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What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

- Henry David Thoreau


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Adventure Travel

Feb 06, 2018

Alexandra David-Néel: The 19th Century Parisian Anarchist who Explored Tibet

Disguised as a beggar to avoid betrayal and walking more than 2,000 kilometers in the heart of the fierce Himalayan winter, the French orientalist Alexandra David-Néel eventually reached Tibet’s forbidden capital Lhasa on February 23rd, 1924.

WRITTEN BY

Pierre Gunther

“I am a savage my dear. I only like my tent, my horses and the desert.”

We are used to considering the word exploration as something from the far past. We instinctively imagine camels roaming the Silk Road, caravels sailing towards unknown continents. But many places on the globe have actually been discovered and mapped only recently. This is the case of Tibet, the Himalayan kingdom where foreigners had been denied access for a long time.

Explorers are often geographers, sailors or geologists. She was an orientalist, specialist of Tibet, opera singer, journalist and anarchist, Buddhist and French. Born in 1868, Alexandra David-Néel developed a consuming passion for Asia and Tibet while studying old manuscripts at the Asian Arts National Guimet Museum in Paris. She remembers in her book L’Inde où j’ai vécu (“The India where I lived”): “At that time, the Guimet Museum was a temple. (…) In the little room, quiet calls rise from the pages that are flipped through. India, China, Japan, all the points of this world that begin beyond Suez appeal to the readers… vocations born… mine was born here “. After her wedding with Philippe Néel, manager of the French railways in Tunisia, she continued to be consumed by the need to see the world and left Tunis where the couple lived, for India. Promising her husband that she would return within eighteen months… her journey around Asia actually lasted fourteen years. From Ceylon to India, Japan and Singapore, she became the first Western woman to meet with the Dalai-Lama, roaming the ways of China and Korea, living in a cave at 12,000 feet for two years in Sikkim as an anchorite. Alexandra David-Néel not only walked through places, she experienced them, studying religions and cultures of the locals she met. Lo-pa of Tibet, Gologs of the Qinghai, monks of all the cults of Buddhism had no secrets for the lady who spoke Tibetan, Sanskrit and partly mastered Chinese.

Alexandra David Néel in 1933, with her Tibetan collar made of 108 pieces of human bones. © Preus museum

This knowledge about local habits and customs was a determining point for her journey to Lhasa. In those days indeed, the Tibetan territory was in the hands of the United Kingdom and forbidden to foreigners. No Westerner had succeeded in this incredible quest. Not only were the weather conditions hostile, but the land was practically unknown, with no roads or railways. It was also dangerous and plagued with gangs of robbers, many missionaries had already been killed. Travellers as the French Jules-Léon Dutreuil de Rhins and Fernand Grenard, the Irish army officer Deasy or the Swedish Sven Hedin: all failed or died on their way to the city of the Potala. Alexandra David-Néel was not ready to fail.

From the city of Tsedjrong (currently Cizhong in Yunnan), they followed the course of Salouen and Po Tsangpo unmapped rivers, and sometimes crossed them on ropes made of straw that served as footbridges. One day, the rope almost snapped and the explorer had to wait, hung above the icy waters, to be rescued by a local. Often, the mother and her son walked during the night to avoid being noticed and questioned by curious locals, and eventually would get lost. One night the two pilgrims researched for the right way, they faced a violent snow storm and could not see enough to find a shelter. Sleeping at the open air for several days, they fed themselves with melted snow and leather pieces from their boots. Aphur Yongden sprained his ankle because of his extreme state of weakness and the two only survived thanks to their mental strength and determination. Snow burns, forced fasts, fevers due to the extreme temperatures and walks of several days without any sleep to cross passes at more than 5,000 meters, the two supposed-pilgrims put their bodies to a severe test. But one of their greatest fear was to be identified as filings (foreigners in Tibetan). David-Néel almost got caught several times when eating with her fingers, erasing the dye on her skin. But however tiresome this walk might have been, the woman declared in My Journey to Lhasa: “this picturesque life, I consider it the most delightful one can dream of, and I regard it as the happiest days of my life when, with my miserable bundle on my back, I was wandering the wonderful Land of the Snows up hill and down dale “.

19th Century Tibet. Photo: Creative Commons

Indifferent to the fame and the praise testified by the international press after her feat, she headed back for another nine-year journey to the continent where she felt she really belonged at the age of sixty-nine years old. “I am a savage my dear – she wrote to her husband – I only like my tent, my horses and the desert “. Today, one can dive into Alexandra David-Néel’s lively books in which the adventurer conveys the authentic flavor of Tibet as she observed it, described with affectionate humor. The house she lived in until the age of 100 in Digne-les-Bains is now a museum that presents keepsakes of Alexandra’s journeys: box cameras, a Tibetan rosary made of 108 pieces of human skulls, her automatic pistol and a cooking pot. Her life, her determination and physical fortitude is still an inspiration for many travellers and photographers, and her tales of adventure and vivid description of Tibet will continue to delight generations of readers.

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Adventurers & Explorers

Aug 24, 2018

Seven Female Indian Climbers Who Deserve Your Attention

A growing number of young female Indian climbers could soon take the world by storm.

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WRITTEN BY

Jahnvi Pananchikal

Female Indian climbers, a growing demographic, will one day be known by many.

Adventure sports are rarely seen or heard of in mainstream news in India, unless we win a gold or a silver at a World Championship. Climbing as a subset of that goes completely unnoticed. When it’s talked about, it’s mainly as a male sport, even globally. We know very little on female Indian climbers, who’re equally winning medals and traveling the world for the love of this sport.

She battled against cancer but that didn’t stop her.

Climbing has seen a transition from requiring physical strength to needing more of logical thinking. When climbing a wall or a rock, one has to be tactical and efficient. In this light, it isn’t hard to imagine that such a sport can be enjoyed and perfected by anyone, man or woman. That’s how some Indian girls gained confidence to try climbing, and led the way for others to take up the sport. A few of them had support systems, and others had to battle it out with their families and the social context. But none of them gave up on climbing.

Here are some female Indian climbing champions who love what they do and are spread across India from J&K all the way down to Karnataka.

Shivani Charak, J&K

Photo: Shivani

17-year-old Shivani comes from a humble background of Dharmal, Jammu where she studied at a local government school in Domana. At the beginning of her sports career, she battled against cancer but that didn’t stop her from going after her childhood dream of becoming a professional climber. She received tremendous support from parents, her coach at Shining Star Academy, and the local school principal and staff members. Such a strong support system did wonders for her climbing journey.  IMF nominated her for national competitions and she brought a handful of gold, silver, and bronze medals for the state. Later, she went to Italy, Switzerland, and Slovenia to train for the World Cup and was ranked 7th in the championship. She also participated in Asia Cup, bagged 11th rank in bouldering, and was recognized as a national champion in speed climbing. This is no small feat for a young girl from Jammu who battled cancer.

Shivpreet Pannu, Amritsar

Photo: Shivpreet

Shivpreet won her first national bronze medal at the age of 11. Since then, it’s been seven years of hardcore climbing that got her 37 medals in total. That’s not bad for someone whose hometown lacks the ecosystem for climbing. Shivpreet, however, was smart enough to turn challenge into opportunity, and began traveling alone to Delhi for training on a regular basis. Her gratitude goes out to Adarsh Singh, a fellow climber, who inspires her with his humility and incredible support. In this journey, Shivpreet has been a national speed climbing champion for the last three years, and has participated in Asian Youth Championship, Asian Cup, and Asian Games. In 2014, she broke her wrist but that didn’t stop her from getting back on the wall a year later. She has been determined and perseverant in this ride, and it shows.

Vrinda Bhageria, New Delhi

Photo: Pankaj Singh

For Vrinda, climbing is a way of life. She definitely didn’t have the easiest time as someone who has to fight the idea of body image, having felt overweight as a child. Vrinda picked up climbing and realized how it positively changed her perception, even though it was hard initially. Vrinda, now 28 years old, has been climbing for seven years and has experienced rocks in Leh and Karnataka in India and also those in foreign lands including Italy, Germany, Greece, Thailand, Bulgaria, and South Africa. For her, climbing is about overcoming challenges, big or small. It is also a way to meet people who climb just for the love of it. It inspired her to start Boulder Box, a bouldering centre in New Delhi, which promotes the idea of movement in climbing, irrespective of gender, age, or physical ability. India definitely needs a stronger ecosystem with accessible avenues, and Vrinda is on her way to make that real.

You can follow Vrinda here.

Shreya Nankar, Pune

Photo: Shreya Nankar

Shreya was 13 when she bagged one of the four medals won at the Asian Youth Championship. She is 16 years old now, and for her, five years of climbing has been a significantly fulfilling journey. When she won a silver medal at the age of 11, she knew that she wanted to continue the sport. A permanent member of the Indian Sports Climbing Team, Shreya spends her day studying and climbing to make sure she doesn’t compromise one or the other. Moreover, everyone is happy so she can continue climbing without any complaints from others. Her stringent routine paid off and in 2016, IMF awarded her as the Best Female Athlete of the Year. With gold and silver and bronze medals at several Zonal, National, and International competitions, Shreya is certain to make climbing an important part of her future.

Sneha Sanjay Deogharkar, Mumbai

Photo: Omkar Gawde

Sneha wanted to spend her evenings after work in the climbing gym, but her parents wanted her to get married.

Sneha started climbing for fitness at the age of 26. Usually, for an Indian girl, that’s the age to get “settled.” Her parents initially discouraged her from pursuing this sport and considered it dangerous. They thought it was time for her to get married. Sneha, however, wanted to spend her evenings after work in the climbing gym. She finally chose the sport and has been climbing for four years now. Ranjit Shinde, a national champion, recognized her efforts and supported her to take it seriously. Then she won 3rd rank in Zonal Bouldering Competition (West Zone) and 6th rank in IMF’s National Sport Climbing Championship Competition in Bangalore in 2016. Finally, it didn’t turn out to be such a bad choice for Sneha. She loves the outdoors and enjoys boulders in Hampi, Badami and Manali. After years of practice, she has rough hands, callused fingers, big muscles, and bunion toes, but none of that matters because climbing makes her happy. When marriage does happen for her, it’s anyway a great way for Sneha to see if her partner is a good fit!

Siddhi Shekhar Manerikar, Mumbai

Photo: Siddhi

“She is a girl, why would you let her go climbing and travel alone?”

When Siddhi went climbing, neighbors would discourage her mother from sending her alone. “She is a girl, why would you let her go climbing and travel alone?” they would say. But Siddhi’s mother didn’t care for that, and simply supported her throughout her climbing career. Initially, Siddhi had to explain climbing to others, given the lack of awareness. But as she continued to excel in the sport, people’s interest grew as they gained more knowledge about climbing. She began in 2010, and this 22-year old has already played a total of 16 Zonal and National championships, along with 6 International championships including 2 World Cups. In 2017, she was included in the world ranking and will participate in Asian Games in 2018 and the Olympics in 2020. Siddhi is a girl climber and totally okay to travel the world!

Prateeksha Arun, Bangalore

Photo: Prateeksha Arun

Prateeksha began training a lot harder after competing in World Cup 2017. She saw how a team of national champions was nowhere close to the standards of competitors from other countries in the championship. She feels that India has great climbers but they are forced to cope with poor infrastructure. But it also means that they have to keep trying harder to set new standards and transform culture. Her mom’s go-getter attitude means a lot to Prateeksha and she feels fortunate to have parents who support her choices. Many of her friends’ parents do not encourage their children to pursue climbing as a serious option. May be the kids should take out their parents for climbing, just so they can experience how much fun it can be. Prateeksha’s father is a climber too, and that surely worked out well for her. She is 19 and has been climbing for ten years. She has won several national medals and is currently the National Champion in Bouldering. Soon, she will be on her way to Austria to compete in the World Championship in September.

You can follow Prateeksha here.

Many thanks to Inspire Crew for introductions to these amazing female Indian climbers! Inspire Crew is an evolving platform for women in extreme and adventure sports in India.

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