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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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Adventure Travel

Jul 31, 2018

Kayaking’s Elite Return to India at the Malabar River Festival

During the week of July 18th to 22nd, the Malabar River Festival returned to Kerala, India with one of the biggest cash prizes in whitewater kayaking in the world.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

A $20,000 purse attracted some of the world’s best kayakers to the region for an epic week battling it out on some of India’s best whitewater.

The kayaking events at Malabar River Festival were held on the Kuttiyadi River, Chalippuzha River, and the Iruvajippuzha River, in South India on the Malabar Coast. The festival was founded and organized by Manik Taneja and Jacopo Nordera of GoodWave Adventures, the first whitewater kayaking school in South India.

Photo: Akash Sharma

“Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there”

One of the goals of the festival is to promote whitewater kayaking in the state of Kerala and encourage locals to get into the sport. One of the event organizers, Vaijayanthi Bhat, feels that the festival plays a large part in promoting the sport within the community.  “The kayak community is building up through the Malabar Festival. Quite a few people are picking up kayaking… It starts with people watching the event and getting curious.  GoodWave Adventures are teaching the locals.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

Vaijayanthi is not lying when she says the kayak community is starting to build up.  In addition to the pro category, this year’s Malabar Festival hosted an intermediate competition specifically designed for local kayakers. The intermediate competition saw a huge turnout of 22 competitors in the men’s category and 9 competitors in the women’s category. Even the professional kayakers who traveled across the world to compete at the festival were impressed with the talent shown by the local kayakers. Mike Dawson of New Zealand, and the winner of the men’s pro competition had nothing but good things to say about the local kayakers. “I have so much respect for the local kayakers. I was stoked to see huge improvements from these guys since I met them in 2015. It was cool to see them ripping up the rivers and also just trying to hang out and ask as many questions about how to improve their paddling. It was awesome to watch them racing and making it through the rounds. Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

 

“It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake”

Vaijayanthi says the festival has future goals of being named a world championship.  In order to do this, they have to attract world class kayakers to the event.  With names like Dane Jackson, Nouria Newman, Nicole Mansfield, Mike Dawson, and Gerd Serrasolses coming out for the pro competition, it already seems like they are doing a good job of working toward that goal! The pro competition was composed of four different kayaking events- boatercross, freestyle, slalom, and a superfinal race down a technical rapid. “The Finals of the extreme racing held on the Malabar Express was the favourite event for me. It was an epic rapid to race down. 90 seconds of continuous whitewater with a decent flow. It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake.” says Dawson.

Photo: Akash Sharma

The impressive amount of prize money wasn’t the only thing that lured these big name kayakers to Kerala for the festival. Many of the kayakers have stayed in South India after the event ended to explore the rivers in the region. With numerous unexplored jungle rivers, the possibilities for exploratory kayaking are seemingly endless. Dawson knows the exploratory nature of the region well.  “I’ve been to the Malabar River Fest in 2015. I loved it then, and that’s why I’ve been so keen to come back. Kerala is an amazing region for kayaking. In the rainy season there is so much water, and because the state has tons of mountains close to the sea it means that there’s a lot of exploring and sections that are around. It’s a unique kind of paddling, with the rivers taking you through some really jungly inaccessible terrain. Looking forward to coming back to Kerala and also exploring the other regions of India in the future.”

 

For more information on the festival, visit: http://www.malabarfest.com/

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