Lands of Lost Borders

Tibetan Plateau

My obsession with borders was born all at once in three different countries, depending on who you ask. I was in my early twenties, biking with a friend across the parched soda plains of the Askai Chin. For weeks we traversed this high-altitude wilderness, a land spread wide as wings, folded here and there into mountains. Turquoise lakes glimmered in the distance like puddles of sky. The horizon was more a hesitation than a hard edge, and every so often it spat out a dust tornado that would skim across the road just meters ahead of us, its flue curved into a question mark missing its point. 

On a daily basis the wild fact of being here knocked me sideways with astonishment. Where on this spinning world was I? Ask a Chinese, and I was in China; an Indian, and I was in India; a Tibetan, and I was in Tibet. Ask me, and I was in paradise, no further names necessary.

In some ways getting lost was my goal from the start. Growing up in small-town Ontario, where the tallest mountain was a haystack and the broadest horizon a field of corn, I’d felt wilder than the world in all directions. It wasn’t until university that I finally stepped beyond the borders of my home country, finally saw a mountain and a desert in more than pixels or words on a page, and there was no looking back. From then on my greatest joy has been wandering the planet’s rough peripheries with a tent and a backpack full of books. My greatest fear is having to work, heaven forbid, in a cubicle. To avoid this I mostly subsist on instant noodles, and I travel whenever possible by my own two legs, enabling a vagabond life rich in every currency but money.

The Aksai Chin trip emerged from this basic need to see around the bend, but it evolved into a pilgrimage of sorts, a kind of restless propulsion that saw me meander, over half a decade, into the borderlands of Kashmir, Tajikistan, Turkey, and the Koreas before I ended up back on the Tibetan Plateau. The fact that these places are not connected on any map reveals the shortcomings of our usual cartography. Not that I suspected any of this when my childhood friend Melissa and I set off on bicycles for a summer holiday: all I knew was that nirvana was synonymous with adventure, and a certain sky-flooded desert with Shangri-La. 

But the Aksai Chin has always been a troubled paradise, then and now. A wilderness of salt and wind, nearly uninhabited and widely dismissed as a wasteland, this place is nonetheless one of the most contested territories in Asia. Tibetan by cultural heritage, Indian by treaty claim, and Chinese by possession, the region was caught in a territorial tug-of-war owing to its strategic location. In the wake of Partition in 1947 and when India wasn’t paying attention, China furtively built a road across the Aksai Chin—the very dirt track we were on—that ropes like a slow-burning fuse for a thousand miles over the Tibetan Plateau. India only stumbled upon the road years later, in 1962, and the discovery sparked a 32-day battle over the borderland. Even today most of the Himalayan frontier between India and China falls in disputed territory, making big chunks of the border a blur, as though someone smudged the ink on the map before labels and lines had dried.

We had broken all the rules to be here, wherever “here” was. Foreigners require permits and licensed guides to travel legally in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, as China has designated the former nation, and we possessed neither. But a lack of permission hadn’t stopped the earliest explorers from sneaking into Tibet, a place Marco Polo dismissed as a blighted hinterland. “You ride for twenty days without finding any inhabited spot,” the Venetian explorer complained, “so that travelers are obliged to carry all their provisions with them, and are constantly falling in with those wild beasts which are so numerous and so dangerous.”

Intrigued rather than deterred by his words, I’d convinced Melissa to join me in tracing Polo’s faded tracks along China’s stretch of the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes that for a thousand years ferried people, goods, and ideas between Europe and Asia. As a wannabe explorer, I envied Polo the clean, imaginative slate of the Silk Road, which in his day wasn’t even called that. He set off from Venice at the age of seventeen not knowing what he’d see on the way to Cathay, his impressions unprimed by the books of those who’d gone before. No one had written them yet.

Where Tibet was concerned, I was even more inspired by Alexandra David-Néel. In 1924, at the age of fifty-five, this Frenchwoman sneaked all the way to Lhasa in the guise of a pilgrim, swathed in a sheepskin cloak and muttering the Buddhist mantra om mani padme hum with every step. Her intonation wasn’t sacrilege, for she was a devout Buddhist, but her trespass was in defiance of Tibetan authorities, who at the time forbade foreign travel to what was still their country. Today, by contrast, the Chinese government severely restricts access to Tibet, while Tibetans crave contact with the outside world.

Melissa and I didn’t want to pay for permits that reinforced this power asymmetry, and we didn’t want to be led around on a leash. We also felt rashly unassailable, as you do when you’ve just graduated from university and life seems unlimited: never once had we met a wall we couldn’t muscle through. So we dressed in our darkest clothing, duct-taped over the orange reflectors on our bikes, and crawled beneath the metal railing of a checkpoint at 3 a.m., while the guards snored and the stars looked the other way. Then we pedaled as fast as we could into forbidden territory.

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So began my reckless enchantment with the open road and my fascination with the fences that often close it. Despite our breaking all the rules to be there, the only soldiers who stopped us wanted to test ride our bikes or pose with them for photos they snapped with cellphones. This was a relief, especially when Chinese military convoys—the closest things to dangerous wild beasts we saw in Tibet—passed us on the road. But our easy access was also something of a letdown. There I was, flouting the law for the first time in my previously squeaky-clean existence, and no one even noticed. We happened to visit Tibet during a lull in its anguished modern history: it was the summer of 2006, years before the violent crackdowns in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, before the forced resettlement of millions of Tibetan nomads into subdivisions, before self-immolations by monks and nuns became regular news. Once we made it past that first checkpoint, the Chinese authorities simply couldn’t be bothered with us, a couple of wild-haired kids with a mutual addiction to being breathless.

But if a post-adolescent hunger for risk and adventure initially propelled me into Tibet, I left the place somewhat more mature—if unrepentant—and haunted by the human rage for order. We so often see nations as self-evident, maps as trusted authorities, the boundary lines veining them as blue-blooded and sure. The Aksai Chin let me read between those lines, revealing the paradox of their selective permeability. What were borders at their most basic, I began to wonder, if not desires written onto lands and lives? Urges to know and be known, to belong to something bigger, to foist permanence on the fact of flux? As someone convinced I’d been born too late to be a bona fide explorer—the world already mapped and named—I knew such longings intimately. So did Chinese soldiers in Tibet. When it comes to nation-states, desires at first innocuous are rendered into more rigid designs: kingdoms that atlases depict and armies enforce, arbitrary labels entrenched in law. “Longing on a large scale,” says novelist Don DeLillo, “is what makes history.”

Yet the binding walls that longing writ large can build, though sometimes solid as brick, are finally only as strong as shared belief—the flag-waving faith that the name China, say, or India, represents some kind of genuine, immaculate sovereignty, etched out and inviolable. The Silk Road, with its legacy of wandering dunes and fallen dynasties, testifies to a messier, more ambiguous truth. When Polo traveled the fabled trade route, he passed through territories since dissolved or transformed: Zorzania, Scythia, Tocharia, Sogdia—a long bolt of names turned senseless noise, all the old maps obsolete. No matter how carefully we navigated, Melissa and I couldn’t retrace Polo’s footsteps. Names are only the guests of reality, the sage Hsü Yu reminds us, which suggests that borders are little more than collective myths—fictions that a certain number of people, for a certain period of time, pretend are fact.

 

Siachen Glacier

Across the Karakoram Mountains from the Aksai Chin is the Siachen Glacier, another wilderness once dismissed as a wasteland but now tangled in a net of narrative lines that, however fictional and illusory, wield tremendous power. This enormity of slow-flowing ice, forty miles long, was one of the last unexplored gaps on the map until the early twentieth century, when the redoubtable Mrs. Fanny Bullock Workman hitched up her petticoat and hiked up the glacier’s base.

In her mittened hand she gripped a sign declaring—not asking, thank you very much—“Votes for Women.” Plodding breathlessly always a few steps behind her was Dr. Hunter Workman, and behind him were a dozen porters hired to ferry their gear. A few years earlier Fanny had set the women’s world altitude record for climbing Pinnacle Peak, a 22,810-foot mountain in the Indian Himalaya. This time she had even grander ambitions: to go where no Westerner, never mind woman, had gone before.

The Workmans were wealthy amateur naturalists from America, a husband-and-wife team. After a doctor prescribed fresh air and foreign travel as a cure for Hunter’s chronic lassitude, the two of them launched on cycling journeys through Spain, India, Burma, Ceylon, Java, and parts of Africa. When they ran out of roads, they began trekking in what was then Baltistan in British India, centuries before had been a part of Tibet, and is today Kashmir. They crossed the Karakoram pass and wandered a southern route of the Silk Road. And eventually they hiked into terra incognita—the Silver Throne plateau of the Siachen Glacier—where Hunter snapped an iconic photo of Fanny in a tweed petticoat and ribboned hat, championing suffrage at 21,000 feet.

Siachen roughly translates from Balti as “the place of wild roses” and is named for the hardy flowers that take root in its glacial till. According to Fanny’s 1917 book, Two Summers in the Ice-Wilds of Eastern Karakoram, she preferred to call the glacier “the Rose,” pleased by the incongruity of this dainty label applied to a violence of rock and ice. Led by Fanny, the Workmans were the first to study the full sweep of the region, cataloguing its biological and geological diversity, naming its unreckoned peaks and valleys, and measuring its contours—work that revealed Siachen as the world’s longest glacier beyond the polar regions.

A half-century later, Siachen lost that honor when a glacier in Tajikistan proved even longer, but it gained another—if more dubious—distinction of being the world’s highest-altitude battlefield. When the Line of Control was drawn through contested Kashmir in 1972, dividing the territory between India and Pakistan, the boundary was terminated at survey point NJ9842, in the foothills south of Siachen, and from there vaguely extrapolated “thence north to the glaciers.” Siachen itself, deemed strategically useless, was left off the map. This textual ambiguity led first to territorial confusion—with India and Pakistan both claiming the glacier on their respective maps—and eventually to war. In a preemptive military move, the Indian army airlifted soldiers to three key passes on Siachen’s western Saltoro ridge, where they established precarious outposts. Pakistani soldiers settled into posts just below the ridge and attempted to dislodge the Indians above.

This was in the early 1980s. Ever since, soldiers from both armies have lived year-round at elevations where few mountaineers dare linger, and despite a ceasefire in place since 2003, avalanches and altitude sickness continue to claim lives on Siachen. Nature is another casualty of the conflict, with the glacier literally trashed by the constant military presence: Indian army officials have described Siachen as “the world’s highest and biggest garbage dump.” The huge costs of this bitterly cold war give India and Pakistan ample incentive to demilitarize the glacier, but what it lacks in strategic worth it makes up for in symbolic value, and neither nation wants to lose face by losing Siachen.

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For two years I studied this glacier’s soap-opera saga in books and libraries. When Melissa and I flew home from the Silk Road in 2006, dust sewn in our sleeves like smuggled jewels, I’d enrolled at Oxford to study the history of science. After four months of pedaling, it was almost a relief to sit still for a while. I spent my days reading the expedition diaries of early Himalayan explorers and examining ancient maps, trying to glean the logic behind the seemingly wanton borders we’d biked across and near. I eventually wrote my master’s thesis on the Siachen conflict, detailing the history of exploration and geopolitics on the glacier, but logic still proved elusive, so I figured it was time to ground-truth my studies. To make sense of borders, I had to see Siachen’s war-torn ice for myself.

A year after graduating, in 2009, I traveled with my friend Geoff to Ladakh in northern India, where Siachen noses into the Nubra valley. The two of us hiked as close to the glacier as we were permitted and no farther, which, at fifty miles away, wasn’t actually close at all. But unlike Tibet, where the harshest penalty for sneaking in was getting kicked out, Kashmir wasn’t a borderland worth breaching—not if we valued our lives.

Border fence between Tajikistan and China

Border fence between Tajikistan and China

I was crushed. I’d imagined that if I could only get close enough, Siachen might serve as a prism, splitting the solid beam of a contested border into its components: a complex spectrum of longing, each narrative line shading into the next. The red high-wavelength bands would be the troops, planting flags where flowers once bloomed, their claims confusing possession with control. In yellow I’d see Fanny with her poster on the Silver Throne plateau, pruning the place of wild roses into the Rose. Then, fading to clarity beyond the violet bands, I’d see an eternity of wilderness unrecorded, a continuum in which every ending, upon closer inspection, is revealed as another horizon.

Instead I found myself standing with Geoff at a dusty checkpoint in the white heat of noon, nowhere near Siachen. All I saw was a mustached soldier angrily waving us back, and behind him, among mountains that shimmied like mirages, a wilderness trespassed by borders that nations swear have been there all along.

“Out there, where the law and landmarks fail together,” wrote Mary Austin in her 1909 novel Lost Borders, “the souls of little men fade out at the edges.” She was referring to the sun-bitten deserts of the American Southwest, lands of little rain and even less judicial oversight, but wilderness anywhere has a similarly transcendent effect. Places like Siachen make little men and little women of us all, so awesome is their scale, so ambiguous their laws and landmarks. Confronted by the cold indifference of so much rock and ice and sky, all our usual edges sublimate, and with them the illusion of our separateness—and more vexingly for some, our significance. 

People respond to being lost in so many ways. One of them is the compulsion to craft stories, narrative lines that might lead us out of bewilderment and back into some crucial body of belief. From Fanny Bullock Workman with her quaint names to Chinese soldiers with their vicious claims, we all crave myths that define and assert us, especially in places that otherwise prove we’re as fugitive as dust devils on the Silk Road.

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Geoff and I backtracked from the checkpoint and went hiking around Tso Moriri, a blue salt lake edged by mountains as pocked and barren as moons. My steps crunched lightly on the gravel. The higher we climbed, the better I could breathe. A strange lightness in my legs, an elation of sorts. Ladakh was raised by the same warp and crash of continents that threw the Tibetan Plateau skyward, and in many ways it felt more like Tibet than Tibet. On our first morning in Leh, the regional capital, we’d watched the Dalai Lama drive past our guesthouse, grinning widely out the passenger window behind his trademark owlish glasses. People lined the street into town and watched him pass in rapt silence, bouquets of incense smoking from their fists. Across the border into Tibet, barely a hundred miles away, possessing a photo of His Holiness could get you arrested. 

But more than the same bleached prayer flags on every pass, the same Buddhist monasteries barnacled on cliffs, the same basic infrastructure of rock and ice and sky, it was the slant of light in Ladakh that brought me back to Tibet. It fell in huge, silken throws across the mountains, articulating the creases and folds of the land until it resembled the face of someone just woken, cheeks impressed with the pattern of some huge pillow’s fabric. I couldn’t stop rubbing my eyes.

Later that night I dragged my sleeping bag outside the tent, careful not to wake Geoff. We were camped on a high pass in the Himalaya, closer to the stars than to Siachen, or so it seemed, and I wanted to feel my own edges fading. Was it possible to see things as Spinoza did, sub specie aeternitatis, “from the aspect of eternity”? To explore the wild and anonymous integrity of the world, its coherence beneath a welter of maps and claims? To live in chosen exile from the need to name?

In some places the questions themselves are the point. I fell asleep and dreamt about a glacier I had never seen and may never see in my lifetime, its white flanks seeded with soldiers and roses, sleeping like a rumor of flowers in the embrace of ice.

 

Pamir Mountains

We wake again and again as strangers to the world, carrying old notions into new lands. Every pilgrim hopes to find a pattern in haphazard points, some fresh revelation limned from repeating the same mantras. Five years after biking across Tibet, and two years after trekking in vain toward Siachen, I convinced Melissa to hit the Silk Road again. I was suffering from chronic wanderlust, feeling edgy and hemmed in by walls of my own making; taking cues from the Workmans, a cycling trip struck me as the obvious cure. We decided to finish the Silk Road we’d left untraveled, namely the rather prodigious gap between Europe and Asia—starting from the Bosporus strait in Turkey, returning to the Tibetan plateau, and finishing near Siachen, a journey of more than six thousand miles. Unlike Fanny, though, I had no plans to chart maps or christen glaciers on this expedition, no posters to showcase from slippery platforms. I wanted to understand how borders shaped and shattered the world.

For ten months, through ten countries, we pedaled from the Caucasus to Kashmir, veering as often as possible into lands of lost borders along the way—places so far-flung and gorgeous they grab you by the shoulders and shake you. Or maybe that was just the road: boasting more potholes than pavement, it rattled us through terrain that looked like pursed lips, then crushed silk, then stunted lightning, then the nicked edge of a sword—the kind of country you can run a finger along and draw blood. Welcome to Tajikistan.

The poorest of all the states of the former Soviet Union, Tajikistan seemingly boasts more goats than people and more vertical than horizontal land. The nation is snug in the world’s most unstable neighborhood, sharing mercurial frontiers with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, and northern Afghanistan. The Pyanj River marks the last of these borders as it flows down from Zorkul, a high-altitude lake remote in the Pamir Mountains. Running parallel to the river is a road that begins in the foothills and swerves up to Badakhshan, a mountainous region spanning northeast Afghanistan and eastern Tajikistan. This road, I figured, was my chance to trace a border to its source.

The Pyanj River. Tajikistan on the left, Afghanistan on the right

The Pyanj River. Tajikistan on the left, Afghanistan on the right

Beneath our wheels was Tajikistan, on the far bank was Afghanistan, and all around us were mountains like cupped hands, the river running from them like an oblation. Though mostly invisible to our eyes, thousands of curly-horned Marco Polo sheep grazed on stony slopes around us. Named for an explorer who apparently never saw them alive—he reported seeing their colossal horns carved into bowls or used in fences—the herds blended in with the boulders so closely that land and creature became one, sheep being the part of the mountains that moved. Eventually Zorkul Lake swallowed the Pyanj River whole, and with it the only visual evidence of the Tajik-Afghan divide. In an alpine valley beyond the lake, Marco Polo sheep could migrate freely between nations. I was tempted to follow the herd, pleading the kind of innocence only flora and fauna can claim, but fears of land mines kept me within limits I couldn’t even see.

Unlike political borders, so crisp and martial—precisely here is Tajikistan, exactly there Afghanistan—ecological frontiers are often murky, a mosaic of give-and-take: the thickening bloom of forest as you move below treeline, the interlude of dusk that draws bats from their caves, any slow fade from light to shadow. Such transitional realms are ecotones, the scientific term coined from oikos, meaning home, and tonos, tension. Ecotones are thresholds neither here nor there, the fuzzy brinks where ambiguities are born; they are both actual phenomena and illuminating paradigms, spurring us into a more nuanced way of seeing the world. If it weren’t for bureaucratic walls built by politics, the concept might apply to all creatures living in naturally liminal spaces, from flocks of wild sheep to human communities.

For the Tajik and Afghan people of Badakhshan, who speak the same language and practice the same religion, home is a land divided and tension the border coursing between its parts. Centuries ago, both banks of the Pyanj were part of the same political territory, populated by Ismaili Muslims and ruled by various emirates. The boundary that severs Badakhshan now was drawn in the late nineteenth century, when the British ceded the east bank of the Pyanj to the Russians. Although local trade and travel took place across the river for decades after the border was established, the boundary grew more militarized and less fluid following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban, and a civil war in Tajikistan. Families found themselves stranded on opposite banks, able to wash clothes in the same river but forbidden to boat across. The source of a border is rarely as evident and resplendent as a lake.

“Who hath divided heaven into shires or parishes, or limited the territories or jurisdictions there?” asked John Donne, English poet and clergyman, in a 1684 sermon on the intrinsic unity of all things. Borders in this sense are the ultimate irreverence, privileging one narrative over myriad others, generating sharp edges and sudden inequalities where ecotones existed before. In Tajikistan, we biked on a road that, though rough, was paved in places, and we stayed with families who watched television over dinner. Across the river in Afghanistan—seemingly across the centuries—all the villages went dark at night, and there was no road, nor even a euphemism for a road, just donkey tracks scuffed into the riverbank. The Ismailis of Badakhshan still identified themselves by local topography rather than nationality, sharing names derived from valleys they called home on both sides of the border: the Rushanis, the Ishkashimis, the Wakhis. But this nomenclature revealed nostalgia for another age, hinting at a unity now sundered by an arbitrary line.

Tajik boy on donkey, with calf

Tajik boy on donkey, with calf

At lower altitudes, the Pyanj ambled along at the pace of someone with no particular place to be. Higher in the mountains, the river shed its load of silt and deepened to indigo as the banks steepened and narrowed, with Afghanistan looming closer and closer. Rapids undercut the road in places, dissolving slabs of concrete like salt and forcing us to swerve wide or be swept away. But any true pilgrimage subverts the belief that you are traveling on solid ground.

When we biked along the western shore of Lake Zorkul, past a rock hut chinked with dung, a little boy ran outside and threw a fistful of stones at us. His gesture seemed more full of mischief than of malice, but we pedaled hard to get beyond arm’s reach, just in case. As we continued down the Silk Road for another five months, biking through Kyrgyzstan, China, Tibet, Nepal, and Kashmir, flowing across borders with the ease of undammed water, I wondered whether the boy had darker, more ineffable targets in mind—such as the freedom certain humans, by total fluke, are born into. Or the fact that the same road leads different people different places. The boy needed no further proof of the false promise of borders, with some people fording rivers where others hit walls. Melissa and I were just passing by, moving on, the wind erasing our tracks behind us.

 

Kars Plateau and the Koreas

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” observed Robert Frost. Yet equally something there is that does, for how else to explain their ubiquity, the unremitting brag of them everywhere? Whether buttressed with dirt roads or red tape, barbed wire or bribes, the walls of the Silk Road were mortared with a thousand tiny treacheries, each posturing as a righteous and necessary part of the landscape. We lived, it seemed clear, on a planet drawn and quartered.

Yet to define borders as uniformly remorseless things, however tempting that might be, is to build a wall in our own minds or, worse, in our hearts—the toughest kinds of barriers to break down. The point of a pilgrimage is not to arrive at any kind of pure, fixed answer, but to walk certain questions like a tightrope, feeling the wire beneath your feet shiver in the wind.

Earlier in the trip, months before Tajikistan, we’d mastered the shivering part on the Kars plateau. Although much of Turkey enjoysa temperate climate,kar is Turkish for snow and the plateau spells it out in the plural—at least when we biked through in February. This province of northeastern Turkey is the Montana of Asia Minor, the kind of terrain that would put cowboys at home with its yawning skies, skinned plains, bucking mountains, and haunted ghost towns. Among the latter was Ani, city of a thousand and one churches and at least that many phantoms; once the ancient capital of Armenia, Ani was now mostly ruins on the modern edge of Turkey.

The gaunt remains of Ani’s cathedrals and mosques suggest openness, but behind them is the border between eastern Turkey and Armenia, tightly closed for two decades. As in Tajikistan, the border is demarcated by a river: the Akhurian, flowing next to Ani through Arpaçay Canyon, which cuts like a dark scar across a plateau smooth-skinned with snow. Unlike the Ismailis of Badakhshan, the people on either side of this border are ethnically divided, with a brutal history and a hermetic border sealing them apart. Both edges of the canyon, a military buffer zone, are strung with barbed wire and patrolled by armed forces. Human beings have been banned from inside for nearly two decades.

Arpaçay Canyon. Armenia on the left, Turkey on the right

Arpaçay Canyon. Armenia on the left, Turkey on the right

But if we read borders as narrative lines, sometimes they tell different stories than their authors intended. Sometimes the original plot runs wild. For years scientists petitioned the Turkish Armed Forces for permission to catalogue avian biodiversity in Arpaçay. After consent was eventually granted, a local biologist surveyed for birds along the length of the canyon, listening for songs and scanning for nests. In the process he discovered a half-dozen aeries of Egyptian vultures, an endangered raptor species. These vultures had found a rare swath of undisturbed land in the canyon, ideal breeding grounds between the barbed wires. There’s no explaining borders to the birds, but they know a safe haven when they find one.

Staring at the canyon through a window in the Mosque of Minuchihr, I was torn between wanting to applaud this oasis of wildness, however accidental, and despairing that strife created it. Ecosystems are often the casualty of our blunt and inflexible borders, our self-serving stories and desecrations, as the world’s highest garbage dump on Siachen seems to attest. The integrity of human communities suffers equally from these same divides. Yet places like Arpaçay wear borders like a bulletproof vest, with wildlife finding asylum between the walls our conflicts create. 

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The canyon reminded me of another borderland I’d visited the year before, in 2010, traveling by bus instead of bike. After attending a conference in South Korea’s capital city, I’d signed up for a cheap day tour to the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, a belt of formerly cultivated land on the contested waist of the Korean peninsula. Two miles wide and more than a hundred long, the zone is fortified by steel walls topped with barbed wire, and for sixty years people have been forbidden to enter. The farmed land slowly went feral: cultivated fields sprouted unruly forests; wild cranes flocked to wetlands no longer drained for irrigation; Asian black bears, leopards, water deer, and other rare species flourished. A war-torn borderland became, in effect, the most fiercely guarded wildlife sanctuary on the planet. I wanted to see this resurrection for myself.

“On a clear day like today,” the tour guide promised as I boarded the bus in Seoul, “you’ll see right into North Korea.” But when we arrived at the first stop hours later, the sky was hazy as gauze over a wound. A Ferris wheel and merry-go-round whirled to deafeningly cheerful music. Restaurants with jaunty names like A Walk in the Clouds and Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen advertised the chance to dine in view of the DMZ. Tourists crowded into gift shops that sold T-shirts, key chains, shot glasses, and other mementos of the military divide. The whole place had the feel of people laughing at a funeral.

The final stop of the tour was a large tower overlooking the southern fringe of the DMZ. The haze had cleared by now, and the sky was the color of a fading bruise, the pale blue of purest flame or glacial ice. For the equivalent of fifty cents I bought a peek into no-human’s-land through a spotting scope. Between the walls I saw a gnarled forest with pines, firs, poplars, and willows packed tight after a half-century of unchecked growth. I saw two white herons tussling in a wetland, a breeze restless in the grass. In other words, to my shock, I saw wilderness staring back at me down the barrel of a cocked and loaded border.

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In every respect Arpaçay felt less tense than the DMZ, more abandoned than actively contested, with no souvenir hawkers in sight. The wind picked up in the canyon, a sound like sudden wingbeats. The sun blinked cold and low over the mountains. The city of a thousand and one churches caught light the way I wished history would: the crumble and decay illuminated, some foundations still solid, all graffiti aged gracefully to art. Walking past a cathedral built a millennium ago, I swear I heard a door slam somewhere deep underground, and ruins thick with dust stirred all answers into motion. Certain places, wrote Jorge Luis Borges, “try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something.” What Ani told me, if I heard right, was that no story, no wall, is ever closed to interpretation. All definitions blur, pilgrim; all borders wander.

Deep in the canyon, below cliffs flecked with vulture nests, the broken halves of a bridge loomed over the river. Stones littered the banks as though flung there in fistfuls by small boys. In the heyday of the Silk Road, Marco Polo might have strolled across the Akhurian on such a bridge. The Workmans could have biked over it a century ago. Now only birds could cross the river’s fluid border, where both sides of the bridge met in their reflection in the water.

 

Tibetan Plateau

If the Silk Road is a spine, then mountains and deserts are its nerves, and I was a synapse firing along them, trying to make sense of what I saw. In the cities I saw soldiers building walls as fast as they could, some wearing suits and others camouflage, their eyes like coins melted down to metal. In places neither here nor there I saw rivers of forgotten anthems, rumors of other lives. At every national frontier I saw dust tornadoes ignoring all the fences, twirling shrines of grit and wind that came together, made something powerful, and moved apart, like Buddhist sand mandalas designed from the start to dissolve away. What traction can logic offer in such moments, in such lands of difficult beauty and prodigal light? 

Only when back in Tibet, five years after the first trip and thousands of miles after setting off from Turkey—what felt like centuries of flat tires and false turns—did I finally recognize how rational sense, the fixed gear of the mind, was perhaps the wrong instrument with which to read the world. “Listen, my friend,” urged the poet Mirabai. “This road is the heart opening.”

We caught up with true pilgrims a few hundred miles before Lhasa: a Tibetan man and woman, dressed plainly, prostrating themselves along a busy two-lane highway. Moving in unison on the road’s paved shoulder, they placed palms together at their chests, raised them to their crowns, and lowered them to their foreheads, throats, and hearts in a fluid sequence of gestures. Bending at the waist, they slid their hands, knees, and then foreheads to the pavement, with traffic screeching a few feet away. Finally, stretched flat on the ground like fence planks missing posts, they lifted clasped palms above their heads. Then they stood up, took a few steps forward, and repeated the ritual. They would repeat it all the way to Lhasa or enlightenment.

Tibetan pilgrims

Tibetan pilgrims

The Tibetan Autonomous Region was far more restricted on this second journey. Checkpoints guarded not only the region’s outermost boundaries but also practically every village, forcing us to sneak around by night and disguise ourselves by day, which meant flying the Chinese national flag on our bikes and breathing moistly through the patterned, polyester face masks we’d bought because all the Chinese cyclists wore them. Ours was a flimsy smokescreen of patriotism, comical really, but somehow it worked. We kept quiet, and kept pedaling. Only when we biked past Tibetan families gathering barley from stubbled golden fields or flossing mountain passes with prayer flags did the urge to explain myself, to apologize, fever through me. In the silence of my passing I could hear the pennant flapping on the tail-end of my bike, a kind of shame trailing red and loud behind me.

Still, despite the Chinese military convoys and police cruisers trawling the road, our constant fear of being found out, and the symbolic indignity of our disguise, something made us stop when we caught up with those pilgrims. Luckily they didn’t mind the flags, or at least they didn’t show it. We pulled off our face masks and sunglasses; they stared at Melissa’s freckles and my bluish eyes in disbelief, then laughed. We shook hands, beamed at each other, and exchanged what few words we had in common. Melissa and I prided ourselves on traveling light, with just enough warm layers, camping gear, and instant noodles to last us across the Tibetan Plateau, but these two carried nothing beyond the clothes they wore. Thick wool sleeves protected their arms, leather aprons their knees, and wooden paddles their hands. Only their faces were bare. In the middle of each forehead was a quarter-sized callus, a third and unblinking eye, caused by the friction between pavement and bone.

Eventually we said goodbye, tashi deleg, and continued down our respective roads. In my handlebar mirror I watched them shrink on the highway behind us; I held my breath as transport trucks swerved near their prone figures, and whistled with relief when I saw them rise again. Dust and fumes drifted like incense in the air. Speeding vehicles sprayed pebbles into the gutter like gunfire. With every step, every repetition, the calluses on their brows must have grown thicker, denser, the skin hardening to a darker and more permanent shine. Sometimes scars are a kind of protection, making prayer possible. Sometimes even wilderness needs a wall. The pilgrims disappeared from view and I pedaled on, nothing in my pockets but stories, wind, all kinds of weather.

 

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*All photos by Kate Harris

 

Kate Harris is the 2012 winner of the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and cited as a “Notables” selection in Best American Essays. Born and raised in southwestern Ontario, she currently lives near the borders of Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon, in an off-grid log cabin roughly proportioned like a haiku (5’ x 7’ x 7’), from which she reports on global environmental negotiations for the International Institute for Sustainable Development. She is working on a book about cycling the Silk Road and other practical experiments in soaring.