The Old Ram Anyone spending time in Labrang, or familiar with the circumambulation road around the Monastery would have at one time or another seen a very large, long haired Tse thar ram, whose life was spared and who was unofficially adopted by the monastery or its patrons. The ram usually hangs out at the end of the circumambulation route, greeting the pilgrims and begging from them. If not doing that, it wonders among the customers seated at the various little noodle shops across the road from the monastery. A long living goat, I first noticed him ten years ago. His very potent goat smell announces his presence from a surprising distance, depending on the direction of the wind. He doesn’t like children, probably because they tease him, and Norzin was butted a few times, but can’t resist approaching old ladies many of whom must feed him treats on a regular basis.
The Norden Blog
An intimate look into life on the Tibetan Plateau around the Norden Camp
Four years ago, Norden Camp opened for the first time on June 23rd. We started small, with four accommodation tents that Yidam had designed from yak hair material, four canvas tent in Tibetan picnic tent style, a log cabin lounge, the sauna and a large yak dining yak hair tents. Our first clients were a group of French travel journalists who cheerfully made due with what we had. The idea soon caught on, and Tibetan, Chinese and foreign visitors soon followed. Work had begun in early April, with the traditional clearing of the land from obstacles, a ritual where monks request the local spirit dwellers to move or co habit in peace. It was our aim to retain the character of the land by avoiding structures that required foundations; all our buildings are light and lifted above the ground. There would be no plumbing or running water except in the shower blocks and the toilets were built in the dry Finnish style. The land was leased from a local nomad and it was agreed that his animals were welcome to wander about until they left for higher pastures in June, returning in October. Sheep found the place so accommodating that they tried to settle in the space under the tents, shaking the floor and unsettling the guests.
‘Golden worm’ or caterpillar fungus fever comes every year around May, with people dropping whatever they do to seek their fortune crawling on the pasture in search of the worm. I had heard about this magic worm for years, its name meaning “ grass in summer, insect in winter” and was made to believe that it seasonally switched from one form to the other. I tried to argue that this sounded absurd, but it was one of those things that made no sense but was rock hard in people’s beliefs. Curious, I looked it up and found out that yartsa gunbu was a mummified caterpillar, the underground-dwelling larva of the ghost moth that had been infected by a parasitic fungus called Ophiocordyceps sinensis. The fungus devours the inside of catapillar’s body leaving only the exoskeleton and blooms in spring in the form of a brown stalk, called the stroma, that erupts from the caterpillar’s head. This process happens only in the fertile grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau and all attempts at farming the fungus have failed. This information enabled me to tell guilty Tibetans that they was not the cause of the caterpillar’s death, that it was already dead. They didn’t mind hearing that. By the year 2000, the boom was in full swing, and when we got into the yak khullu business, we found that it interfered with yak khullu picking, which happened at the same time. People boasted how much money they could make from picking the worms, and every nomad who wasn't tied down to his or her animals would spend a month or two crawling through the pasture on hands and knees. Ritoma nomads had to assign guards to make sure outsiders didn’t intrude into their pastureland, reserving the pursuit and collection of worms to their own. Dechen and I watched all this with some dismay. Some boasted that it Yartsa gunbu was a windfall for nomads, that it had lifted thousands from poverty. Yes, but at what price? Already, we could see that some workshop employees who had quit their jobs to look for worms were asking for them back, saying the returns were too poor and their backs hurt. Yidam’s cousin, whose herd grazes in summer on the high grasslands of Sankhok, said that twenty years ago, the little stroma stalks were everywhere, and now no longer. We were sure they had a part to play in the delicate ecosystem of the grassland, where yaks eat medicinal plants and fertilize the pasture with their dung, enabling certain plants to complete their cycle. No one would know until it was too late. Last year, on the road to Norden camp, we saw the telltale sign of two cars stopped on opposite sides of the road. Two nomads were gathered around something on a white cloth and discussions were going on. It was catapillar season and Yidam knew right away they were engaged in trade. We stopped by and looked at the offerings; an array of worms still covered in the rich brown earth of the pasture. They made their deal and the buyer left, crossing the road to his car. Yidam bought a few caterpillars, for 20 Yuan each. By Kim Yeshi
When I first went to Labrang ten years ago, I noticed a thriving trend for traditional wood carving, most obvious in doors. The Monastery, of course, had very elaborate doors, many of them new, all done in traditional form. Many new houses also had these doors, and when Dechen and Yidam got a small courtyard house near the Monastery in 2007, though they didn’t invest in a fancy door, they had furniture made and became acquainted with the carpenters and wood carvers. The most important woodwork enterprise was in Tso, the prefectural town, some 60 KM from Labrang, and from early on, it served the area in a wide radius; monasteries, individuals, shops and restaurants. All the wood workers were Chinese, and this one, Gang, had come all the way from Zhejiang Province, hundreds of miles away. When I visited for the first time his was a small workshop on the edge of town, but a few years later, he had moved into a much bigger space and brought with him a growing team. In 2012, we commissioned him the woodwork inside the Norlha guesthouse and he showed us his work on a new residential area that was opening up on the road towards Ritoma. The new
constructions were all based on the old models; large wooden gates, the more elaborate, the more the status, a central courtyard, the rooms huddled around it. The modern touch was overpowering, with expanses of glass verandas to capture the sun, red brick and in the worst cases, tiles. The woodwork was extensive in the houses we saw, lining whole walls, with carved pillar tops and more carved panels between beams and pillars, proudly shown off by the maker, and all finished in shiny varnish. Gang’s workshop was vast, with fellow artisans carving in a room full of finished pieces; altars, thrones, tables, and much more. I noticed they all worked in the same manner as the woodcarvers at Norbulingka, will their set of self made tools lying before them. It was also similar to what I had seen in Kanazawa on the West Coast of Japan, and the patterns and styles were also very close. Gang explained that he had come ten years earlier, when everyone was busy renovating monasteries. Work was plentiful, so he gradually enlarged his business and brought fellow workers from his village in Eastern China, where he returned each year for a few months around New Year. He came from a family of wood carvers in a village where everyone had been a wood carver as far as anyone could remember. With modernization, people had lost interest in the traditional, so he had looked further West to where he could continue to practice his skills and found his place among Tibetans. Tibetans in the nomad areas of Amdo seemed to have traditionally limited their activity to herding, farming or trading. Though woodcarvers and builders were and still are plentiful in Central and Eastern Tibet, in Amdo, they seemed to be drawn from other ethnic groups and pockets of Chinese can be found deep in nomadic areas, where they were brought over a hundred years ago to build monasteries. Such a group, Buddhists and Tibetan speaking, built the wooden structure of the Norlha workshop. Gang invited us into his living room, where a whole sheep, wrapped in glad wrap, lay between the coffee table and the television. He lay a plate of fruit and nuts before us, which Norzin quickly cleaned out, and we discussed the plans for the Norlha Guesthouse.
My taste in furniture had always been somewhat restrained on the one hand by my Western upbringing, and on the other, by the ways Tibetans viewed their surroundings in terms of old and new, town and country. Having worked for years trying to bring back to memory and existence the best of what was Tibetan furniture, I later realized that the simple and modest, the raw and worn, had been overlooked with a certain disdain (this is peasant stuff) characterized by both Tibetans in Tibet and in exile and had, as a result, escaped my attention. My father, in spite of his undying love for Lyon silks, Louis XV chairs and gold leaf, also appreciated rustic French peasant furniture, which we used in every day context. Dechen and I carried this on, in the form timid love for a low, solid, worn table given to her by Yidam’s family, a few pieces from the local Tso bric a brac store, and the cheese cloth, traditionally used by nomads to dry cheese on, locally woven from yak hair and sheep wool. I also noticed the cabinet in Yidam’s monk brother’s house in Labrang, which hung on the kitchen wall, displaying the bowls and cups, with drawers that doubled as butter boxes. Local notions prevailed, though. The table, displayed on the kang in their house had to be relegated to the back room when monks came, and replaced by a hideous varnished impostor and the cheese cloth, reminded of its low rank, was barred from covering a table, and relegated to placement on a large, wooden tsampa box on the veranda. My friend Isabelle Graz, a Swiss Designer who worked in China at the time, shook things around and pushed the vernacular to center stage, gradually eroding local notions and prejudices. It started when I accompanied her roaming in the Shanghai area bric a brac warehouses. These huge spaces, divided into alleys, had furniture piled as high at it could go. The trendy art deco from the twenties and thirties had long gone, driving the Shanghai furniture traders to dig deeper inland, into Shanxxi Province, bringing out old peasant furniture. Five years ago, no one really paid much heed to an old concubine’s chair, a wood and bamboo larder or a two hundred year old armoire. They were faded, scratched, wearing marks of hundred years of use. With their simple curves, solid appearance, these pieces weighed of simplicity and functionality. The local Tibetans and Chinese visitors winced at first when they saw our newly purchased, wobbly assortment spread out in a tent in front of the unfinished guesthouse, recognizing things of their past that had long been discarded as old and useless by their parents or themselves. Within a few weeks, notions changed. Placed in context surrounded by Norlha felt and woven soft furnishings, they settled gracefully, exuding a simple dignity, a quiet elegance that lent the rooms and common areas a cosy/trendy feel. Isabelle furnished the Norlha Guesthouse with these and custom made pieces forming a simple, harmonious ensemble. A year later, when we turned our attention to Norden Camp, we decided to look even more locally for the cabin, tent and venue area furniture. Isabelle had a knack for uncovering treasures; When we drove between Ritoma and Labrang, she would suddenly ask that we stop the car at the sight of a junk pile, from where she would extract a door, an old window, or a low table from the rubble of a dismantled house. Dechen, Yidam and I learned to look at things differently, to see treasures in the ordinary objects that surround a quickly disappearing lifestyle. Yidam quickly picked up a flair for rummaging through the rubble of demolished houses and began collecting old latticed windows, remnants of a not so far away past when people pasted thick oiled paper in lieu of glass. During the fall of 2013, he and Dechen sent out the Norden team to forage for trunks, tables and kitchen cabinets in Yidam’s native area, Tsayig. They came back with tsampa trunks covered in yak or dzo hide, cabinets of all sorts and sizes, butter churning implements, butter boxes, low tables and more. The team would photograph the piece on their phone, send it to Yidam and Dechen who would give their ok. Norden has continued and refined its yearly winter village foraging, complementing our assortment with locally woven baskets, carved wooden trays, clay bowls, old rifles, and even an old cart, which have wormed their way into not only the Norden venues, but also accessorizing the Norlha stores. In a mere two years, perceptions have changed and the contemporary/old look is finding its way all over Labrang. New Trends, new ideas.
Labrang has two distinct sections; the monastery and the town. The monastery tails out into the Ngagpa College, then the Nunnery. Walking beyond, one crosses a village, then comes to an area of open fields, in a valley flanked by hills that slowly spills out into the greater plains of Sangkhok, the nomadic area where Norden is based. The foot of the steep hill is dotted with the dark openings of caves, some fitted with the remains of doors. Curious, I asked what they were; over forty years ago when young people were sent from China to work with peasants, they had lived and died in those caves. It sounded like a dreary episode that no one really wanted to remember. As one progresses, there are more small villages huddled against the hill, the Tsampa mill, and a walled garden that looks like a debating ground where people sometimes picnic. The last important landmark on that road is the Hotel. Around 2007, we went to visit what was known as Labrang’s best hotel. It was built in the 80’s by an enterprising returnee from Switzerland on the grounds of what had been Jamyang Sheba’s Palace. The entrepreneur obviously had had different ideas on building and hospitality which he implemented in the various spaces; there was a modern building with brass and glass and an electric coconut tree, with the usual lobby that sports what I refer to as the ‘toad’ chairs, with armrests as large as the seating area. One then moved onto a garden with a central lawn surrounded by concrete picnic tents, with flaking paint. There was also a mysterious walled area with an old style building, the Palace, we were told. Keys were brought out and the main door, set in the surrounding stone masonry wall, flung open. Inside were pavilions decorated in murals and brightly painted traditional woodwork that surrounded successive courtyards. The style was a mixture of Ching Dynasty and Tibetan traditional and the place had a run down charm about it. At some point, someone had tried to make a hotel; there was a sign for a dining hall, filled with broken furniture. The rooms were furnished like the Soviet hotels I had stayed in in Mongolia, where officials spent their holidays, with damaged furniture, cracked cups and lamp fixtures particular to that era. The hotel lease had ended after twenty years, the Swiss Tibetan had moved on and the government department in charge was waiting for someone to take on the venture, renting out the concrete gers in the meantime. Three years ago, someone took it over and we stayed there while preparing Norden Camp’s first season. The tents were a little humid, but an effort had been made with proper bathrooms and brocade on the walls. We visited the Palace again; it remained in condition we had seen it in last, abandoned and exuding a tired beauty. The awnings were in tatters, the reception rooms filled with rubble. Jamyang Sheba seems to have forsaken his previous incarnation’s palace and built himself an impressive structure closer to the town. Painted a pinkish red, it is called “Norzin Podrang” ,which my granddaughter Norzin finds fantastic.
They come every year; Huis from the nearby plains, the Linxia area at the base of the plateau. They appear in mid June, with the first flowers, and pitch their little tents along the road between Tso and Ritoma, arranging their wooden beehives in neat circles or squares. Then they wait for their bees to do the job, gather nectar from the flowers that carpet the pasture in July and August and make honey. The first time I bought honey I was disappointed to see it coagulate into a sugary mass. When we started Norden, honey became important and Yidam talked the honey men, striking a deal for something pure that we have had ever since. I always wanted to photograph the honey people. We always drove by their little encampments, and I would see them sitting outside their tents, with their wobbly tea kettle and assortment of clutter. Last week, we decided we needed honey and stopped by the road. While Jampa and Serwo discussed prices, the honeyman’s wife was taken in by my camera, which she tried to wrestle from my hand. Thinking she had a desperate urge to take pictures, I let her have it and she went swinging all around her tent looking through the lens with exclamations of joy. I had to wrestle a little to get it back and Dechen thought we might get into a fight. Serwo began to move away, echoed in his distaste by Jampa, saying they were too expensive. I told them I wanted my photos and Dechen said we didn’t mind paying a little more. The tall, lanky honey man collected the honey from the back of the tent and weighted 2 kg. I took my photos while their little dog, tied in front of its tin can doghouse, yapped away. I didn’t venture near the bees, which were already buzzing heavily at a distance from the tent. Text and Photos by Kim Yeshi
Norden Cuisine is based on the local pastoral lifestyle and the food derived from it, developing an innovative, culturally conscious cuisine rooted in tradition. It is suitable for both meat lovers and vegetarians and is one of the experiences that make a trip to the roof of the world totally worth it. Chef Andrew Notte has developed three edible concepts: Joma, Yak and Tsampa stories. Photos by Jonathan Maloney @jrmaloney
Tibetan society was and still is largely a nomadic one, with migration central to the culture. People lived in tents, and every few months, a whole group of households would pick up and move to another pasture. Even as cities developed and a trend for a mixed economy, having both fields and herds, began to spread as early as the 8th century, this idea of mobility remained rooted in Tibetan lifestyle. Tables fold, paintings roll up, cupboards can be dismantled into several parts, and goods are stored in easily movable trunks or boxes. Later, when chairs appeared as a result of Chinese influence, Tibetans managed to make a foldable version. Today, tents are still central to Tibetan lifestyle. Nomads in many parts still live in the large black tents made of yak hair. They cut the long strands of hair that hang down on the side of the yak, spin it into thread and weave it into long strips on a backstrap loom. They then sew together these pieces to make the tent. The whole process rarely happens at once; every year, they replace part of the strips, taking down the old ones, and replacing them with new ones, taking about twelve years to recycle the tent. Nomad tents were functional, but not very practical. Smoke helped fill the gaps in the cloth, though it was later discovered that plastic sheeting was more efficient to keep out the rain. Large families had large tents, with separate areas for men and women, sometimes sheltering as many as twenty family members. The sides of the tents were lined with sacks or trunks filled with supplies and provisions, as well as an altar with statues and photos of lamas. In the middle is the hearth, built of mud and a makeshift kang warmed by a pile of sheep droppings in a wooden frame and covered with layers of felt and sheepskin. Yak hair tents are heavy and moving camp involved labor by many. Nowadays, many prefer to use army tents, which are lighter and more practical as well as more efficient in keeping one dry. The downside is that they are flimsy, and people still view the yak hair tents with nostalgia. For those who live in urban areas, there is the picnic tent. The trend started in Lhasa in the early 20th century, when people pitched light canvas tents by the river side or in parks, cooking, eating and playing games for days on end. These tents were decorated in bright colors or in blue and black patterns. Today, they are still the trend, and are used for summer picnics in all parts of the Tibetan plateau. Norden took the Tibetan nomad tent to another level by giving it a metal frame, windows and wooden floors, introducing visitors to the best of both worlds.
A few years ago, a group of Tibetan businessmen pooled their resources to open a training school for Tibetan cooks for local youths in an effort to preserve traditional Tibetan cooking and provide a wider pool of employment. They opened a restaurant adjoining the training area, where guests can sample unique elements of Tibetan cooking, using local ingredients and age old recipes. The menu includes joma (prenouced droma in Lhasa dialect) in various forms, a wide variety of local mushrooms and of course the meat from yaks, sheep and pigs. Guests are also presented with a tray of herbal teas in jars indicating the benefit of each, all from the surrounding grassland. Some are derived from flowers, others different kinds of grass, twigs or bark. We watched the students practice their deftness with woks, using stones. In an adjacent store, one could buy the herbal teas.
On May 1st, Gonthang Rinpoche came to spend two days at Norden, being the first important visitor of the season. Rinpoche, who is 14, and undergoing a strict monastic curriculum at nearby Labrang Monastery, was taking a rare break from his studies. The visit which was not planned and happened on the opening day, was seen as a very auspicious event.
We call it “Bar” but it is so much more. It is a Breakfast room, a collecting the autumn morning sun rays room, a space for gathering around the stove on a chilly night, to sun oneself on the morning or afternoon decks, or to hide from the sun in reverse order on a summer day. One can enjoy wines, Norden cocktails and mocktails, teas brewed from local plants, smoothies, cappuccinos and expressos, or have a formal English tea with milk tea and cake. From the outside, the space melts into the environment. Lightly built, it sands up from the ground and can be removed, restituting the grassland to its former condition. In winter, animals, back from the highlands, graze all around. From the inside, one can enjoy the outside, sheltered from rain, snow or the chilly wind and watch birds flutter about, a yak tail flicking and disappearing behind the bushes. By Kim Yeshi, Photos by Dechen Yeshi
The Lungta Cooperative, a groundbreaking enterprise in finding alternative ways for nomads to use their skills, brought together a group of Yidam’s relatives and their families from Tsayig and their 140 yaks. They spent 2016 building the project from their own resources, and began introducing the concept to the guests at Norden camp; hosting city based youths or visitors to the camp and introducing them to the life of nomads. It was autumn when I visited the camp. The color had muted from a vivid green to earthy yellow. Plans for the cheese and other diary yields from the coop’s yaks using innovative methods were coming together, and training planned for 2017. These will be used and tested by Norden and eventually distributed through networks of organic products.
When people think of a trip to the Tibetan Plateau, they most often visualize summer, an obvious choice with its emerald pastures and endless flowers. Fall has a different beauty, subtler, but just as gratifying. The Norden’s bush and low tree dominated landscape turn into a riot of color. Early morning is a glittering blanket of frost that slowly yields to the sun. Gradually, yellows, reds and various shades of pink appear, changing with the light as the day goes by. Fall at Norden is a beautiful sight; cold nights, spent cozily in the wood cabins and bright sunny days that become almost hot, perfect for taking the sun on the deck. From the refuge of the Norden Bar, which affords views on nature from all sides, one can watch the drama of a snowstorm, the melting of snow, the wandering yaks and the changing colors of the landscape. Then winter comes and we have to pack up and close, the wind becomes bitter, and the cold relentless. Animals take over what is their winter pasture and we all look forward to the Spring when we open once more.
A week ago, my son in law Yidam told me he had something new to show me. We drove a few kilometers from the camp, then branched out on a narrow, steep track to the top of a hill. There, scattered on green hills, was a whole new world, introduced to me as the Lungta Cooperative. Founded by a group of farmer/herders from Tsayig, Lungta is a groundbreaking enterprise. Begun this year, when a number of Yidam’s cousins requested his help in transforming their livelihood, it is meant to accommodate their skills into the changing world and the opportunities it may offer. Spread over 100 hectares of rolling hills, the cooperative comprises 140 yaks, six mud colored cabins, a yak hair nomad tent and other tents and is manned by twelve nomad men an women. They built a cheese cellar modeled on the ones Yidam saw in the French alps some years ago and are beginning steps to bring a cheese maker from France or Switzerland in view of making a quality yak cheese as well as packaged butter for the local market. Another of the cooperative’s projects is to organize stays for city teenagers and young adults and give them a feel for country life in Tibet. The Lungta Coop members worked all summer to build the cabins and cheese cellar themselves. They are proud of their enterprise and look to a new future. One of their first customers will be Norden camp, where their products will be sampled at the highest level. Photos by Kim Yeshi