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Pioneer Women Travelers

Alexandra David-Néel 1868 - 1969

A “Backpacker” before her time

The most significant moment in Alexandra David-Neel's life was undoubtedly her expedition to Tibet in 1924. Disguised as a Tibetan beggar and accompanied by her faithful Tibetan servant, the Yonqden lama whom she later adopted, she crossed hostile territories and traveled hundreds of kilometers on foot to reach Lhasa, the forbidden capital of Tibet. Her journey was strewn with dangers and obstacles, but her determination and love for this mysterious culture pushed her to overcome all difficulties.

Alexandra David-Néel is most known for her 1924 visit to Lhasa, Tibet, when it was forbidden to foreigners.  

▫️Alexandra was a Belgian–French explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist, opera singer, and writer. 

▫️She was born in the French town of Saint-Mandé on October 24, 1868.  It was Expected of her to get married and have children, as all women did at that time. But Alexandra had other intentions. 

▫️At the age of 15, Alexandra tried to embark alone for Great Britain, but her horrified family prevented her.But Alexandra ended up getting her way. The young woman traveled through India and Tunisia before turning 25, and she visited Spain on a bicycle. 

▫️Convinced that she would never be respected as a writer, lecturer or even as a singer if she remained single, on August 4, 1904, Alexandra married Philippe Néel, chief engineer of the Tunisian railways, in Tunisia. But she was unhappy, and the marriage broke up in 1911. During her journey, Alexandra visited Egypt, Ceylon, India, Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet. 

Alexandra continued her journey to Nepal, where she arrived in 1912. She met with the 13th Dalai Lama in exile.  She thus reached Sikkim, a small kingdom in the Himalayas, where she met a young Tibetan man named Aphur Yongden. First she hired him as a servant, then she was his disciple and, after finishing his adventure in Tibet, he became her adopted son. Both began to travel through the peaks with the intention of reaching the dream city, Lhasa, at that time under the rule of British officials, a place closed and inaccessible to foreigners…

▫️Alexandra and Yongden headed to Japan, Korea, Beijing and back to Tibet. Back in the country, Alexandra lived for two and a half years in the Buddhist monastery of Kumbum, where she was named lama. "I lived in a cave at 4,000 meters above sea level, I meditated, I learned the true nature of the elements and I became a yogi. How had changed my life, now my house was made of stone, I owned nothing and lived off the charity of the other monks". There she would receive the name Lamp of Wisdom. 

In May 1924, the explorer, exhausted, "without money and in rags", was accommodated together with her companion at the Macdonald home for a fortnight. She managed to reach Northern India through Sikkim thanks partly to the 500 rupees she borrowed from Macdonald and to the necessary papers that he and his son-in-law, captain Perry, obtained for her. In Calcutta, dressed in the new Tibetan outfit Macdonald had bought for her, she got herself photographed in a studio.

After her return, starting at her arrival at Havre on May 10, 1925, she was able to assess the remarkable fame her audacity had earned her. She hit the headlines of the newspapers and her portrait spread in the magazines.[39] The account of her adventure would become the subject of a book, My Journey to Lhasa, which was published in Paris, London and New York in 1927,[46] but met with disbelief of critics who had a hard time accepting the stories about such practices as levitation and tummo (the increase of body temperature to withstand cold).

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