No European had ever been permitted to enter the city of Lhasa, Tibet, the home of the sacred Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader of Tibet.
In 1924, however, a 55-year-old Frenchwoman, her skin dyed and hair dark with ink, dressed like a Mongolian peasant, entered the forbidden city. Accompanied only by her adopted son, she traveled at night and rested during the day.
Once, the pair was ambushed by robbers; the woman fired her pistol and scared them off. Finally, she entered Lhasa and then returned to tell the world of its marvels. Her name, Alexandra David-Neel, became famous around the world.
David-Neel was born into a wealthy family in France in 1868. As a teenaged girl, she showed an independent spirit and a disregard for what others thought of her. She traveled alone by bike to Spain and by train to Italy, actions thought scandalous at the time. When she turned 21, she became fascinated with eastern religions and spent her family inheritance to visit India and Sri Lanka.
She returned to Europe in 1893, studied music, and traveled through eastern Asia, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, performing on the piano and singing. But she could not shake her fascination with the East. She wrote a book on Buddhism and in 1912 traveled to the northeastern Indian border.
There, she met the Dalai Lama, who had fled his country because of a Chinese invasion. She lived in a mountain cave for several months, entered a Buddhist monastery, and met a 15-year old boy, Aphur Yongden, whom she later adopted.
In October 1917, David-Neel traveled westward from Beijing through China, a 2,000-mile journey through countryside torn by war. Eventually reaching Kumbum, a city on the border of China and Tibet, in 1920 she stayed three years and translated Buddhist texts into French.
In 1923, she began her famous journey into Lhasa and in 1924 became the first European to lay eyes on the sacred city.