In 1911, now legendary explorer and writer Alexandra David‐Neél gave up her comfortable life in Europe to travel around Asia, an adventure that ultimately lasted 14 years and culminated in a trans-Himalayan trek to Lhasa, Tibet at a time when it was forbidden to foreigners.
Over 100 years later, young traveller Elise Wortley decided to recreate the first leg of David‐Neél’s incredible expedition, setting out into the Indian Himalayas with no modern equipment and an all-female team in tow. We caught up with her to talk following your heroes, frozen water bottles, and feminine hygiene stigma.
Hi Elise! What made you want to follow in Alexandra David‐Neél’s footsteps over 100 years after she began her adventure?
I’ve always been mesmerised by Alexandra David‐Neél, since I was 16 and read her book My Journey to Lhasa. I could never get her story, and what she managed to achieve, out of my head. She must have had so much strength – physically and mentally – to journey through Asia for 14 years, but more so to walk away from her life in Europe. Women just didn’t do that sort of thing in the early 1900s – they stayed at home and had children! I always look up to women who achieve amazing things through sheer determination and willpower. It makes me think if she can do it, then so can I, and so can anyone!
You chose to make the journey with no modern equipment – what was your thinking there, and what difficulties did it present for the trip?
To show how difficult her journey would have been back then, and to do her achievement justice, I wanted to do it with only what she would have had back in the early 1900s. I wanted to really experience what it would have been like for Alexandra.
I also wanted to see how I would cope. We all live in a consumer society, and I wanted to go back to the basics and see if it changed my outlook at all. I found that I listened more intently to people, and appreciated my surroundings much more. For instance, I think my memory of this trip is so much stronger than any other I’ve been on recently, mainly because I wasn’t reaching for my phone all the time. I think in future I’ll try and put my phone away for every trip!
You also went with an all-female team – why did you make that decision?
One of my main motivations to do this expedition was to highlight roles of women in adventure travel. I also wanted a focus on female guides around the world, as well as try to inspire other women to put themselves out of their comfort zones and take on a challenge.
The interesting thing is that I was told by numerous people that I would never find a female guide in northern India. After a huge search, I managed to find a local leader called Jangu, who couldn’t have been more amazing. I was also joined by an incredible cinematographer, Emily Almond‐Barr, who documented the journey. I don’t think I would have coped anywhere near as well if I didn’t have these two remarkable women.
I have to mention that we weren’t an entirely female team! It proved impossible to find female porters in India. Unfortunately it’s just not a job that’s socially acceptable for women to do, so we were also joined by 7 local boys from Lachen, who helped us carry food, equipment and my spare emergency clothes. After their initial shyness at these three mad-looking women, they became the life and soul of the trip!
It took David-Neél 14 years to complete her journey – we assume it didn’t take you quite as long?!
As you can imagine, travelling for 14 years just wasn’t a viable option for me! Alexandra travelled through seven countries on her epic trip, so I started with Sikkim in northern India, where she got her first views of Tibet.
My plan is to follow her footsteps in stages, one big trek in each of the countries she went through. For the next leg of the journey, I would like to go with a larger group of women and have all of us walking with homemade chairpacks and no modern day equipment. I think the Mongolian desert was her next stop!
How did it feel to be walking in the footsteps of your travel hero?
Alexandra is famous for spending nearly two years meditating in a freezing cave somewhere in the mountains of Sikkim. This cave seemed like an integral part of her story, so of course I just had to find it. I asked so many people and nobody seemed to know its exact location, but we eventually found a local man in a remote village beyond Lachen who knew where it was. It was a tough trek to get up there, but we finally arrived and I sat down inside the cave, looking out over the same views that she would have had over 100 years ago. I left her an offering, as I knew in some way she would know I had been there.
Can you tell us about Freedom Kit Bags, the charity this trip was raising money for?
Freedom Kit Bags is an amazing charity that empowers women and girls in rural and low‐income areas of Nepal by providing them with an eco-friendly reusable kit containing everything they will need during their period. Due to cultural practices that go back centuries, women and girls are seen as ‘unclean’ during menstruation, and one of the main reasons for this is their inability to deal with a period’s physical effects. This results in them not being able to continue life as they normally would, which in many cases for young girls means not being able to go to school for a whole week every month. A lack of hygienic protection also means that many village women suffer from infections which then lead to other health issues such as infertility, kidney complications and pelvic infections.
I think any woman can imagine how impossible life would be without access to sanitary items. It’s important that we all, women and men, talk more openly about these topics and make it part of everyday conversation.
What was your favourite moment of the trip?
As I mentioned, one of the main challenges I faced before heading off on this trip was finding a female guide in northern India. This is why my best memory is reaching the base camp of Mt Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain on the planet, with Jangu.
I had no idea just how important this place was for her. Mt. Kangchenjunga is a sacred mountain for the people of Sikkim, and it’s very rare that local people get to come here due to the permits, costs, and the amount of time it takes to get there. Jangu changed into traditional clothes to recite a prayer for her late father. It was incredibly moving for all of us because we knew each other so well by that point. Leaving a prayer for him here was one of the greatest respects she could pay to him.
Did you have any particularly crazy or scary moments during the trek?
Luckily for me, Alexandra took two hot water bottles with her, one to drink from, and the other to keep her warm at night. The cold was probably the hardest and scariest thing to have to deal with. One night when we were at the highest point of our trek, I tucked myself in my blankets and went to bed, warm with my hot water bottle. I woke to find it was so cold that the hot water bottle had frozen and I had frost across my forehead! I had to get up to refill my hot water bottle with the fire embers and a kettle.
Of course, if you were in modern clothes like Emily and Jangu were, you would be absolutely fine. I wouldn’t want to put anyone off trekking in the mountains!
What advice would you give to young people – particularly young women – who want to travel but are feeling unsure or scared?
I had the beginnings of this idea when I was a teenager but never did anything about it. I’ve always been an anxious person, so it was probably a combination of not having the confidence to take it on and the devil on my shoulder telling me it was a ridiculous idea. I couldn’t picture it all physically coming together and actually going to India wearing clothes from the 1920s!
This experience has taught me that no matter how silly you think an idea is, or how unreasonable it may seem, just go with it. My whole life I’ve worried about what other people think, which has been a huge barrier for me in many aspects of my life. This project has made me realise that the opinions of others should never discourage you from following an adventure or dream.