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