|Will Bonvalot's caravan survive their arduous expedition through the Tian Shan Mountains of Chinese Turkestan?|
And so, without further ado, I present you Chapter One of "Race to Tibet":
Strolling down the leafy Boulevard des Italiens, a patch of glittery snow on the cobblestones reminded Gabriel Bonvalot of the snow-capped mountains of the
The muddy sidewalk became the wind-swept valleys of Fergana,
and the frozen puddles beneath the horses' hooves shimmered like the pristine
blue lakes of Turkestan.
most famous traveler, exploring the four corners of the globe was his life's
obsession. When he wasn't out trekking on some windswept mountain trail high up
in the Bonvalot, France Karakorum range, he was thinking of
ingenious ways of getting there. Even sickness and ill health couldn't stop his
fertile imagination from wandering to exotic, far-flung lands. While he was
laid up with a rheumatic fever that he'd picked up on his latest expedition to
the Pamirs, Bonvalot would spend hours in bed leafing through his trusty Schrader
Atlas, watching as the pages sprang to life. Before his eyes, a map of Central Asia became a living, moving world. Snow-capped
mountains burst from the pages flanked
by murmuring forests of emerald and jade, bowing and swaying under a gust of
Siberian wind, while dashing waterfalls and streams of glacial water
erupted from the heights and snaked down to the ice-covered plateaus of
pristine land where no man had ever stepped foot before. And just as his
eyelids grew too heavy and sleep was about to overtake him, a gentle layer of
snow fell across his bed quilt, carpeting the old volume with a fine layer of Himalayan
snow, prompting Bonvalot to pull up the blanket before closing his eyes and falling
into a deep sleep.
To Bonvalot, geography was not a mere collection of maps, charts, barometric readings, soil samples, and dull scientific reports that filled dusty old volumes that languished in cavernous libraries, it was an adventure waiting to be explored. A world of danger and wonder, a thrill from which he could not escape. Aside from the occasional Oriental despot or band or roving nomadic bandits, Bonvalot's greatest worry was finding the money to finance his expeditions. The art of coaxing money out of fickle coffers was almost as complicated as extracting gold teeth from reluctant mouths. And after his last expedition had ended in a dank Chitral dungeon as his health and the health of his men slowly ebbed away, Bonvalot knew he needed an extraordinary success to seal his name in the annals of geography.
This time he would go for the grand prize.
Bonvalot's dream was to be the first living European to reach
mysterious capital of Tibet.
But it would not be easy. Times were hard; even the royal family had had their
share of money woes. It was even rumored that the young pretender to the
throne, Prince Henri d'Orléans, a notorious gambler and drinker, had amassed
such a large gambling debt that his father, the Duke of Chartres, had been
forced to wait for hours in the ante-chamber of Baron Maurice de Hirsch before being
granted an audience to beg for the funds to settle the young numskull's debts
of honor. Bonvalot shuddered at the mere thought of having to beg for the
privilege of doing what he loved best.
Down the street, a crowd had gathered at his favorite newsstand, with all eyes peeled to the latest edition of Le Figaro. Bonvalot joined them, and when he spotted a familiar face on the front page, his pulse quickened. Bonvalot snatched the newspaper off the stand and peered at the headline with a mixture of shock and incredulity, his hand gripping the paper so tight that his arms shook: General Prejevalsky Dead.
"I'll be damned!" he said, his heart racing with excitement. "That Russian blowhard finally met his end!" Bonvalot threw down a few centimes and headed over to Café Tortoni where he could study the article in peace.
As Bonvalot entered the café, the Maitre d'hôtel rushed over to greet him. After shaking Bonvalot's hand, he took off his coat and gave him a warm pat on the back.
"Ah, Monsieur Bonvalot, what an honor!" he said. "Allow me to offer you the best seat in the house."
"That won't be necessary," said Bonvalot, pointing to a corner. "I'd prefer that quiet table over there."
"As you wish, Monsieur."
Bonvalot took his seat and spread the newspaper out over the white linen tablecloth just as the wine steward arrived bearing the pride of the house: Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1883. He held up the bottle for Bonvalot's approval, uncorked it, breathed the precious fumes, and then filled a sparkling glass. "Compliments of the house," said the steward, bowing slightly before returning to the bar. "Much obliged," called Bonvalot after him as he lifted the glass to inhale the wine's rich bouquet. After savoring the calming elixir, Bonvalot turned his attention back to the newspaper:
Major-General Prejevalsky, whose death was recently reported in the cablegrams was the most distinguished of all the Russian scientific explorers and one of the greatest modern authorities on
He was a trusted officer of the Czar and had well-earned the reputation for
being a bold, daring, determined, and enthusiastic pioneer of travel. He broke
fresh ground in Turkestan some 15 years ago, traversing the Pamir, skirting the
Chang Tang, Tibet's great Northern deserts, and penetrating the Lob-Nor.
Although he succeeded in exploring portions of Northern Tibet, he was unable to
make his way south into .
At the time of his death, he was about to embark on another attempt. The sudden
death of Prejevalsky on the eve of another journey, will send shock waves
throughout the scientific world. Lhasa
Shock waves is an understatement, thought Bonvalot, pouring himself another glass of wine. Now that Prejevalsky out of the picture, there was nothing to stop him from reaching his goal of
All he needed was photographic proof and trunks filled with every manner of
Tibetan artifact: gold, gemstones, rare Buddhist manuscripts, intricately
carved statues, and maybe even the Dalai Lama himself. Bonvalot could picture
himself standing in front of the entire Geographic Society as he pulled aside a
curtain to reveal His Holiness himself, the Dalai Lama, and his entire
entourage of saffron-robed attendants. It would be the talk of every
geographical society for years.
Bonvalot sipped his wine and smiled to himself. At the age of thirty-five, he was the most celebrated explorer in all of
Just over two years ago, he had received the coveted gold medal of the Geographical
Society for his travels to the Pamirs. Tall, handsome, sporting sandy brown
hair, a trimmed beard, inquisitive blue eyes, and a confident smile, Bonvalot
looked at home on the cover of every newspaper and magazine in the country. As
a result of his fame, aided by the prolific number of travel books he had
penned in between expeditions, Bonvalot was treated like a celebrity wherever
But the life of an explorer is fraught with hardship and danger. In his career, Bonvalot had cheated death many times. But until now, death had been an abstraction, like the sun-bleached skeleton of an ibex nestled along the shores of a pristine
Now that Prejevalsky was gone, death had become a cold, hard reality. Bonvalot chuckled
at the irony of it all. As an opponent, Prejevalsky had been larger than life.
Although short of stature, he had a head full of thick black hair that he would
grease back like an Indian Maharajah, giving the mistaken impression that he
was taller. That combined with his bold features, olive complexion and suspicious
nature, Prejevalsky resembled the natives of Siberian Lake Central Asia
among whom he travelled. But he had won the greater measure of their respect by
displaying a deadly accuracy with a rifle and by never losing the upper hand.
As a rival, Prejevalsky was unbeatable, and now he was dead.
"So it's finished then," said Bonvalot, staring at the frozen image of Prejevalsky on the front page of the newspaper. "You lost your dream of
Lhasa. You failed."
"What do you know about my dream of
Startled, Bonvalot looked up. Sitting across from him was a disheveled-looking tramp who had appeared out of nowhere. His face was bloated, bruised, his skin an unnatural shade of purple and covered with festering sores. His clothes were in tatters—worse than a beggar's. His hair was a tangled, filthy mess that more resembled fodder than human hair. And more troubling than that, the man smelled of the sewers, of death.
Bonvalot recoiled. "Must you sit right here? Could you please find another table?"
"When you find out why I've come, you'll be very glad I did, Monsieur Bonvalot."
Bonvalot held his napkin up to his nose, covering the stench. "Get out of here you filthy beggar!"
The stranger's face turned menacing. He reached up and grabbed Bonvalot's arm in a vise-like grip. "I think you'd better sit back quietly Monsieur Bonvalot if you don't want to cause a scene."
Bonvalot pulled his arm out of the stranger's grasp and looked around to make sure nobody was watching them. The restaurant was filled with diners sitting in pairs or in small groups, waving their forks in animated conversation as they drank copious amounts of wine and puffed on cigarettes to their heart's content while an elderly Gypsy wended his way around the tables serenading the diners with pleasant violin music. To Bonvalot's relief, no one appeared to have noticed the filthy street beggar who had wormed his way into one of
most famous restaurants and settled down at Bonvalot's table. Even the maitre
d'hôtel, who was not more than twenty feet away, was oblivious to the
frightening altercation in progress. Bonvalot squirmed in his seat and locked
eyes with the tramp.
The stranger continued. "The reason for my visit is because I have something to offer you," he said in a voice that was both deep and gravelly, as if grains of sand were blocking his vocal chords.
"I asked you to leave," said Bonvalot under his breath. "Please go."
The beggar narrowed his eyes. "Would you like me to raise my voice and cause a scene?" Bonvalot shifted uneasily in his seat.
"You said that I failed," continued the beggar over the din of the café, "but in many ways I was a great success. During my third journey, I penetrated further into
Tibet than any
other European explorer had in modern times. I came so close to reaching Lhasa, that I was certain
we would make it. At our southernmost point, I calculated our position to be no
more than 160 miles away. Even those celebrated Indian pundits that the British
had sent into Tibet
had only managed to survey the south and west portions of the country; they
were never able to infiltrate the interior before disaster striking. But alas!
our camels proved to be completely useless for climbing at such high altitudes.
They grew sick and feeble, and we were forced to abandon the entire expedition
or risk certain death. But where I failed, you can succeed. That’s why I've
come. I'm here to make a deal with you."
"Who the hell are you?" said Bonvalot, fighting to keep his voice contained.
"The greatest explorer in the world," smiled the beggar, showing teeth that were stained and cracked. "The toast of
the favorite of the Tsar. At least, I was
all those things."
"Yes, and I'm Lillie Langtry, but that doesn't answer my question. Who are you and how did you get inside this restaurant?" said Bonvalot, his heart racing as sweat poured down the sides of his face.
The beggar smiled wryly. "I think you know who I am."
Bonvalot dropped his spoon. He bent down to retrieve it and noticed that the beggar was wearing what appeared to be yak boots that were caked with a yellowish mud. Bonvalot slid his pocket knife out of its sheath, cut off a sample of the fur, and wrapped it in his handkerchief, and discreetly stuffed it in his pocket.
The beggar continued, "I entered a region that was less known than the darkest
continued the tramp. "Using only my iron will and strength of mind, I
broke the backs of those damned Asiatics. But my men and I suffered terrible
privations for our heroism. Many times we went hungry when no game was
available. Dozens of horses and camels collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. Some
of them simply froze to death. The Hami desert that separates the Tian Shan
from the Nan Shan was so hot, that even at
night you couldn't sleep on the ground. There were no animals, no plants, no
civilized life, just salt clouds that formed into mirages and wind that could
knock you off your feet and tear out your eyes. There was no fodder for the
animals, no water to drink. And the inhabitants! They mirrored the cursed
terrain with their treachery. They refused to sell us food, refused to provide
us with guides. They called us foreign devils behind our backs and sometimes
right to our faces. They used every means of deceitfulness to rob us blind. The
only thing the Chinamen and the Mongol understand is the nagayka whip. Central Asia is a
lawless, godless land, and only European rifles and cannons can do any good
here. Missionary preaching is like howling in the wilderness. The Asiatics are
"Prejevalsky…?" whispered Bonvalot under his breath.
"The name is Nikolay Mikhaylovich Prejevalsky," said the beggar, bowing his head slightly and twisting his lips in a contorted smile. "As you may have heard, I was never noted for my manners; I never felt comfortable in polite society. I was only happy out there, in the wilderness, far from wretched civilization. Far from the stench of humanity."
Bonvalot felt his neck grow hot with anger. "I suppose you think this is funny, whoever you are. Some kind of April Fool's joke! Listen to me, I don't know who the hell you are, but I think you're a lunatic. Stark raving mad. And I'm not the least bit impressed with your little charade. Get the hell out of here before I call the gendarmes. Scat!"
All at once, the beggar erupted into a violent coughing fit that was so loud, it drowned out the din of the café, and muffled the clanking of pots from the kitchen.
Bonvalot looked around, terrified that the miscreant would choke to death at his table and cause a hair-raising scene that would land him on the front page of Charivari, or worse. The fact that the waiter failed to appear with a glass of water only made things worse. It seemed, in fact, as though no one else was aware of the beggar's loud coughs, as if they couldn't see him or hear him. To mollify the matter, Bonvalot resorted to thumping the hacking beggar's stone cold back.
"Is that all you can do after I came all the way here to help you?" cried the beggar, pushing Bonvalot's hand away as he spit a large blood clot into his napkin. "You sorry French bastard! You didn't even offer me a drink! What kind of manners do you have? I should shoot you with my revolver to teach you a lesson. Where is the damn thing?"
Bonvalot sprung out of his seat, heart pounding like a drum, as the vagabond rummaged for his holster through frayed, tattered clothing with a fury that bordered on savage. Unarmed, Bonvalot searched for any sign of help, but there was not a gendarme in sight. No one had heard the beggar's threats. And worse than that, everyone else was laughing and joking to their heart's content, blissfully unaware of Bonvalot's dire predicament.
The beggar gave up his search and returned to his coughing spasms. Bonvalot let out a deep sigh, but felt his face redden at the humiliation of having a lowly street beggar commandeer his private table and launch into a lecture about the rigors of Central Asian exploration. Bonvalot motioned to the maitre d'hôtel, who came rushing over, corkscrew in hand.
"Oui, Monsieur Bonvalot?"
"Will you please escort this vagrant out of the café? He came in and sat down at my table and threatened to shoot me. He's stark raving mad and has no business here!"
"Certainly," said the maitre d'hôtel, who looked from Bonvalot to the table, then back again at Bonvalot. "Excuse me, Monsieur Bonvalot," he said, appearing baffled. "But which vagrant are you referring to?"
Stunned, Bonvalot turned to look at the table. Inexplicably, the stranger had vanished.