WINNER OF THE RBC TAYLOR PRIZE
WINNER OF THE EDNA STAEBLER AWARD FOR CREATIVE NON-FICTION
"Every day on a bike trip is like the one before--but it is also completely different, or perhaps you are different, woken up in new ways by the mile."
As a teenager, Kate Harris realized that the career she most craved--that of a generalist explorer, equal parts swashbuckler and philosopher--had gone extinct. From her small-town home in Ontario, it seemed as if Marco Polo, Magellan and their like had long ago mapped the whole earth. So she vowed to become a scientist and go to Mars.
To pass the time before she could launch into outer space, Kate set off by bicycle down a short section of the fabled Silk Road with her childhood friend Mel Yule, then settled down to study at Oxford and MIT. Eventually the truth dawned on her: an explorer, in any day and age, is by definition the kind of person who refuses to live between the lines. And Harris had soared most fully out of bounds right here on Earth, travelling a bygone trading route on her bicycle. So she quit the laboratory and hit the Silk Road again with Mel, this time determined to bike it from the beginning to end.
Like Rebecca Solnit and Pico Iyer before her, Kate Harris offers a travel narrative at once exuberant and meditative, wry and rapturous. Weaving adventure and deep reflection with the history of science and exploration, Lands of Lost Borders explores the nature of limits and the wildness of a world that, like the self and like the stars, can never be fully mapped.
About the author
- Winner, Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction
- Winner, RBC Taylor Prize
- Winner, Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
- Short-listed, BC Book Prize's Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize
- Winner, Banff Mountain Book Competition
KATE HARRIS is a writer, adventurer, and one of Canada's top modern-day explorers. Her award-winning nature and travel writing has featured in The Walrus, Canadian Geographic Travel, Sidetracked and The Georgia Review, and cited in Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing. She has degrees in science from MIT and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and in the history of science from Oxford, where she studied as a Rhodes scholar. When she isn't away on expeditions, or reporting on UN environmental negotiations for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Harris lives off-grid in a log cabin on the border of the Yukon, British Columbia and Alaska. Lands of Lost Borders is her first book.
Excerpt: Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road (by (author) Kate Harris)
The end of the road was always just out of sight. Cracked asphalt deepened to night beyond the reach of our headlamps, the thin beams swallowed by a blackness that receded before us no matter how fast we biked. Light was a kind of pavement thrown down in front of our wheels, and the road went on and on. If I ever reach the end, I remember thinking, I’ll fly off the rim of the world. I pedalled harder.
The evening before, Melissa and I had carefully duct-taped over the orange reflectors on our wheels. Just after midnight, we’d crawled out of our sleeping bags, dressed in black thermal long underwear, packed up camp, and mounted our bicycles. As we rode toward Kudi, a tiny outpost in western China, only our headlamps gave us away, two pale flares moving against the grain of stars. We clicked off the lights as we neared the town.
It was three a.m. and moonless. The night air was cool for July and laced with the sweet breath of poplars and willows that grew in slender wands beside the river. No clean divisions between earth and sky, light and dark, just a lush and total blackness. I couldn’t see the mountains but I could sense them around me, sharp curses of rock. The kind of country that consists entirely of edges.
Sometimes Mel and I drifted blindly into each other, our bulky panniers acting like bumpers. We navigated by the sound of our wheels, a hushed whirring indicating the pavement, a rasp of gravel the road shoulder and the need for a course correction. Travelling by bicycle is a life of simple things taken seriously: hunger, thirst, friendship, the weather, the stutter of the world beneath you. I was so focused on listening to the road that I didn’t notice the glint of metal until Mel did.
“That’s it,” she whispered. “The checkpoint.”
A guardrail scissored the road ahead, and somewhere beyond it, mythic and forbidden, was the Tibetan Plateau. Though Kudi isn’t technically in the Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR, as China has designated the formerly sovereign nation, the village hosts the first and most formidable military checkpoint on the only road into the western part of Tibet, a place foreigners require permits and guides to visit. Mel and I had neither. We didn’t want to subsidize the Chinese occupation of Tibet by paying to go there, and we lacked the money for permits anyway. Plus, we’d just graduated from university and felt young and free and rashly unassailable: never once had we met a barrier we couldn’t muscle past. So we took a deep breath, looked both ways, and biked directly under the raised guardrail.
Nothing happened. Somewhere to my left a river sounded like wind. The stars looked freshly soldered above the dark metal of the mountains, faintly visible now that our eyes had adjusted. Mel was a whim of shadow to my left but I could feel her giddiness, or maybe it was my own, adding a kind of shimmer to the air. The world seemed preternaturally honed and heightened, our vision and hearing sharper. I watched a star shoot to the horizon with an afterimage trailing behind it. “Did you see that?” I whispered. When that same star shot up again, we shoved our bikes into the ditch and ran.
The flashlight scanned the road, moving closer in clean yellow sweeps. Mel dove into the ditch a few metres from our bikes and I bolted senselessly toward the nearest building, where I flattened myself against a wall. I heard footsteps approach, the click of heels on concrete, and regret seared me. I would never be a Martian explorer now. Instead I’d spend the rest of my days in a Chinese prison, desperately wishing I had something to read. With my cheek pressed against concrete, I stared up. If the heavens aligned, I told myself, if a single constellation clicked into place—the Big Dipper, say, or Cassiopeia—we’d be saved. I scanned the night sky for some reassuring sign, any familiar map to orient myself by—ironic, I suppose, when the great goal of my life was getting lost. But the stars reeled and spun and refused all their usual patterns. The footsteps came closer and closer and stopped.
Then I spotted the Big Dipper pouring out the sky. The footsteps started again, moved closer, and faded away. I didn’t dare move or breathe or glance at Mel, who was still playing dead somewhere in the ditch. A few minutes or an eternity later a truck sputtered into gear and drove off the way we’d come. The night settled back into silence.
We grabbed our bikes and continued racing through Kudi, instantly unrepentant. Fear exhausted itself into euphoria, a sense of irrational hope. The man with the flashlight surely saw us, pathetic and full of prayers in the ditch and against the wall, a couple of dogs with our heads tucked under the couch, believing our whole bodies hidden. At the very least he must have spotted our bikes overturned in the ditch, their wheels spinning uselessly.
Why he decided to move on was a mystery we didn’t question, in part because we were too winded to talk.
But even as Mel and I pedalled hard toward the Tibetan Plateau, I noted the bomb-like ticking of excess reflector duct tape against the front fork of my bike. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick, the sound went, a gentle yet ominous stutter. I should trim that, I thought to myself. That’s when a second checkpoint, the real checkpoint, loomed from the darkness like a bad dream. This time the guardrail was lowered, thigh-high, and secured with chains. Lighted concrete buildings edged the checkpoint on both sides, though we couldn’t see anyone in them.
“Um . . .” I stopped pedalling, letting my bike coast and slow.
“Yeah . . .” Mel acknowledged, but her voice came from somewhere ahead of me.
I hesitated for a beat and started pedalling again. If Mel wasn’t about to back down, neither was I. “Throw your heart over the fence,” our Pony Club instructors had always urged us, “and the rest of you will follow. Hopefully the horse and saddle too,” they’d add with a grin. The only way to test the truth of a border is to ride hard toward it and leap—or, if circumstances demand it, crawl. Exposed in the pale light leaking from the checkpoint buildings, Mel and I glanced at each other one last time. Then we scuttled on hands and knees beneath the guardrail, dragged our loaded bikes after us, and pedalled as fast as we could into forbidden territory.
WINNER OF THE 2019 RBC TAYLOR PRIZE
WINNER OF THE 2019 EDNA STAEBLER AWARD FOR CREATIVE NON-FICTION
WINNER OF THE 2019 KOBO EMERGING WRITER PRIZE IN NONFICTION
WINNER OF THE 2019 BOARDMAN TASKER AWARD FOR MOUNTAIN LITERATURE
WINNER OF THE 2018 BANFF MOUNTAIN BOOK COMPETITION'S ADVENTURE TRAVEL AWARD
FINALIST FOR THE 2019 HUBERT EVANS NON-FICTION PRIZE (BC BOOK PRIZE)
“Kate Harris packs more exuberant spirit, intrepid charm, wit, poetry and beauty into her every paragraph than most of us can manage in a lifetime. Whether writing of Pony Club or remotest Tibet, her longing for Mars or her days at Oxford, she braids heart, mind and spirit with a wide-awake vitality that inspires wonder. Lands of Lost Borders carried me up into a state of openness and excitement I haven’t felt for years. It’s a modern classic.” —Pico Iyer
“Kate Harris arrives among us like a meteor—a hurtling intelligence, inquiring into the nature of political borders and the meaning of crossing over. The honesty behind her self-doubt, her championing of simple human friendship, and her sheer determination to explore what she does not know, compel you to travel happily alongside her in Lands of Lost Borders.” —Barry Lopez
“This is a hymn to the pure love of travel: a brave and astonishing journey.” —Colin Thubron
"This fascinating book, about an unbridled desire for exploration, completely thrilled me. Getting to ride alongside Kate on her Silk Road journey is the literary adventure of a lifetime." —Leigh Stein, author of Land of Enchantment
“From her vantage point of a student of the history of science, explorer and adventurer, Kate Harris presents a rare and unique vision of world, and explores the nature of boundaries. Unable to realize her childhood dream of travelling to Mars, she decides to trace Marco Polo’s Silk Road by bicycle. Vivid descriptions of the places and people she meets inspire deep and eclectic reflections on the nature of the world, wilderness, and the struggle of humans to define and limit them. This is a book that changes how one thinks about the world and the human compulsion to define it.” —Jury Citation, RBC Taylor Prize
“Extraordinary. . . . Lands of Lost Borders is rich not only because of the adventures it recounts, but in the telling of them. It isn’t so much a travelogue as it is a contemplation of what pushes us out the door and how we change out there in the world before we return to our own little corner of it. . . . You find yourself wanting to linger, rereading passages built of sentences so beautiful they demand to be read out loud—even if no one else is in the room.” —The Globe and Mail
“A tale of beautiful contrasts: broken landscapes and incomparable mountain vistas, repugnant sights and smells and euphoric baklava hangovers, geographic neighbors at war and the moving hospitality of total strangers. . . . Exemplary travel writing: inspiring, moving, heartfelt, and often breathtaking.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A compelling, suspenseful, insightful and elegant travel memoir. . . . This is one that will have you dreaming.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“To write a book that brilliantly captures the humour, the exhaustion, the cultural mosaic and the ever-shifting landscape of such an extensive journey is an equally monumental task. But, to write a book that not only colourfully expresses the wonders of new lands, different cultures and the alternately draining and exhilarating moments of pedalling day after day for six months with lyricism, genuine belly laughs, profound insights and a dazzling pallet of language—now that’s an accomplishment akin to travelling to Mars.” —Rocky Mountain Outlook