Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road – Kate Harris

4/5 Stars
Reviewed by: Christy (Contributor)
Genre: Nonfiction, Travel, Memoir, Science
Published by: Vintage Books Canada, May 7th 2019
Pages: 320

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“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.”

Ontario born writer and adventurer Kate Harris has a knack for living outside the lines. Whether she was aspiring to become an astronaut and researching planets and explorers as an adolescent, studying at Oxford and MIT as a young adult, or bicycling across ten countries in one pair of shorts with a year’s supply of instant noodles, this strong minded, coolly clever and determined woman refused to be confined by anything.

Lands of Lost Borders brings readers along with Harris and her friend Mel as they endure ten long, strenuous months pedaling through torrential downpours, climbing steep mountain elevations, crossing deserts and, when not tenting it, depending on the kindness of strangers for a place to sleep; loaded down with her gear, Moleskine notebook and duct-taped ski jacket, Harris and her friend set off. There is drive, and then there is drive.

This modern day explorer travels the same trading route, the Silk Road, that Polo and Darwin did – the difference between the two renowned Great Explorers and Harris? She relishes in the unoccupied, wide open spaces that can’t be commodified and is more concerned with the liveliness of her soul than wealth and success.

On a mission of living in a borderless world, in both hearts and minds too, she sets out to discover the world and humanity; with a planet as her God and the unmarked contours of land as her faith, Harris finds joy and fulfilment in sneaking across borders under the cover of darkness and overcoming her own boundaries – when her mind told her to stop, her body said go.

From the Black Sea to Baghdad, and Tehran to the Himalayas, Harris carries us with her on her journey down the multifaceted path of her mind, where extensive historical knowledge on territorial disputes and the history of science and exploration flourishes. She weaves her experiences together with musings from her childhood and past relationships to build an enlightening yet at times quirky narrative that captures her deep elation for the experience without holding back the details of her aching muscles, exhaustion and fears.

The more she sees and absorbs, the more humankind becomes something she progressively struggles with; inherent human selfishness and our inability to recognize the world as having more value and meaning beyond its usefulness to us rests heavy on her soul. The farther we get down the path in her mind, the more it becomes clear that being conscious of our species’ shortcomings, which we so comfortably turn a blind eye to on a daily basis, leads to inevitable despair. As Harris so gently puts it, “All explorers must die of heartbreak.” The more you know…

Lands of Lost Borders was a stirring novel and reads more serious and reflective; Harris’s willpower and mind is unparalleled, and her willingness to self-criticize and challenge notions that we simply accept as “facts” compliments her grit. This novel had me pausing to contemplate “truths” that I had never before considered questioning. As awe-inspiring as it was that she biked for 10,000 kilometers, not once was I motivated to even entertain the idea of getting on my bike and going further than around the nearest park and back… I wholly accept that I am not as ambitious or fit as she. Sorry, self.  

While intrigued by her perspectives, this book did not have me turning the pages enthusiastically throughout; it was one of those ones that I could’ve set down and picked up a week later without second thought. I am generally someone who prefers a book with a gripping storyline that, when reading between the lines, proves to be thought provoking, over a book that explores human beliefs without an attention-grabbing plot… But regardless, this is one I would not hesitate to recommend. If you are someone who leans towards the Self-Help genre, be sure to extend your sights to this Nonfiction Memoir.

Thank you to Penguin Random House of Canada for this Review Copy!

Reviewed by: Christy (Contributor)