So you’re planning a trip on the Silk Road. You’re looking for tips on what to take, routes, currencies, visas.
Well, if you are, this is not the book for you.
Kate Harris certainly made that trip, and she’s written a very readable book, but it’s only about selected aspects of her adventures. The trip is in fact just a framework for extensive musings about Kate Harris. The lost borders of the title are not those of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative, but rather the borders that had been delimiting Harris’s life and outlook before she set off across Asia. As she somewhat immodestly explains it,
I was too good at school … After being on an achievement bender most of my life, the prospect of withdrawal, of doing anything without external approval, or better yet acclamation, kept me obediently between the lines I couldn’t even recognize as lines.
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.
She and her companion were constantly at risk from passing trucks and they presumably stopped at roadside stalls and had to continuously seek potable water, but we learn nothing about any of this. Their bikes? No description despite the fact that Harris was a cyclo-cross champion. Her travelling companion? We know her name, that she has red hair and is adept at turning cartwheels, but little else.
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. We learn a lot about the Wright brothers, about Darwin, but also about Jalal al-din Rumi and many others. Dervla Murphy and Rob Lilwall, however, don’t make the cut.
Autobiographical introspection from a woman of 27 is an intrinsically dubious proposition. She was a Rhodes Scholar and apparently enjoyed her time at Oxford. By the time she reached Istanbul, having broken up with a boyfriend, given up science and dropped out of MIT, she has plenty of introspection to offer. One suspects she was to some extent “on the rebound” from the life she had known.
Still, the book is well written. Yet, having proven herself as an author, what might Harris’s next project be? She has installed herself in a small town remote even by Canadian standards where mountains and stars will often be in view. But having invested so much in traversing Asia and said so little about it, it’s hard to imagine her repeating the exercise. 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.