NORDEN CAMP HAS OFTEN BEEN DUBBED A “LUXURY RESORT” but it does not actually come with the fancy trimmings a conventional upscale retreat affords. Here, you won’t find personal butlers, swanky spa facilities or state-of-the-art fitness studios. You spend your nights either in tents made from yak hair or cabins constructed with pine logs. The rooms are heated with a rudimentary coal stove. You take your showers in communal cubicles.
But make no mistake – these simple amenities are indeed a luxury to have, especially in a place as remote as the Tibetan Plateau in China’s Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
This seclusion, however, doesn’t mean that you’ll be left twiddling your thumbs during your stay, as Norden Camp offers guests a variety of immersion packages that range from six to eight days: calm the mind with the yoga and meditation package, experience nomadic culture with the Timeless Tibet option, or even work up a sweat alongside locals and monks at a basketball clinic.
Norden’s head chef Andrew Notte, formerly of Aman Resorts, reflects this on his menu, using yak to create dumplings, burgers and steaks befitting upscale dining establishments. Besides yak meat, Notte’s kitchen is also filled with local ingredients such as joma, a protein-rich root that is typical of nomadic cuisine, as well as tsampa, a type of flour made from roasted barley that is the fuel of choice for Sherpas.
Using such ingredients instead of importing most premium goods, says Notte, is essential to helping the local economy. At the same time, Norden also generates employment for the locals, many of whom find it difficult to secure jobs in China because they hardly speak Mandarin. Almost all the 25 staff working at this sanctuary are young Tibetan nomads.
As a must-do, take a day trip to the famous Labrang Monastery as well as hiking or horseback riding amid the picturesque rolling hills. If doing these activities at such a high altitude – the camp is located 3,200m above sea level – doesn’t take your breath away, the pristine landscape will.
Established in May 2014 by Tibetan nomad Yidam Kyap, Norden Camp is all about sustainability, which is largely the reason why the camp will never offer en-suite bathrooms. Doing so, according to Kyap, requires plumbing works that would compromise the original state of the land.
“At Norden, it is the closeness to nature that makes it a luxury camp. Here, a guest is surrounded by fresh air, the call of birds and the occasional visit from hares, ducks and sometimes even owls and foxes,” says Kyap. “Nature is something every human needs to escape into. It is an experience that is becoming increasingly rare in today’s world.”
The brand has grown considerably since its establishment in 2007. Then a 65-man operation, Norlha today hires 130 Tibetan nomads. Yeshi says that the initial focus was on creating high quality handmade textiles, because doing so would provide employment for the locals.
The nomads at Norlha did not take long to achieve this, but the quality of their products, ironically, became a stumbling block.
“High quality and good workmanship means you get a high-end product. We then realised that we had priced ourselves out of the tourist market here in the plateau,” says Yeshi.
Through her mother’s contacts, Norlha scored itself a feature in Marie Claire magazine. Before long, fashion houses came calling. Today, the brand can consider major labels such as Louis Vuitton, Lanvin and Balmain among its clients. Norlha has also been working with Japanese menswear brand Visvim and trendy Chinese label ZUCZUG in recent times.
Despite the fame and success Norlha has achieved, its core philosophy is still very much intact. While manufacturers around the world are rapidly embracing automation, Yeshi has no intention of replacing all her workers with machines.
“We’re going to have to be quite smart about automation. We cannot handcraft everything – it’s slower and it’ll cause the product to be more expensive. We don’t want to be pricing ourselves out in this current market environment,” she says.
One of the ways Norlha can continue giving back to the community, she adds, is to start reducing its reliance on being a manufacturer for major companies.
“Fashion houses everywhere are experiencing budget cuts. If we want to continue to provide employment and create a quality product that is timeless, we’re going to need to start promoting our own brand more,” she says.
Norlha has already been attempting to do so in the past few years, having photoshoots on the magnificent Tibetan plateau that feature models wearing their creations.
Norlha employees, of course.
Preserving Folk Craft
The mantra of giving back to the community is also seen at the Norlha atelier, Norden’s sister establishment that is located a two-hour drive away in the town of Zorge Ritoma.
This operation is headed by Kyap’s wife Dechen Yeshi, a Tibetan American who was so enamoured by what she saw during her trip to this region more than a decade ago that she abandoned her dream of becoming a filmmaker to help open the workshop so as to provide jobs and preserve local culture.
“I spoke to many young people during that trip and realised that they were really eager to be part of the modern world and leave the nomadic lifestyle behind. But everyone faced problems with cash. It was hard for them to get jobs,” says Yeshi.
“I knew then how important it was to provide employment for these people who were slipping through the cracks as modernity and globalisation came into their lives.”