3.5 out of 5 stars
As a child, Kate Harris wanted to be an explorer, to discover parts of the world that had not been seen by any human. It was as a teenage though that she realised that this dream was almost impossible as almost everywhere had been mapped and explored. As our planet had been so extensively explored, she decided to become a scientist and follow her dreams and explore Mars.
The appeal of seeing some of this planet first grew on her after trips to Italy and hearing the Dali Lama talk. Reading about the Himalaya’s brought out the desire to travel even more and decided to write her thesis about the Siachen Glacier. Knowing that a good result in this would mean she could qualify for her doctorate that she wanted to do, she poured her heart and soul into the work but feared for her marks after a conversation with her tutor. MIT beckoned… Her new tutor was not that keen on fieldwork, preferring to work in the lab, so she was dispatched to Yellowstone with some others. But all the time she was there, the silk road beckoned, and one day she decided that she wanted to cycle along it again.
Departing from Istanbul with her friend, Mel, they hear a young lad tell them not to crash. They choose to ignore him, preferring to savour the smell of the spices in the bazaar and head to the boat to cross the Bosporus where a chance meeting with a really old school friend means they miss their stop. Quickly resolved, they climb onto their bikes and set off. Turkey was a bit of a mixed bag, lovely people and food, but dirty and busy roads tarnished their opinion of it.
Passing from Turkey into the countries of the Caucasus is a reminder that this is an unsettled region and often subject to closed borders and warring enclaves. It is a change they can feel too, as they go from paved road to a cratered and potholed road and their speed drops accordingly. As they pass through Tbilisi in early March, the winter is just starting to lose its grip, trees were just showing the first buds and the light increased day by day.
They couldn’t cycle all parts of the journey, various sections were passed in trains or other transport, but they relish the time that they spend cycling, moving in the early morning to avoid the heat of the desert, deciding that they are too tired to wave at every driver that passes and trying to find somewhere to camp on the Tajikistan and Afghanistan border. The thing that they still don’t know is if they will be able to ride up onto the Tibetan Plateau to be able to complete their journey.
Our bicycles cast long cool shadows that grew and shrank with the desert’s rise and fall, its contours so subtle that we needed those shadows to see them. The severity of the land, the softness of the light – where opposites meet is magic.
Harris is not a bad writer and I thought this was a reasonable book overall. Sit feel like she is an observer of the people that she meets rather than fully engaging with them. There are lots of lovely little details and descriptions of the towns and villages they pass through. It was a shame that they couldn’t complete the whole journey by bicycle, but other factors made that almost impossible. Just didn’t have that extra something to lift this though.