‘Border’ has two principal meanings. The first denotes an edge, margin, limit or boundary; the second a frontier between two states. These two senses create an ambiguity, for the first definition suggests the outer reaches and the second a way across to another place. On the one hand, then, there is the implication of getting as far as one can go; on the other, of coming to a line that separates and joins, thus offering the opportunity for further travel in a different region. The concept of the border thereby introduces to travel writing a tension as it points to both the circumscription and the possibilities of travel. The idea of crossing also implies transformation, another important feature of many travel narratives. As Bill Aitken (2002 , 4) puts it: ‘To the traveller borderlands always intrigue with their potential for cultural initiation quite apart from the magic of being on the threshold of the new that all frontier situations involve.’
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces ‘border’ to the late fourteenth century, to the Middle English and Old French bordure and earlier Old French bordeüre, thence back to the late Latin bordatura, meaning ‘edging’. The medieval usage recorded by the OED does not relate specifically to a line between countries. The earliest quotation showing that sense is from the late sixteenth century. Between these two dates the first usage of borders to signify territories is from around 1425. In both their literal and symbolic senses, borders are central to journey accounts. Most obviously, borders refer to the limits around nations. They both define territories and place them in relation to one another, but the physical movement of travellers from one site to another is often metaphoric, also. Travel literature is frequently populated with the representation of borders between the known and the unknown, the civilized and the savage, the domestic and the wild, the land and the sea, the cultivated and the desert. In addition, there are borders between the past and the present which give travel texts their (often problematic) temporal texture. For example, Peter Matthiessen exclaims of the journey recounted in The Snow Leopard that ‘[w] e walked 250 miles over the Himalaya up to the Tibetan plateau. It was like walking into the Middle Ages – just amazing’ (Shapiro 2004, 356).