Tuesday, October 20, 2015

10 of the Coolest Explorers to Reach Tibet

A breathtaking journey to the Land of Snows....

No country has stirred the public's fascination quite like Tibet. For centuries people have dreamed about reaching this mystical Land of Snows. Locked away in the foreboding Himalayas, men and women longed to read about this mysterious Buddhist kingdom that was ruled over by a god-king, the Dalai Lama, but no explorer had yet managed to reach this forbidden land. With Tibetan soldiers armed with matchlock rifles stationed at every mountain pass under orders to turn away or shoot any foreigner caught trampling their Buddhist kingdom, entering into this Forbidden Kingdom seemed like an impossible feat. And that's how it was for centuries.
The yak is the only pack animal suited to life at high altitudes.
 Lying at an average altitude of 15,000 feet and surrounded on all sides by the enormous peaks of the Himalayas, Victorian travelers dubbed Tibet 'The Roof of the World', and Lhasa, its mysterious capital so long closed to foreigners, was called 'The Forbidden City.'

Here are some of the hardy explorers who dared infiltrate the Forbidden Kingdom:

General Nikolai Prejevalsky- Notable Russian explorer of aristocratic Polish heritage, who inspired fear in all who met him. He was active in the 1870's up to 1888, making several attempts to reach the Forbidden City of Lhasa, but each time was forced to turn around due to the extreme altitude and sick animals. The closest he came to Lhasa was 160 miles, a record at that time. He eventually died just before his final expedition and was buried beside Lake Issyk-Kul in what is known today as Kyrgyzstan. Prejevalsky was a legend in Russia, a favorite of the Tsars, and a classic explorer in the Victorian mold.
General Nikolai Prejevalsky: Despite the resemblance, he was NOT the father of Joseph Stalin.
William Rockhill- Young American diplomat in Peking who studied the Tibetan language and thought he could sneak his way into Tibet by dressing as a Buddhist pilgrim. In the 1880's after his wife came into some money, he organized a caravan and set out on a grueling thousand mile march to Lanchou from where he planned to clandestinely cross into Tibet. He reached Tibetan Monastery of Kumbum where he gathered materials on the Tibetans and their religion and pressed onward, but was driven back 400 miles from Lhasa by the harsh climate. His second attempt brought him to within 110 miles of Lhasa, beating Prejevalsky's record. He was later awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society and went on to become the ambassador to St. Petersburg and Constantinople.
William Woodville Rockhill: the diplomat who dreamed of seeing Lhasa.
Alexandra David-Néel- Perhaps the most flamboyant and celebrated of the Tibetan explorers was David-Néel, a true eccentric who was years ahead of her time. Born in Paris in 1868, she became an opera singer before turning toward more spiritual pursuits. A seeker and a mystic by nature, she became a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and a practicing Buddhist. After disguising herself as a Tibetan beggar, she became the first European woman to enter Lhasa in 1923 and wrote about her strange encounters on the Roof of the World. David-Néel exemplifies the adventurous spirit of the Victorian explorers. She won an audience with the Dalai Lama in Darjeeling and sold many copies of her memoir which are read even today. A French movie about her life was made in 2012.
Alexandra David-Néel- Probably the most spiritually inclined of all the Tibetan explorers
Annie Taylor- Adventurous, 36-year old English Presbyterian hell-bent on carrying the gospel to the Dalai Lama. Due to a childhood heart-condition, she was spoiled and coddled by her parents and was not expected to survive into adulthood, but she outlived her doctors' prognoses and became a missionary in 1884, selling all her jewelry to raise the funds necessary to set sail for Shanghai. After organizing a caravan, she mounted an expedition to Tibet along the Tea Road from Szechuan to Lhasa. After experiencing ill health and passing the skeletons of earlier travelers, her sense of self-preservation forced her to turn back only a 3 day march from Lhasa. She died at the ripe old age of 67.
Annie Taylor in Tibetan dress.

Jules Dutreuil de Rhins-  By far the unluckiest of all the Tibetan explorers, de Rhins was a former naval officer who organized a caravan to Lhasa in 1884. He traveled for 4 months and came within a six day march of Lhasa when he was ambushed by a party of Tibetan bandits armed with matchlocks. After a standoff, during which time he was deteriorating from the altitude sickness, frostbite, and gangrene on his legs, he was finally captured, bound by his hands and feet, and thrown alive into a river.

Sven Hedin- Swedish explorer born in 1865 who made 3 daring expeditions through the mountains and deserts of Central Asia between 1894 and 1908, mapping and researching parts of the Sinkiang Province and Tibet which had been unexplored until then. He is probably the most famous and lauded of all the Tibetan explorers, but his later associations with the Third Reich have clouded his otherwise stellar image.
A heroic depiction of Sven Hedin in Tibet was widely used to sell products during the Victorian era.
Heinrich Harrer- An Austrian mountaineer born in 1912 who joined a four-man expedition in 1939, led by Peter Aufschnaiter to the Diamir Face of Nanga Parbat in what was then British India. When war was declared the 4 climbers were sent to a detention camp near Bombay, but escaped to Tibet. After crossing the Tsang Chok-la Pass (5,896 m, 19,350 ft) Aufschnaiter and Harrer, helped by the former's knowledge of the Tibetan language, proceeded to the capital of Lhasa, which they reached in 1946, having crossed Western Tibet. In all, Harrer spent seven years in Tibet which he recounted in his memoir which was later turned into a movie. 
Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama
Gabriel Bonvalot, Prince Henri d'Orléans, and Father Constant de Deken- This unlikely partnership between a burly, fast-shooting French explorer, a gambling, womanizing French prince, and a Chinese-speaking Belgian Catholic missionary is recounted in Race to Tibet, a novel about their daring exploits on the Roof of the World. A self-made man of French peasant stock, Gabriel Bonvalot traveled widely throughout most of Central Asia and scaled some of the most dangerous passes in the Pamir Mountains and the Himalayas. The story of his journey to Lhasa is a fantastic adventure filled with action, danger, and suspense and just a little romance.
Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri d'Orleans
Now for the first time ever you can read the untold story of Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri d'Orléans who risked everything to be the first Westerners to reach Lhasa and meet the Dalai Lama. RACE TO TIBET is a thrilling tale of high-altitude adventure and survival set in the world's most forbidden country: Tibet
Gabriel Bonvalot: As fearless as he was gorgeous. He was so rugged, he was considered the explorer's explorer.

Race to Tibet is now on sale.


Publishers Weekly: "Fans of Jules Verne’s travel adventures will find Schiller has done a solid job of transforming an obscure real-life Victorian expedition into a thrilling yarn."

Here's what reviewers are saying:

"A Fascinating Journey Across Tibet." 
Mountaineer Mark Horrell

"Wonderful historical novel about the famous French explorer Gabriel Bonvalot. Experience an expedition to Tibet with all its beauty and horrendous conditions." 
Words and Peace Blog

"Non-stop excitement from beginning to end."

Redhead with a Book

"The characters were larger than life, intricate, and interesting, and the enterprise suspenseful, dramatic, and scenic. Schiller writes in a descriptive manner, with sentences that flow in a fluid and at a good pace."
Erin, For the Hook of a Book

"Excellent fact-based novel about an expedition to reach the most isolated culture in the world. Fascinating!"

Author Mark Schreiber

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Read an excerpt of "Island on Fire"


Monday, April 21st, 1902
St. Pierre, Martinique

The city of Saint-Pierre was in a joyous mood. It was the end of the sugar harvest, a time for celebration and revelry. Music and laughter filled the air. The stars lit up the heavens, and the moon shone resplendent over the bay, where schooners and steamers lulled gently in the breeze. The strains of biguine music echoed from the cabarets, and the odor of piquant Creole cooking wafted from the cafés that lined the waterfront. No one noticed that on the summit of Mount Pelée, a thick plume of black smoke was rising steadily, growing larger by the minute.
In a villa nestled on the slopes of the mountain, Emilie Dujon felt the earth trembling. A picture rattled against the wall, and a lizard scampered away in fright. A rumbling noise that sounded like distant thunder drowned out the crickets and tree frogs. Startled out of her reverie, she dropped her copy of The Mysterious Island and grabbed her binoculars. Focusing them on the summit, her eyes widened in surprise. Smoke and steam were rising from the lower crater, the one they called the Étang Sec. It grew in size and curled outward, like an enormous gray mushroom, before blowing leeward over Saint-Pierre.

Emilie lowered the binoculars and scanned the mountain for several minutes, feeling a clenching pain in her gut. A young woman of nineteen with amber eyes, chestnut-colored hair, and a grave but lovely face, she had been watching these occurrences almost daily, and now they were becoming more frequent and, by the looks of things, more serious. For years the experts had claimed Mount Pelée was extinct, but if that was the case, why was there so much ash and smoke?

She made a note of her findings in a notebook, and sat down in front of her vanity mirror to brush her hair and reflect on the matter. Emilie was by nature very observant. She loved to study the world around her and uncover its mysteries. She spent long hours riding her stallion over the hills and valleys of Mount Pelée; exploring her tropical world was where she felt most at home. She had a good grasp of West Indian geography, having studied it at the convent school of Saint-Joseph de Cluny, and she knew that volcanoes were formed by subterranean fires deep below the earth’s crust. But a piece of the puzzle was still missing. Dead volcanoes do not emit clouds of smoke and ash. She wondered if there was something more to Pelée that the experts were not saying.

Tonight was supposed to be a happy occasion, a chance to forget her worries and enjoy herself. Her fiancé, Lucien Monplaisir, was taking her to a gala performance of La fille du régiment at the theater in Saint-Pierre, and she was thrilled. Normally Lucien had no patience for cultural events, but tonight he was making the sacrifice just for her. Emilie smiled, thinking how strange and wonderful it was to be in love. In the span of a few months, it had changed Lucien from a world-weary sugar planter into a refined gentleman. And soon she would be his wife. Just thinking about it sent a surge of warmth throughout her body, and she felt a tingling in her knees.

At eight o’clock, spectators arrived in top hats and tails and long muslin gowns and turbans knotted in the distinct Martinique fashion. While the musicians were warming up their instruments, a murmur of anticipation rose up to the private box seat where Emilie sat with Lucien and his younger sister, Violette.
Emilie was brimming with excitement. She smoothed out her muslin gown and gazed at her surroundings. This was her first trip to the theater in years. It was considered an unnecessary luxury ever since her father’s plantation, Domaine Solitude, started to lose money. The concert hall was even more splendid than she remembered. It shimmered like a golden Fabergé egg. The chandelier glowed, spreading warm light over the frescoes that adorned the ceiling. Gazing over at Lucien, her heart swelled with pride. She could scarcely believe how she, the daughter of a modest cocoa planter, had captured the heart of the richest sugar planter in Martinique.
The lights went down, and the play began. The audience watched with rapt attention, including Emilie, whose eyes scarcely left the stage. Even Lucien, who normally grew bored after only a few minutes, seemed to be enjoying himself.

In the middle of the third act, Emilie looked up and spied an old school friend, Suzette de Reynal, sitting in the opposite box. She seemed to be gazing over at Lucien. Emilie lifted her opera glass, and to her amazement, Suzette winked at him. Stunned, Emilie held up her program and saw out of the corner of her eye that Lucien met her gaze and winked back in return. For several minutes she watched the two of them engaged in silent communication. Clearly this was not the first time. Before long, Lucien got up and mumbled something about needing a drink. Panic spread throughout Emilie’s limbs, and her heart pounded. Surely it had to be a mistake. She got up and followed him outside, but Lucien was nowhere to be found. She searched for him through the crowd, and when she reached a potted palm, she froze. Ensconced behind the plant were Lucien and Suzette, locked in a passionate embrace.

Emilie’s face burned in anger. Time seemed to stand still. She took a few steps backward and fled to the safety of her seat. She willed herself to remain calm, but it took all the determination she could muster. Tears welled in her eyes. How could she have been so blind? How could she have been so naive? She blamed her own trusting nature. She was sure she had failed to see the clues that were there all along.
When Lucien returned to his seat, he put his hand on Emilie’s shoulder, but she stiffened at his touch. All at once, she lost interest in the play. She lost all interest in Lucien. And then a great feeling of dread came over her when she realized that the wedding invitations had already been sent out. Perspiration beaded on her forehead. She tried fanning herself, but nothing could quell the anxiety and dread that had taken hold of her.
In the midst of her turmoil, a great rumbling noise filled the hall. The chandelier swayed, and the entire theater shook. Panic erupted in the audience. The rumbling noise grew louder, and the shaking intensified. The actors looked around in confusion. When a piece of scenery fell midstage, they shrieked and ran backstage in terror. And then, to everyone’s horror, a marble statue fell into the audience, giving rise to mass panic.
Emilie gasped in fright. Someone yelled, “Earthquake!” and all at once everyone jumped out of their seats and raced toward the exits. The musicians fled the orchestra pit like wasps from a burning nest, and the once-cheerful hall turned into mass hysteria. People were shouting and jostling each other in their haste to escape. An old woman cried out, and an elderly man in a black suit and tails struggled to protect her as they were shoved aside in the melee.

Lucien grabbed Emilie’s hand and said, “Come on, let’s get out of here.” He pulled her and Violette through the crowd, and they hurried down the marble staircase. They raced through the courtyard, down the stairs, and out to rue Victor Hugo, where the carriages were waiting. After they climbed inside, the driver proceeded north on rue Victor Hugo, dodging frightened residents and spooked horses. Emilie’s heart raced and she felt as if she was having a nightmare. Boom! An explosion like cannon fire rocked the carriage. In the distance, the mountain appeared to be glowing. The blast was followed by a loud rumbling noise and tremors that shook the earth.

The horses whinnied and reared, and the elderly West Indian driver struggled to control them. “Ho! Ho!” he cried, pulling on the reins. Emilie feared the ground would split open beneath them, swallowing them up. Even Lucien looked terrified. The gas lamps swayed, and roof tiles smashed to the ground. A swarm of people hurried past their carriage on their way to the cathedral, crossing themselves and uttering prayers out loud.
Emilie’s muslin dress was soaked with sweat. Heat and humidity hung in the air like a wet blanket. She glanced over at Lucien, but he was staring at the smoldering volcano with a mixture of fear and awe. Dear God, she prayed, please don’t let me die together with Lucien. Not here, not now. Shutters flew open as fearful residents peered out into the darkness. A few horses broke free of their reins and were galloping down the street, chased by their furious owners. How quickly panic took over the frightened residents.

The carriage ground to a halt. Emilie pushed open the carriage door and scrambled outside. Lucien and Violette joined her, and they stood by the side of the road, watching the scene unfold before them like spectators to a disaster. Ash and volcanic dust rained down on their heads while the ground continued to shake.
“We really must get out of here,” said Lucien as the party climbed back into the carriage.

The driver cracked his whip, and the horses trotted across the stone bridge that crossed the rivière Roxelane and then proceeded north for several miles along the coast before turning east onto a dirt road bounded by coconut palms and bamboo that led to the tiny hamlet of Saint-Philomène, where Emilie’s father’s plantation was located. As they climbed the western slopes of Mount Pelée, an ominous smell filled the air. It was not a burning kind of smell, like the occasional fumes that drifted down from the Guérin sugar factory across the savannah, but a different kind of smell, like rotten eggs. Emilie pressed her handkerchief to her nose and mouth. Lucien slipped his arm over her shoulders, but she again stiffened at his touch. As the carriage made its way down the dirt road, an uncomfortable silence followed, during which time Emilie pondered her dilemma. She had to find a way to break off her engagement without causing a scandal. But it would not be easy. No young woman of her social class had ever broken an engagement and survived the resulting gossip and slander. The scandal would crush her parents and brand her a social outcast. Her mind raced as she searched for a solution, but it seemed hopeless. She gazed up at the summit of Mount Pelée, but an ominous film of clouds blotted out the moon, reducing her world to utter darkness.