NOTE: To get the full story, we encourage you to listen to the episode. The following episode notes serve as a guide, explaining what we cover in each section. Fast forward to hear more about specific topics and sections.
Where is Ritoma?
You can’t get any more remote than Ritoma, a tiny hamlet in the far northeastern pocket of the Tibetan Plateau. Here, you’ll find Norlha, an atelier that makes sustainable luxury textiles from yak wool, using local techniques.
Sitting at an elevation of three to 5+ thousand metres, the Tibetan plateau is blanketed in snow for a good part of the year.
Norlha is an auspicious name, and it speaks to the region. Nor means wealth and it’s also the world used for yaks. Lha means God. So, Norlha is the God of Wealth, and by extension God of Yaks. — Norlha came about unexpectedly. And it all started with Kim Yeshi. Kim is a French-American anthropologist and she received her Masters in Tibetan Studies from the University of Virginia, Kim always wanted to establish a project in Tibet, and she wanted to do something to honor yaks.
In 2004, Dechen, an aspiring filmmaker, had just graduated from college in the United States. Right after graduation, Kim dispatched Dechen to Tibet to investigate the idea of working with yak wool. What’s it like living and working in a small remote plateau community of nomadic yak herders? How did Dechen and her Mum get Norhla started? They have created 120 jobs, helping to uplift the local community, and their scarves and shawls can be found in the world’s best-known fashion houses, including Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Balmain.
This conversation is going to be really interesting and wait … There’s even basketball! They started a basketball team. We when the workplace crosses over into team sports. It’s such a great way to build teamwork, and you really see a wonderful new side of people.
About yaks & grasslands
Sitting at an elevation of 3,000 – 5,000+ metres, the Tibetan plateau is blanketed in snow for a good part of the year. Ringed by jagged Himalayan peaks, Tibet is also home to gorgeous grasslands dotted with wildflowers, colourful prayer flags, black nomad tents and lots of yaks.
For centuries, Tibetans have led a nomadic life, grazing their yaks in the high Himalayan grasslands. Yak meat and milk is the backbone of Tibetan diet. Yak is used for heating and cooking. Using rudimentary draw looms, nomadic women weave yak wool into long strips to make tents, blankets and basic clothing. Women wake at 4 am and begin the day collecting fresh yak dung. Then there is milking, making yak butter, tsampa, tending the flock. Some days, just staying warm is a full time activity. And that’s not even the half of it. This is nomad living.
The yak is a distant cousin of the Indian buffalo and the American bison. They are docile creatures with long shaggy fur that drags on the ground. This outer fur tends to be coarse. Yaks also have a soft under coating known as yak khullu which can withstand extraordinarily cold temperatures. Knowing that yak khullu was on par with cashmere and pashmina, Kim felt the fiber had potential in the modern marketplace.
Tibetan nomads were, and still are, in transition, there was a need for jobs, money, and there are plenty of yaks on the Tibetan Plateau. It seemed like a far fetched idea.
Just getting to Tibet requires plenty of time and determination. And, fine weaving is not commonplace in nomadic communities. Kim and Dechen’s challenge was to introduce a weaving economy scaled to village life. To do this, they first had to find out if the nomads were even interested. So — Kim dispatched Dechen on a fact-finding mission. I asked Dechen to tell us about that first fact-finding trip.
Amdo, where it all started
The Tibetan Plateau is vast, and it’s called The Roof of the World for a reason. It is the world largest plateau above sea level. It spans 1000 km north to south from Ladakh to Bhutan and 2500 km east to west from China to Ladakh in India.
It is here, among the small, remote nomadic and settled communities of Amdo, that Norlha began to take shape.
Of course, Tibet has a long and rich independent history. However, all that was upended in the 1950s. Modern Tibet is ruled by China, and it is divided into three main areas. The TAR – the western most region which is home to Lhasa, Everest, Kailash, snow leopards. Kham, or eastern Tibet. Known as the “cultural seat” of Tibet, Kham merges with China’s Sichuan province.
North of Kham is Amdo, a region famous for its centuries old monasteries and it’s grasslands. Step into this landscape and you’ll hear the yaks with bells tinkling around their necks, prayer wheels spinning and the deep whirring sounds of the dungchen, the Tibtan longhorn, which is used for Buddhist ceremonies. After her first reconnaissance trip to Tibet, Dechen came back to Amdo. It is here, among the small, remote nomadic and settled communities of Amdo, that Norlha began to take shape.
Building a conscientious enterprise
How do you create a mindful, conscientious ideology and infrastructure from the ground up?
Once Kim, Dechen & the villagers identified the first group of employees, they had to begin training them. The nomads are familiar with dehairing, carding, felting yak and sheep wool. But how do you begin learning to weave for the western market? Early on, Kim and Dechen repurposed old 19th century British looms from India and Nepal and transported them to Ritoma. These looms are easy to operate, rely on hand labour and can handle sturdy and fine fibers.
Kim and Dechen also incorporated an intensive training program early on – this involved taking their newly-formed team to train in Nepal and Vietnam and bringing master weavers to teach workshops in Ritoma. Going step by step, the atelier began to take shape. The team picked up their skills quickly. Kim and Dechen instilled an ethos of fairness and responsibility, and a working model that included personal development and advancement. Some of this was familiar to the team, and some ideas were completely new.
Glamping in Tibet
I don’t know about you, but listening to Kim and Dechen, I am already dreaming of traveling to Amdo. And, luckily, for me and any of you who are looking for a mix of high adventure and peaceful moments on the Tibetan Plateau, Dechen and her husband Yidam created just the place.
It’s called Norden, and it’s located on the Sangke Grasslands which sits at an altitude of about 3200 m. Yidam was born into a nomadic family and he wanted to share the qualities of nomadic life. Norden is a collection of 13 tents and cabins that bring together traditional ancestral grassland life with modern creature comforts! Dechen calls it a glamp site, but it sounds more like heaven.
Learn more about Norlha.
Visit Amdo, Tibet with Norden Travel.