Apart from Alexandra David-Néel, which European woman has crossed the Himalayas?

Apart from Alexandra David-Néel, which European woman has crossed the Himalayas?

In 1889, Isabella Bird completed her work "Among the Tibetans" based on her personal travels in the Himalayas.


A monk wearing a mask at a Tibetan ritual ceremony. Isabella Bird


In 1889, British female explorer Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904) wrote about her travel experiences in the Himalayan region in a book titled "Among the Tibetans".
In this book, she displayed her usual keen observations on a wide range of topics, from religious beliefs, customs, lifestyles to clothing, home furnishings, flora, folk music, and various rituals. Her detailed and immersive descriptions are vivid and captivating. Let's take a few excerpts from the book to experience it for ourselves.

"Among the Tibetans" First Edition
Cover Illustration by Bird Travel Sketch


"People invited me to their dark and dirty rooms, where goats also lived. They offered me tea and cheese, and touched my clothes. They seemed to be the most savage people, but they were not. No household was so poor as to not have a shrine, wooden deity and an altar. The strong religious atmosphere pervaded the place, giving a unique and intriguing feeling."

"In this land of poverty, there were not only pagodas and protective deities, but also prayer wheels - wooden cylinders filled with scripture scrolls, spun on a wooden handle by passersby. Long poles with prayer flags hung on the roofs of every house, with the mantra Om Ma Ni Bä Mê Hum. As these flags fluttered in the wind, the people inside the house gained the benefits of repeatedly reciting this mantra."


The illustrations in the book are all hand-drawn by the traveler Bird.


"One of the most important religious duties of monks in winter is to recite scriptures in every household. Through this, the family accumulates merit. The longer the scriptures are recited, the greater the accumulated merit. When a set of scriptures is brought to a wealthier household, twelve or fifteen monks will each hold a scroll and begin reciting together in a deafening voice. Reciting these books that contain Buddhist mysticism and philosophy takes five days, during which each monk constantly refills his tea cup. For relatively poorer families, in order to reduce the cost of hosting the monks, they generally only have the ability to recite one scroll of scripture."


"Their hair is combed once a month, braided into many greased strands, and secured at the back with a long tassel. Headpieces made of cloth or leather are adorned with large green turquoise, rubies, and silver decorations... Almost every Tibetan girl's dream centers around this unique headpiece. Earrings, necklaces, talismans, buttons, brass or silver bracelets, and various tools hanging on belts make up a highly distinctive style of clothing... They are healthy and hardworking, with even women able to carry sixty pounds of weight over mountain passes; their voices are harsh and loud, their laughter noisy and cheerful."


Bird's description of everything exudes the charm of details, making one feel as if they were present and experiencing it themselves.


Through this book, we can still catch a glimpse of the distant and mysterious traditional civilization of the Himalayas. It is because Burd's detailed and highly literary recording is like shooting a documentary that this book is still regarded as a must-read for studying the early history, culture, and social life of the Himalayan region. Some Himalayan travelers even consider it a bible.



Different Versions of Bird's 1889 Himalayan Travel Journal


In "The Bird Collection", Tagore once wrote a famous poem: "The sky never left the trace of birds, but I have flown over it." Perhaps just like her name, the Bird became a metaphor and spiritual outline of Bird's life experiences.

Bird is like a bird, breaking through the worldly barriers, going against the norm, almost floating in the vast sky above the earth for her entire life, never stopping. She vividly interprets Tagore's poetic lines with her splendid life journey.

Bird's first book, based on her initial travels in the Rocky Mountains, features the majestic woman on horseback on the cover, which is Bird herself; the Chinese edition recommends it as follows: In an age where homemaking is valued, a remarkable woman ventures into territories rarely visited by European men.


Illustration in the book
The small wooden cottage is where Berd stayed during his travels.

The time of Bird's life was during the Victorian era in England. At that time, women had only two options: to be a housewife or to work as factory workers. Society's standard for a good woman was to be virtuous, graceful, and elegant. Women were expected to sacrifice their individuality and selves, dedicating themselves entirely to their families, bearing children and assisting their husbands, which was seen as the highest virtue. However, behind this seemingly normal facade was a brutal suppression and oppression of women's freedom and dignity.

Understanding this background, we can better appreciate how Bird's choice of a radically different way of life was brave and extraordinary.

Isabella L. Bird,(1831—1904)
A Fearless Female Knight

Bird has traveled alone on horseback through the rugged mountains of Colorado, crossed high-altitude mountain passes in the snow-covered Himalayas, trekked through endless deserts in Morocco and the Middle East, and ventured through the steamy tropical forests of Malaysia. From Western Europe to North America to the Middle East and the Far East, Bertie has left her brave and resolute footprints in most corners of the world.

She has completed three solo journeys around the world, using various modes of transportation such as sailing, horseback riding, and hiking. Starting from the age of 23, Bertie has continued her travels relentlessly until the age of almost 70. Her extensive travel experiences have naturally made her a talented travel writer.

Biography of Isabella Bird by Jacki Hill-Murphy

Isabella's travels were not marked by the customary luxury and arrogance often seen in colonial travelers, nor did she show any interest in fashionable holiday resorts popular among the upper class at the time. Instead, she had a strong desire to "escape civilization," a rebellious gene in her blood that made her enjoy exploring unknown territories with a raw and sincere soul.

In her diary, Isabella humorously writes, "I use the camera tripod as a candlestick, and at night I hang my clothes and boots on it to prevent mice from nibbling ... As long as this simple and rustic safety is ensured, everything else can be enjoyed."

Bird is more accustomed to enjoying the adventurous and challenging travel experiences, and from them she observes and summarizes.

Isabella always sought the unique and extraordinary in challenging journeys. Even when faced with discomfort and danger, she always managed to resolve them with a cheerful and open-minded attitude, using her skillful humor to complete detailed and comprehensive narratives. In her writings about the lands she traveled through, she often showed bias and reservation towards the local people, while criticizing and condemning her unfriendly countrymen who were unkind to the kind and innocent natives.

Isabella's biographer, Anna M. Stoddart, said she had an "ability for accurate observation and narration."

The works of Bird

Scanning through Berd's delicately beautiful words, readers are almost instantly captivated by her vivid and powerful descriptions of everything around her, and amazed at how she can maintain such clear and vivid memories of everything even as time passes, allowing readers to truly feel immersed in her world. The sharing of these experiences releases a magical power that draws readers to travel back in time to Berd's era, joining her on adventurous journeys to the wild and untamed lands of the world.

A great deal of Berd's profound writing skills can be attributed to her sister - Henrietta. Berd once said that her sister's wisdom was the inspiration behind all of her creations. However, unfortunately, in 1880, her dear sister Henrietta was unexpectedly taken by typhoid, leaving her lifeless. And five years later, her scholarly and quiet-natured husband also passed away due to illness. The consecutive losses of her loved ones enveloped Berd like a deep twilight, but she turned her pain into determination. Just as she had cured a mysterious illness through a journey in her youth, she had no choice but to set out for foreign lands to shake off the darkness and start afresh.

India at the end of the 19th century.

For Bird, only when she is on the road can she forget the suppressed emotions and pain, and regain vitality. It seems destined that her existence can only be proven through continuous walking.

Her destination this time is India. Starting from here, she rode horseback through the northern region and finally reached the border of Tibet. It was a very long journey. After staying in the Himalayan region for four months, she continued on to Tehran, crossing northern Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Turkey alone. She documented her entire journey with a camera and a pen, until she returned to England in 1890.

India at the end of the 19th century.
But Bird did not stop there, and after a brief rest and regrouping, she set out once again in 1894. During the Sino-Japanese War, she spent three years in the Far East, visiting Japan, China, and Korea in succession. In 1901, she traveled to Morocco, completing her final journey in her life.

The ship cabin in which Bird traveled in China
Had 16 crew members on board each performing their respective duties.

While in China, she not only used a pen, but also a camera to record everything that interested her. Today, through a series of photos taken by her as a photographer, we can still vividly experience the ancient China over a hundred years ago.


A woman from a tribe in Fuzhou
Wearing a headdress made of pure silver and silk
With rich ethnic characteristics
Bird's 1899 publication "Across the Yangtze River Basin"
Has used this photo
But the photographer of the photo was Dr Kinnear.


European children and their Chinese attendants.


1896, Chongqing, customs guard


1896, Soldiers in Miaoluo, Li County
Concerned about the presence of bandits in the area
Local leaders warmly escorted Bird, who was traveling alone, through the regio


1896, A family with multiple children in southern China


A four-month journey in the Himalayas left Bird with unforgettable memories. Not only because she was approaching her sixties when she embarked on this journey, facing great challenges and tests of body and will, but also because this journey was unlike any she had experienced before, unique and filled with divinity, with extraordinary significance.

In Bird's view, this journey in the Himalayas allowed her to live among some of the most delightful people in the world from start to finish. The people here held deep religious beliefs, simple and devout in their reverence and protection of all that is true, good, and beautiful. Their dedication to spiritual practice and commitment to happiness in the afterlife kept them spiritually fulfilled, healthy, and content, and Bird felt as though she was infected by their emotions, thus experiencing some of the most wonderful and unforgettable times in her life.

Image: Llibreria monimoon, 1890s Himalayas

With the freedom and convenience of modern transportation and the abundance of material resources, traveling across distant oceans and mountains in the 21st century is undoubtedly easy for us. However, in the 19th century, when information and transportation systems were far from mature and material support was clearly lacking, venturing into the hidden and mysterious foothills of the Himalayas was like parachuting into an unknown wilderness. Especially for a woman traveling alone in a skirt without a accompanying translator, the series of rugged hardships that the long journey would entail for her physical and mental well-being was self-evident.

Last century, Sherpas were transporting goods on their backs through the Himalayas.

Image: National Geographic

Perhaps it is because of the long and painful illness that Girls' Generation went through during their youth, and the healing journey they embarked on, that Bird early on developed a habit of resilience in the face of challenges and a strong will to overcome difficulties. The more harsh and unbearable reality became, the more it stirred up courage in her heart to resist and fight until she succeeds. Adversity drives her to never-ending exploration and progress.

Even though every journey feels like a life-threatening adventure, facing the impact of unfamiliar cultures head-on, Bird always tries to maintain a sense of curiosity, approaches with a calm and observant attitude, and records her thoughts and reflections.

1896 Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Li County, Xuecheng Ganbao Tibetan Village.


In 1891, Bird became the first woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In the eyes of many, Bird's honor was well deserved and unquestionable.

In 1892 and 1897, Bird gave two highly acclaimed lectures at the London and Scottish branches of the Royal Geographical Society in the UK. In these lectures, Bird described the magnificent mountains and rivers of the East, the mighty Yangtze River, towering pagodas reaching into the sky, and splendid palaces and temples, all of which captivated the audience.

1894 Beijing City through the lens of Bird.

Even though she lived in the Victorian era, a time when women were bound by strict moral and societal conventions, Bird always upheld a spirit of determination. In her diary, Bird wrote, "Westerners admire most in a woman the qualities of courage." This almost became her code of conduct throughout her life. Therefore, no matter the circumstances, she refused to submit and never retreated. She firmly believed that her body and soul could only find proper solace and settlement in a relentless march forward.

1896 Yuyuan Tea House in Shanghai


1899 Countryside Courtyard in Baoning Prefecture


1896 Three Gorges of the Yangtze River


1896 Arch Bridge in Wanxian


Perhaps Bird did not leave behind any achievements worth writing into history. But what she left for future generations is a huge and valuable spiritual legacy. In a sense, Bird was a pioneer of a way of life for an era, and she was a deserving spiritual leader. With her extraordinary spiritual charm, she led future generations to courageously pursue and create the life they wanted, even if the road ahead was difficult.

Especially in a time when society is not so tolerant and friendly towards women, Bird still proved by example that they can still achieve a kind of freedom, without limits, without definitions, and full of possibilities.

"Among the Tibetans" with a hand-drawn portrait by Berd on the cover

Bird has completed the hand-drawn illustrations for his book "Among the Tibetans":
Monk, Tibetan girl, local people, yak, castle in the valley.


This article is translated from Sorang Wangqing's blog.

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