One of the most intrepid explorers in recent history is someone whose name you’ve almost certainly never heard. Alexandra David-Néel stood all of five feet tall and from the age of two was wandering away from her parents through the streets of Paris. At 18, in 1886, she climbed on a bicycle and rode from Brussels to Spain — without telling her parents.
It was 1886. 1886! The roads were dirt and she was a woman alone. But not a problem: David-Neel continued on to the French Riviera and then through the Alps and finally back home.
And that was only the beginning.
David-Néel was a dirtbag of the first order. She burned through her inheritance and then through the fortunes of a husband who she scarcely ever saw, all in the name of travel, a massive lust for adventure (she lived to 101), and a ceaseless energy to learn and explore. She spent the bulk of her life from ages 40 to 80 in Asia, chasing spiritual awakening through Buddhism and yoga while squatting in a cave in Tibet for three solid years, nearly starved to death in the Gobi desert, escaped part of WWI in Japan and Korea (only to witness the brutality of Imperial Japan two decades later during WWII in China), dined with the Dalai Lama among others, and through it all became one of the foremost experts on Tibetan culture in the world.
Her 25 books on Eastern religion, culture, and travel included several that highly influenced the Beat poets, such as, “Magic and Mystery in Tibet” and the still amazing, “My Journey to Lhasa: The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City.”
Mind you, this wasn’t David-Néel’s only potential path in life.
She had a promising career in her 20s as an opera diva — but opera bored her. She always wanted to return to Asia, where she’d spent a year during college. But she got sidetracked — many times. For one thing, at 36 she paused in her wanderlust to marry Philip Néel, a wealthy railroad executive in Tunisia. But even falling in love didn’t stop her; she remained married but split for England to immerse herself in studying Buddhism and Tibetan, and, at long last, in 1911, in full middle age, found herself as the disciple of Buddhist monk, Gomchen of Lachen, living in a cave at 12,000 feet.
At this stage David-Néel also adopted a Tibetan boy, Lama Yongden, who lived with her while she studied and remained by her side for the rest of his life.
Yongden would prove a crucial companion, because David-Néel was still a product of her age and also constrained by its mores. She took daily baths; she insisted on having a cook. Despite rigorous study that let her perfect her fluency in Tibetan and an intense focus that led other Buddhist clergy to fear her — some thought she might be the reincarnation of a goddess — she needed local knowledge and often the assistance that having a male counterpart demanded.
Even intense local ties weren’t always enough to keep her anchored in Tibet, though. The British wanted control over Tibet and jealously guarded access by foreigners, and David-Néel openly flouted their control, meeting the Dali Lama and national royalty and openly traveling throughout a nation that was supposed to be closed to outsiders. Eventually, they booted her from the country at the height of the first world war.
Naturally, she and Yongden set to travelling, seeing Korea and Japan, and then taking a tortuous and dangerous journey from east to west across the entirety of a Chinese empire that was collapsing into civil war. She witnessed murders and battles, had to barter for passage with warlords and despots, crossed Mongolia and the Gobi desert, became incredibly ill, often nearly starved (at one point having to boil her own boots for food) and yet still managed to get to Kum Bum, Tibet.
From there she disguised herself as a beggar, pretending to be the servant of Yongden, and crossed a frozen, 19,000-foot mountain pass in the dead of winter to get into the forbidden city of Lhasa. Over days the pair got horrifically lost, with no trail to follow but a frozen stream. One day and night they hiked for 19 hours straight until they were finally able to penetrate down a valley that led to their goal.
Remaining disguised, they were able to stay for two months until they were finally discovered and sent packing by the British.
David-Néel was crestfallen at having to return to France, but there she got cracking on writing and research.
At one point in her sixties (1937) when she was again stricken by the lust for adventure, she returned to China only to see Japanese imperialism at its height, ripping the country apart. She was often idled there by the ravages of war (and poverty) and only through huge struggle and deprivation managed to get out to India — and much of that journey was on foot in her late 70s.
Her adopted son Yongden died in 1955 and Alexandra, heartbroken, now 87, went back to scholarship. At the age of 100, to the astonishment of the local ministry in her home at the foot of the Alps, Alexandra David-Néel asked for a fresh passport. She wanted to go back to Tibet.
The request was granted, though she didn’t live quite long enough. But her ashes, and those of her adopted son Yon Lama Yongden, were scattered on the waters of the Ganges in 1973, just as she wanted.