Lhasa, Tibet’s forbidden city, revealed its secrets to Alexandra David-Neel

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Religion, Travel on Thursday, 19 April 2012

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This edited article about Alexandra David-Neel originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 691 published on 12 April 1975.

Alexandra David-Neel, picture, image, illustration

Alexandra David-Neel sees Lhasa for the first time

The travellers who were making the slow, painful journey into the heart of the Himalayas were now at the most difficult and spectacular part of their task. The path clung to the sheer face of towering canyon walls as it wound its way up the slopes and soon it had narrowed to a ledge only nine inches wide.

Alexandra David-Neel edged her way along these dangerous stretches, gripping protruding iron pegs or the rock itself where she could and trying not to look at the rushing, foaming river a thousand feet below. One slip would mean certain death but she coolly kept both her balance and her possessions until, at last, the path widened and they could walk safely once more.

Not that she ever wanted to turn back. She had already completed some spectacular travels in India, China and Japan but Lhasa, the forbidden city of Tibet, was the next target for her ambition. Now, at last, disguised as a begging pilgrim and accompanied only by a Lama, she had begun the great adventure.

The mystery of Tibet had been jealously guarded for centuries and by the end of the 19th century, only a handful of Europeans had ever succeeded in penetrating this remote and forbidding land. It is guarded by both the Himalayas, the Karakoram mountains and the vast deserts of central Asia but even those who reached this strange land, often failed to do more than pass the border before they were turned back. Both politics and religion played a part in ensuring that foreigners were kept out and soon Tibet became known as “The Forbidden Land”.

A few missionaries and a merchant or two, were the only Westerners to see a fraction of the country. Then the great East India Company sent an envoy to see whether Tibet could be used as the back door to the vast markets of China. Soon afterwards, however, the Tibetans closed their frontiers completely and a century of almost total isolation began. Those who tried to evade the border guards faced, at best, humiliation and an escort back to the frontier. Others just disappeared and we can only guess at their fate.

None of this could alter Alexandra David-Neel’s obsession with Tibet nor the fascination of its strange religion. But she certainly did not rush into an enterprise that might end in disaster.

She had been born at St. Mande in France and studied at the Paris Sorbonne under Professor Foucaux, a Sanskrit and Tibetan scholar. After extensive travel in Europe and North Africa she made her base in the Far East and turned her attention to the study of religions, a task which drew her almost inevitably to Tibet.

The mysterious ways of the Lamas were not the only attractions of Tibet. Alexandra also had a love of solitude which drove her to seek the wild and inaccessible places of the world. None were so compelling as the Himalayas. Indeed, no-one who has ever seen this great barrier could fail to be impressed by its grandeur. Huge, jagged white crests, that can only be seen occasionally through the mists which surround them, seem to invite the traveller onwards to the next peak.

Alexandra never forgot her first view of Tibet, in 1899 as she explored the border region from Sikkim. “The track through the valley” she wrote, “was a shimmering torrent of blossoms, but as we climbed the slopes a few miles on, only a few dwarf bushes struggled obstinately for life against the dizzy heights. The track now entered the fantastic region near the frontier pass”.

Later, she confessed to a holy man how she longed to enter Tibet. “You should go and learn the secret teaching”, he said, sitting cross-legged under a flickering lamp in the cave which served as his home.

“But how could I, since foreigners are not admitted?” replied Alexandra. Sipping Tibetan tea flavoured with salt and butter as was the custom, she sat there until the answer came.

“Pooh! Many roads lead to Tibet” he announced. “When the call comes, you will go.”

Alexandra did not answer that call for some years, until 1912, when she was in her early forties. First she continued her religious studies and learned the Tibetan language with a thoroughness which was typical. She obtained permission to stay and study with a hermit in his lonely outpost, despite primitive conditions and the certainty of being cut off by snow for the four winter months.

Living in a rough wooden cabin, hastily set up in the shelter of a cave, she experienced the total solitude and the hardships that so many Lamas come to accept. One simple meal a day was provided from their scanty stores and a hungry bear became their sole visitor. But soon she would be ready for the long trek ahead.

In making the trip to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital city and holy place, she would have to negotiate vast tracts of Tibetan territory where no white traveller had ever set foot before. And in crossing China to approach Tibet from the North-West, she became embroiled in a Civil War which almost cost her life.

Near Sian-Fu, her journey was interrupted by scores of wounded men, left by the roadside without help, and she felt obliged to stop and nurse them. Then, her road was blocked by fighting and she changed directions to Tungchow in an attempt to avoid the fighting.

It was a dangerous mistake. The very next day, Tungchow was besieged and Alexandra went through a nightmare which she described as like “living in a picture, showing the wars of olden times”.

“I watched the storming enemies climb the city walls on high ladders” she wrote “and the defenders hurled huge stones down on them”.

The battle raged all day and few of the defenders expected any mercy if they lost the fight. That evening, a fierce storm drove the attackers to find shelter under the city walls and Alexandra, taking advantage of the diversion, fled into the torrential rain. Even then, at the next ferry, shots were fired at them before they could proceed in safety.

Against all expectations, however, she reached her destination. She did it on foot, travelling mainly at night, resting in makeshift shelters and surviving on tsampa, the staple food made of roasted barley, and butter tea. She did it because her disguise and her command of the language were perfect but above all, because she was poor among the poor. In this way she aroused no curiosity, no fear, just indifference or contempt.

Her first sight of Lhasa was the climax of an adventure that few would have dared to start. “Mean yet sumptuous” she described it, “perched between bare mountains among sand and pebbles . . . beautiful and big and fine in its own way. High on a ridge above the city, the great Potala Palace, crimson, white and gold, crowns it all. It is well named ‘The Roof of the World'”.

Alexandra succeeded where some of the most distinguished explorers of her time failed. No wonder that, as she entered the forbidden city, she cried in jubilation “This time, I’ve won!”

Once in Lhasa, time was too precious to waste. The Lama who had cheered her journey, now took her to the holy men from whom she wanted to learn so much. Sitting cross-legged, in a dim corner of the temple, the butter lamp flickering gently far into the night, she asked endless, searching questions so she might understand the magic and mystery of Tibet.

But the longer she stayed, the greater the risk of discovery grew. After a few short, crowded weeks, she had to start the long journey back. Although she completed more arduous journeys in the Far East, her love of Tibet never dimmed. Of all her travels, the visit to the Forbidden City gave her most satisfaction. And, as she made clear in her books which she published later, it was a time when she felt she had learned the most, too.

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