Some books are maddening from the opening paragraph. Not because they are badly written or obtuse, or because they’re not what you thought they would be. Instead, they are maddening because from that opening paragraph you know this one is going to be good — very good — and no matter what else is going on your world, the next several hours are going to be spent happily lost in a new story. Suddenly it’s 4 a.m. and you have no idea where 2:30 went.
Kate Harris’ “Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road,” is a compelling, suspenseful, insightful and elegant travel memoir. The basic story follows her adventures as she bicycles with her friend Melissa, “Mel,” and others along the Silk Road, the ancient path already well established when Marco Polo followed it, from Turkey into China and Nepal. It’s not a straight path, though, and destination really has very little to do with why she’s there.
Her inspiration, in part, came from Alexandra David-Néel, who traveled in Tibet in 1924 and wrote “My Journey to Lhasa.” Harris writes: “David-Néel wasn’t trying to ‘find herself’ through travel. Nor was she jolted from a routine, domestic existence by some kind of emotional crisis, as though only grief or loss or a search for love could justify a woman seeking risk and adventure on the open road. Refreshingly, David-Néel knew herself just fine, and what she was searching for, if anything, was an outer world as wild as she felt within.”
Speaking of her own desire a few pages later, Harris continues: “Places like the Tibetan Plateau or the Taklamakan Desert seemed to promise not answers, exactly, but a way of life equal to the wildness of existing at all.”
The book moves seamlessly between the Silk Road adventure and backstory that led up to it. Beginning with two middle-of-the-night, almost-caught clandestine checkpoint crossings into forbidden Tibet, the book heads back to Harris’ youth and her early love for science and exploration. Then back to the ride. Then to Oxford. And so on. In every instance, the backstory is as compelling as the road.
The book also moves easily between narrative and philosophy. “Ride far enough and the world becomes strange and unknown to you. Ride a little farther and you become strange and unknown to yourself, not to mention your traveling companion. … Wasn’t that the most meaningful outcome of any kind of exploration? To reveal the old world — and ourselves — anew?”
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. As Harris says early in the book, “Most aspects … encouraged digression, which is, after all, just a sideways method for stumbling on connection.”
The book’s title, “Lands of Lost Borders,” is a metaphor, of course. History and self and place all get mixed into an expression of an explorer’s desire. This is one that will have you dreaming.
W. Scott Olsen teaches at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. His most recent book is “A Moment with Strangers: Essays and Photographs at Home and Abroad.”
Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road
By: Kate Harris.
Publisher: Dey Street Books, 304 pages, $24.99.