Travel books Archive

Swapping Mars for the Silk Road

Lands of Lost Borders, Kate Harris’s account of cycling the Silk Road, went on sale in the United States last week after winning its author rave reviews in her native Canada. I hope we’ll soon be seeing it in Britain too. It’s given me more pleasure than most travel books — no: make that most books — I’ve read this year.

   It’s a book about frontiers (a popular subject right now) and breaking through them. On the road, Harris, with her childhood friend Mel Yule, pedals to places where authorities don’t want her to go, including Tibet. On the page, she flits across supposed boundaries between travelogue and memoir, science and poetry. What she writes of Alfred Russel Wallace, the 19th-century British naturalist, applies equally well to herself: “His generative sense of wonder seemed to come from a refusal to specialise, to cultivate singular expertise at the expense of soul.”

  Harris, who grew up in small-town Ontario, was intent at an early age on lighting out for the territory. Having read an abridged edition of Marco Polo’s travels at 10 or 11, she vowed to follow him when she grew up. When she reached her teens, however, the world seemed mapped and tamed, so she set her sights on becoming an astronaut. She went so far as to join scientists and engineers who were simulating missions to Mars in the Utah desert, and who kept “in sim”, spacesuits on, even when they went to the local grocer’s. After a fortnight in a bubble, she realised she was “homesick for my native planet”. 

  Having warmed up with a trip across the continental United States, she and Yule cycled the Chinese section of the Silk Road. Then, in between studying at Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harris found the words of the young Charles Darwin ringing in her ears, urging her to “take all chances and to start on travels by land if possible, if otherwise on a long voyage”. So off she and Yule went again, cycling over a year from Turkey back to Tibet and on to the Siachen Glacier between India and Pakistan (“a place Polo didn’t actually visit but surely would’ve despised for its vastness, severity and glaring lack of marketable commodities”).

  The result is a marvellous debut by a wanderer and wonderer, an author with boundless curiosity and a zest for life that enthuses every page. “I don’t just appreciate huge, head-clearing spaces,” she writes; “I need them like a crutch, the sort of hard contours I can grab onto and heave myself up with to behold the vastness out of which we came and to which we will all return.”

  Writers are often counselled to travel alone, and that, as Steinbeck put it, “two or more people disturb the ecologic [sic] complex of an area”. Lands of Lost Borders demonstrates that that advice can sometimes be triumphantly ignored. The two cyclists don’t make a bubble of themselves; and Harris’s account of their friendship and how it works adds another strand to the book. 

  The copy I was sent by the author was a proof of the US edition, still bearing the odd literal and dangler. But the blemishes were minor. The strongest urge I felt on reading it was not to correct it but to go back and savour passages again, including this one:

Deserts have long been landscapes of revelation, as though the clean-bitten clarity of so much space heightens receptivity to frequencies otherwise missed in the white noise of normal life. This was especially true just before dawn on the Ustyurt Plateau, when the horizon glowed and shimmered like something about to happen. As the sun rose it tugged gold out of the  ground and tossed it everywhere, letting the land’s innate wealth loose from a disguise of dust. The air smelled of baked dirt spiced with dew and sage. Our bicycles cast long cool shadows that grew and shrank with the desert’s rise and fall, its contours so subtle we needed those shadows to see them. The severity of the land, the softness of the light — where opposites meet is magic.

And this one:

  We’re so used to thinking of nations as self-evident, maps as trusted authorities, the boundaries veining them blue-blooded and sure. In places like Tibet, though, the land itself gives those lines the slip. Borders might go bump in the night  because they’re reinforced by guardrails, but also because they exist in only the most suggestive, ghost-like ways. At least that’s how I sensed them on the Aksai Chin — as a kind of haunting presence on horizons otherwise fenceless and patrolled only by wind. What if borders at their most basic are just desires written onto lands and lives, trying to foist permanence on the fact of flux?

  I’m glad Harris has abandoned her interplanetary ambitions. We’re lucky to have her here on Earth.

Travel writing at September’s festivals

Events featuring writing on travel and place over the next couple of months include the following:

Cardiff Book Festival (September 7-9), where Angus Roxburgh and Trevor Fishlock, who have reported from Moscow for, respectively, the BBC and The Daily Telegraph, discuss modern Russia and “the good, the bad and the ugly side of being a foreign correspondent”. With Wales celebrating its coastline in 2018 with a “Year of the Sea”, Ifor ap Glyn, the National Poet, joins Dafydd Elis Thomas, the Culture Minister, and Lleucu Siencyn, chief executive of Literature Wales, to discuss what words and waves mean to the nation.

Wigtown Book Festival (September 21-30), where Aida Edemariam will tell how she immersed herself in the landscape of Ethiopia to write The Wife’s Tale, a biography of her grandmother, Yetemegnu, who was born in the northern city of Gondar and died five years ago aged nearly 100; Damian Le Bas tells of his journey through Gypsy Britain for The Stopping Places; Guy Stagg recalls his 10-month pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem, recounted in The Crossway; Nicholas Blincoe talks about the small but historic place he called home for 20 years, and whose history he has written in Bethlehem: Biography of a Town; Cameron McNeish, “who embodies Scotland’s love affair with the outdoors”, talks about a life in the mountains as recalled in There’s Always the Hills; and Tristan Gooley, “the Natural Navigator”, introduces his latest book, Wild Signs and Star Paths.

Marlborough Literature Festival (September 27-30), where Tim Dee will be talking about Ground Work: Writings on Places and People; Lois Pryce, author of Revolutionary Ride, will recall her adventures on a motorbike in Iran; and Aida Edemariam (see above) will be talking about The Wife’s Tale.

Ilkley Literature Festival (September 28-October 14), where William Atkins reports on his journeys in desert places for The Immeasurable World; Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin introduce their primer on a new geological age: The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene; Paul Scraton (born in Lancashire but based in Berlin) reports on his journeys along the German Baltic coast for Ghosts on the Shore; Joshua Jelly-Schapiro talks about his book Island People: The Caribbean and the World; and Richard Morris argues that Yorkshire, as the subtitle of his new book has it, is “England’s Greatest County”.

A lough where landscape and history meet

The border between Northern Ireland the the Republic of Ireland runs through Lough Foyle. For 1843 Magazine (the culture, lifestyle and ideas magazine from The Economist), Garrett Carr has taken a trip round a lake that could soon divide Britain from Europe. If you haven’t read it, by the way, I thoroughly recommend Carr’s book about Ireland’s border country, The Rule of the Land (Faber & Faber), which was short-listed for the 2017 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year.

Raban competition winner

Congratulations to Rob Jones, of Newport, Wales, who has won the Deskbound Traveller competition for all five Jonathan Raban books reissued by Eland Publishing. Happy reading to him, and thanks again to Eland for putting up the prize.

On America’s border (No — not that one.)

America’s border with Mexico has been generating a lot of words, not just in news and feature pieces but in books as various as William Atkins’s The Immeasurable World and Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes A River, a memoir of his years as a US Border Patrol agent. (Cantú also popped up last weekend on BBC2 in Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the Border, briefing the road-tripping comedian on musicians but without being given a chance to plug his own book.) Porter Fox (what a great byline!) has been preoccupied with a quieter American frontier: the one between the US and Canada. To write his new book, Northland (W W Norton & Company), he spent three years travelling about 4,000 miles from Maine to Washington. He told The New York Times: “I started the way every other northland explorer had for the last 400 years: I packed a canoe, tent, maps and books, and headed for the line.” Outside Magazine has an excerpt from his book on territory in Montana known as the Medicine Line (“named by Native Americans for how the US Calvary magically stopped pursuing them at the US-Canada boundary”).

On this day in 1862…

…John Hanning Speke made a triumphant note in his diary:

 Though beautiful, the scene was not exactly what I expected; for the broad surface of the lake was shut out from view by a spur of hill and the falls, about 12 feet deep, and 400 to 500 feet broad, were broken by rocks. Still it was a sight that attracted one to it for hours — the roar of the waters, the thousands of passenger-fish leaping at the falls with all their might, the Wasoga and Waganda fishermen coming out in boats and taking post on all the rocks with rod and hook, hippopotami and crocodiles lying sleepily on the water, the ferry at work above the falls, and cattle driven down to drink at the margin of the lake, — made, in all, with the pretty nature of the country — small hills, grassy-topped, with trees in the folds, and gardens on the lower slopes — as interesting a picture as one could wish to see. The expedition had now performed its function. I saw that old father Nile without any doubt rises in the Victoria N’yanza, and as I had foretold, that lake is the great source of the holy river which cradled the first expounder of our religious belief.

John Hanning Speke, The Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, 1862.

Deserts, and what the mind makes of them

My review of The Immeasurable World (Faber & Faber), in which William Atkins explores deserts and what the human mind has made of them, appeared in the print edition of The Daily Telegraph today. You can read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

Win a summer’s worth of reading by Jonathan Raban

It’s been a good year so far for travel writing. In recent months we’ve had God Save Texas (Allen Lane), Lawrence Wright’s fond but frank portrait of the Lone Star State;  Skybound (Picador), in which Rebecca Loncraine rises in her glider above a world made smaller by cancer; The Immeasurable World (Faber & Faber), in which William Atkins sees how deserts have served as everything from monkish retreat to party venue; Kings of the Yukon, Adam Weymouth’s exploration of the great salmon river (Particular Books); and The Crossway (Picador), Guy Stagg’s blistering but beautiful account of a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem. The last two were debuts, and extremely impressive. 

We have also had contributions from a man who has been engaged in the writer’s trade for a little bit longer: Jonathan Raban. Five titles from Raban’s back catalogue, as I’ve mentioned already, have been reissued by Eland Publishing; and you can read an extract from one of them here on Deskbound Traveller. (You can also read an excellent review of them, by Hugh Thomson, in the current edition of The Spectator.) Now, courtesy of Eland, I am offering you the opportunity to win them all: Arabia, Coasting, For Love & Money, Hunting Mister Heartbreak and Old Glory.

To be in with a chance, just retweet my tweet about the prize (“Win 5 Jonathan Raban books…”) on Twitter from both @deskboundtravel and @kerraway.

Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet the mention of the prize on Twitter from both @deskboundtravel and @kerraway by midnight on Saturday, July 28, 1918. The winner, who must be resident in the United Kingdom, will receive one copy of each of the five books. He or she will be selected at random and notified by Friday, August 3, 2018. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more information about Jonathan Raban’s books and other travel titles published by Eland, see the company’s website.

Back to the deserts

William Atkins’ The Immeasurable World: Travels in Desert Places was reviewed in The Observer last weekend by Sara Wheeler. The author has also been interviewed by Radio National in Australia — which seemed keener to draw him out on recent happenings in the Sonoran Desert, on the US-Mexico border, than on British nuclear tests in Maralinga in South Australia, which also feature in his book.

‘The Crossway’: what the critics say

I’m currently reading Guy Stagg’s The Crossway (Picador), and so avoiding reading what critics make of it, but others might be keen to learn what Peter Stanford in The Observer and Blake Morrison in The Guardian have had to say.