Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road
By Kate Harris
Knopf Canada, 2018
Kate Harris is a Canadian Rhodes Scholar who studied the history of science at Oxford, dropped out of her microbiology PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and instead has found her métier as a modern-day explorer.
Channeling diverse life experiences from such varied notables as Siddhartha Gautama, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Fanny “Votes for Women” Bullock Workman, she explores the thought processes of the great existential explorers who made tracks and treks into new worlds.
She does this with her longtime pal Mel Yule, on donated titanium bikes, each equipped with four panniers for accompanying laptops, fleece thermal clothing, a “worm-like” red tent, bags of dried noodles and bike repair kits.
They travel light for 10 months, largely propelled by Nescafe and boiled noodles, along paved highways in Turkey, rutted dirt tracks in Uzbekistan, flower-laden meadows in Tibet and scree slopes in Nepal. They ultimately complete their mission: peddling the Silk Road made famous by the writings of Marco Polo, who made his epic journey from Venice to China from 1271 to 1295.
Along the way, Kate (my guess at how she’d like to be characterized in a review of her book) ruminates about contemporary culture and politics, especially the brutal suppression of Tibetan culture by the Han Chinese colonists; the post-Russian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; and the naïve role of adventure tourists in zippered trekking pants in Kathmandu.
Her perspective often changes from page to page, and within pages, as she factors in scientific digressions on Mars, nomenclatural (her word) derivations, observations on the neural parallels between human and elephant brains, and practical advice on how to change a flat tire on a touring bike.
She is in her late 20s (during the ride), the ultimate polymath; exactly the “all rounder” Cecil Rhodes desired to support toiling under Oxford’s “dreaming spires.” Interestingly, she disavowed the often careerist bent of Rhodes Scholars from the get-go in the big ‘O.’
She somewhat radically switched degree programs, from a predictable laboratory science master’s program to an arts one in the history of science, pointing out in the process that many of Oxford’s most famous alumni never completed their degrees. Bill Clinton, no less, signed up for a politics, philosophy and economics bachelor’s program, only to spend his time broadening his horizons travelling Europe. So did Percy Bysshe Shelley, who drowned in Cinque Terre, Italy, when he should have been working on his weekly tutorial essays. Like both of these Oxford forebears, Kate points out that she refuses to live her life “between the lines.”
And that might be my broadest take on her first book: it is entirely written outside the lines. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that draws on so broad a list of intellectual interests and sources to tell what is essentially the story of a gruelling bike trip from Istanbul to the end of the road in Leh, in the Kashmir. What dominates the telling are the deep interior, mental ruminations of a bike rider, whose first order of business is making the pedals go round and the tires turn.
By trip’s end, we have experienced the strengthening, empowering bond of Mel and Kate’s friendship, and seen the author determine her future career path: “An existence rich in mountains, words, stars, wildness, really everything but money, but when it comes to that, who needs more than enough?”
She is now self-defined as, “a writer with a knack for getting lost.” And the winner of a growing list of awards for her work. She has been named one of Canada’s top modern-day explorers and lives pointedly “off-grid in Atlin, B.C., as often as possible.”
My final take on Lands of Lost Borders is that of a fellow Rhodes Scholar. There is, amongst some of us, a telling (and somewhat competitive) angst. Have we made the most of the incredible golden ticket given to us at such a comparatively young age? Have we lived up to the dreams of the founder, especially for embracing career(s) that serve the public weal more than the private pocket book?
Without a doubt, I think Kate Harris can claim her book does just that. I think it’s a masterpiece, “with distinction,” as they say in Oxford.
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