After setting her sights on space exploration, a journey along the old trade route between Turkey and India 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.
Growing up, Harris always wanted to discover what waited around the next bend. As a child, she pored over the narratives of famous explorers, looking for inspiration and vicarious experiences. Haunted by a fear that Earth had run out of truly wild places, she spent much of her youth and young adulthood channeling that long-cultivated wanderlust toward Mars.
To prepare for her space-based ambitions, she passed summers in Mars simulations and on Outward Bound expeditions, and later studied the philosophy of science at Oxford and geobiology at MIT.
“It’s pretty easy to abuse what you don’t love. And we all need to fall more in love with the world.”
So when she first set her sights on that desolate section of the Silk Road more than a decade ago, the oxygen-poor Tibetan Plateau felt like a bridge of sorts between a childhood spent reading Marco Polo and a future on the red planet. But, when she returned in 2011 (again with Yule) to trace the old trade route from Istanbul to Leh in northern India, the journey did something unexpected: Instead of reinforcing her yearning for space, it brought her affections, and her convictions, back to earth.
“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.
They had honed their bike-trekking skills—from long days in the saddle to on-the-fly repairs—on their 2006 trip to the TAR and, before that, by riding on back roads across the United States. But this time, on the road for 10 months, they found themselves doused not just in adventure but in the messy mix of contradictions, divisions, and connections that seem inherent to our modern world.
“We’re such a restless, roaming generation in North America, always changing jobs, moving, changing friends. What I saw along the Silk Road was that connection to place, and to the people who live next door.”
In that, Harris found the more expansive, outward-looking perspective she’d been seeking to live and would ultimately bring to her book. The Silk Road highlighted the ravages and disconnections that can result from “a capitalist, corporatized approach to life … It’s pretty easy to abuse what you don’t love. And we all need to fall more in love with the world,” she says.
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.”
Stacey McKenna is a Colorado-based freelance writer who covers travel, nature, science and adventure. Whether airing out family roots or excavating the truth behind a Bahamian wild horse extinction, she’s always seeking deep stories with wide-angle context.