On a 6,000-mile bicycle journey along the Silk Road, the author explored the notion of wildness – the Earth’s and her own
When Kate Harris was a child, her Pony Club instructor told her: “Throw your heart over the fence, and the rest of you will follow. Hopefully the horse and saddle, too.” A decade later, Harris would recall this advice on a moonless night in western China, as she and her friend Mel Yule were riding – on bicycles, not ponies – towards Tibet. Dressed in black with tape over their reflectors, the pair were attempting to slip through the checkpoint undetected to avoid paying for permits that would subsidise China’s occupation of Tibet. As a guard scanned his torch near their hiding spots, Harris contemplated the prospect of life in a Chinese prison – but he eventually drove off, and Harris and Yule rode like the wind towards the Tibetan Plateau, as “fear exhausted itself into euphoria”.
So begins Harris’s debut, Lands of Lost Borders, a book Colin Thubron has called “a hymn to the pure love of travel”. That trip in 2006 inspired the pair to launch themselves five years later on a far more epic adventure: a 10-month, 6,000-mile bike ride along the Silk Road, from Turkey to Tibet, then on to India, during which they were sustained at times by little more than Pot Noodles, instant coffee and the generosity of strangers.
Hearing Harris tell it today, she had no choice: right before leaving, she’d quit a PhD programme at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I’d burned all the bridges that would lead to reasonable careers when I got on my bicycle,” she says down the phone from Whitehorse, in Yukon, Canada. (She lives two hours south, in Atlin – population 450 – in an off-grid log cabin.) “I didn’t have anything to fall back on.”
Harris, who describes herself as having “a grudge against borders and a knack for getting lost”, grew up wanting to become an astronaut and travel to Mars, even attending a simulation camp in Utah. But instead of chasing the Red Planet, she set her sights closer to home and studied history of science at Oxford.
After working in a laboratory at MIT, however, she realised science wasn’t for her and contacted Yule about returning to Tibet. “We didn’t want to just go on a year-long jaunt,” Harris says. “The first trip had opened up all of these questions, such as, ‘Who do these military checkpoints exist for if they don’t care about us being there? And what are the military convoys doing in western Tibet?” Yule had studied community development, while Harris wrote about border issues for her master’s thesis. “Looking at wildlife conservation as it impacted people in the borderlands of the Silk Road – all those places Marco Polo despised and complained about – it seemed like our interests would come together,” she says.
As a child in rural Canada, she had read her mother’s illustrated edition of The Travels of Marco Polo and dreamed of seeing the near-mythical network of routes that make up the Silk Road. In Lands of Lost Borders, she charts her own journey with wonder and sometimes despair, along with the occasional jab of self-mockery. But the story is more than a travelogue: Harris probes big questions about borders and the paradoxes of exploration, while relating tales of camping in fields and backyards, of being locked in a teahouse overnight in Turkey, of fleeing Azerbaijan by sleeper train hours before their visas expired. The trip, she writes, was an opportunity to study “how borders make and break what is wild in the world, from mountain ranges to people’s minds”.
While writing, she revisited the works that had set her on this path: everything from Darwin’s expedition journals to dispatches by pioneering adventurer Alexandra David-Néel, who made her own rogue cycling trip across Tibet in 1924 and whose name Harris chanted as a mantra to get her through one especially difficult stretch. “I write early in the book about David-Neél’s searching for an outer world that was as wild as she felt within,” Harris says.
That notion of wildness – her own and that of the world around her – is a motif in the book. “As children, our notions of the world are untarnished,” she explains. “You talk to kids about climate change or plastic in the oceans and their priorities are not yet profit or personal advancement. They care about what’s happening to the planet, and they can’t understand why we’re not making dramatic changes to save the world.”
For her, the goal of both exploration and literature is to tap into that childlike wonder. “For me, wildness is about preserving that idealistic core, despite everything the world throws at you,” she says. “I guess, too, words are a way to access that – the way a sentence can surprise you into a new way of seeing things. During the trip, the relationship between language and wildness and the world became more intertwined.”
There’s a lovely point in the book when Harris reflects on that wildness inside her. What made her, as a child, look at the night sky and dream of a one-way passage to Mars? What drove her to cycle a punishing route along what she terms “civilisation’s oldest superhighway”? Just what is the nature of existence? “It was the truth I was after, the deepest wonder, nothing less,” she writes. “‘The the’, wrote Wallace Stevens in a poem.”
So now, all these miles later, what does “the the” mean?
“I don’t know, is the first answer,” she says, and pauses. “The essence of it is unsayable – the ineffable mystery that beats and pulses between all we do and all we are. We don’t know the first thing about what we’re doing here, where we came from and where it all began. Whatever the crazy ‘the the’ is, here we are, we’re in it, we’re living it.”
• Published in the Guardian on 15 November 2018.