“I shall show the world what a woman can do.”
Imagine, just for a moment, your heart and soul are set on a visit to the forbidden city of Lhasa, deep in Tibet, determined to set eyes upon the mysterious capital that is closed to “foreigners”. Imagine further that you are not one of the great men of exploration, but rather a Frenchwoman in your early 50s, and the time is the early twentieth century. A difficult trek even by today’s standards, but nonetheless Madame Alexandra David-Néel made the journey, and lived to write and tell about it. Disguised as a peasant, she and her companion overcame cold and snow, impossible mountain passes, and the fear of detection in her quest to be the first European woman to reach Lhasa.
A YOUNG WANDERER
She was born Alexandra David on 24 October 1868, in Saint-Mandé, Paris, into a typical French bourgeois family. Her wanderlust manifested itself early; by the time she was 5, Alexandra had already wandered off more than once, to the eternal annoyance of her parents and the local police. After the family moved near Brussels when she was 6, she had a fairly normal childhood, but her desire to get out, to see things, never waned. Even at her young age, she was often miserable, feeling that time and events were passing her by.
At last, when she was 17, Alexandra took what she later regarded as her first real excursion. Alone, she boarded a train and traveled as far as Switzerland. After a journey on foot through the Saint Gotthard pass, her trip ended at Lake Maggiore, where Alexandra’s mother was waiting to retrieve her now penniless daughter.
The next year, Alexandra strapped her belongings to a bicycle and set out for Spain. On the way back, she took a detour through France, passing through the French Riviera and may have taken part in the Tour de France. She followed that with a trip to London, where she studied English and began investigating Oriental philosophy.
COMING OF AGE
Putting aside her need to travel for a while, in 1889 she settled in Paris and attended the Theosophical Society’s lectures, while at the same time exploring anarchist philosophy. She wandered the museums and libraries of the city, and somehow found the time to study Freemasonry, eventually advancing to the thirtieth degree of the Scottish Rite. Alexandra even gained a small bit of notoriety when she published a few treatises on anarchy and feminism.
Soon, she discovered she had other talents as well. She studied music and voice, enough so that she made a minor name for herself on the operatic stage. Alexandra appeared in Massenet’s Manon, was a particular success as Carmen (Bizet), and was a member of the Athens Opera for a time. However, her love of travel would not long remain quiet. Leaving her stage triumphs behind, Alexandra returned to the road, this time spending over a year in India during 1890-91, and then took a side trip to north Africa, spending some time in Tunis.
While in Tunis, she met a railroad engineer in whom she took more than a scholarly interest. Somehow, this engineer, Philippe Néel, not only convinced her to marry him, but to attempt the life of a regular housewife.
Neel quickly recognized his wife needed to travel, and tried to satisfy that need with regular short cruises on his sailboat. These quick trips sufficed, but only for a while. Neel suggested a longer voyage for them, one that would take his wife back to India. Before they set off, Alexandra returned to England, said goodbye to her mother in Belgium, and rejoined Néel in Tunis.
A TRAVELLER IN EARNEST
Alexandra completed the journey to India with her husband, and indeed they spent the next few years making many such trips, which only served to rekindle the wanderlust so long dormant. Again, Néel understood, and in August 1911 he remained behind in Tunis as Alexandra set off on a journey through Asia. She promised to return to him within eighteen months; it would be over fourteen years before Neel saw his wife again.
In 1912, Alexandra arrived in Sikkim. She had become interested in Buddhism, and began to study it in earnest as she visited the great monasteries of the region. It was at one of those monasteries, in 1914, that she met the lama Aphur Yongden. Alexandra and Yongden formed a deep friendship almost immediately; he became her constant traveling companion and later, her adopted son.
Leaving the monastery, her travels continued, and being close to the Tibetan border, she managed to cross it twice. At that time, foreigners were not allowed in Tibet, and when Alexandra was discovered there in 1916, it ultimately resulted in her expulsion from Sikkim. She was undaunted, though; with Yongden still at her side (and not wishing to return to a Europe embroiled in World War I), Alexandra decided to return once more to India. There, they spent a few months before setting off for Japan.
Alexandra was, as she wrote in a letter to her husband, somewhat disappointed by Japan. She wanted to return to Tibet, and only Tibet would do. She spent more time studying, learning Tibetan in preparation, until she met the philosopher-monk Ekai Kawaguchi. Alexandra was most interested to hear how he had, by using careful disguises, penetrated right to the heart of Tibet – to Lhasa itself. The monk’s fascinating stories gave her an idea. Soon, she was packed, and ready to go – to Korea since, as she told Yongden, that country reminded her of the mountains of Tibet.
SHE WOULD NOT BE STOPPED
During all her wandering, Alexandra had still remained in contact with her husband. Arriving in Korea with Yongden, she wrote Néel that she and Yongden would remain in Korea for a few months while they made their plans. Not long after, the pair boarded a train bound for Peking, where Alexandra and Yongden would spend some time in the company of Tibetan lamas while she perfected her command of the Tibetan language. Now, her mind made up, Alexandra was almost ready to attempt a return to Tibet, and realize her dream of visiting mysterious Lhasa. The great journey started with walking trips all across China and Mongolia to learn the paths and roads (some of them not on maps), accompanied by her entourage of servants, mules, and baggage.
After a few years’ study of Yellow Hat Buddhism at the great monastery of Kumbum in western China, Alexandra decided it was time. She had decided on her disguise – that of a simple beggar woman, mother of a lama – and Yongden would wear his monastic robes. She played the part to perfection, always deferring to her exalted “son”, and the ruse worked well enough that they avoided detection. The journey, recounted in her most famous book My Journey to Tibet (1927), was long and hard. The pair trudged over desert and mountain passes almost closed by heavy snowfall, always mindful of watching eyes with the constant danger of detection and denunciation to the authorities. Nevertheless, in January 1924, Alexandra entered Lhasa with Yongden in tow, in time to observe the New Year celebrations. Still maintaining her disguise, they spent over two months in the city, fulfilling her ambition to “see all Lhasa’s wonders”.
ALEXANDRA RETURNS HOME
Her mission fulfilled, Alexandra and Yongden returned to France where, in Paris, she was received to great acclaim. The Tibetan trip had been very hard on her physically, and she was at last ready to rest for a while. Alexandra purchased a small house in Digne, which she named Samten Dzong ("Fortress of Meditation"), and settled into the life of a lecturer and writer, with the faithful Yongden at her side. During this time, her husband Philippe Néel re-entered her life; until his death in 1941, he made occasional visits to Samten Dzong, sometimes staying for days at a time. Though he and Alexandra had separated years earlier, at his death she lamented that she had lost “the best of husbands, and my only friend”.
As the years went on, Alexandra’s body slowed down, but not her inquisitive mind. The East called her again, and in 1937 she packed up Yongden and they set out on yet another trek. Their wanderings took them all around the capitals of Europe, until they boarded the Trans-Siberian Express and returned to China. More hardships were in store as the coming of World War II cut off all support and funding from Europe. Alexandra and Yongden continued on, however, and reached India in 1946. There they remained for a few years, until she decided it was time to go home.
Exhausted again (she was now 78 years old), Alexandra returned to Digne and Samten Dzong. She settled her husband’s estate and again took up the writing life. Her adopted son Yongden again settled in with her, and remained with Alexandra until his death in 1955. Though grieved, Alexandra continued writing, lecturing, and still planning trips – of shorter duration, presumably. Indeed, when she reached the age of 100, Alexandra renewed her passport, dreaming perhaps of one last journey to Tibet. Death intervened, though, on 8 September 1969, when Alexandra David-Néel passed away at the age of 101.
Today, her home in Digne, Samten Dzong, still stands. It was reopened in 1977 as the Alexandra David-Néel Cultural Center, and houses a museum and archives, promotes Alexandra’s works, and organizes events dedicated to Buddhism and Tibetan traditions.
David-Néel, Alexandra, My Journey to Lhasa. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1993.
Alexandra David-Néel Foundation, "Official Alexandra David-Néel Website", Biography. <http://www.alexandra-david-neel.org/> (February 2004)
Foster, Barbara, "Awakened Woman e-Magazine", Alexandra David-Néel: What the Will of a Woman Can Do. <http://www.awakenedwoman.com/david_neel.htm
> (February 2004)