The idea for
writing Race to Tibet came about in
an unusual manner. While I was researching my first book, a historical novel
set in the Danish West Indies, I came across an obscure, outspoken Danish princess
whose life story gripped me. Princess Marie Valdemar was born in 1865 as
Princess Marie d'Orléans, the daughter of Prince Robert, Duke of
Chartres, a Grandson of
King Louis-Philippe of France and a Pretender to the French throne.
|Portrait study of Princess Marie of Denmark by Albert Edelfelt (1894)|
marriage to Prince Valdemar (the youngest son of Christian IX of
Denmark), Princess Marie developed a great love
and the Danish people. In addition, she strongly opposed the sale of the Danish
West Indies to the United
States. Out of curiosity, I began to look
into the life of Princess Marie d'Orléans, and was struck by how tragic and
poignant it was, and how much it paralleled the life of Princess Diana with its
tale of unrequited love and early death. Before long I decided to write a novel
about her life, but after months of knocking on doors, I realized I would never
be able to gain access to the Royal Danish Archives where the obscure details
of her life lay locked up. Instead of giving up, I started searching for other
sources. I made a list of all her relatives and searched for any diaries or
memoirs they might have left behind, anything to fill in the missing gaps in
her tragic life. As it turned out, the only relative of Princess Marie's who
wrote an extensive number of books was her younger brother, Prince Henri
d'Orléans, a notable French explorer who died at the age of thirty-three.
|Prince Henri made headlines all throughout Europe for his 1897 duel with the Count of Turin Vittorio Emanuele.|
During his brief life, Prince Henri earned a reputation as a ladies' man, a dilettante, and a hot-headed dueler, but he earned the Gold Medal of the French Geographical Society twice, once in 1891 for a daring expedition to Tibet he made with the French explorer, Gabriel Bonvalot, and again in 1896 for his expedition from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Gulf of Bengal.
|By 1889, no living Westerner had been to the Potala Palace in Lhasa or met the Dalai Lama.|
The more I read about Prince Henri's expedition to
Tibet, and all the hardships and difficulties it entailed, the more I became enthralled
with the story until I found myself studying it in great depth. Not only did I
focus on the expedition, I also threw myself into the study of the Great Game,
Central Asian history and geography, famous explorers, and the history of
Europe's obsession with Tibet.
|The French explorer Gabriel Bonvalot had connections with Russian Generals like Korolkoff in Russian Turkestan that made him a lesser-known player in the Great Game.|
focus changed from writing about Princess Marie's life to writing about Prince
Henri d'Orléans and Gabriel Bonvalot's expedition to
Tibet. To this end, I researched
this famous journey both in the original French and in the English translation.
But still there were many unanswered questions about what really happened to
these hardy explorers on the Roof of the World. Victorian writers are known
more for the details they left out than for what they chose to tell; this was
an era when propriety and discretion were at their zenith. Luckily, after
months and months of unrelenting searching and digging, I came upon another
version of the events, this one written by Father Constant de Deken, a Belgian
missionary who had accompanied the famous explorers. I had struck gold.
|Rare for a European missionary of his era, Father De Deken could speak Chinese and ride and shoot like a cavalry officer.|