October 30, 2018
After setting her sights on space exploration, a journey along the old trade route between India and Pakistan persuaded author Kate Harris to opt for more earthly adventures—cycling the Silk Road, now the subject of her new book.
Shortly after midnight on an uncharacteristically cool July night in 2006, Kate Harris and Melissa Yule cycled toward the first in a series of checkpoints on their way from China to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).
They pedaled under a moonless sky, weighed down by 27 kilos of clothing, food, and gear, their reflectors covered in duct tape, their headlamps lighting the crumbling road before them. Because the pair lacked the required permits to legally enter the TAR, they ducked the guardrail.
When they worried they’d been spotted by the military patrolmen who guarded the outpost, they dove into a ditch, bikes and all. But luck was on their side that night, and undiscovered, they remounted and pressed on toward the Tibetan Plateau.
Harris’ recently released, lyrically written memoir, Lands of Lost Borders, follows the life of a modern adventurer, from her pony club days in Canada to graduate school at Oxford, to her two trips biking the Silk Road. In it, Harris starts not from a place of heartache or soul-searching, but one of general wonder, a point of view that abounds among female travelers but that the publishing industry often reserves for books written by men.
“I had written off the world,” Harris says. “Everything was aimed at Mars. And it was only getting out in the world, traveling, that you see that this is the only home we have in the universe, so we’d better take care of it. And there’s so much worth fighting for on this planet.”
Covering over 9,000 kilometers, Harris and Yule pedaled through freezing rain along the Black Sea, dodged potholes in Georgia, and choked on dust and sweat in the Uzbek desert. They rode through the surprising beauty of Caucasian forests clear-cut for profit and followed the Pyanj River that divided the former political territory of Badakhshan into Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Strangers whizzed by in cars or trucks, splashing them with muddy water, and often invited them to camp on their property or come inside for a meal or to sleep in a spare bed.
The trip, and the eventual process of writing about it, immersed her in world views that celebrated relationships not only to people but to lands, and sparked a desire for attachments of her own. “We’re such a restless, roaming generation in North America, always changing jobs, moving, changing friends,” she says. “What I saw along the Silk Road was that connection to place, and to the people who live next door.”
And as she rode, untethered to anything but her bike and her gear and her best friend, Harris began, for the first time, to imagine what building a home might look like. She fantasized about living off-grid in a small town in the Yukon, sharing an almost roadless wilderness with a local First Nation community.
When she returned from the Silk Road, Harris spent five years writing Lands of Lost Borders, finding a new sense of discovery in the work itself as she sought to craft a book that she herself would have wanted to read. “In part, it seems that’s what you do if you have a great adventure,” she says. “I was so grateful people took the time to put their experience into words so I could experience it vicariously in smalltown Ontario.”
In that time, she’s had the chance to make her Silk Road aspiration a reality; laying down roots in Atlin, British Columbia, a place where, despite its apparent isolation, humans have lived for thousands of years.
And while she imagines visiting corners of the earth that are far from her home, for now she’s happy to embrace stillness and invest in place. “You get a different sense of exploring when you let the place change around you rather than propelling yourself through a place and forcing the change every day,” she says. “I do live in a place where adventure is out the back door, but I also wanted to build a home and a world.”