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Buildings & Space

Norden Camp

The majority of Norlha’s employees were nomads at some point in their lives many were for most of their adult lives. When they first started work at Norlha, I would ask them what it was that they missed most about life as a nomad. The answer was summer time; the flowers, the smell of the earth, the breeze and the chirping of birds, life re-emerging from its long winter slumber.
I then realized that the essence of being a nomad is their connection to nature. Wanting to share this with the outside world, we created Norden Camp.
Norden is a nomad winter grazing ground situated in a valley among bushes, trees and streams. We chose this beautiful site for our camp to bring people back to what so many of us have lost touch with; nature. At Norden, our children can put aside their electronic gadgets and run in the grass bare feet, splash in the water and see baby yak and sheep, wild hare, pheasants and pick wild flowers. Luxury at Norden Camp is not so much that of five star comfort but rather an opportunity to reconnect with nature in comfort. Staying in a wooden cabin filled with the scent of pine, wrapped in yak khullu blankets handmade at Norlha Atelier, our guests can immerse themselves in life’s simple pleasures; watching a storm move across the sky from the windows of their bedroom or those in the bar or lounge, enjoying the warmth of the stove after a day spent outdoors riding horses or trekking, gazing at the stars around the bond fire, listening to the chatter of the early morning birds, passing by a yak family on the way to the lounge.
Norlha’s cuisine is, as the French would say, from the terroir, unique to ingredients available on the Tibetan plateau. It is a celebration of the plateau’s offerings and a challenge to our creativity. Norden camp is an ideal destination for foodies from around the world, who will find joy in our tasty meals and creative cocktails. Norden Camp is Norlha’s sister company. While the former allows for Nomads to be in touch with the outside world, the latter allows for visitors to step into the world of the Tibetan nomad; nature and the Tibetan plateau.

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Norlha in a Swiss Chalet

Obersimmenthal; a beautiful valley in the Swiss alps, dotted with chalets and clusters of pine trees, where the ringing of cow’s bells chimes in the background. The “Norlha” chalet, nicknamed as such for it being the perfect backdrop to illustrate Norlha Lifestyle, is a recently renovated 16th century structure. The exterior has maintained its original look while the inside was skillfully transformed to accommodate modern living, all the while preserving the essence and character of its origin. The High Plateau and the Swiss Alps combine in perfect harmony. The warmth of a traditional chalet with its raw wood and stone finish seamlessly blends with the coziness of yak wool. Norlha’s carpets, cushions, blankets and throws, woven or felted in Ritoma naturally enhance the atmosphere of unassuming, yet deep, comfort exuded by this chalet, a refuge for many generations of Swiss mountaineers. Available in Lifestyle

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Mud Walls

Mud walls, often seen as the poorer relative to stone, have stood the test of time as well, if not better. Among the most ancient and famous walls found today are ones made of mud. Civilizations who chose mud to erect their fortresses didn’t need great quarries lying nearby or have to cut and transport stone at great cost. A well-built mud wall could last centuries. Earth pounded in a wooden frame could be built in any width, and outlast stone. When a stone wall or building collapsed or was destroyed by an enemy, the remnants would be pulled down and the stones re used elsewhere. There was nothing to gain in destroying a mud wall, and one can still see today the remnants of the Great Wall of China all the way to Gansu, or those of left in the corners of the Tibetan Plateau by the Tangut empire in the 11th Century. Mud was a favorite building material in Tibet and was used for fortifying walls, monasteries as well as for dwellings. The building’s structure was wooden beams and pillars and the walls as well as the outlying enclosing fences were made of mud. Today, the use of mud as a building material is declining and Tibetans in rural areas are finding bricks less labor intensive. A mud building has infinitely more qualities than a cheaply built brick one, is warmer in winter and cooler in summer, though only time will teach this lesson.

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Stone Walls

Massive stone walls are found everywhere in Tibet, carved out from the vast array of stone material found all over the plateau, a tradition reminiscent of a time when towns and villages needed enclosing walls to protect themselves and their animals from potential danger. More than that, though, stone work is the most defining aspect found in Tibetan architecture. Still practiced today, it is witness to a century old tradition that involves highly skilled masons capable of building walls that will defy centuries using local stones with only mud for mortar.

Though pounded mud walls were even more widespread, and widely used in village homes, Tibet’s most famous architectural landmarks, including the Potala Palace in Lhasa, are made of stone. Walls are finished in many ways, from their natural aspect to whitewashing in white, yellow, red or grey, styles preferred in Central Tibet.

When we built the Norlha workshop, we chose to make the enclosing wall from stone. The most able mason in the area, author of the rebuilt 9 story tower in Tso, Kanlho, modeled on the one built by Milarepa in Central Tibet in the 11th century, was available and he and his team built our wall. He has retired since, but his son continues in his father’s footsteps. As Tibetan builders are faced with the onslaught of newer, cheaper, lighter (and mostly uglier) building options now found on the market, ones that totally bypass mud walls, stone emerges as the most handsome and lasting option for those wanting to build a structure that matters.

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Tibetan Houses

Tibetan houses offer a rich variety in architectural concept that differs from region to region. House building tradition is strongest in farming areas, where elaborate constructions can be up to three stories high. Animals occupy the lower area at night, sending warmth up to the upper floors. The family lives on the second floor and the third houses the family shrine.

Ritoma is a nomad area, and until fifty years ago, nomads lived all year round in their sprawling yak hair tents. In winter, they would surround the camp with double willow fences, stuffing the space in between with yak down for protection, and stacking the inside of the tent with yak dung to keep it insulated. There was no tradition of house building, so that when they became the norm in the sixties, they were simple, with a wooden structure of beams and pillars and mud walls, made from pounding earth between wooden frames and then removing the frames. This operation requires skill and technique and can lead to walls that hold for centuries, though people now prefer using bricks, which are widely and cheaply available.

A house must face south to capture the low winter sun, and in the last ten years, people began building glass verandas to trap heat and insulate the building. All around the house is a mud or brick enclosing wall, leaving space for a wide courtyard where animals are kept during winter nights.

Nowadays, a typical nomad house boasts three rooms. One is a dedicated shrine room with elaborately carved altars holding statues, sacred texts and photos of lamas. Offerings of clear water in silver or copper bowls and fruits line the front of the shrine. A large bushel of wool hangs off the side, a collection of strands of wool taken from each and every yak or sheep that a family slaughtered or sold for meat. It stands there in memory of the animals who fed the family, a focus of prayers to accumulate merit on their behalf, and for the family itself who bears karmic responsibility for having ended their lives. A kang, a heated platform covered in felt and sheepskins stands opposite to the shrine so that the room can be used for sitting, eating or sleeping. Tibetans always sleep with their feet away from the shrine and towards the window. During the day, they sit on the kang, offering the best seats, near the window, to elders or more important guests. Everyone sits cross legged and low lying table runs down the middle and through the length of the kang. Tibetans never step over tables or sit on them.

The second room is generally a large space used to host gatherings for dozens of people, in preparation to religious activity or for times of celebration or mourning when the entire village comes to pay their respects. A large earthen stove and one or two kangs dominate and the walls are lined with shelves embedded into wooden panels where the porcelain bowls for drinking noodle soup or kneading barley are stored. This too is in preparation for large gatherings.

The third room is usually a sleeping/sitting, all purpose room, also used for cooking. Here too are a kang and a dung or coal stove which has the dual purpose of boiling water and cooking meals. This room, where the family lives, is characteristically small to conserve the maximum warmth. More affluent nomads will also have a room dedicated to stocking animal products, from dried meat to animal hide to butter and cheese. A diligent nomad will never allow this stock, characteristic for its pungent smell, to run low.

To this day, most families have no plumbing and wash their faces and hands in metal basins usually placed on the veranda, away from stoves or tables used for eating. Bathrooms are a very new concept, and few families have even outhouses.

A Tibetan house is simple though filled with the warmth of generations who were born, lived and grew old within its walls.

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