy ... There are certainly adventures. Dangerous roads around the Black Sea, mistaken imprisonment in a tea house, visa problems, bad weather, bad roads, hunger, illness, lost bicycles, and the seemingly ever-present kindness of strangers keep the book moving along. And there are certainly digressions into discussions of Darwin, Sagan, Polo, ecology and regional history. Every one of them is a thread you can’t undo ... This is one that will have you dreaming.
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 ... Harris...superimposes the books she read and loved onto the landscape she witnesses—and [this] is one of the most compelling things about her style. The narrative is peppered with explorers, poets, artists, and scientists ... 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 ... 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.
Harris does describe an almost year-long cycle trek from Turkey to Nepal and India, but her account unfortunately leaves us little wiser about conditions along her route today. She starts well—their trip through Turkey is pretty well documented—but then Harris seems to have tired of taking notes. Kyrgyzstan gets just two paragraphs ... Harris’s creation is to some extent autobiography masquerading as a travel tale. The trip itself fills about three-quarters of the 290 pages, but Harris’s account of it focuses to a substantial extent on her subjective perceptions. While there is plenty of sweat, fatigue and sunscreen as you would expect, and Harris is particularly interested in the stars and views of distant mountains, most of the text is a set of vignettes describing memorable people she met, but largely in terms of her own reactions to them. Her pursuit of a scientific career led her to study the history of science, so she is remarkably well-read in that field, but also in many others. So her road across Asia takes in many, many detours of the intellectual sort off the subject of the trip itself ... Still, the book is well written. Land of Lost Borders is a fluent treatise on the borders which had previously delimited Harris’ life, but if you’re interested in learning about the borders on today’s Silk Road, try Tim Cope.