Original Dirtbag Alexandra David-Neel Explored Into Her 2nd Century

One of the most intrepid explorers in recent history is someone whose name you’ve almost certainly never heard. Alexandra David-Neel

One of the most intrepid explorers in recent history is someone whose name you’ve almost certainly never heard. Alexandra David-Neel 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-Neel 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-Neel’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 Neel, 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-Neel 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-Neel 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-Neel 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 traveling, 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-Neel was crestfallen at having to return to France, but there she got cracking on writing and research.

At one point in her 60s, 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-Neel 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 Yon Lama Yongden, were scattered on the waters of the Ganges in 1973, just as she wanted.


Contributing editor Brook Sutton lives in Durango, Colorado.
Showing 8 comments
  • Joe

    Thank you for illuminating me.

  • David

    Alexandra David-Neel, was indeed a bad-ass. And the reason you have not heard of her is because you are American. (sorry). She is well known in Europe. Also she wouldn’t be found stealing left-over pizza in Yosemite. Would you describe Washburn as a dirt bag? She should be celebrated as a world class adventurer, sneaking into Lhassa before any western man, living a remarkable life and noted as a talented, if ambiguous to the truth, french writer.

    Have you heard of Nicholas Roerich? Didn’t think so. Check him out.

  • Blaine Keller

    In this case I suppose “Dirt bag” is meant as a term of endearment!?

    • Steve Casimiro

      Yes, it almost always is around these parts.

  • Cbell

    As a long time reader of Alexander David -Neel and as someone who has traced her wandering to both France and Tibet, I take certain umbrage at your I’ll choice of language: dirt bag” and “squatter”.
    Is the use of language supposed to make this remarkable woman more appealing or hip? Disappointed that she would be referred to in these terms. And please don’t tell me it’s meant as an endearment or reflective of a more casual American style. It’s disrespectable no matter what language or culture.

    • Fin

      “It’s disrespectful no matter what language or culture.”

      It’s silly of you to make that assumption rather than searching the usage of the word dirt-bag in sub-cultures. The term “dirtbag”, specifically in the climbing community, refers to someone who abandons a traditional lifestyle, permanent employment and “dis-connects” from society in order to become more deeply involved in the climbing world. Oh yeah! And they actually choose to be homeless. It’s what every climber dreams of at some point or another yet very few can take the dive. It doesn’t depend on spirituality, however, those committed are often thought of as having high moral ethics. They’re often stewards of our natural and sacred places which is exceedingly important in 2018.

      There’s a lot of classic 20th century literature for which you could learn more about this usage of “dirtbag”– some that explicitly use the term, and some that don’t. Thinking about it in a contemporary frame of reference, there are no fewer than a dozen millennial movements that are inspired by the dirtbaggers of the past. For one, the #vanlife movement for which people both young and old are living out of their vans rather than renting or buying a home. Even climbers today who are both passionate about climbing AND their profession often take detours in their lives to experience the dirtbag lifestyle for a season. I try to spend 2-3 months every year doing this– fortunately my careers allows me do this.

      Simply put: if a climber, mountaineer, thru-hiker were to walk into a bar to grab a beer and someone at the bar shouted, “look at you, ya dirtbag!”– we would smile and say, “Thanks!” and then proceed to share beers + stories for the night.

      A few simple google searches will educate you of the author’s intent when he says “dirtbag”. Check it out, I think you’ll find it intersting– in fact, this website has a articles of legendary dirtbags!

  • john

    It would be great to see her story turned into a film if it were to be done well. This could make for a great period piece with wonderful scenery and costumes as well as fascinating history. But, I guess it wouldn’t appeal to dumbest demographic we have, so it would never get made.

  • Kandi Entringer

    The quote ‘ in 1911, in full middle age,’. She would have been 43. Full middle age? What a quaint, out dated notion.

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