As I expand and update When the Going Was Good, I’m posting revised entries from the first edition. Today’s deals with a volume by Alexandra David-Neél, who was born Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David on October 24, 1868.
My Journey to Lhasa: The Personal Story of the Only White Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City (New York: Harper, 1927)
Fascinated as a girl by the adventure novels of Jules Verne, Alexandra David routinely ran away from home. She “craved, “she wrote, “to go beyond the garden gate … and to set out for the unknown.” An inheritance allowed her to visit India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), but when it was exhausted she turned to the theater, which allowed her to continue her travels, and finally journalism, which allowed her to travel even more. She married Philippe Neél de Saint-Sauveur in 1904, but quickly came to an amicable arrangement that allowed her to live apart while he paid for her travels and helped arrange publication of her writings.
In 1912 David-Neél interviewed the ruler of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, then temporarily in exile in Sikkim in northern India. Explaining her long-standing interest in Buddhism and her desire to visit the Dalai Lama’s homeland, officially closed to outsiders, she received the advice “Learn Tibetan.” This she did, and managed to slip into the country briefly in 1914 and again in 1915. Subsequently expelled from India, she worked her way east to China and, circling back, northeastern Tibet, where she studied in a monastery off and on for three years. It was from here that David-Neél set off for the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 1921, although she was forced to follow a roundabout course that took her into Mongolia and through eastern China.
It was only in October 1923, in the passes where China, Burma, and Tibet meet, that David-Neél began her final push. And it is here that her account, My Journey to Lhasa, begins. The traveler was disguised as a poor arjopa, or pilgrim, and was accompanied by a Sikkimese monk pretending to be her son. The book treats their arduous trip through the harsh Tibetan winter as if it were one of Verne’s more thrilling novels, complete with narrow escapes and humorous asides. (At one point David-Neél’s companion warns an aged couple that the goat they are mistreating will be a man in the next life and that the three will “meet again.”) David-Neél finally reached the Forbidden City in February 1924, the first Western woman to do so, and remained there two months incognito. She returned to France a hero, and thanks to this and her many other books is revered as one of the principal interpreters of Buddhism to the Western world.
My yellowing Penguin edition of My Journey to Lhasa, illustrated above, dates from October 1939 and includes an introduction by Dr. A. D’Arsonval, member of the Adadémie des Sciences, the Adadémie de Médecine, etc. If you’re looking for a good modern edition, the 1986 Virago (London) and Beacon Press (Boston) editions include an introduction by noted popular historian Peter Hopkirk, while the 1993 Beacon Press edition includes a foreword by Tenzin Gyatson, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and an introduction by Diana N. Rowan. David-Neél also wrote With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet (1932) and Tibetan Journey (1933).
The literature on David-Neél is extensive, and includes Tiziana and Gianni Baldizzone, Tibet: Journey to the Forbidden City: Retracing the Steps of Alexandra David-Neél (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1996); Barbara Foster and Michael Foster, The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neél: A Biography of the Explorer of Tibet and Its Forbidden Practices (Overlook, 1998; rev. ed. of Forbidden Journey: The Life of Alexandra David-Neél, 1987); Ruth Middleton, Alexandra David-Neél: Portrait of an Adventurer (Shambhala, 1989); Luree Miller, On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet (The Mountaineers, 1984); and Kenneth Wimmel, The Alluring Target: In Search of the Secrets of Central Asia (Trackless Sands, 1996).