Fifty years earlier, Arlene Blum would not have been allowed in certain areas in the Great Himalayan range. It was an entirely different kind of explorer who helped open those gates. In 1924, spiritual seeker Alexandra David-Neel was the first Western woman to visit Tibet’s “Forbidden City,” Lhasa, in its mountain perch. Dressed as a beggar and traveling so light that they didn’t even have blankets, the fifty-five-year-old Alexandra and a young monk, made the perilous climb up 18,000 feet to the holy city. Her travelogue is one of the most treasured resources in Asian studies, published as My Journey to Lhasa.
Opera singer turned scholar, the intrepid Frenchwoman also has the honor of being the first Western woman to have an audience with the Dalai Lama in his Indian exile. Alexandra never did anything halfway and found the study of Buddhism so appealing that she moved into an ascetic’s snowy cave, and undertook the studies and spiritual practice of a Buddhist nun. She became such an adept that she reportedly was able to control her body temperature through meditation, and there are legends of levitation and other psychic phenomenon. Poo-poohing “the supernatural,” her explanation for these matters is simple and practical: she learned from the Tibetans that it is all a matter of management of natural energies. One of the world’s earliest scholar’s in Eastern Studies and Oriental mysticism, Alexandra David-Neel’s unique combination of daring and curiosity made her one of the most fascinating women in any part of the world.