Sophie Schiller Interviews Gabriel Bonvalot from Race to Tibet
Race to Tibet is the story of one man’s quest to be the first Westerner to reach Lhasa. French explorer Gabriel Bonvalot vows to do the impossible: he launches his own expedition to the Roof of the World with funding from the Duke of Chartres. The only caveat is that Bonvalot must bring along the Duke’s dissolute son, Prince Henri d’Orléans, whose reckless behavior threatens to derail the entire expedition. During the journey the explorers encounter freezing temperatures, volatile winds, mountain sickness, bandits, duplicitous Chinese Ambans, and a beguiling Tibetan Buddhist princess. Held as prisoners at 16,000 feet and surrounded by an army of Tibetan soldiers, the explorers find themselves in a desperate fight for survival.
SS: Where and when were you born?
GB: I was born in 1853 in Épagne, the Champagne region of France.
SS: Tell us what goal(s) you hoped to accomplish?
GB: My life’s ambition was to become an explorer, not because I was seeking glory, but because I sought to wear the explorer’s crown. I love the wide open spaces of the wilderness. I love roaming through the Himalayas, the unexplored regions of Siberia, and the deserts of Chinese Turkestan. At night, while I slept in my tent I dreamt about a great reception in the great hall of the Sorbonne with my name inscribed in gold on leather-bound volumes. My ambition grew so that I was not just helping France with my explorations, but all of mankind.
SS: If you could relive your life, what changes would you make?
GB: I would venture even further into unknown parts of Asia.
SS: How did you feel when you first saw the love of your life?
GB: Utterly and hopelessly captivated, like a person who sees his fate in front of him and cannot escape it.
SS: What drew you to the person you fell in love with?
GB: She was my intellectual and spiritual equal, and she was captivatingly beautiful.
SS: Why do you think we fall in love? Is it an eternal emotion or simply a trick of nature designed to sustain the species?
GB: I will leave that to men of science like Dr. Friedrich Kirchner of Berlin to answer.
SS: What do you want from life?
GB: To promote French nationalism and colonialism. To answer the age old ethnological questions about who we are and where we come from, how our societies grew and developed.
SS: How do you decide if you can trust someone? Experience with others? First impressions? Intuition? Do you test the person somehow? Or are you just generally disposed to trust or not to trust?
GB: I discovered some of my greatest traveling partners by accident. Rachmed and I first met in Samarkand and we have been together during numerous journeys. I knew from the start that he was an extraordinary man of many talents, and he has never proved me wrong. Men like that are worth their weight in gold.
SS: When you walk into a room, what do you notice first? Second?
GB: Naturally one would notice characters that appear out of place or threatening. It is best to deal with these characters right away and not before they get the upper hand. The second thing I notice is a friendly face. Or perhaps I have the order reversed.
SS: When you walk into a room, what do you expect people to notice about you?
GB: I am an ordinary gentleman, but I hope to leave a good impression by my genial manner and drive to succeed.
SS: Did you turn out the way you expected? The way your parents predicted?
GB: My parents knew from my earliest years that I was not cut out to be a mounted tax collector like my father. They saw right away that I was born with wanderlust and they allowed me to indulge my desires. For this I am eternally grateful.
SS: How would you describe yourself?
GB: First and foremost as a patriotic Frenchman whose greatest joy is to raise the Tricolor for the glory of France.
SS: What really moves you, or touches you to the soul?
GB: The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower during the International Exposition I was filled with such awe and admiration for the great men of architecture and vision that France has produced. I’m also moved by great mountain ranges like the Pamir, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalaya. It is only among the majestic mountains that I feel at one with the universe.
SS: What do you consider are your strengths?
GB: Tenacity and fearlessness, and an uncompromising pursuit of greatness.
SS: What do you consider are your weaknesses?
GB: I am married to my work, which makes for a difficult if not impossible home life.
SS: What is one physical attribute you are proud of?
My nickname is the Oak of Champagne because of my hardy constitution and brute strength, but I am more proud of my adherence to the rules of etiquette and polite society.
SS: What do you consider your special talent?
GB: Surviving in impossible situations and against impossible odds. I also know how to hire the right men for my team. I am seldom wrong as I have learned to trust my gut.
SS: What are you most proud of about your life?
GB: The newspaper I founded, La France de Demain, which promotes my ideas of French nationalism and colonialism.
SS: Describe your ideal mate.
GB: Rachmed and I get along superbly well. He can almost read my mind and when all else fails, I know Rachmed will come through for me. He has never failed me in all our years together and I hope I have never failed him.
SS: What are you most afraid of?
GB: That Frenchmen will forget their glorious heritage and the ideals of their revolution and slink into apathy and lethargy which may make them vulnerable to attack from within their ranks. I hope this day never comes.
SS: What’s the most important thing in your life? What do you value most?
GB: The thing I value most is the chance to live and breathe geography, to experience the mountains, the rivers, the deserts, the forests, and the glaciers in all their glory and wonder. People say I have a passion for the planet which is the driving force behind everything I do.
SS: The following questions were asked of the famous French author Marcel Proust:
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
GB: The open road and a good cigarette.
SS: What is your greatest fear?
GB: Unyielding Border guards and vengeful Emirs.
SS: Which living person do you most admire?
GB: David Livingstone and Francis Younghusband
SS: What is your greatest extravagance?
GB: My Winchester Model 1890. Worth every franc.
SS: What is your current state of mind?
GB: Excited about my future exploration plans in Ethiopia and Madagascar.
SS: What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
SS: On what occasion would you tell a lie?
GB: To get out of an Emir’s dungeon or to bribe my way into Tibet.
SS: Which living person do you most despise?
GB: A certain member of the royal family who will remain nameless.
SS: What is the quality you most like in a man?
GB: Fortitude and tenacity.
SS: What is the quality you most like in a woman?
GB: Beauty and honesty.
SS: When and where were you happiest?
GB: Out on the open road.
SS: Which talent would you most like to have?
GB: The talent to talk my way out of any situation.
SS: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
GB: If I reveal this no one would read my books!
SS: If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
GB: A wild Tibetan antelope living wild and free on the Chang Tang.
SS: Where would you most like to live?
GB: On a steamship heading through the Suez Canal.
SS: What is your most treasured possession?
GB: My shotgun and my Bible.
SS: What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
GB: The life of a slave or a government bureaucrat.
SS: What is your most marked characteristic?
GB: I tend to shoot first and ask questions later.
SS: What do you most value in your friends?
GB: Just their presence, and the ability to back me up in a shoot-out.
SS: Who is your hero of fiction?
GB: Hawkeye of the Leatherstocking Tales.
SS: What is your motto?
GB: Dirigo “I guide”
Race to Tibet is a novel based on the untold story of 3 men, including a royal prince, who risk everything to be the first Westerners to reach the Forbidden City of Lhasa.
Sophie Schiller was born in Paterson, NJ and grew up in the West Indies. Among other oddities her family tree contains a Nobel prize-winning physicist and a French pop singer. She loves stories that carry the reader back in time to exotic and far-flung locations. She was educated at American University, Washington, DC and lives in Brooklyn, NY where she is currently working on a new historical thriller set in the Caribbean.