A Journey on the Silk Road

A Journey on the Silk Road

Thu 29 Nov

Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris

HarperCollins 2018

In her debut travelogue-memoir Kate Harris invites readers to re-trace the ancient Silk Road. She crosses borders from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent by bike and across thousands of miles she climbs “the barbed wire” stacked up inside of us. It’s a physical as well as philosophical journey, and she takes it with her childhood friend, Melissa. 

In her youth, Kate confides, she was fascinated with Marco Polo’s story. She chose to study the history of science and when she realised there was nothing left on the planet to be discovered, her interest settled on Mars. She planned to become an astronaut and while doing her PhD, a chance to do research of the red planet became real. However she dismissed the desire as the vision of spending years in a sterile, impersonal laboratory, “pale death by computer screen” was far from being an actual explorer. She settled her interest on the Silk Road planning to trace and study Marco Polo’s route, and approached her second attempt, a twelve-month journey to reach “the roof of the world”.

Harris’s longing finally sends her into the unknown where along with Mel she explores the borders of reality and fiction. The author describes the beauty and hardships on her way through Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tibet, Nepal and India. She offers a striking contrast: pungent banks on the Black Sea, broken landscapes and breath-taking mountain vistas indifferent to her admiration. In her journal she wrote that every day across the Tibetan Plateau was “tensioned between joy and suffering, heaven and earth”. Kate and Mel meet strangers who treat them like a family whereas some neighbouring countries are at war. It is not only a journey of crossing borders of different countries, it is a journey through their history and culture, it is a journey of crossing borders of the mind’s limitations.

Harris exhibits a real craft in detailing landscapes and referencing explorers, scientists, artists and poets. She finds what they found out, some of them centuries ago, as still existing truths, such as Thoreau’s, who claimed that the wildness of a place or experience, “isn’t in the place or experience, necessarily, but in you—your capacity to see it, feel it”. Harris’ travelogue offers short breaks during her biking to reflect upon deep sentiments discovered years if not centuries ago, and still valid today.

While Harris is deeply fascinated with the beauty and solace of nature, she is quick to point out how human history influenced it. She shares with the readers dark facts of Samarkand’s domes admired by tourists, being raised by slaves of the cruel dictator Timurlane. Through the eyes of Tibetans, she presents the reality of the formerly independent nation, now under Chinese government. Whereas nature and humanity are connected, Harris notices, people often perceive themselves as “distinct and separate from the natural world, they believe they risk nothing in destroying it”. She says nature is the victim of people’s “blunt and inflexible borders” which brings us back to the title of her book.

Why the Silk Road? To the reasonable question there is no reasonable answer. Harris reveals, “Because it’s there, sort of, in a historical and metaphorical sense. Because I wanted to see out the world’s wildness and plump my own in the process.”  


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