The term “nation-state” is complicated in its application. “Nation” and “state” are often used interchangeably, but from a political science perspective, they’re two different things. A nation is a large body of people united by common ethnicity, culture, history, or language. On the other hand, a state is a political entity with set boundaries and a central government. Mash nation and state, and you have a political entity whose vast majority share a common ethnicity, shared history, etc., and cultural boundaries match with political boundaries.
Not all countries–excuse me, sovereign states–are nation-states. It’s hard to argue if even the US is a nation-state. Most countries in Europe and Asia are, but when one looks at Northern African countries, sub-Saharan countries, the Middle East, and Central Asia, things get more complicated. Colonial powers in the past and superpowers in the present have carved up these areas and pushed different nations of people–previously separated by ethnicity, culture, language, or religion, or some combination thereof–into states and bound them by arbitrarily drawn borders. The results are often calamitous–civil wars, genocide, and famine often give way to strong-men that rule with an iron fist to keep a lid on things.
These were the countries that Kate Harris biked through, as remembered in her travel memoir Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Accompanied by a friend, she bicycled from Turkey to China, traversing West to East, through the countries that the Silk Roads would have conceivably coursed through. These are areas of the world where borders–while visible on a map or globe–don’t really exist in practice, and people (and ideas and language and culture) freely flow. The book opens with her first trip, frantically trying to avoid checkpoint guards in China as she and a friend attempted to cross in the Tibet–perhaps the one border that was “hard.”
Harris’ writing is at once exuberant, exhausting, adventurous, philosophical, and–dare I say it–even academic. At the root, this is a travel memoir, but it weaves in history, political science, astronomy, biology, philosophy, current world affairs, and does so effortlessly. She is reflective, unabashedly so, as she explores the limits of self as much as she explores the world around her. “The Tibetan Plateau offered a similarly cosmic reality check,” Harris writes, comparing the vastness of space and how small the Earth really is to the vastness of flat, barren landscape around her. “There I was, little more than a mote of dust myself after a month without showering, biking slowly among summits that had once been sea floor.” While science preoccupied her mind, Tibet occupied her heart, inspired by the travels of Marco Polo and Alexandra David-Néel.
Lands of Lost Borders is a great read. Harris is lyrical and descriptive, without getting bogged down in adjectives, as tend to happen to many travel writers. The book is engaging and flows amazingly well despite the weaving of a memoir with related historical or philosophical point or something related to science. It could’ve easily been a Gordian Knot of ideas and threads, coming off as “trying too hard,” but the author pulls it off amazingly well. I highly recommend this book.