Six Great Women Travelers in Asia

Travel Blog  •  Julia Ross  •  03.20.09 | 10:57 AM ET


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.

Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

5 Comments for Six Great Women Travelers in Asia

PeggyCoonley/SerendipityTraveler 03.20.09 | 11:52 AM ET

Nice introduction to some wonderful women. I had read of the first four and now will read about
Ella and Dervla.Totally inspiring women travelers and much to learn from their adventuresome spirits. Todays travel is easy by comparison to the rigors these early travelers faced. The word stamina was defined and redefined in their lives. Thanks for the article.

Marilyn Terrell 03.21.09 | 1:11 AM ET

Thanks Julia for including Freya Stark—I love her books, especially the Valleys of the Assassins!  I would be reading it in bed and have to stop and implore my husband “Listen to this!” every few pages, so finally he read it himself.  An amazing rollicking adventure through Iran by a fearless Western woman traveling alone in the 1930s.

AR 03.27.09 | 7:27 AM ET

Emily Hahn has got to be on that list!  “China to Me,” about her life in Shanghai and Hong Kong during WWII, and her memoir “Times and Places” are fantastic.

Julia Ross 04.09.09 | 10:24 AM ET

Thanks, AR. Yes, I know about Emily Hahn and almost included her here but was reluctant to make the list too China-centric.  “China to Me” is on my reading list !

Pasadena News 05.02.09 | 8:04 AM ET

I really envy them if only I have the ways and means… I’ll also travel a lot. Nice read!

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