• Trips and Travelers

    • When the Tibet was a forbidden land for tourists, Alexandra David-Néel dared to cross the border, earning her place alongside some of the most memorable historians of all times.

    About the untiring female traveller that visited the forbidden side of the Tibet / 

    If we are forced to categorise the life of Alexandra David-Néel, we would have to say it was inapprehensible. She was born in France in 1868, but she was also Belgian and had a double nationality. She was the daughter of a Huguenot but her mother raised her in the Catholic tradition. When she was young she was drawn to the restless ideas of Max Stirner and Bakunin, and she developed a strong interest for anarchism and feminism, which was burgeoning at the time. She also professed the teachings of Buddhism and Freemasonry, and she frequented members of the Theosophical society, and, she was also an opera singer. But above all else, Alexandra David-Néel was a relentless traveller.

    This woman’s travels began when she was just eighteen, when she took her bicycle, and without her parents’ permission, went to Brussels and Spain, following the French Riviera and the Alps: the first display of her indomitable and perseverant character.

    Her most memorable voyages were those that, as an adult, she made through Asia: India, the land of Sikkim, Kalimpong (where she met the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso), Lachen (where she was introduced to the methods of Tibetan monks) and other cities, each one associated with the most astounding, incredible anecdotes —as is usually the case of Westerners who suddenly encounter the full portents of the Orient.

    In 1916, on the outskirts of Sikkim but unable to return to Europe because of the war, Alexandra and Aphur Yongden (her always faithful companion and her adoptive son, a lama with Tibetan parents), travelled to Japan, Korea, China and Mongolia, until they reached the Kumbum temple in the Tibet, where they translated one of the most important mahāyāna Buddhist texts: the Prajñāpāramitā, that, among others, contains the sutras of the Heart and the Diamond. It was during this journey that the philosopher, Ekaï Kawaguchi, told Alexandra that only disguised as a Chinese monk would she be able to enter Lhassa. She followed his advice, and dressed as a holy man, stayed there for eighteen months.

    With this as a precedent, Alexandra accomplished the feat for which she finally attained historical recognition: she was the first foreigner to visit Tibet, during a period when this was strictly forbidden. Disguised as a monk and a beggar, she and Aphur were able to penetrate the holy city and live there for a couple of months, travelling to the most important monasteries in the region (Drépung, Séra, Ganden, Samye) and she even made an appointment with Swami Asuri Kapila (Cesar Della Rosa Bendio), the man that many years later would introduce Hatha Yoga, Ayurveda, Buddhism and other similar doctrines to Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.

    Eventually, she was discovered (apparently because of her lady-like ways: every morning she showered in the river) and the authorities of Lhassa, then led by Governor Tsaron Shapé, asked her to leave. Alexandra then published the tales of her adventures in a book entitled Voyage d'une Parisienne à Lhassa, printed in 1927.

    This admirable woman lived until she was 101 years old and when she was 100 she had her passport renewed, perhaps as a symbolic gesture that proves that, after all, the only thing we need to travel, really, is a tireless spirit and will. 

    Tagged: Alexandra David-Néel, trips and travelers, travelers, Tíbet