A road less travelled

 In Opinion

Have you ever had a burning desire to chuck it all in and go off on a months long adventure that takes you to some of the most remote parts of the planet, on a bicycle? Neither have I.

However, if you are an armchair adventurer, or if you do like to take off to parts unknown, then Lands of Lost Borders would be well worth your while. Written by Kate Harris, it tells the story of her nine-month odyssey with her friend Mel Yule as they biked the Silk Road.

Harris, who grew up in Ballinafad, near Erin, Ontario, was struck with the travel bug at an early age. She was fascinated with the stories of explorers and adventurers avidly reading any she could lay her hands on. The book that had the greatest impact was an illustrated version of Marco Polo’s account of travelling the Silk Road to the empire of Kublai Khan.

Harris could be described as a bit of an over-achiever. She was a Rhodes scholar who attended Oxford University and then gained admission to a PhD program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before her Silk Roads adventure she biked the United States coast-to-coast and cycled through Tibet.

At one point she became fixated on space travel and hoped to be one of the people on the first flights to Mars. She gave up this dream after attending a two-week Mars simulation camp in Utah and realizing she did not like being encased inside a Plexiglas helmet, “The very technologies that would sustain me on Mars made me feel at a deep remove”.

 Harris decided to instead focus on terrestrial-based adventures.  The result is an account of a journey that starts in Turkey and ends in India, taking the reader over mountain passes, along glacier fed rivers, through small villages and bustling cities and introduces them to a diverse set of cultures and people.

The book is full of facts and observations about the countries she passes through. You learn about, among other things, the ecology of the Black Sea, the Aral Sea environmental disaster and Marco Polo sheep. I loved her description of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, “the kind of place that sticks out its chest to hide its paunch”.

A striking feature of her travels is the generosity she encounters, frequently being offered food and accommodation by total strangers, who, by western standards, are quite poor. The point comes across that generosity and hospitality can transcend borders. 

Borders and their impact are a central theme of the book. Harris constantly asks why they exist, what they mean and ponders their transitory nature. 

She also does a good job of explaining the love affair western culture currently has with travel, “I hail from a day and age – and a country and culture – so privileged, so assiduously comfortable, that risk and hardship hold rapturous appeal.”

Perhaps, but I still prefer to read about it.  

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