East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Gabriel Bonvalot


Gabriel_BonvalotOne of the problems of reading (mainly) English-language books is that a certain section of the world remains under-represented.
Events and characters are somewhat edited out of history if they did not directly intersect the history of the English-speaking people.
This becomes painfully true when we focus on the Victorian era, or more generally on the time in which the red was widespread on the map, and Britain ruled an empire.
Case in point: Pierre Gabriel Édouard Bonvalot.

An explorer and geographer, Bonvalot explored cCentral Asia in 1880-1882, his expedition financed by the French Ministry of Education. A second expedition in 1886-1887 saw him move east from Russian Central Asia to Sinkiang.
Now, I did not know anything about Bonvalot – which is mighty embarassing, considering I wrote a non-fiction book about explorers in Central Asia. I can plead non-guilty pointing out that my book covers only the first half of the 20th century.. but let’s face it, it’s embarrassing anyway.

Apparently, Bonvalot was not exactly an enlighted explorer: he was an ambitious and self-centered fortune-seeker, and he rubbed the Kyrghiz the wrong way with his cavalier attitude and penchant for not paying for supplies during his 86/87 expedition.

But the real fun began in 1889, when Bonvalot embarked on an expedition to Lhasa – the forbidden city at the heart of the mysterious and mostly unexplored Tibetan plateau.
The fun bit is, the expedition was financed by the Duke of Chartres (one of the pretenders to the throne of France) as a way to get his son Prince Henri of Orleans out of the limelight – the 22-years-old prince having apenchant for gamblig and bedding opera singers, which made him very popular with the press.
Henri of Orleans joined Bonvalot’s expedition as photographer and botanist.


The idea was to cross Central Asia, enter the resytricted territories of Tibet, and then follow the course of the Mekong river down to the Tonkin bay.
Quite an ambitious plan – which later took the shape of a book, aptly called De Paris au Tonkin à travers le Tibet inconnu… and you can find a free translated copy of it in the Internet Archive, together with many other books by Bonvalot.

518HN8+wHqLBut now comes what is – for me – the best bit of all this.
Because I discovered the existance of Gabriel Bonvalot thanks to a novel – Sophie Schiller’s Race to Tibet, a fine, old-fashioned adventure yarn that maybe takes a little time heating up, but when it goes off – and it does – it does with a proper bang.
Schiller’s historical novel features more than a little dash of the fantastic – throwing in ghosts of dead explorers, ancient prophecies and the avatar of Kali – which also pleases me no end, being as I am a fan of historical fantasy. And maybe Bonvalot is depicted a little too positively, but what the heck, this is an adventure novel, he’s the hero of the story.

All of which just goes to show once again that adventure stories are not just cheap entertainment.
But, incidentally, Race to Tibet is pretty cheap, as an ebook, and it is highly recommended.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Gabriel Bonvalot

  1. Hi Davide,
    Nice blog post!
    If you’re interested, here is a blog talk radio interview with the author:


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