Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, looks like a white fortress clinging to the slopes of the Himalayas, 4,200 meters above sea level.
In 1924, the French explorer Alexandra David-Néel stood at her feet.
She is 55 years old, her face is smeared with soot and she wears a fur coat like a modest Tibetan.
She doesn't have the right to be there, but she doesn't care as much about the regulations issued by the English colonists.
This stolen moment in front of the Potala Palace, where she takes her picture, is the culmination of a journey undertaken thirteen years earlier...
Alexandra – baptized Louise David – was born in Saint-Mandé in 1868. Her studies, begun in a Catholic school and completed in a Protestant establishment, gave her a certain openness in matters of religion.
From adolescence, she wants to believe in something divine, but neither the Bible, nor the Torah, nor the Koran fully satisfy her.
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From lyrical song to monasteries
After a first career as an opera singer, Alexandra David married the engineer Philippe Néel, in Tunis.
But, at 36, middle-class life bores him.
She consults books on the Far East and Buddhism.
Asian culture has intrigued him since his tours in Tonkin.
In 1911, Philippe, as a modern husband, agreed to his wife embarking alone on a long voyage of exploration from India to China.
The real life of the explorer begins when she is 43 years old.
She was first introduced to Buddhist philosophy in the monasteries of Sikkim.
His friendship with the prince of this small mountain country allows him to meet the 13th Dalai Lama.
She is the first white woman to be presented to him officially.
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After a retreat of almost two years in a cave in the company of a hermit, Alexandra nourishes the project of going to Tibet.
China considers this country as its backyard, and the English, who control neighboring Sikkim, forbid access for fear that another European colonial power will seize it.
But with the complicity of the Prince of Sikkim, Alexandra makes a first trip to the Tibetan highlands.
The majestic nature dazzles her, and soon the explorer only dreams of the forbidden city of Lhasa, the spiritual capital of Buddhism.
Back in Sikkim, Alexandra is expelled by the English.
She will return to Tibet seven years later, disguised as a Tibetan beggar accompanied by her son: this young man, Yongden, is a lama she met in Sikkim, whom she considers to be the child she never had.
Entering the forbidden city of Lhasa is a shock for Alexandra.
The explorer was expecting a temple city… She discovers a commercial city.
Despite the disappointment, she stayed there for two months, then descended the Himalayas via Sikkim.
Alexandra David-Néel in Tibetan costume with lama Aphur Yongden, whom she considers her son and will eventually adopt.
Ullstein Image via Getty Images
Alexandra David-Néel presents herself to the English authorities in the country, her wrists outstretched.
She wants to be arrested for illegally entering Lhasa.
But she is simply kicked out a second time.
Returning to France after fourteen years of itinerancy, she published
Voyage d'une Parisienne à Lhassa
This bookstore success gave him entry into the Pantheon of the great Western explorers.
* Virginie Girod has a doctorate in history.
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At the heart of history
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