In the wild

The best thing about camp­ing in style, or glamp­ing, at the Ti­betan grass­lands of Gansu province isn’t just the scenery— it’s the in­fec­tious pas­sion and in­spi­ra­tional tales of those who re­side there

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By ALYWINCHEW

Camp­ing at the Ti­betan grass­lands is about tales of those who re­side there.

Tucked away in the re­mote re­cesses of the Ti­betan Plateau in Gansu province, Nor­den Camp ex­ists in its own vac­uum of seren­ity.

Apart from the oc­ca­sional coo­ing of birds and the flut­ter­ing of their wings, the only con­stant sound that per­me­ates this place is that of wa­ter slosh­ing in the small stream that runs through the com­pound.

From­rolling hills to­lush­grass­lands to the sur­real can­vas of re­splen­dent stars above your head come night­fall, the scenes of what Mother Na­ture af­ford­satthis­des­ti­na­tion­are, without ques­tion, spell­bind­ing.

But the beauty of this so-called lux­ury re­sort lies not in the fact that it is an as­ton­ish­ingly pic­turesque get­away lo­ca­tion.

Rather, the most poignant as­pect of this sanc­tu­ary lies in some­thing less vis­i­ble and more vis­ceral — the sto­ries of the peo­ple within, which in­her­ently help spawn­new­per­spec­tives to life.

Opened in May 2014, Nor­den is the brain­child of Yi­dam Kyap, a former Ti­betan no­mad, and his wife Dechen Yeshi, a Ti­betan-Amer­i­can, both of whom were ea­ger to pre­serve the fast-fad­ing no­madic cul­ture and gen­er­ate em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for lo­cal no­mads via a travel des­ti­na­tion that pro­vides an au­then­tic yet rel­a­tively lux­u­ri­ous travel ex­pe­ri­ence.

The cou­ple have cer­tainly man­aged to achieve this, hav­ing con­jured an im­mac­u­late blend where tra­di­tion meets moder­nity. Just like Ti­betan no­mads, guests can stay in yak hair tents, with the dif­fer­ence be­ing that those in Nor­den are far more lav­ish — they come with coal heaters, wooden floor­ing, soft beds and yak wool blan­kets by Norlha, a tex­tile brand helmed by Yeshi that has made its way to the shelves of lux­ury bou­tiques such as Her­mes, Lan­vin and Yves Saint Lau­rent.

Al­ter­na­tively, trav­el­ers can stay in cozy cab­ins that come with their own en suite dry toi­lets. Shower ar­eas, on the other hand, are lo­cated in two lo­ca­tions within the camp. Other ameni­ties in­clude a sauna, a beau­ti­fully con­structed area for yoga and med­i­ta­tion, as well as a small bou­tique sell­ing Norlha prod­ucts.

In terms of ac­tiv­i­ties, guests can choose to do archery, horse­back rid­ing, visit the nearby town of Labrang and its fa­mous monastery, go on hikes to the nearby hills as well as have a meal with a no­madic fam­ily.

Nearly all the em­ploy­ees at Nor­den come from no­madic fam­i­lies in the area, and they only work from May to mid-Oc­to­ber when the camp closes and be­comes a win­ter graz­ing ground. Dur­ing this break, some re­turn to help their fam­i­lies with no­madic prac­tices while oth­ers are trans­ferred to Nor­den’s cafe in Labrang­tow­nand theNorlha tex­tile work­shop.

There seemed to be a hint of re­gret when Yi­dam said that he is still work­ing to­ward pro­vid­ing year­round em­ploy­ment for all his em­ploy­ees, most of whom are in their early to mid-twen­ties.

“Young Ti­betan no­mads are kind of in a limbo these days,” says Yi­dam.

“Most of them don’t want to lead no­madic life­styles any­more. These days they just want iPhones, com­put­ers and a cushy gov­ern­ment job. But it’s hard for them to get good jobs be­cause many aren’t flu­ent in Man­darin.”

When asked if he would ever turn Nor­den into more con­ven­tional lux­ury re­sort com­plete with all the bells and whis­tles, such as en suite shower ar­eas and flush toi­lets for each room, Yi­dam sim­ply shook his head.

“The whole point of Nor­den is about be­ing eco-friendly so that we can pre­serve the orig­i­nal state and iden­tity of the Ti­betan Plateau. We don’t want to be dig­ging up too much of the ground just so we can in­stall pipes.”

This em­pha­sis on the preser­va­tion of Ti­betan no­mad iden­tity rings true in Nor­den’s kitchen as well. The spe­cially de­signed menu by Amer­i­can chef An­drew Notte plays a huge role in in­tro­duc­ing guests to lo­cal cul­ture, with the pre­dom­i­nant meat fea­tured on your plate com­ing from the yak, an an­i­mal that far out­num­bers the hu­mans in this part of the world.

Apart from yak meat, Notte also uti­lizes the an­i­mal’s milk as well as other in­gre­di­ents typ­i­cally used by no­mads, such as lamb, tsampa, a roasted bar­ley flour, as well as joma, a pro­tein-rich root that’s avail­able in the grass­lands.

I was ini­tially rather ap­pre­hen­sive about eat­ing yak, ex­pect­ing it to be a tough and gamy on the palate, but what I ate through­out the trip— yak burg­ers, yak mo­mos (dumplings), yak steaks— were sur­pris­ingly ten­der and de­lec­ta­ble. Of course, much of this had to do with Notte’s culi­nary prow­ess too — the Amer­i­can was formerly a chef at the up­scale Aman Re­sorts in Bhutan.

Notte said that it was the camp’s pas­sion­ate pur­suit of the preser­va­tion of lo­cal no­madic cul­ture that com­pelled him to be a part of the project.

“Yi­dam’s vi­sion mir­rors my pas­sion and be­lief in us­ing lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents to show­case lo­cal cul­ture. That’s how things should be, as op­posed to im­port­ing in­gre­di­ents that are com­pletely for­eign to the lo­cal scene,” says Notte.

“Work­ing with lo­cal in­gre­di­ents also means fresh­ness and qual­ity as­sur­ance. Take yak for ex­am­ple — it’s the best meat I’ve ever worked with. Why? Be­cause I know ex­actly where it comes from. I know ex­actly what the yaks are fed. I mean, I can lit­er­ally see it walk­ing on the grass­lands,” he adds with a laugh.

Notte is not the only Amer­i­can em­ployee at the camp. An­drew Tay­lor and Wil­lard John­son, who hail from Los An­ge­les and Seat­tle re­spec­tively, said they were sim­i­larly drawn by the­camp’s ef­forts in the lo­cal com­mu­nity, as well as the op­por­tu­nity to gain new­per­spec­tives in this re­mote part of the world.

Tay­lor was ini­tially sup­posed to home-school Norzin, the old­est daughter of Yi­dam and Dechen, but his back­ground in yoga in­ad­ver­tently led to him con­duct­ing well­ness ac­tiv­i­ties for Nor­den guests. As it turned out, Tay­lor is ca­pa­ble of whip­ping up a sump­tu­ous meal too — he does so at the Norlha guest­house, lo­cated a two-hour drive south­east ofNor­den— hav­ing taken a culi­nary course on holis­tic cook­ing back in the United States.

John­son, a former bas­ket­baller who played for the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (MIT) and sev­eral clubs in Europe and Latin Amer­ica, ar­rived to coach the Ti­betan no­mads work­ing at Norlha but some­how ended up be­com­ing an ath­let­ics coach for guests atNor­den.

Dur­ing a hike up one of the neigh­bor­ing hills with John­son, he re­vealed that he comes from a fam­ily of dis­tin­guished mil­i­tary per­son­nel but had de­cided to go off tan­gent in­stead.

“My grand­fa­ther was the com­man­der of a fleet of sub­marines. My dad was a fighter pi­lot. Me? I chose bas­ket­ball,” he snick­ers.

“When I heard about the im­pact Norlha and Nor­den were hav­ing on the com­mu­nity I re­ally wanted to come. When I found out that they played bas­ket­ball here, I knew I just had to come.”

Tay­lor and John­son are paid mod­est stipends for their ef­forts at Nor­den and Norlha. But though they could cer­tainly own far fat­ter bank ac­counts by work­ing back home in the US, the duo have had no re­grets with their ad­ven­ture in China so far.

“Back home in the US, I guess there’s an in­nate need to keep up with your peers. Many ofmy friends from MIT are suc­cess­ful en­gi­neers. Some are even rocket sci­en­tists. They’re all earn­ing good money,” says John­son.

“Still, I’m very happy here. Be­ing here in the re­mote grass­lands and see­ing the lo­cals go through what they do re­ally changes your per­spec­tive to life. You re­al­ize that money isn’t all that im­por­tant.”

For­get the stun­ning scenery of the Ti­betan Plateau. For­get the fact that you can get four sea­sons in a sin­gle day here (I suf­fered from some se­ri­ous sun­burn dur­ing the hike, only to wake up to snow the next morn­ing). For­get the su­per fresh air here that makes megac­i­ties seem like toxic waste­lands.

Such con­ver­sa­tions were ac­tu­ally the high­light of my trip. And they were cer­tainly in abun­dance.

Nor­den might be widely dubbed as a lux­ury “glamp­ing” des­ti­na­tion, but there are, per­haps for­tu­nately, no tele­vi­sions in the rooms. This means there is lit­tle to do af­ter sun­set when the en­tire area is blan­keted in dark­ness. Guests ei­ther have an early night (those with chil­dren in tow al­ways do) or par­tic­i­pate in such dis­cus­sions about life and cur­rent af­fairs at the cozy bar area.

I chat­ted with Notte about his culi­nary style, his fa­vorite foods, the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tions and his ad­ven­tures on Bhutan’s treach­er­ous moun­tain roads.

I chat­ted with Yi­dam about the cur­rent predica­ments faced by the Ti­betan no­mads, if Dechen was love at first sight, his fu­ture plans for Nor­den and the fea­si­bil­ity of us­ing so­lar power in­stead of coal to heat the rooms.

I chat­ted with a fel­low guest from Shang­hai named Alok So­mani about the rise of Amer­i­can foot­ball in our adopted city and­howthis trip made us dis­cover thatwe­don’t ac­tu­ally need so many mod­ern com­forts to live well.

All these nightly con­ver­sa­tions at the bar helped me gain newin­sights in a va­ri­ety of mat­ters. They also in­ad­ver­tently taught me that it is prob­a­bly wise to go easy on the tip­ple in the Ti­betan Plateau.

At 3,200 me­ters above sea level, the al­co­hol gets to your head pretty quickly.

Most of all, they taught me that good va­ca­tions shouldn’t just leave you with a cam­era full of images or a wal­let crammed with re­ceipts — it should leave you eman­ci­pated by new­per­spec­tives.

This, is what lux­ury travel should truly be about.

PHO­TOS BY ALYWIN CHEW / CHINA DAILY

Clock­wise from top: Nor­den Camp; Nor­den bar; Yak dumplings with noo­dles; Dechen Yeshi, Yi­dam Kyap and chil­dren.

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