Race to Tibet
is a thrilling tale of high-altitude adventure and survival set in the world's
most forbidden country: Tibet
Tibet is based on the true story of three intrepid explorers, Gabriel Bonvalot, Francis Younghusband, and Bronislav Grombchevsky, who are competing to be the first living European to reach . It is also the
story of a woman who is determined to find her missing husband who disappeared
inside Lhasa —no
matter the cost. What these explorers discover is a land of mystery and intrigue,
a land of danger that promises them only one thing: death. Tibet
Strolling down the Boulevard des Italiens, Gabriel Bonvalot resembled any other well-dressed Parisian in his sack suit, top hat, and overcoat, but his mind was miles away. Worlds away to be exact. In his fertile imagination, drifts of snow became the snow-capped mountains of the
Hindu Kush. The wind howling in his
ears was the Pamir wolf, and the River Seine glistened like the turquoise lakes
France's most celebrated explorer,
Gabriel Bonvalot was obsessed with traveling to the four corners of the globe. And
when he wasn't out trekking on some windswept pass high up in the Himalayas, he was thinking of ingenious ways of getting there.
Even sickness and ill health couldn't stop his mind from wandering to far-flung
lands. When confined to his bed during a lengthy recuperation from rheumatic
fever that he'd picked up while crossing the ,
Bonvalot's greatest pleasure was to leaf through his trusty Schrader Atlas and let
his eyes wander over the mountains, rivers, valleys, and lakes. From the
volume's dusty pages, mountain peaks would burst forth, joined by forests of
pine and oak trees that sprang up like dandelions, bowing and swaying from a
blast of cold Siberian wind, while shimmering blue rivers snaked down to
fertile orchards of apple, almond, and apricot trees. Pamir Mountains
To Gabriel Bonvalot, a map was a living, breathing world. And when his eyelids grew too heavy, and sleep was about to overtake him, an imaginary snowfall would fall across his bed, prompting him to close the atlas, pull up the covers, and fall into a deep, restful slumber.
When pressed, Bonvalot would always insist that geography was more than the mere study of maps, surveys, and charts as found in countless volumes languishing in dusty libraries around the world. Geography was, in fact, an adventure waiting to be explored. A costly adventure, to be sure, but one that filled all his waking and all his sleeping hours.
But the world of exploration was not without its hazards. Bonvalot would always caution the prudent explorer to forever be on his guard and keep his
close at hand. From roving bands of brigands, to hostile border guards, to
mercenaries and pirates, travelers needed more than luck to reach their goal.
They needed a quick trigger finger or an open purse. And then there were the unseen
maladies that could stop even the hardiest explorer in his tracks, like cholera
and dysentery as explained by great men of science like Pasteur and Koch in
their medicinal doctrine of microbes. As demonstrated by the mighty
Prejevalsky, these tiny devils could reduce even a Goliath of a man to his sick
bed. But aside from the obvious perils, Bonvalot's greatest worry was money. The
art of coaxing money out of fickle coffers was almost as difficult as
extracting gold teeth from reluctant mouths. An expedition of any size was an expensive
endeavor that could end in failure and bankruptcy. After his last journey
across the Pamirs had almost cost him his life, the price of high-risk travel
was greater than ever. Looking back on that fiasco, when his journey across the
Roof of the World had left him frostbitten, starved, snow-blind, and locked up
in a Chitral dungeon, Bonvalot knew he would need 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
forbidden—and therefore enticing—capital of Tibet. But it would not be easy.
Times were hard; money was scarce. Even the royal family had had their share of
money woes. There were rumors that the young pretender to the French throne,
Prince Henri d'Orléans, had amassed such a large gambling debt that his father,
Robert, Duke of Chartres, was forced to drop to his knees and beg his patron, Baron
Maurice de Hirsch, for the money to cover the young numskull's debts of honor.
Bonvalot shuddered at the 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 hurried to join them, and when he spotted a familiar face on the front page, he froze. He snatched the newspaper off the stand and stared at the headline with a mixture of shock and incredulity, his hand gripping the paper so tight his arms shook with excitement:
General Prejevalsky Dead
Bonvalot's pulse quickened. Can it be true? Is that Russian braggart really dead? He threw down a few centimes and grabbed the newspaper, certain that the news would send tremors throughout all the Geographical Societies of Europe. But undoubtedly it would also catch notice at the highest echelons of British Military Intelligence. Rumors had been circulating for years that General Prejevalsky had been involved in intelligence gathering activities under the guise of exploration and discovery. As it turned out, the various occupations were not mutually exclusive.
Dodging a cavalcade of horse carriages, Bonvalot dashed across the snow-covered boulevard to Café Tortoni, his home away from home, to read the article in peace.
When Bonvalot entered the café, the Maitre d'hôtel rushed over to greet him, removing the famed explorer's coat as if he were the Duke of Magenta himself.
"Monsieur Bonvalot, what an honor to see you," said the Maitre d'hôtel, beaming from ear to ear. "I've saved your favorite seat—the best in the house."
"Please don't fuss," said Bonvalot, unaccustomed to all the attention his fame brought him. "I'd prefer that quiet table over there."
"As you wish, Monsieur."
Bonvalot took a quiet table and spread the newspaper out over the linen tablecloth. Before he even looked up, the wine steward was at his side bearing the pride of the house: Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1883. He waited for Bonvalot's approval and then proceeded to pop the cork.
"Compliments of the house," said the steward, filling a sparkling glass to the brim. Then he bowed and disappeared in a whoosh.
"Merci," said Bonvalot, lifting the glass to inhale the wine's fragrant bouquet. After tasting the libation, he once again feasted his eyes on the article:
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 to Lhasa , will send shock waves
throughout the scientific world. Tibet
Shock waves is an understatement, thought Bonvalot, finishing off his drink and pouring himself another. With Prejevalsky dead, his biggest competitor in the race to
Lhasa was out
of the picture. But he was sure there were others out there, ambitious British
soldiers seeking fame and glory outside the regiment, and the more covert kind
of explorer, those who entered the disguised as
Buddhist pilgrims or traders. The British were always sending their pundits to
map and explore Forbidden
using specially designed rosary beads with 100 instead of the usual 108 beads
to count their paces, compasses hidden inside their prayer wheels, and
thermometers for gauging altitude secreted inside a hollowed out stick. Many of
the pundits suffered unimaginable cruelty at the hand of the Tibetan
authorities when their disguises were uncovered. Some simply disappeared
without a trace.
But there were other problems barring his way, money being at the forefront. Organizing an expedition costs a small fortune. Bonvalot needed a sponsor who was fabulously wealthy yet didn't make too many demands. In time, he was sure he would resolve that problem as well. And once the funds were safely deposited in his bank account, he would organize the expedition of a lifetime. He would hire the bravest, most reliable guides, the best caravaneers, the sturdiest horses and use the leftover money to bribe his way to
if the situation required. By the end of next year, Bonvalot could picture
himself climbing the steps of the to meet the famed Dalai
Lama himself. He would raise the Tricolor for the glory of Potala
Palace France and
secure his place in the annals of geographical exploration for all time. Success
had never tasted so sweet.
Naturally, Bonvalot would return to
with trunks filled with Tibetan gold and gemstones, rare Buddhist manuscripts,
priceless statues, and if the gods of exploration were really smiling on him, maybe
even the Dalai Lama himself. Bonvalot closed his eyes and pictured himself standing
in front of the annual meeting of the Société de Géographie in his black tie
and tails, smiling as he pulls aside a curtain to reveal His Holiness together with
a royal entourage of saffron-robed monks. It would be the talk of every
geographical society for years. For decades. For the rest of his life. His bank
account would never again be overdrawn. He would at last be able to live down
his humiliating childhood.
Bonvalot sipped his wine and smiled. At the age of thirty-five, he had made a name for himself in the competitive world of geographical exploration. Two years ago he had received the coveted gold medal of the Société de Geographie for his remarkable journey across the Pamirs to
in the middle of winter, a journey that almost cost him his life. Tall,
handsome, with light brown hair, a trimmed beard, warm blue eyes, and the
confidence of a troop of Legionnaires, Bonvalot looked at home on the cover of
every newspaper and magazine in the country. To meet the public's insatiable
craving for adventure, Bonvalot had penned numerous best-sellers about his globe-trotting
travels through Central Asia. Those books
brought in enough royalty checks to ensure he would never have to stoop to accepting
a salaried position, but he wasn't rich by anyone's estimation.
Still, the life of an explorer had its share of pitfalls. Expeditions were fraught with hardship and danger; Bonvalot had risked life and limb on numerous occasions, but until now death had been an abstraction, like the sun-bleached skeleton of an ibex nestled along the shores of a
. Prejevalsky's sudden death made
him think hard about his own life. How long would his streak of good fortune
last? Siberian Lake
Bonvalot chuckled at the irony of it all. Prejevalsky the larger-than-life Russian Hercules was gone and he was still alive. It was almost impossible to believe. It was, in fact, a miracle.
As an explorer, Prejevalsky was in a class all by himself. Though short of stature, his massive chest and overbearing attitude projected the image of a human locomotive. He sported a head full of thick black hair that he would grease back like an Indian Maharajah, and together with his bold features, dark eyebrows, olive complexion, and suspicious nature, Prejevalsky resembled the natives of
Asia among whom he travelled. But he had won the greater measure of
their respect by his deadly accuracy with a rifle and his unflinching use of
brute force. In a heated confrontation, Prejevalsky never lost the upper hand.
If necessary, he would beat his rival with a whip to win his obedience and
respect. As far as rivals go, Prejevalsky was unstoppable, and now he was dead.
Bonvalot stared at the frozen image of Prejevalsky in the newspaper. "So my friend, your dream of
Lhasa is over. You failed
"What do you know about my dream of
Shocked, Bonvalot looked up. Sitting across from him was a disheveled tramp who had appeared out of nowhere. His face was bloated and bruised, his skin an unnatural shade of purple and covered with festering sores. His clothes, if they could be called that, were in tatters—worse than a beggar's. His hair was a tangled, filthy mess more resembling fodder than human hair. And most troubling of all, the man smelled of the sewers, of death.
Bonvalot recoiled. "Must you sit here? Find yourself another table."
"Not so fast, Monsieur Bonvalot," said the beggar in a voice that grated like wheels over gravel. "I didn't come here to ask you to open your purse. I came here to offer you something. And when you hear what I have to offer, you'll be glad that I did."
"You are here to offer me something? Go away you filthy beggar!"
The stranger's face turned menacing. He 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 glanced around to make sure nobody was watching. The restaurant was full of diners laughing and joking, and waving their forks in animated conversation while drinking endless glasses of wine, while an elderly Gypsy meandered around the tables serenading the diners with soft violin music. To Bonvalot's relief, no one had noticed that a filthy street beggar had wormed his way into one of
most famous restaurants and commandeered Bonvalot's private table. Even the
maitre d'hôtel, who was not more than twenty feet away, seemed completely oblivious
to the matter at hand. Bonvalot squirmed in his seat and tried to get a grip on
his mounting anger.
The stranger continued. "As I said before, I came here to make you an offer."
"I thought I told you to leave."
The beggar narrowed his eyes. "Would you like me to raise my voice and cause a scene?"
Bonvalot glared at the intruder. "Then get on with your little speech and get out."
"You said before that I failed," continued the beggar over the din of the café, "But in many ways I succeeded beyond all measure. During my third journey, I penetrated deeper into
than any other European explorer in modern times. I came so close to reaching Lhasa, I was sure we would
make it. At our southernmost point, I calculated our position to be no more
than 160 miles away. This is a remarkable achievement given the odds we were
facing. Even those celebrated Indian pundits the British sent into Tibet only
managed to survey the southern and western portions of the country; they were never
able to infiltrate the interior before disaster struck. But alas! Our camels
held us back; those faltering beasts were completely useless at high altitudes.
They grew sick and feeble, growled incessantly, and refused to get up no matter
how hard I beat them. It was on account of these circumstances that I was forced
to abandon the entire expedition or risk dying among those savages. But that
was then. This time it can be different. I came here to offer you my services
as guide on your expedition to Tibet.
And if you're smart you'll accept it. I'm giving you the chance to use all my
wisdom and experience. It's all up here." The beggar tapped his head.
"Where I failed you can succeed. I guarantee it."
"Who the devil are you?" said Bonvalot, fighting to keep his voice contained.
The beggar smiled, showing teeth that were cracked and stained. "The greatest explorer in the world. 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 do you know so much about
said Bonvalot, his heart now racing.
The beggar smiled wryly. "I think you know."
Bonvalot dropped his spoon. He bent down to retrieve it and noticed the beggar was wearing boots that appeared to be made of yak fur and were caked with a strange yellow mud. He slid his pocket knife out of its sheath, cut a sample of the fur, and wrapped it in his handkerchief.
"I entered a region that was less known than the darkest
continued the beggar. "Using only my iron will, 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 there was no game. Dozens of horses and camels
collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Some of them simply froze to death. The Hami
desert that separates the Tian Shan from the Nan Shan
was so hot 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 that
mocked us and tormented us. The wind knocked us off our feet and tore at our
eyes. There was no fodder for the animals, no water to drink. And the
inhabitants! They mirrored the cursed terrain with their games of treachery.
They refused to sell us food, refused to provide us with guides, called us
foreign devils behind our backs and sometimes right to our faces. They used
every means of deceit 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 Krupp guns can do any good there. Missionary
preaching is like howling in the wilderness. The Asiatics are beyond
Bonvalot's eyes grew wide. "Prejevalsky…?"
"The name is Nikolai Mikhaylovich Prejevalsky," said the beggar, bowing his head and twisting his lips in a gratuitous smile. "As you may have heard, I was never noted for my manners, never 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've had enough of you. I don't know who the devil you are, but you're a despicable fraud. I'm not the least bit impressed with your little charade. Get out before I call the gendarmes. Scat!"
All at once, the beggar erupted into a violent fit of coughing that was so loud, it drowned out the clanking of pots from the kitchen, the animated conversation from the diners, and the Gypsy's hypnotic violin playing.
Bonvalot looked around, terrified the interloper 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. That the waiter failed to check on the situation only made him more agitated. It seemed, in fact, that no one else could hear the beggar's loud coughing, as if he wasn't really there. To mollify the situation, Bonvalot gave the filthy tramp a few half-hearted thumps on his stone cold back.
"Is that all you can do after I came here to help you?" cried the beggar, shoving Bonvalot's hand away as he spat a large clot of blood into his napkin. "You sorry French bastard! You didn't even offer me a drink! Is this what you Frenchies call good manners? I should shoot you with my revolver to teach you a lesson. Where is the damned thing?"
Bonvalot jumped out of his seat, heart pounding like a drum. The beggar rummaged through his tattered clothing for his gun with a fury that bordered on savagery. Lacking a weapon, Bonvalot searched in vain for help, but there was not a gendarme in sight. The other diners were eating and drinking to their heart's content. No one had heard the beggar's dire threat. No one knew his life was at stake.
The beggar gave up searching for his pistol and returned to his coughing spasm. Bonvalot breathed a sigh of relief, but felt his face grow hot at the humiliation of having a lowly street beggar encroach on his private table and lecture him about the rigors of Central Asian exploration. He called for the maitre d'hôtel, who came rushing over at once, corkscrew in hand.
"Oui, Monsieur Bonvalot?"
"Will you kindly escort this vagrant out of the café. He came in without permission, took over my table, and is now threatening to shoot me. He's stark raving mad and has no business being in this fine establishment."
"Certainly, Monsieur," said the maitre d'hôtel, who looked from Bonvalot to the table, then back at Bonvalot. "Excuse me," he said, looking around with a baffled expression on his face. "but which vagrant are you referring to?"
Stunned, Bonvalot stared at the chair that was now empty. Inexplicably, the stranger had vanished.