Alexandra David-Neel – Tibetan Pilgrim, Scholar, and Rebel

If you wanted Alexandra David-Neel to do something, all you had to do was tell her she couldn’t do it. At 5 years old, she ran away from home, scratched a policeman who tried to catch her, and showed no remorse when collected by her father. She was traveling alone in Europe at 17 and she lived independently from that time.

Alexandra’s biggest adventure was traveling incognito to the Forbidden City of Lhasa, Tibet at a time when no outsiders were allowed. When she was stopped at the border a few years before her trip, she said,

“It was then that the idea of visiting Lhasa really became implanted in my mind…I took an oath that in spite of all obstacles I would reach Lhasa and show what the will of a woman could achieve.”

Alexandra’s story and her journey through Tibet captured my attention. There’s something of a rebel in all of us, and we are attracted to people who dare to do what seems to be impossible.

Before Her Journey

Alexandra David was born in 1868 in Paris, an only child – a spoiled brat, which she admits. Her parents were conventional and, as noted above, she was rebellious from an early age. She became interested in Buddhism, an interest that turned into a life-long study. Her interest also focused on Asia, and she spent many hours as a young woman finding teachers and visiting an Asian art museum in Paris.

She didn’t want a traditional career or marriage because she didn’t want to be limited by anything (luckily she inherited some money and she financed trips with her writing). She began traveling to Asia when she toured as a singer and she fell in love with India.

In 1904, she married Philip Neel, who was about 10 years older than she and who let her do pretty much what she wanted. When she was 43, in 1911 she set out on a trip to India and Asia; she wouldn’t return for 14 years! She kept writing to her husband, asking him to send money and putting off her return (World War I was a good excuse to stay in Asia). She had done some writing for magazines and she wanted to travel and write about her experiences.

As she traveled through India she came to the attention of the British, who thought she was a French agent. She met the Dalai Lama (the 13th, not the current one), who encouraged her to “learn the Tibetan language,” and she studied Buddhism.

While in Sikkim (near Tibet, now a part of India) she traveled in the Himalayas and studied with a hermit, sleeping in tents, cooking over a yak dung fire. She said she found that living a life reduced to the essentials pleased her. But she also had a servant with her on her trips, and she took a zinc bathtub everywhere, insisting on a hot bath every night. Oh, well, I guess we are all full of contradictions.

When she wasn’t traveling, she became depressed and fatigued and she complained of feeling old.

Alexandra’s Journey to Tibet

Tibet had held her attention for many years, as the center of Buddhist thought and worship, and, as I noted above, because it was forbidden. In 1917, with a young lama (Buddhist holy man) named Aphur Yongden, whom she adopted, she headed for China on what would be a multi-year circuitous journey to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital.

She stayed for several years at a Buddhist monastery called Kumbum, which may have been the place that inspired James Hilton to write Lost Horizon.

Finally, in late 1923, she was at the border of Tibet. Alexandra and Yongden had “disappeared,” telling no one what they were doing and where they were going. They took nothing, not even a blanket, and she didn’t dare take a camera, but she did hide a compass, a pistol, and some money in her Tibetan peasant dress. She had left her zinc tub behind a long time ago. She died her hair black and wore a wig of yak hair (it must have smelled awful) to look more like a Tibetan beggar traveling with a lama (Yongden).

They begged for food and Yongden told fortunes and gave blessings for money. At the beginning of their journey, they stayed outside of towns, traveling at night and sleeping under bushes during the day. During the crossing of one pass in the Himalayas, they spent a night on a ledge in the snow.

Nearing Lhasa they decided to move faster so they began taking the risk of entering villages. She says they had many adventures and “humorous” stories of almost being recognized and captured.

Finally, on the first day of the Tibetan New Year, in 1924, they entered Lhasa. Alexandra was 56. They spent several months in Lhasa seeing the sights and avoiding being captured. Then they headed back to India and eventually back home to France.

My Journey to Lhasa: The Story of the Adventure

 If you enjoy travel and adventure, you won’t find much better than My Journey to Tibet. With typical self-promotion, she subtitled it The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City.

She keeps her cool in all situations, even when they are in danger. One typical dangerous event is about a time when they were hiding under the snow. Some men passed by and one asked, “Is that snow or men?” “It’s snow,” the others answered. “It is snow,” Yongden said, crawling out. The men laughed and they talked, recognizing him as a lama, and they left. She knew he wasn’t in too much danger, but she might have been, so she was glad to avoid being discovered.

She says of the dangers, with her dry humor,

“People whose hearts are not strong and who cannot sufficiently master their nerves are wiser to avoid journeys of this kind. Such things might easily bring on heart failure or madness.”

In the midst of her perils, she finds moments of joy and beauty. For example,

“In this country autumn has the youthful charm of spring….It was one of those mornings when Nature bewitches us with her deceitful magic, then one sinks deep into the bliss of sensation and the joy of living.”

After Her Trip to Tibet

Alexandra finally went home, meeting her husband again after all those years. It was a big let-down for both of them, and they separated, staying married and “just friends.” She was in big demand as a speaker and she wrote books about her Tibet journey and other journeys and traveled around doing public speaking. She found luxurious hotel rooms uncomfortable and she usually ended up sleeping on the floor in her room (or in a tent in the hotel lobby!).

The incognito trip to Tibet caused quite a stir among Tibetan and British circles. There was some skepticism about whether she had actually made the trip. One author claimed she had invented the whole thing. A photo taken of her in front of the Potala (the Dalai Lama’s palace) in Lhasa was supposed to be a fake. But the truth of her trip has since been verified.

She went back to China in 1937 when she was 69. When the Japanese threatened to invade, she escaped. Her husband Philippe died during this time; she had to wait until after the war to return.

Alexandra bought a home in Digne-Les- Bains in southeast France, called Samten Dzong, “house of meditation.” The house is still open as a museum; you might want to visit if you are in the area.

At 100, ever the optimist, she renewed her passport. She died at 101, in 1969.

Why Alexandra David-Neel is Important

What a dame! She knew what she wanted from the beginning of her life, and she lived it – all of it – full out. You might not agree with her religious beliefs, and I’m sure she had her quirks, but she went where she wanted to go, she wrote about it, she did what she loved, and she didn’t have to die to be recognized. (After her death they named a street in a Paris suburb after her).

As I mentioned, she was not perfect. She loved Yongden, but she still treated him like a servant. She enjoyed meeting people, but she was mostly attracted to intellectuals and men of high rank and power.

Sure, she was frightened. She came very close to death multiple times on her trek to Lhasa, from starvation, cold, or being executed for being in Lhasa. She suffered from depression and had many illnesses while she traveled. I read about many other times on her journeys when she could have given up and gone home, but her almost-obsessive need to keep moving, to travel, to live free, kept her going.




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