Kate Harris arrives among us like a meteor.
In a post last September I mentioned how frustrating it was that the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature is essentially an award for climbing literature only. This makes its winners’ list a little uninspiring if your reading tastes are broader than that. I pointed out that only one winner in the last 20 years wasn’t about climbing, and to show how inclusive the subject of mountain literature really is, I provided a list of ten great books about mountains that weren’t about climbing.
In the same post, I predicted that the single token book out of six on last year’s shortlist that wasn’t about climbing had no chance of winning. That statement was deliberately provocative, and I’m not ashamed of making it, especially in the light of what happened. I don’t know if the judges read my post or shared its thinking, but they certainly answered my prayers when they awarded the prize to Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris.
Lands of Lost Borders was the one book that wasn’t about climbing. It was the first non-climbing book to win the prize since Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places in 2007, and arguably one of only four or five in the prize’s history. I immediately bought it, and having now read it, I can confidently say that it’s my favourite of all the Boardman Tasker winners that I’ve read. It reminded me of Dervla Murphy, but before I explore that comparison, let’s tell you a little more about the book and its author.
Lands of Lost Borders is part memoir and chiefly a travelogue about a cycle trip along the Silk Road from the Black Sea to Tibet and back to India. In some ways, it’s only loosely connected with mountains, though the second part of Kate’s route passed through mountainous countries. It’s nothing like any previous winner of the Boardman Tasker Prize and I have no idea how it ended up winning, but I’m glad it caught the judges’ attention because it’s a real gem.
A Canadian, Kate Harris is clearly one of life’s over-achievers, and a good deal cleverer than most climbing writers (or most writers, for that matter). When she was 17, she was awarded the Hakluyt Prize by the Mars Society – not an award for eating chocolate, but for the best student letter advocating exploration to the planet Mars. This may sound obscure, but it came with an all-expenses paid trip to the International Mars Society Convention to hobnob with other teenage boffins. She also won an 8-inch telescope which enabled her to view the rings of Saturn from the lawn outside her father’s sheep shed.
A glittering academic career beckoned. She won a scholarship to the University of North Carolina which came with a summer travel grant, then a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, then a funded doctorate to MIT (which isn’t a misspelled hand garment, but an American scientific institute so famous that its acronym isn’t considered worth expanding when it’s introduced into the book). While some people might view a degree at Oxford as a major career milestone, Kate appeared to consider it something of a hiatus between stints of proper science. She chose to study the history of science there on the understanding that she could take up a more useful subject later. Which she did, when she joined MIT to study molecular biology.
She is – if I haven’t made myself clear yet – what we less intelligent people call a ‘bright cookie’. But her over-achievement doesn’t end there. Seemingly bored with science because it didn’t offer enough opportunities for travelling, she eventually became a travel writer. According to the bio on the back of Lands of Lost Borders, she has written for Outside, The Walrus (W’ever TF that is) and Canadian Geographic, and been cited in The Best American Essays and The Best American Travel Writing. She has won the RBC Taylor Prize, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, the Banff Adventure Travel Award, the Nautilus Award, and now the Boardman Tasker Prize.
Phew, I’m starting to realise how the judges were induced to sit up and take notice of someone who isn’t a climber. She might not have any E17s or VDs under her belt, but here is someone very much at the top of their game. A flick through the acknowledgements gives a further glimpse of how well connected she is.
The majority of Lands of Lost Borders describes Kate’s ten-month bike trip across Central Asia with her friend Melissa. There are no precise dates mentioned in the book, but it seems to have taken place around ten years ago while she was still a young, penniless postgraduate. They posted blogs in internet cafés en route to try and raise money to fund their adventure, couch-surfed with backpackers, and often relied upon the kindness of strangers to provide them with food and a bed for the night. They carried a tent and stove for the times when this wasn’t possible.
Their route took them from the Black Sea coast across Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea. Here, it wasn’t possible to continue their journey by bike, so they boarded a plane and a couple of trains across the Caspian and part of Kazakhstan to pick up their bikes again close to the Uzbek border. They crossed Uzbekistan, Tajikhistan and western China, before spiralling south through Tibet, west through Nepal, and north through India to finish in Ladakh.
But the book is more than a simple travel narrative. The writing is erudite; she intellectualises a lot on subjects only loosely connected with the things she passes along the way: Darwin, Wallace and evolution, the travels of Marco Polo, Lewis and Clark, or her first love, astronomy. She is extremely well read, and it’s the sort of book that teaches you something new on every page.
Intellectual it may be in places, but it’s also highly readable and accessible. She has William Dalrymple’s knack of being erudite and funny at the same time. The book is full of warmth and humour, for example in the interplay between herself, Melissa and the people that they meet. She seems to have a laid-back approach to the difficulties they encounter, rarely venting her frustration, and frequently self-deprecatory when the problems are self-inflicted.
As its title suggests, the loose connecting theme running through the book is borders (or often the lack of them). Sometimes this theme is physical, such as their difficulties obtaining visas for the Central Asian states, or their illegal night-time excursions across checkpoints in Tibet. Sometimes it’s less tangible, such as when she muses on the Siachen Glacier and political situation in Kashmir, or the wild nature reserve that has sprung up in the 2km no-man’s land between North and South Korea. Other times it’s downright metaphysical, like when she eulogises about the astronomer Carl Sagan and his part in the ‘pale blue dot’ photograph (of the Earth, taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it left the solar system).
Only when she arrived in Ladakh and described the fragile state of their equipment after ten months of travelling did it dawn on me that I could be reading the new Dervla Murphy, the legendary Irish travel writer famous for her intrepid trips across some of the world’s more remote places.
Dervla Murphy launched her career as a travel writer with the book Full Tilt, about a solo bike ride across Asia to India in 1963, when she was still in her early 30s. Apart from the obvious comparison of a young woman cycling across Asia and writing her first travel book, there were many other things in common with Lands of Lost Borders: the intrepid nature of the journey, on a shoestring budget, the nights with strangers, the humour and the intellectualising.
But what am I talking about? I realised that I’d never read Full Tilt. How can I compare it? I was guessing, based on having read many of Dervla Murphy’s other books. Full Tilt was sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read. So as soon as I finished Lands of Lost Borders I did just that, to see if it really was similar.
The route was slightly different. Kate and Melissa started on the Black Sea, and took a northern route through the desert and mountainous former republics of the old Soviet Union. Dervla, on the other hand, started by cycling across Europe in winter. Her line crossed Kate’s in Turkey and Azerbaijan, but then she diverted south, through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This fact (along with the time difference of nearly 50 years) meant that the encounters were very different.
The themes are different too. Full Tilt doesn’t really have a central theme like Lands of Lost Borders. As Dervla points out in the foreword, it’s literally just an edited version of her diary:
‘Apart from burnishing the spelling and syntax, which are apt to suffer when one makes nightly entries whether half asleep or not, I have left the diary virtually unchanged.’
Their interests also differ. Where Kate talks about science, astronomy and the natural world, Dervla prefers to touch on politics and social issues. While Kate has, like Dervla, an uncanny ability to empathise with strangers, she doesn’t integrate with them to quite the same degree. Dervla stops for longer in places, often staying with the same people for days, becoming part of the family. She finds Afghan men to be the politest and most respectful people on earth, even while they keep their women silent. In Pakistan she finds herself connected with princes and generals. She even spends an evening with President Ayub Khan.
But what sets Dervla Murphy apart is her penchant for danger and extreme hardship. While both trips are intrepid and done on a shoestring, Dervla is one of those rare people who actually seem to relish severe austerity. I’ve previously described her as one of the bravest of all travel writers, but what is bravery to one who seeks out danger?
I’ve written about this aspect of her nature previously. The first chapter of Full Tilt doesn’t so much underline this fact as smash you in the face with it. A single chapter covers the whole of her ride across Europe and Turkey to the Caspian Sea. Within the space of 18 pages, she slides on ice and falls down a bank, gets attacked by wolves on a forest path, is swept away by flood tides in Yugoslavia, scares off a Turkish attacker by shooting her gun at a ceiling, frightens off a trio of thieves who attempt to steal her bike by shooting her gun a second time, and fights off a policeman in Azerbaijan who attempts to rape her by kicking him in the goolies.
These are situations most of us go out of our way to avoid (though I’d certainly be surprised if a policeman tried to rape me). By contrast Kate is merely adventurous in a way that’s more within the reach of ordinary people.
Then of course, there’s Dervla Murphy’s famous penchant for alcohol. Full Tilt contains my favourite paragraph in any of her books.
— Mark Horrell 🌋 (@markhorrell) June 8, 2020
There weren’t many nights like this in Lands of Lost Borders. In conclusion, while they have much in common, there is more that sets them apart. But there is one thing I hope they do end up having in common. Dervla Murphy went on to write dozens of books, each as entertaining as the last. I look forward to reading Kate Harris’s next book, and hope there will be many more.