Billed as the Tibetan Autonomous Region’s first luxury resort, the newly-opened Norden Camp looks to offer an authentic nomad hospitality experience with high-end trappings on the Tibetan plateau. Time Out check in
Life on the Tibetan plateau has undergone great change in the past 50 years,’ wrote Kim Sciaky-Yeshi, a Tibet-based American anthropologist, in an email to lure me from the California sunshine to the other side of the world. ‘The whole nomadic way of life has lost much of its sustainability in the wake of a changing world.’
In an effort to create new and sustainable opportunities for her adopted community, Sciaky-Yeshi and her Tibetan-American daughter Dechen moved to Zorgcy Ritoma – a hamlet that’s home to around 1,500 ethnic Tibetans in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture – in 2005 to launch Norlha. A textile workshop that specialises in weaving textiles from khullu, the soft insulating layer of yak fibre, Norlha has been a huge success. The family’s guanxi in European fashion circles has enabled Norlha to count heavyweights such as Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin and Haider Ackermann among their clients. Nine years on from their founding and the Yeshis have now invited me to travel to the grasslands outside of Labrang, two and half hours southwest of the Norlha workshop, in the Tibetan Autonomous Kenlho Prefecture of Gansu province. I’m not here to shop, but to explore this enterprising family’s second initiative – Norden Camp, a luxury resort for discerning travellers looking for a one-of-a-kind experience – which focuses on developing economic opportunities for Tibetan grassland nomads.
It’s a new frontier in sustainable tourism, as until now, no luxury tourist resorts have existed in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, one of China’s poorest areas. This makes Norden Camp the first true ‘glamping’ experience in Tibet.
Overseen by Dechen’s Tibetan husband Yidam Kyap, whose relatives still live in this undulating, wildflower-strewn landscape, Norden Camp offers urbanites fresh air, water straight from the Himalayas, and vast expanses of emerald-tinged terrain. Despite its remote location, the camp’s amenities are impressive. The traditional, hand-woven yak hair tents and log cabins come with environmentally sensitive plumbing and advanced insulation. Touches of luxury are included with Norlha felted wool and yak khullu blankets. Scheduled to begin full operation in May 2015 (it’s currently in soft opening), the camp also has a Finnish sauna and a Swiss chef who can whip up a range of various Western, Chinese and Tibetan dishes.
Getting here is admittedly not easy, though the five hour road trip from Lanzhou Zhongchuan airport passes countless gilded spires among the hillocks surrounding Linxia, once an important Silk Road outpost, which confers a fairytale aspect to the journey. In Xiahe, the nearest town to Norden Camp, the resort’s English-speaking Tibetan driver Tashi stops the 4-wheeldrive vehicle outside of Norden Café. We refuel with homemade pizza, luscious brownies and fresh carrot juice at this side venture operated by Yidam’s sister, before following Tashi over Xiahe’s cracked pavements to wander among the historic Buddhist buildings of Labrang Monastery.
Founded in 1709, Labrang went on to become one of the six great monasteries of the Gelukpa Tibetan Buddhism, also known as the Yellow Hats or the Dalai Lama’s sect. Though nearly all of its original structures, along with countless bejeweled artifacts inside, were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Labrang remains one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist sites outside Tibet and is still home to a strong community of around 1,800 monks spread across tratsang monastic colleges covering esoteric Buddhism, theology, medicine, astrology and law.
We follow our official guide, a crimson robed monk also named Tashi, around these saffron and earth-washed stone edifices to visit the three-storey Barkhang, Labrang’s traditional printing press with its impressive 20,000 woodblocks. Along the way, we admire gaudy floral butter lamps and elaborate thangka paintings by elbowing our way through scores of Chinese tourists.
The campsite, as Tashi explains during the drive up, is a winter grazing area for sheep and yaks. During the summer months when the camp will operate, sightings of hares, marmots, gazelles, owls and migratory birds are common. The slight headache that I get tips me off to the fact that it sits, as he says, at 3,200 metres above sea level. Except for Tashi and one manager, Norden’s staff of 20 Tibetans don’t speak English, but their authentic smiles and genuinely warm welcome could offer a lesson in true hospitality to the staff at most of the top hotels around China.
A young man named Tenzin takes my bags and motions for me to follow him along the stone path as it winds past a funnel of juniper-scented smoke rising from a Buddhist offering alter, and into the bushes to my pine log cabin, located alongside the river which acts as the far boundary of this 11-hectare site. Night is falling so Tenzin lights candles and places them around my bedroom, allowing me to appreciate the pile of neutral-hued Norlha blankets atop the bed, with Norlha felted pillows on the day bed facing the wood-fuelled furnace.
In broken but effective English, he teaches me how to use the dry earth toilet and points out the ladle for pouring fresh water into the shiny copper basin. Until water heaters are installed in each accommodation for next season (from May), early guests take hot showers from a bucket in the Finnish sauna, a three-minute walk along the stone path.
After Tenzin makes the fire in my furnace and takes his leave, I change into winter pajamas and snuggle under the soft blankets. Above is a skylight, through which I spy a night sky so ablaze with stars that I climb out from under the covers, wrap an especially soft yak quilt around me and head outside onto the deck. I count shooting stars until my neck begins to ache from looking up.
Activities at Norden include horse riding, hiking, bird watching and picnics with nearby nomad families, so Dechen and Yidam are flustered when I announce at breakfast that I only intend to photograph the spectrum of wildflowers and listen to the sound of running water from my river-facing deck.
Trekking on the back of a Tibetan horse through fields blanketed by yellow wildflowers, and practising morning yoga at the nomad encampment staffed by Yidam’s cousins both prove well worth my time away from camp. But I notice throughout my short three-night stay that the happiest campers are those who have their feet up on a wooden ledge, tea in hand, just enjoying the tranquil silence.
I do see two other instances where Norden’s guests, most of whom have learned about the camp via Sina Weibo and WeChat, become especially animated – when the homemade Tibetan momo dumplings get delivered to dinner tables set under tented awnings scattered around the camp grounds, and when they come across Norlha’s retail inventory.
You can take us urbanites out of the shopping mall, but you can’t take the shopping out of us entirely. This is especially so when you can get Norlha scarves, hats, bags and home wares at wholesale prices, which allows one to be, quite literally, adorned in the luxurious authenticity of this nomadic experience.
Return flights from Shanghai to Lanzhou start from 700RMB on Ctrip. From Lanzhou to Xiahe, there are two morning buses and two afternoon buses (6.30am, 7.30am; 2pm, 3pm) from Lanzhou south bus terminal. The trip to Xiahe takes about 3.5 hours (70.50RMB). There are also Linxia-bound buses that depart every 30 minutes from the terminal, a trip that takes two hours. At Linxia, there are frequent buses that go to Xiahe for 30RMB.
Accommodation at Norden starts from 1,100RMB a night. They open from May until the end of October. For details, see www.nordentravel.com
or call 1351 9424 0358.