Lands of Lost Borders – Kate Harris

I am so freaking tired right now. That is all.

This week’s book is Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris.

Your two-or-so sentence summary (as I’ve been trying to do this more):

Kate and childhood friend, Melissa, bike the Silk Road over the course of ten(ish) months, with lots of reference to the environment, science, space, and people generally being shitty guests to this planet and its other denizens. Many adventures, much nature-watching, months of aching legs, wonderful jokes.

There you go. I did the summary.

This book was fabulous. I mean, yes, the first sixty or ninety pages is non-travel backstory which was… eh. I mean, yes, I wanted to know about her, her life pre-Silk Road, and it was pretty necessary to the story for the reader to understand her science and environment focus. I get that. But it was a lot of pages for me to read while chomping at my proverbial bit, wondering when the actual journey was going to start.

(Wise philosophers, please spare me your “the journey is always ongoing” or “life itself is a journey” shit.)

The drama of the journey itself was pretty minimal. Moments at checkpoints, illness, bicycles breaking or going (temporarily) missing. No one found love. No one was almost murdered.

Yet you’re (I’m) pulled along anyway. Because her writing is that damn strong. Because her words are so beautifully strung together, so poetic, and yet there’s so much science but that’s okay because she speaks of it in such a way that you want to give her a round of beatnik snaps at the end.

I was left wondering, at the end of it, if she naturally writes that way, with that grace and ease, or if it was a lot of hammer-meet-anvil interactions on the editing side of things. I’d love to see the first draft, just from a behind-the-scenes curiosity.

Another note: there’s a hella lot of quotations in this book. I love it and was considering doing that in my own travel book, but when I read about the obtaining of permissions? That sounded like hell. Not just the process of doing it, but writing something around a quote and being unable to receive permission and having to freaking pull that section or find another, interchangeable quote that you can get permission for and uuuuugh.


No one wants that, is what I’m saying. And Kate managed it anyway. Which seems in her wonderfully overachieving character.

So, there you go. This book was stellar, top points, the writing was some of the best I’ve read as far as travel books go. Would read again. Will be keeping (rather than selling to The Strand, as I do with many of my books).

Far too many quotes for your reading pleasure, but I just couldn’t choose:

“Travelling by bicycle is a life of simple things taken seriously: hunger, thirst, friendship, the weather, the stutter of the world beneath you.”

“But in the singular focus of that task, the almost tantric simplicity of it–breathe, pedal, breathe–I took in everything at once: the dust settling on my skin, the ache and strain and release of my quads, the river glittering far below like an artery of light, a shining silver vein[…]”

“Ride far enough and the world becomes strange and unknown to you. Ride a little farther and you become strange and unknown to yourself[…]”

“We’re so used to think of nations as self-evident, maps as trusted authorities, the boundaries veining them blue-blooded and sure. In places like Tibet, though, the land itself gives those lines the slip. Borders might go bump in the night because they’re reinforced by guardrails, but also because they exist in only the most suggestive, ghost-like ways.”

“If to be an explorer I must draw a map, I remember thinking, let it be this: How the sky shifted and darkened over the plateau that night, and the sun gave a last golden glance through the clouds. How the mountains shone like bits of fallen moon all around me, glowed for a moment and were gone.”

“Happiness was sipping sugary cay next to a wood stove in a tea shop when catatonic with hunger and cold, or the moon spending its silver light over the sea, or total strangers treating us like lost family. Heartbreak, in one of its milder iterations, was how the toad–I swear it–always went up. ‘The only rule is,’ counsels Rumi, ‘suffer the pain.'”

“Past the turnoff to Tbilisi we climbed steadily toward the village, the road paved now but still glittering with puddles. In a way those mirrors of water seemed more vivid than the landscape they reflected, as if the fact of a frame gave the sky and trees and hills a crispness and presence the actual world lacked. I pretended I could slip through to that more intense reality if I could only get the angle of incidence between my wheels and the water exactly right, like a space shuttle re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere: too steep and you burn up; too shallow and you bounce back into outer space; somewhere in between, with the speed and tilt just right, you soar into another world.”

“Do people always grin like that, running to catch trains? A few minutes later they came through the dining car, holding hands and looking serious and ordinary again, and I wondered whether we’re most alive in our moments of longing, the act of launching for a place we’re not certain to land.”

“Today the Silk Road remains a clever marketing ploy, a catchy name to connect the dots of a holiday and lend it a kind of historic momentum, for tourism is one part geography, nine parts souvenirs and selfies in front of ancient monuments.”

“What is the point of exploring if not to reveal our place in the wild scheme of things, or to send a vision of who we are into the universe? A self-portrait and a message in a bottle: maybe no other maps matter.”

“After all, the Latin root of the word explorer is ex-plorare, with ex meaning ‘go out’ and plorare meaning ‘to utter a cry.’ Venturing into the unknown, in other words, is only half the job. The other half, and maybe the most crucial half for exploration to matter beyond the narrow margins of the self, is coming home to share the tale.”

“At one point I heard a yell behind me and pedalled harder, imagining myself arrested and forced to confess everything. Yes, officer, I have set off for distant worlds without the means or intention to return. No, officer, I have not taken a single breath of this life or any other for granted.”

“I brushed my teeth by headlamp and lay down on a mattress that still held the heat of day. When I dozed off I dreamed of rhinos with distant nebulas in their stare, and tigers padding through the forest with full-moon eyes–lives flawed and restless and full of desire, which is another way of saying full of stars.”