Bibliophile reviews My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Neel

Year first published: 1927
Genre: Non-fiction: Travel
Setting & time: Tibet, 1920s

The fourth book I finish in the From the Stacks
challenge. That only leaves Rhoda, which I finished yesterday and will review soon.


The Story: Alexandra David-Neel was a Frenchwoman who became interested in Eastern philosophy at an early age. She made many excursions abroad and lived in Asia for many years, finally becoming a Buddhist and being accepted as a lama. When the British denied her access to Tibet (in fact they deported her after she entered the country without their permission), she decided she would show them that she would go where she wanted, and after three years of careful planning she set off on a journey to Lhasa, Tibet's capital and at that time still mostly closed to Westerners others than diplomats. She says that she was not particularly interested in reaching Lhasa for the sake of whatever philosophical and religious experiences it offered, but merely to have been there and to show the British how a clever woman could penetrate their blockade and fool the Tibetans into letting her travel through their country. With her went her adopted son, a Sikkimese Buddhist monk by the name of Yongden. Neel travelled disguised as a Tibetan beggar-pilgrim and got an (at the time) unique insight into the lives of the people of Tibet. The journey was hard, but while they did run into danger several times, they always got out of it unscathed, and finally made it to Lhasa where they stayed for 2 months. They then returned, with Neel out of disguise, visiting Buddhist temples on the way and buying antiques.

Review: Madame David-Neel was a formidable woman, that much is clear. She had a strength of will and character that make her a memorable person, but I'm not sure I like her much. She comes across as rather arrogant and seems to have thought herself smarter than just about everyone she met on her journey (probably because of her higher level of education), even to the point of speaking rather condescendingly about her travelling companion, whose superstitions she looks down on as being rather silly, rather than accepting them as the product of his cultural upbringing.

Neel's writing is sometimes more in the style of fiction than non-fiction, to the point of resorting to melodrama when describing certain events, complete with too many !s at the end of sentences, which got to be quite annoying after a while. This style slowly fades as you read further into the story, but resurfaces whenever the travellers meet with danger of any kind. Apart from this tendency to sensationalise her story, Neel's writing is good and her descriptions of the landscapes and weather and people are interesting and well written. As a travelogue this is an excellent piece of writing and tells with clarity and lively language of the long walk to Lhasa by an intrepid traveller who would allow nothing to stand in her way.

Rating: An interesting tale of an interesting woman's journey through forbidden territory. 4 stars.

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