The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel
Michael and Barbara Foster

 

In February 1921, in the thin light of a Tibetan dawn, a small caravan exited through the gates of a venerable monastery in Amdo province. A few mules carried baggage, but the four native "boys" went on foot. Wrapped in crude sheepskins and wearing fur hats, yak-hide boots encasing their feet, their breaths steamed in the painfully dry air of midwinter. Across their chests were slung bandoliers of ammunition, and they carried single-shot rifles with pride if not military precision. Ahead of the pack strode a short, square lama in a red cloak lined with fur, face nearly buried in a huge fur bonnet. The temperature had sunk to below zero Fahrenheit. After marching awhile into the hills, the lama turned to stare at the white buildings and red palaces of Kum Bum, its roofs molten with the fire of sunrise. She understood she might never again see this sight. Yes, she . . . for the bulky figure was Alexandra David-Neel, embarked on her greatest adventure.

No sooner had Alexandra's party taken to the low road that ran between steep earthen walls than they ran into a long caravan of camels and drivers coming the opposite way. The road was so narrow, either she or the camels would have to back up for at least a mile. The Mongol drivers felt, and Alexandra agreed, that it would be far easier for her. But her boys took this as a loss of face and refused. She was obliged to back them, or they would lose all confidence in her.

While Alexandra hesitated, the situation quickly deteriorated as the camels fell to biting one another. A Mongol lifted his gun, and Alexandra instantly realized that to back off meant being shot down. She scrambled to the top of the bank for an overview, then signaled to her boys to unsling their rifles. The Mongols, impressed with their opponents' rank, or their fairly modern weapons, backed down. They had a job to turn the camels around, tied as they were nose to tail in strings of ten. Once the cumbersome maneuver was completed and the passage left free, Alexandra climbed into a small cart and traveled with assumed dignity along the road. She had won the loyalty of her men. On the sly, she slipped the Mongols two Chinese dollars for their trouble.

By noon the temperature had soared fifty or sixty degrees and the sun shone brilliantly in a sky of delft blue arched over clay yellow earth. The party slowed to shed some clothing, but since they were determined to cover forty kilometers during daylight, they wouldn't rest until dark. Their leader set the pace, and when they came to a treacherous ford across a stream she didn't hesitate to plunge in first. As the barely visible western mountains turned somber gray, sunset dying out behind their peaks, the travelers searched for a safe spot to camp. Perhaps in the lee of a hill they would be sheltered from the bitter night winds, and bandits, growing ever bolder, couldn't easily surprise them.

This evening they were lucky to fall in with a friendly clan of nomadic shepherds. Alexandra scoured the plain for yak chips--good fuel--while the boys gathered a little wood, lit a fire, and put up the tents. Yongden, the most trustworthy, tended to the animals, which had to be guarded. Then the former opera singer, clutching her bowl, made the rounds of the camp, shamelessly begging for milk--she was a vegetarian nun, she claimed--and blessing the nomads' sheep and yaks. She would sleep peacefully tonight, delicious curds in her belly, head cradled on folded clothes beneath which nestled her revolver.

Thus passed a typical day on the road to Lhasa, a journey that, with detours but not really tangents, was to take three full years and end in spectacular success.

(Excerpted from THE SECRET LIVES OF ALEXANDRA DAVID-NEEL: A Biography of the Explorer of Tibet and Its Forbidden Practices, by Michael and Barbara Foster, Overlook Press, 1998.)
Copyright 1998 Michael and Barbara Foster

 

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