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Travel Blog: Six Great Women Travelers in Asia

March 23, 2009

Julia Ross
World Hum
March 20, 2009

March is Women’s History Month, so this seems a
good moment to call out a few of history’s great
women travelers. Because so many 19th- and early
20th-century adventurers found themselves drawn
to Asia, I’ve narrowed this list to women who
made their mark on that continent, fording the
Indus River or crossing the Tibetan Plateau, in
defiance of social norms and often at great risk.
These are the women I wish I’d been in another
life. Herewith, my top-six list of the most
intrepid Western female travelers to take Asia by foot, camel or donkey.

Isabella Bird (1831-1904, British): Bird set the
high-water mark for Victorian women travelers,
initially taking to the road as a cure for ill
health. She traveled widely in Asia—to Japan,
China, Korea, India, Tibet, Malaysia, Persia and
Kurdistan, often on horseback—filing magazine
articles along the way and eventually writing
books based on letters home to her sister. She
later became a missionary and was the first woman
inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. In
her book The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, Bird
recounts a treacherous 1897 trip up the Yangtze
River and across Sichuan, traveling by boat,
mule, foot and sedan chair. She was 66 at the
time; at her death at 72, she had her bags packed for another trip to China.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926, British): Was there
anything this woman couldn’t do? At various
points in her career, Bell was a traveler,
writer, spy, diplomat, archaeologist and
linguist, and sometimes all of these at once.
Armed with a history degree from Oxford, she
became one of Britain’s leading Arabists and
played a critical role in establishing modern-day
Iraq, where she is buried. Bell roamed Arabia’s
deserts on camelback, befriended Bedouins,
participated in archaeological digs and installed
a new Iraqi king. Hailed as “Mesopotamia’s
uncrowned queen” at her death, her legacy lives
on: National Public Radio reported in 2006 that
Bell’s letters from Iraq were being circulated at
the Pentagon, as an apparent aid to post-invasion planning.

Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969, French/Belgian):
Though the freethinking, spiritualist David-Neel
began her travels in India, studying Buddhism in
a cave in Sikkim, it was Tibet that transformed
her life and career. She wrote some two dozen
books on her experiences in Tibet and on
Buddhism, including My Journey to Lhasa, which
describes her infamous 1924 infiltration of the
holy city, then forbidden to foreigners. She
became a tantric lama at age 52, made the
acquaintance of both the 13th and 14th Dalai
Lamas and continued to write and lecture on Tibet
until her death at 101. According to the
Alexandra David-Neel Cultural Center, the
author/explorer had her passport renewed at age
100, still hoping for one last glimpse of the Himalayas.

Freya Stark (1893-1993, British): Dubbed the
"last of the Romantic travellers" by the Times of
London, Stark wrote more than 30 books
chronicling her travels in the Middle East. She
made her name with the 1934 publication of The
Valleys of the Assassins, which charted her
travels through Persia to the remote Elburz
Mountains. She drafted the first accurate maps of
the region and later became the first European
woman to enter Luristan in Western Iran. Writer
Colin Thubron, who met Stark in her later years,
noted, “It was rare to leave her company without
feeling that the world was somehow larger and
more promising.” Stark was made a Dame of the
British Empire in 1972. She’s the only female
author (well, aside from Jan Morris) to make
World Hum’s list of the Top 30 Travel Books.

Ella Maillart (1903-1997, Swiss): Olympic
athlete, photographer and journalist, Maillart
was perhaps best known for her 1935 journey
across China accompanied by British writer Peter
Fleming. She detailed the trip in her book
Forbidden Journey; he published a corresponding
account in News from Tartary. Over a long career,
Maillart filed stories from Turkey, India, Iran
and Afghanistan, published books of photographs
of Nepal and Tibet, and led cultural tours across
Asia. The Elysee Photo Museum in Lausanne,
Switzerland, has mounted several exhibitions of her work.

Dervla Murphy (born 1931, Irish): This Irish
nurse launched her travel career in 1963,
completing a solo bicycle tour through Europe,
Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India,
and describing it in her first book, Full Tilt:
Ireland to India with a Bicycle. Since then, she
has written more than 20 books chronicling her
journeys through India, Nepal, Baltistan, Laos,
the Balkans and several African countries, many
by bike. You’ll find an homage to Murphy in the
current New York Times bestseller Three Cups of
Tea, in which authors Greg Mortenson and David
Oliver Relin recount, with awe, Murphy’s early
’70s trip through Pakistan’s forbidding Indus
Gorge. She did it in the dead of winter, on
horseback, with her 5-year-old daughter in tow. Intrepid doesn’t do it justice.
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