Eco-Glamping in Tibet
A luxury eco-camp opens on the pastoral plains of Tibet. CYNTHIA ROSENFELD gets to know the sheep-grazing, stargazing paradise.
Published on Oct 2, 2015
Here in the endless grasslands of Tibet, it is easy to get lost. Somewhere between the fields of wildflowers and the star-punctured canopy, you lose track of what year it is, even what century. Inside the log cabin it is a snuggly cocoon, warmed by a Tibetan wood furnace, but you'll have to brave the crisp the morning air to take in the view that waits beyond your yak-felt padded walls.
Norden Camp, on the untouched prairie of the Tibetan Plateau, just opened in May 2015 but it feels like it has been here forever, so seamlessly does it blend into the surrounding serenity that stretches from undulating grasslands to, further afield, one of the six great monasteries of the Dalai Lama's sect. The eight log cabins and four khullu (yak-hair cashmere) tents are high-end and eco-friendly takes on traditional Tibetan style, and every detail is on point from the local antique furniture to the lush khullu bedding. It seems authentic, because it is authentic—this is no tour company construct, but rather the result of a shared vision between a Tibetan nomad raised in these grasslands, Yidam Kyap, and his Tibetan-American wife, Dechen Yeshi. Like all the best shared visions, this one starts with a love story and a little yak hair.
Luxury yak-hair tents at Norden Camp. Courtesy of Norden Travel.
Fresh out of university in 2005, Yeshi was an aspiring filmmaker traveling China's Gansu Province in search of material for her first documentary. On this dramatic venture, she unwittingly found herself in the starring role of a deeper saga, for it was here that she met Kyap, and fell in love with both him and the local Tibetan community, whose traditional livelihoods have been threatened by China's rapid development. Yeshi put down her camera to create Norlha, a social enterprise employing more than 100 ethnic Tibetans. The locals collect the yak hair that the animals naturally shed each year and sell it to Norlha, where it is turned into softer-than-cashmere khullu textiles for Paris fashion houses including Lanvin, Céline and Sonia Rykiel.
Norden Camp is this same winning formula of Tibetan nomadic life, luxury and responsibility writ large. Kyap's family still lives in this undulating, wildflower-strewn landscape at 3,200 meters above sea level, but beyond the local population, the area is largely unknown. Unlike travel to Lhasa, going to Norden requires no special permit and yet, up to now, no luxury tourist accommodations have existed across greater Tibet.
"We wanted to share with our urban, sophisticated friends all this Himalayan-fed river water, fresh air and emerald-tinged terrain," Yeshi says. To protect this rarefied environment, Norden Camp has eco-sensitive plumbing, advanced insulation, traditional heating and solar power. The campsite is bordered by a meandering river and also sports a Finnish sauna, three dining tents and a juniper wood Buddhist prayer altar. Between the Tibetan Plateau's more welcoming months, from May to the crisp, clear nights of October, the camp shares its 11 hectares with gazelles, owls, hares and migratory birds. In the winter, the land returns to the nomads as a grazing area for sheep and yaks.
Tibetan wood furnaces warm the log cabins. Courtesy of Norden Travel.
Set aside "plenty of time to sit and listen to the river water from your deck," Yeshi says. "Norden is as much about our access to Tibetan culture as it is about the restorative sounds of silence." Which means you may be able to hear the flutter of your own heart even as you ride Tibetan horses, trek, bird-watch or practice yoga.
Join a local nomad family for a picnic, or take the easy, 30-minute drive among the Himalayan foothills to the town of Xiahe, where you can snack on brownies baked by Kyap's sisters at their Norden Café. Next, Norden's English-speaking guides will shuttle you to the region's star attraction: Labrang Monastery, founded in 1709, and a pillar of Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhism, a sect known as the Yellow Hats. Though nearly all of its original structures, along with countless bejeweled artifacts, were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Labrang remains one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist sites 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.
A painting in Labrang Monastery of a Gelugpa monk. Courtesy of Norden Travel.
Back at camp, nightfall brings another soul-expanding pursuit into focus. Skylights in the cabins glow with views of a night sky ablaze with stars that really do appear to twinkle. "We had one guest complain about straining her neck counting so many shooting stars," says Yeshi. It's a risk you'll have to take when you camp on the roof of the world.
Xiahe County, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province; +86 138 9397 0003; nordentravel.com.