Ailsa Ross | Longreads | August 2019 | 22 minutes (6,062 words)
It’s the winter of 1923 and a five-foot tall woman is shooting at brigands in Tibet. She’s surviving a blizzard by eating boot leather. She’s accepting a maggot-dancing stew from a drug-addled butcher and having a face-off with a snow leopard.
This woman is Parisian opera singer-turned-anarchist Buddhist lama Alexandra David-Néel, and she’s kicking through Tibet’s wild hills and steppes as she strides on foot across the Himalayas from Kanchow to Lhasa.
Alexandra’s starlit memoir recounting her adventure is no Thoreauvian nature journal. This is a tale that demands to be read in a cool bed while the night paws at the windows — or in my case, by the fire while my dad watches Come Dine With Me repeats on a black January afternoon.
I started reading My Journey to Lhasa because I love adventure stories. And while I’ve never pushed myself to extremes, still I felt a kinship with Alexandra. “Ever since I was five years old,” she wrote, “I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by, and to set out for the Unknown.” She didn’t dream of towns or parades, but a solitary spot where she could “sit alone, with no one near.” As a child, her nannies often found her crouched behind bushes or hidden up trees in Paris gardens.
Quiet spaces — I’d needed those since I was a teenager.
I was most in search of a quiet space while teaching in Seoul in 2012. I was twenty-four and tired — of living in that crunching city of 26 million, of being in a job I was no good at, of lying awake in the self-hating 2 a.m. dark with a burnt throat from smoking cigarettes on the kindergarten rooftop. I wanted to feel clean again, like a child who’d spent the day by the sea.
With an Australian teacher-poet I’d been seeing but with whom I had little in common, I signed up to do a “two-day introduction to Buddhism” course at the Myogaksa temple in downtown Seoul. Twenty-three of us filed up in the prayer hall that Saturday afternoon in January — a few Koreans, a dozen American college kids on a $12,000 Global Semester.
Yeo Yeo walked in, a sunbeam in nun’s pyjamas. Under a painting of a starving Buddha, his eyeballs and teeth bared against bone, she sat cross-legged on a cushion and said, “There are three layers that stop us from reaching our Buddha mind. The first is greed. Are you greedy?”
No one answered.
“You don’t want to be rich? Okay. Would you rather be rich or poor?”
“Rich,” we sulked.
“Second is food. When we waste it, it comes back as water and air pollution.
“Third,” she said, lifting three fingers, “is love. You girls like handsome guys, right? How do you feel when your boyfriend looks at a beautiful girl? Angry? Try not to be. You don’t own anyone, so don’t be attached. Concentrate on your own mind. It’s the only one you have any control over.
“Next is sleep. In the morning, when your alarm goes off, you all groan and want five more minutes in bed, right?”
Little bird laughs erupted round the room.
“Me too,” she smiled, “but we should be wakeful in this life. That’s why we nuns and monks drink so much green tea.
“Finally, are you greedy for success?”
I’d given up on that one.
“Don’t be attached!” she said, lifting her robed arms above her head. “When you’re greedy for money, food, love, sleep, success — it leads to anger. And you can’t find your Buddha mind when you’re angry.”
“The last layer clouding your Buddhist mind,” said Yeo Yeo, “is foolishness. I love my Gillette Mach3. Know why?” She said, bowing at us and stroking her bald head. “See? No cuts. When I became a nun twenty years ago, I had so many cuts. Meditating outside in the Korean summer with all the mosquitoes, it was agony. They bit at every wound.
“They only came for me, not the other nuns. For a long time I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized I’d been killing their brothers and sisters each night in my room. I felt so bad. I went and apologized to the mosquitoes. For hours and hours, I bowed to them. I said, ‘Thank you! Thank you! You never killed me. Thank you!’ I was never bitten by a mosquito again.”
She looked around the room. “You don’t believe me. Ah! But it’s true.”
“Every living thing has a Buddha mind,” said Yeo Yeo after a silent dinner of green onion pancakes and soybean soup. “Even the trees. We must be kind, try not to hurt the leaves. We nuns don’t even like walking up mountains in spring and autumn. All those bugs under all the leaves on the path — all those Buddha minds! We don’t want to stand on them.”
What happens when you keep contained a woman whose intelligence could stretch around moons?
I liked the idea of a Buddha mind in everything — the trees, rocks, flowers. I liked the idea that if I sat still for long enough, I might open the door of my own cage and find a blackbird, singing.
Yeo Yeo told us the mind is a crazy monkey being chased by a scorpion. She said we may ease that monkey’s suffering by closing our eyes and following the beat of our breath.
So we meditated. Or, I sat down and coughed my hot lungs out. Then we fell asleep on cushions on the floor and got woken up by bells and chanting at four.
Under a navy sky, Yeo Yeo led us up Naksan mountain behind the temple. It took ten minutes to reach the summit. Under a replica pagoda where Joseon royalty once sat, Yeo Yeo pointed to a sleeping mountain among the lit-up skyscrapers. She called it White Tiger peak. Its name made me think of wild mists and tiny deities being born under full moons, and I cringed at how deep my moustache-twirling colonial heart ran in wanting to see the East as wise and mystic and home as humdrum. But also, White Tiger peak just sounded like a quiet space. I wanted to go.
With the sun now up, the temple-stay was over. I walked with the Australian to the subway station, then went home to my apartment. I thought about Yeo Yeo, how good she was. “Every breath you take,” she’d said, “kills a hundred cells. Us nuns and monks feel terrible about it, so in Korea we wear grey to show our humility.”
I thought about all the cells I’d killed, cows I’d eaten, people I’d hurt. I wanted to be good, I just didn’t know where to start. So I cleaned my fridge. I called the Australian and said things weren’t working out. He said he could have told me that.
The next weekend, having googled directions on my laptop, I got off the subway at Dongnimmun station and began walking up narrowing red-brick streets to White Tiger mountain. At the trailhead, a path appeared between granite boulders. There were snow covered conifers and robins singing into the cloudless sky. After hiking for half an hour, I saw an old woman chanting and clapping tin pans. Surrounding her were Shamanist offerings to the spirits — bowls of cold noodles, bone white rice wine. I sat by a stream, tilted my face towards the sun. Two fat cats scrambled on the rocks around me like mountain goats. I don’t know if it was moving my body in the sun or listening to the running water or watching the cats, but for the first time since arriving in Korea ten months before, I felt balanced and easy.
Before getting started on My Journey to Lhasa that winter afternoon by the fire, I’d been reading Ruth Middleton’s biography of Alexandra David-Néel each night before bed.
In those pages, I’d learned that Alexandra had an unhappy relationship with her mother. Born in 1868 to wealthy parents in Belle Époque Paris, her mother was dismayed to give birth to a girl. The attention she could have given her daughter was instead devoted to consuming Belgian chocolates and adventure books among a froth of pillows and lace. And so Alexandra was raised by a succession of nannies. In a studio portrait of her as a little girl, she’s an angry flounce of satin with a cross at her neck and teardrop earrings by her cheeks.
As a girl, encouraged by her father, Alexandra studied the Stoics and Gnostics and Epictetus. And while my teenage role model was Britney Spears, Alexandra’s was the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes led one of the original countercultures. More than two-thousand years before the Romantics, the Bohemians or hippies, the Cynics of Athens were dismayed by society’s obsession with money and material things.
Diogenes especially burst open a new way to live. He slept outdoors in an old wine cask and peed in the street. He ate food scraps and wandered Athens barefoot. By living like a dog, in harmony with the rhythms of nature, he felt free. God I wanted to feel that.
At Catholic boarding school, Alexandra found that for her, too, the path to joy could be found through self-discipline and modest living. She followed recipes ripped from the biographies of ascetic saints. She fasted and practiced unspecified corporal torments. Pouring over texts from every religion, she thought the story of Buddha sacrificing himself to feed a starving tigress was, as Middleton writes, “the most beautiful story she had ever heard.”
Aged eighteen, still in search of that solitary spot where she could sit alone with no one near, Alexandra ran away from home, taking a train to Switzerland, then hiked along the Alps. Still, she was a teenager. On reaching the Italian lakes, she sent a telegram home to her parents: “Come get me. Am without money.” Less than a year later she tied her things to the handlebars of her bicycle and pedaled down through France to Spain.
I wanted to be this Alexandra — bold and selfish, mostly wolf.
At twenty, Alexandra moved to London and joined controversial groups like Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. At 21, she took classes in Sanskrit at the Sorbonne. She converted to Buddhism. She blew her godmother’s inheritance money on a trip to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India.
On the boat journey across the grey Laccadive Sea to India, Alexandra cocooned herself in her tiny cabin. She planned to meditate, study, and be bothered by no one till she reached the country’s shining temples. It would be perfect. Then a storm lashed the boat nearly sideways into the water.
Rats from the lower decks flooded her room. They clung to the curtains, the carpets, to her. Lice, roaches and spiders spilled from the drain of the sink. The boat survived and Alexandra made it to port, but for the next few weeks, she wandered India in tropical whites — a human vision of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.”
Returning to Europe broke, Alexandra remained haunted as she struggled against the corset tightness of her gender. She published articles on anarchy, religion, and her travels, but earned little, and a career as a professor was not open to women. She was, however, a decent singer. Alexandra studied music at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, sailed back east, and joined the Hanoi Opera Company as première cantatrice for the next two years.
When her voice faded, Alexandra left Asia and moved to Tunis. Working as artistic director of the city casino, she married a well-off railroad engineer named Philippe Néel in 1904. Philippe was kind, yet philandering. He loved his wife. He also loved that bourgeois life. So Alexandra’s days filled with luncheons and couturier appointments. The hour each day when she meditated in “perfect detachment” was not enough to bring her back to herself. Looking in the mirror with horror, she saw her mother’s downturned face staring back at her.
What happens when you keep contained a woman whose intelligence could stretch around moons? For many in the colonial period, there was a diagnosis of “neurasthenia.” The 19th-century version of burnout, neurasthenia was popularized by the American doctor George Beard. He believed we all have a limited supply of nervous energy, and that the stresses of modern life deplete that supply. For women, doctors gave the rest cure — no writing, no studying, no overexcitement. Men were given the West cure — both Walt Whitman to Theodore Roosevelt were prescribed time away to rough ride and rope horses and get hardy and strong in a “sturdy contest with nature” with other men.
The world rolled under the thrust of Alexandra’s heels.
Alexandra was not immune from neurasthenia. In Tunis, in her new life as a wife, she unraveled into a world of headaches, nausea, exhaustion. And I think that she must have felt lost — like she had everything a lifetime of social conditioning had taught her to want — love, money, silk kimonos, a palm-filled villa in North Africa — and yet none of it could sustain her. I imagine her as the poet Ted Hughes’ caged jaguar, “hurrying enraged, through prison darkness” on a “short fierce fuse.”
Arriving in Vichy for its thermal baths in August, 1911, Philippe found a note waiting for him:
“This word brings you my affectionate thoughts when I will already be far away on the sea, moving toward Egypt, on the threshold of the other Orient, and ready for the plunge. I wish you a happy vacation, a good stay in Vichy, rest and distraction. In my heart I am with you, my dear Mouchy, and I enclose in this note a loving kiss of welcome.”
Alexandra had not opted for the rest cure. She had left for Asia.
Over the next fourteen years, the world rolled under the thrust of Alexandra’s heels. She refused all invites to colonial dinner parties and instead became friends with the 13th Dalai Lama. Alexandra also became pals with a beautiful Sikkimese prince named Sidkeong Tulku. She studied with the Gomchen of Lachen — a hermit sorcerer who could fly through the air, conjure demons, and kill a person with a glance (it was said). And she met Yongden, a smart teenage monk who served as her attendant while she meditated in a mountain cave for two winters.
Following two years in the Himalaya, in 1916 Alexandra and Yongden left for Japan to study Zen Buddhism. Imagining them there, in that landscape, I saw gasps of light tearing through bamboo forests and tatami mats spilling across temple floors. Yet Alexandra was unmoved. Surrounded by so many neat fields, she felt like being in Japan was being in the middle of one big kitchen.
Kitchens, unsurprisingly, were not her style. In 1908, she had written an essay for the French feminist newspaper La Fronde titled, “The Liberation of Women from the Weight of Maternity.” Yongden may have been like a son to Alexandra, but she was glad he was not so by birth. If he was, she’d written, he’d be off adventuring while she was stuck at home darning his socks and anxiously awaiting his return. I thought of my mum ironing clothes and watching the evening news for word from the Middle East — my brother was stationed there as a Royal Navy helicopter pilot.
Reaching the border with Tibet, Alexandra and Yongden lived among the monks and shamans of Kumbum Monastery for three years. They translated rare manuscripts and studied the secret, mystic practices of Tibetan Buddhism — telepathy, out-of-body travel, vampiric shamanism.
For Alexandra, study and meditation were good. Mountains so big they could humble Alexander the Great into silence were better. She realized she was homesick for a country that was not hers. “The steppes, the solitude, the eternal snows and the big skies” of Tibet were what haunted her. She and Yongden started scheming their next trip.
I knew this magpie lust for new places. At seventeen, in between the MSN Messenger conversations with other kids from school, I’d flip through country profiles on the CIA World Factbook site to read about currencies and current disputes in distant places. The rest of my idea of Tibet was made up of National Geographic photos of prayer flags, tea houses and buses riding knife-thin cliffs.
I’d later learn that the Tibetan Plateau is the highest, youngest, largest massif on Earth. And with more than 46,000 (rapidly melting) glaciers, it contains the world’s third largest store of ice. At its core are alpine deserts and mountains that look like raw silver. In that high-cold region, few plants flower.
The Tibetan Plateau is also diverse. To the southeast are wet tongues of jungle, old cedars and orchids that bloom in winter. Still, few would call Tibet one big kitchen.
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Two-thirds the size of India, in the late 18th century Tibet was invaded by Nepal. China asserted its role as Tibet’s overseer and clawed away large parts of the country under the guise of protecting the land from Gurkhas. British India was opium drunk on securing Tibet as a market route into China. The tsars of imperial Russia also fantasized about this land beyond the Snowy Range — the money that could be made from its gold and musk and furs. With the most powerful empires on Earth circling, in 1792 Tibet closed its borders to Europeans.
Lhasa is the polestar of Tibet. For more than a thousand years, it freewheeled as a Buddhist version of the Vatican. The Dalai Lama slept under the golden roofs of Potala Palace. Tens of thousands of monks lived among the butter-burning lamps below. Lhasa was also home to Chinese merchants, Kashmiri Muslims, Sikh traders. It was multicultural, thriving, unknown. What Parisian opera singer-turned-anarchist lama wouldn’t want to visit this holy city in the mountains?
I think there was ego there too. In the 19th century, scores of explorers, spies, missionaries, and Buddhist devotees had tried to reach Lhasa, but only three had made it. If she handled the snowstorms and bandits, if she managed to scoot past the capital’s army of guards, she’d be the first Western woman to reach the capital. She already had an advantage. When she met the Dalai Lama in 1912, he gave Alexandra one piece of advice. “Learn Tibetan.” By 1923, she was fluent.
I had spent a year in Korea and had failed to learn the language beyond saying “Soju. Kimchi!” Alexandra’s diligence amazed me.
Tibet was closed to visitors. To shimmy past the border guards, Alexandra and Yongden disguised themselves as arjopas — pilgrims who, through the year, begged their way from one sacred Tibetan site to another. Yongden, now twenty-two, played the learned monk; Alexandra his aged mother.
Alexandra disguised her whiteness by rubbing cocoa and soot into her face and hands. She smeared Chinese ink into her brown hair and wove yak hair into the ends. To keep her eyes shadowed, she wore a fur hat. The look was topped off with hoop earrings, a rosary made from pieces of 108 human skulls, and a wool robe. Without a doubt, her appropriative behavior, her decision to disguise her race and to flout a travel ban that was made in response to colonizers, can’t be justified. Like so many Westerners before and since, Alexandra saw no connection between her own designs in a foreign land and those of her government; no continuity between her impulse to enter a forbidden place and capitalism’s impulse to do the same. Believing that “any honest traveler has the right to walk” wherever she chooses, she thought of herself as simply a Buddhist going on a pilgrimage.
While they walked, Alexandra and Yongden ate one meal a day. Sometimes it was yak butter tea. Other days, barley flour. If they were feeling wild, they mixed barley flour with yak butter and ate that.
“Gads,” I said to my dad, scrolling through descriptions of butter tea on my laptop, “this article says it tastes like ‘wet dog with undertones of barn.’ Fancy some?” He didn’t.
Alexandra was a contemporary of Proust. Didn’t she miss madeleines and lime-flower tea? Eggs, cutlets, preserves, biscuits? Surely she at least missed silk kimonos and hot baths? What did I miss, when I was gone? Sunday papers. Clean sheets. Watching birds at the sea with Dad.
She may have been softly reared in Paris, but to Alexandra the simple life of the pilgrim was “the most blessed existence one can dream of.” She and Yongden wore only the clothes they stood up in. They slept wherever they pleased — or, at least, wherever they wouldn’t be detected by Tibetan guards. They lived the life of Diogenes. It was the harsh circumstances of the next four months that made Alexandra’s time in Tibet the best of her life. I get that bubbling-happy feeling just camping.
A transcendental moment pulls us tidally out of the self, like an ocean pulled towards the moon.
The German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term grenzsituation, which means ‘limit situations,’ to describe the points where one feels in conflict with reality, as though coming upon a boundary. Other researchers took this concept further, seeing grenzsituations in moments when life is lived at maximum intensity, close to death. Encounters with limit situations are said to unsettle us and break us out of our routine behaviors. They make us feel awake.
Did I say us? I’ve never been in this manner of grenzsituation — I’ve never surfed big waves or climbed sea stacks or even broken a bone. The fear I’d known came from the imagined, from a man walking towards me on an empty night time street; from walking through fog on a quiet mountain.
Alexandra and Yongden’s grenzsituation was real. About halfway through their trek, to get from Tashi Tse to Po country in eastern Tibet, locals said they had two choices. They could walk through a busy valley where the only real risk was meeting petty thieves. Or they could follow the summer route of nomadic herders across two wild mountain passes. Maybe. If it wasn’t socked in.
Alexandra and Yongden pushed their staffs into the December snow and set off for the hills. The wind was sharp, the ravines they walked through stinging-blue. As they ascended, excitement levels were all-time high. “Paradise!” wrote Alexandra, as night fell and they found an abandoned dokpa camp with plenty of dried cow dung to build a fire from.
At daybreak, they climbed towards the first mountain’s ridge. Reaching the summit by mid-afternoon, they felt equal parts admiration and grief. Alexandra wrote of there being no sign of a trail, only “an immensity of snow” walled in by “blue-green glaciers and peaks wrapped in everlasting, immaculate whiteness.” If they didn’t find the right route, they would spent all night wandering among those peaks. They would die.
Alexandra and Yongden decided to walk knee-deep into the tableland ahead of them. They walked until they crested the pass, shouting, “Gé-o!” (“May all beings be happy!”) into the frozen sky. Snow darkened to dirt, a fat river shone under an enormous moon, and cow dung could again be spotted between the rocks.
Starting on the next pass under a green dawn, the snow began to fall, lightly at first, then thick. Exhausted, Alexandra and Yongden put up their tent, took shelter, and warmed themselves with tea. Then the canvas collapsed from the weight of falling snow. They stumbled on, taking in water in fistfuls of snow, then fell asleep in an empty cave at dawn.
The next day, they smashed into subzero suffering when Yongden fell into a crevasse and twisted his ankle. Leaning on Alexandra and his staff, he was taken back to the cave to rest. The pair shivered on the frozen ground — the snow they had eaten the day before creating an internal cold that prevented sleep. Yongden’s foot was swelling. He could no longer stand. And the snow was still falling.
And yet Alexandra sat late into the night, motionless. She felt no physical pain, no mental anguish — only the “absolute silence, the perfect stillness of that strange white land, sunk in rest, in utter peace” as the snow continued to heap around her and Yongden.
“Bloody hell,” I said to Dad, “imagine having a transcendental moment like that.”
“I’ve had that happen.”
“No you haven’t.”
“Last summer, while I was lying down having a little dwam on the sofa. It was like—” he used his hands to mimic water exploding from his imaginary blowhole, “this great whoosh of blue light spilling from my head.”
“It was amazing. And Mum was just downstairs, making tea.”
“Did you feel different afterwards?”
“I just had this immense feeling of peace.”
Transcendence comes from the Latin trans (beyond) and scandare (to climb). In a flash, a transcendental moment pulls us tidally out of the self, like an ocean pulled towards the moon. And, climbing beyond thoughts, we feel in the tap dancing heat of our every atom only this — that each of us is a drop in the ocean, an ocean in a drop.
But I had always thought these life-shattering moments were for hermits and monks and George Harrison — not people like my dad, a painter deeply sensitive to shafts of light and sea, but also someone whose mind, like my own, becomes anxious without the oblivion of sleeping pills.
Not that he’s so unusual. The mind tends to stay inside the ‘Self’ most of the time. It remembers the past and ruminates on the future. It solves problems and mulls over ideas that can be exciting, creative, hopeful. For many of us, the mind will also dive into dark, repeating thoughts and — often — get stuck there.
Awe, the little sister of those blue whoosh feelings, helps pull us out of those moments. In a 2014 study by University of California psychologists, students looked up at a grove of 200-feet-tall Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees on Berkeley’s campus for one minute. According to the Cut, “after that awe-inspiring encounter with nature,” students reported feeling “less self-centered, and they even behaved more generously when given the chance to help someone. Other research shows that after transcendent experiences, people feel more satisfied with their lives and rate their lives as more meaningful. They also have higher levels of oxytocin — the hormone that promotes bonding between two people — coursing through their blood.” Add up our everyday moments of awe, and the effects can be profound. But those moments only come with the practice of paying attention.
The researchers believe that awe deprivation is serious. Writing for the New York Times, they say it’s contributed to the “broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others.”
They assert that we need to insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives us goosebumps, “be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others — the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds.”
Awe, for many of us, can be found outside. But on insomnia soaked mornings, sometimes the world feels too big. I don’t want to put on a jacket, to go for a walk. On those mornings, I am trying to not start the day with a jitter-jump of instant coffee or Instagram scroll-throughs, but with searching different books for useless, beautiful flints of knowledge like these:
The eyes of an Arctic reindeer change colour from gold in summer to blue in winter.
Chimpanzees dance at the onset of rainstorms.
A blue whale’s heart can be heard from two miles away.
At night, moonbows may be seen.
On the better days — awe starts to bind my fractures. The world begins to bend and unfurl. I put on my boots, open my apartment door, and go out.
If you read a survival book like How to Stay Alive in the Woods, it will give many options for starting a fire without matches. None of those options will include the ancient art of thumo reskiang.
The lamaic art of self-heating involves visualizing flames near the spine while “vase breathing” — breathing deeply into the abdomen, then taking a sharp breath up before releasing all the air from the stomach.
Living at a Sikkim monastery during World War I, Alexandra would watch as winter storms spun across the night sky and freshman monks were led to the shore of the crystal-edged river. She wrote that “stripped of all their clothes, they had to dry sheets soaked in the icy water on their own flesh. Hardly had one sheet been dried than it was replaced by another. Stiffened by ice as soon as it emerged from the water, it was soon steaming on the shoulders as if it had been placed on a burning stove.”
While in Sikkim, Alexandra had the Gomchen of Lachen teach her thumo. It took five months of practice, but by the time of her final exam she could bathe in a freezing, moonlit mountain stream then sit naked, meditating until sunrise.
Tibetan hermits not only practice thumo for spiritual reasons, but in order to live in the high mountains without endangering themselves. Still, it’s been secularized and monetized by extreme fitness gurus like Wim “IceMan” Hof, the 60-year-old Dutchman known for taking the world’s longest ice bath and running above the Arctic Circle in shorts. (If you don’t have a hermit sorcerer to show you the ways of thumo, you can pay $200 for a block of #wimhofmethod video tutorials).
She walked until she felt strong and transcendent in the world.
It is possible for core body temperature to be controlled by the mind. Using electroencephalography recordings and temperature measurements, researchers from the National University of Singapore recorded Tibetan nuns in -25°C weather increasing their core body temperature to 38.3 degrees.
On those Tibetan mountain passes, thumo saved Alexandra’s life. When her flint and steel became wet in a snowstorm, she tucked them under her clothes with a pinch of moss. She sat meditating till her face turned sauna pink. Soon she saw flames arising around her. “They enveloped me, curling their tongues above my head.” Patting under her clothes, she realized everything had dried. Before Yongden came back from searching for firewood, she had a fire going.
With Yongden now able to stand, Alexandra helped him down through the wooded hills towards Po.
As they tramped, a gap opened in Alexandra’s right boot. It flapped open like “a strange animal, feeding on snow as it went.” Her skin burned and blistered. She dissolved in silent pain.
Night came. Snow continued to fall. Alexandra and Yongden limped on — scared and numb. She wrote that they appeared like “two queer ghosts en route to answer the call of a Tibetan wizard.” Then, in the midnight dark, she hit against something large and unmoving. A dokpa summer hut. Half-afraid it would vanish, she pressed her hands against the wooden walls. Then one cheek, then the other.
Alexandra cleared the snow piled up at the door and went inside. There was firewood, cow dung — paradise. Alexandra built a fire and melted a pot of snow. She and Yongden tossed back hot water sprinkled with tsampa for dinner. As the fire’s warmth seeped in her bones, she smiled. There was still an epicure lurking in her ascetic heart.
Before the sun came up the next morning, Alexandra and Yongden brewed the last of their tea dust, then set off down a narrowing trail for Po. The hills were covered in wide sprays of holly oak, then thick bushes, then slopes as unclimbable as paper. There was no more trail. They had followed a path made by grazing cows. The only thing they could do was go back to the hut and start again.
Pausing often so Yongden could rest, the stars were out by the time they made it back to camp. They had no more food. Trapped in jellied giddiness, they began hearing bells. Yongden’s eyes tore wide with fever. He flung open the hut door and ran out in the dark, yelling “the snow is heaping up. Heaping up!”
Alexandra chased after Yongden. He was speaking in a faraway voice, as if dreaming, moaning, “We must start, start at once. Come quick!”
Yongden was raving, stumbling towards the cliff edge just beyond the dokpa clearing. Terrified, Alexandra pushed him back towards the hut. She dragged him in and kicked the door closed behind them.
“What? What?” he said, looking around as Alexandra stoked the embers and firelight lit the room. Then he fell asleep.
The next morning, Yongden’s fever was gone, but their situation was dire. Alexandra joked that maybe some compassionate mountain god would notice their state and sort them out with a piece of butter or fat.
Yongden looked at her.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, “if you were not too particular about the fat, I might be the mountain god.”
From his bag, Yongden pulled out the piece of bacon he used to waterproof their boots, then some bits of leather used to repair the soles. Alexandra and Yongden threw it all in a pot of boiling water. Half an hour later, they drank the grey soup. That was Christmas Day, 1923.
The weather cleared, and Alexandra and Yongden found the real path to Po. Trudging down the valley, after a day’s walking they saw their first dwelling. Alexandra thought of the Tibetan rumors she’d heard about the people who lived in this region — all robbers and cannibals and wretchedness. Then she asked the hut’s owner if she and Yongden could go in and warm up by the fire. They were given a place by the hearth and bowls of butter tea. They were shown kindness. Before long, Alexandra and Yongden were once again living the life, walking with other pilgrims and staying with different villagers each night.
While Dad flicked channels to the Antiques Roadshow, I read more pieces of the book aloud to him — of people being torn apart in vulture-clawed sky burials and lamas being cremated in giant cauldrons of butter. Of Alexandra and Yongden hiding in a dust storm to slip past Lhasa’s army of guards. Sneaking into Potala Palace and pouring over holy manuscripts. Wandering around markets. Staying in a beggars’ shelter. Making friends there. Breaking up fights there. Walking out of the capital undetected and elated, two months later.
Alexandra lived out Sartre’s essential principle that we are free. Other entities may have a predefined nature: a letter opener can be nothing other than what it is, he wrote. But with humans — though we may be conditioned by biology, our cultural histories and our upbringing — we are essentially making ourselves up as we go along.
I may tell myself that I am not the kind of person who can meditate each day or walk up a mountain before dawn. But by telling myself “what kind of person I am,” all I am doing is going out in search of my own cage.
Sartre believed our salvation lies within us. We are in charge of inventing our own paths, and we must constantly do so. But to invent our paths, we are free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within us. The notion is “exhilarating to exactly the same degree that it’s frightening,” writes Sarah Bakewell in At the Existentialist Café.
Alexandra’s life, to me, was an example of that frightening freedom.
At the start of the 20th century, she decided she was a rebel nerd with the audacity to ask, “Who knows the flower best? The one who reads about it in a book, or the one who finds it wild on the mountainside?” And out in the world’s highest mountains where only the wind sings, she walked until she felt strong and transcendent in the world.
Finishing My Journey to Lhasa the next afternoon, I asked my dad to come for a walk with me in the stubble fields outside the house. But it was cold, he said. And windy. And his sinuses were playing up. “Come on, Dude! Dad.” I said, “What would Alexandra do?”
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Ailsa Ross is a Canadian Rockies-based writer whose work has appeared in Outside, National Geographic Traveler and JSTOR Daily. Her debut book is The Woman Who Rode a Shark —through illustrated profiles, young readers can meet fifty bold women who’ve gone out on big adventures.
Editor: Dana Snitzky