In the grand historical tradition of adventurous female explorers

Duncan R. Jamieson
Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio


Kate Harris
Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road
320 pages, paperback.
New York: HarperCollins Publishers 2018
ISBN 978-0-06-284666-2

Part sport travel, part memoir, Kate Harris’s Lands of Lost Borders is an all engrossing, funny, poignant, beautifully written introspective analysis of bicycle travel along the fabled Silk Road.  Though she initially thought she was born centuries too late to engage in the type of exploration her hero, Marco Polo, undertook, she soon realized that no matter the time, all real exploration has not and never will be completed. Rather, her initial understanding of exploration—doing what society believes Polo or Ferdinand Magellan did, is far too narrow.  She came to understand that exploration is “a singular, unprecedented, and revolutionary” feeling which ignores “the fact that others have been there before” (p. 283).

I am far from as adventuresome as Kate Harris, but I totally embrace this definition.  In the same vein, if we limit our definition of sport to organized events such as the Tour de France, we are missing the excitement of engaging, either firsthand or vicariously, with independent sports people like Kate Harris.   Having traveled tens of thousands of miles on two wheels in the slow lane, alone or with friends, on organized rides or “blazing” my own route, the rides and the memories are all revolutionary, unprecedented and singular.  And the best cycle sport travel books describe rides like these.

Thomas Stevens, the first to circumnavigate the globe on a bicycle, crossing North America, Europe and Asia from 1884 to 1886, was an explorer in Kate’s initial, narrow definition.  When reminiscing about their twenty years of cycling Elizabeth Robins Pennell, who with her husband Joseph rode tandem tricycles and bicycles and then single seat safeties through Europe, including over the Alps, stated that though they were never as adventuresome as Stevens, she and Joseph clearly fit Kate’s broader definition.  Throughout the book Harris connects with previous explorers such as Alexandra David-Neel and Fanny Bullock Workman, cycling explorer who later turned mountaineer. With her husband William, Fanny cycled through parts of Europe, North Africa and India, writing of their experiences. Her exploits earned her membership in the Royal Geographic Society.

In the same vein, if we limit our definition of sport to organized events such as the Tour de France, we are missing the excitement of engaging, either firsthand or vicariously, with independent sports people like Kate Harris.

With the encouragement of her parents Kate, a distant relative of William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame, developed early on a serious interest in exploration and travel. Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) and Marco Polo (1254-1324) were early interests, both of whom explored the Silk Road. It first connected China and Europe in the second century BCE, reaching its zenith in the fifteenth century CE. Like Dervla Murphy, the doyen of cycle travelers, Kate studied atlases as a young girl. At age fourteen she determined she would explore Mars, even if it had to be a one-way trip to the Red Planet. In her twenties she took part in astronaut training in the Utah desert.  Incredibly well-educated, following an undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina, Kate earned a Masters at Oxford and her Ph. D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Always interested in cycling, wherever she was studying she joined fellow students for cycling expeditions, using the bicycle as a means of escape from the rigors of education as well as day to day life.  While an undergraduate she reconnected with her close childhood friend, Mel, and together they determined to train for the New York City Marathon.  Next, they planned to ride the Silk Road but when an injury sidelined Mel, Kate set off to cycle across the United States.  Mel met her in Kansas and the pair “discovered there was nothing the two of us couldn’t do that summer:  sixty miles, ninety miles, a hundred and twenty in a day!  Broken spokes, flat tires, we could fix it all!” (123).  While at Oxford she and friends cycled the fifty some miles to Stratford upon Avon to explore Shakespeare’s world.  Next, she and Mel bicycled the Silk Road in two stages, first across Tibet and then later the rest of the way to Europe.

Kate links physical and introspective exploration.   Throughout she reflects on the twists and turns her life has taken with her adventure on the Silk Road.  While traveling she and Mel met other cyclists along the way, sometimes riding with them for a while, sometimes reconnecting further down the road, similar to her relationship with Mel.  They had the usual, occasionally unpleasant and often comical encounters at the multiple borders they crossed. Their visas came with a set number of days to reach the next border and sometimes strict requirements as to where to spend the night.  To circumvent the latter, Kate recounts how they encouraged hoteliers to stamp their papers to cover their nights camping.  At more than one border they waited until nightfall to cross surreptitiously.  Perhaps the funniest event came when they waited for darkness, slid themselves and their loaded bicycles under the barrier only to hear voices and see the beams from flashlights.  They scrambled down into a ditch and waited for the inevitable capture.  It never came.  They knew the guards must have seen them hiding, but when they left Kate and Mel got up and peddled as fast as they could from the frontier.  Later, when they reconnected with a couple of other cyclists they asked how they crossed.  The young men said they had just cycled through without trouble or fanfare!

While most of her readers will never see the Silk Road, nor live off the grid as Kate does, we can all learn to cross those borders that restrict our lives.

Borders and guards have bedeviled cyclists since they arrested Thomas Stevens in Afghanistan and escorted him back to Persia. Revising his route he crossed India, but when he got to China he again was arrested, though this time they transported him forward like cargo.  In Africa, custom insisted Dervla Murphy cover her legs with a skirt, which she put on as she approached the border and then removed once on the other side. Bicycling’s most prolific author, Bernard Newman, rode through every country in Europe from the 1930s through the early 1960s.  Detained at one border in Eastern Europe, the officer in charge offered Newman a cigarette, left the pack, and went out of the room.  When he returned, he looked in the pack and then at Newman before leaving again. When he came back the second time and again examined the pack, Newman realized the officer expected a bribe.  Other cyclists approached a border crossing only to be told they had to use a different frontier post miles away. While their stories are engaging, none are quite as humorous as Kate’s experiences.

It is hard to comprehend the disparity between traveling cyclists and the local people they met along the way.  A friend had organized a small celebratory dinner for Kate and Mel in Tajikistan.  Among the guests was an ethnobotanist about their age, who asked casually how much their bicycles cost.  Kate explained that a bicycle company had donated their custom-built titanium bicycles. When pressed for the price Kate lied, telling the assemblage they cost about fifty dollars, a figure too low to pay for just the handlebars!  They later learned that was more than the monthly salary of the ethnobotanist who worked for one of the premier scientific institutions in the country.  Whether acknowledged or not, this disparity is typical for cyclists once they leave the confines of North America and Western Europe.

Marco Polo and Alexandra David-Neel helped Kate develop her interest in bicycling the Silk Road.  While she references them throughout her memoir, surprisingly she never mentions Ibn Battuta (1304-1377) the Muslim Moroccan scholar and explorer who traversed the Silk Road around the same time as Polo.  This minor omission notwithstanding, Lands of Lost Borders is a fascinating reflection on crossing the physical and psychological borders that limit us.  While most of her readers will never see the Silk Road, nor live off the grid as Kate does, we can all learn to cross those borders that restrict our lives.

Copyright @ Duncan Jamieson 2019

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