Life around Norlha

Today, people tend to forget how much we, homo sapiens, have always moved from one place to another. Migration, which happened ‘en masse’ for millennium is no new phenomenon. In Tibet, all across the Plateau, it was and still is a part of daily life. In the era with no phones, postal system, roads or motored vehicles, people had a culture particular to predicting a traveler's return. Journeys from one end of the plateau to the other could last months. Monks came from thousands of miles to study in the great monastic learning institutions in Lhasa braving winters and robbers. Merchants travelled regularly on horse to India and China, buying and reselling everything from Stetson hats to Italian cloth. Mystics wandered beyond borders to seek knowledge from a distant teacher or let their minds travel the path to enlightenment from the depth of a cave. Ordinary laymen regularly engaged in lengthy pilgrimages, family affairs that children found wildly exciting, visiting holy sites near and far.

A holiday for a Lhasa dweller meant packing up a cartful of household goods transferred to an elegant tent pitched in a beautiful spot near a river. Travel is still endemic to the Tibetan disposition. Lhasa is the best example; in winter, it fills with pilgrims come from North and East while the more privileged Lhasa dwellers spend the coldest months in balmier fog of Chengdu. Nomads in Kham and Amdo spend their summers in remote high altitude camps, now exchanging news on group we chats. They use solar energy to charge their phones and even have small generators for their television. Every month or so, they move camp, finding fresh pasture for their yaks and sheep. They herd on horses but ride load their belongings on ‘blue camel’ three wheelers and ride their bikes to town for supplies. In winter, the more privileged amongst them flock to Lhasa and its surroundings, either flying or by train. Some choose the slower route, a full time occupation, prostrating from remote regions of Kham or Amdo and taking several years to reach their destinations. Lamas now travel in cars, though on important occasions, are often accompanied by horsemen.

Harvest in a nomadic area like Ritoma is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the old days, there were less animals in more plentiful pasture, gathered into larger herds owned by the big families of an area. Winter grazing was an important part of the cycle and involved the younger members of a family taking the animals to higher pastures where they found certain nourishing grasses that fed them through the cold months. Gradually, as elders like to say, younger nomads became ‘softer’. A trend began in the 70’s to build houses that provided shelter during the winter months and kept animals near them, nibbling on what was left of the grassland. This proved to be insufficient, so some forty years ago, all families began cultivating oats for winter feed. Nowadays, oat cultivation and the October harvest have become an integral part of the herder’s cycle. At Norlha, we find ourselves giving a 3 day harvest holiday so that our employees are free to help their families and friends on those busy days. The oats are cut, tied in bunches and placed in tripod formation until they are collected, loaded on ‘blue camels’ and taken to each family’s winter house to dry. Once the fields are cleared the animals are let loose to gorge on the left overs of the harvest and the surrounding grassland, saved up as autumn pasture. The yak and sheep, aware that this time is coming, become restless and invariably direct themselves towards the fields, their owners finding great difficulty in holding them back. Everyone camps in the big valley that lies before the village, which for three days is filled with tents, shepherds on horse, temporary fencing and thousands of yak and sheep.

The pasture remains a bright shade of parrot green, though the tips of long grass left to grow wild in the autumn pasture turn gold at the tips. Patches of blue emerge as the gentian flowers bloom and intense shades of fuchsia milk thistles emerge above the grass. In the wetlands, long stemmed yellow flowers bloom alongside river grass that goes off into shades from lime to jade, bordering with salmon pink. The oat fields turn a tender green, waiting to be cut for winter feed. This is the beginning. Nature is turning towards autumn, with the wild flora gradually multiplying its offerings until bees have had their fill of pollen all seeds are spread in the wind, ensuring the next season. Norlha has taken inspiration from all these shades, moving along with the cycles of nature

When we began planning Norlha in 2005, we knew that we could not rely on the traditional skills in spinning and weaving of the nomads we planned to employ. A nomad’s life is harsh and they rely on highly honed skills all centered on their animals; managing them, deriving their needs from them, keeping them safe from wolves and from starving in times of insufficient rain.

Nomads made only what they needed; clothing and footwear from sheep skin, tents and ropes woven from yak hair, mats from felt. A nomad wastes nothing, as part of an attitude of respect for nature and for their animals. They slaughtered them for their needs, but used everything; ate every part of the animal that was edible, boiled the bones for stock or used them to make tools, tanned the leather which they sewed into clothing or storage bags, used the horns for vessels. They collected the hair from their yaks to spin, then wove into tent material, the wool from their sheep to weave into thick cloth used for making sacks and saddle bags, or felt for mats to sit and sleep on.Dung was carefully collected and used for fuel.

Nomad looms, used mainly for weaving yak hair, were of the narrow back strap type and simple drop spins utilized, usually on the move, for spinning sheep wool The vernacular objects that came from these simple tools were long lasting and suited to their needs. The means used to their fabrication could not, however, provide Norlha with a base of sustainable and marketable products. We needed to elaborate and innovate, which is what we did.

We were extremely lucky in that the men and women who came to work for us had all, at one time or other, spun, woven, sewn or felted. When given new tools to work on, they quickly overcame their doubts and performed with ease on their charka spinning wheels, their flying shuttle looms or their sewing machines. Spinners took a week or so to spin efficiently on a charka, but later mastered the skill in as little as an hour when seeing other women performing with ease.

Skills can be transformed and refined, people who do one thing well can switch to doing another. Norlha has proven that adaptability is the key to success.

When Dechen and her brother Genam set off to Amdo to buy yak wool in the summer of 2005, they had no idea what they were getting into, and neither did I. The instructions were simple; set out and meet a few Amdo families whose relatives we knew, find out everything about yak wool, buy a few tons, send it back to Nepal and have it tested in a friend’s workshop.

All this was to explore the possibilities of setting up a yak weaving workshop in Amdo. I firmly believed that the yak held something great. I had never seen anything knitted or woven from yak khullu on the market or even touched any, but I had heard of qiviut. I thought that the musk ox looked very similar to the yak, and that the highly spoken of fiber that it delivered could very well hold similar properties. There was also the intriguing story, told to me by ‘Namsa Chenmo’ or Master of Robes, of the Mao style coat Ngabo had worn to an important meeting in China in the 60’s, made from a piece of yak wool fabric. Ngabo asked him to tailor it into something, which in spite of its style, would be quintessentially Tibetan. In short, I believed in the yak, and my children, in the face of such confidence and the prospect of an exciting summer, went right along.

They met three families; the first, in Chapcha had no yak wool. The second and third, in Machu and Ritoma respectively helped them find the quantities they needed. Machu was a learning curve while Ritoma led us on the path to success.

Yak wool is very matted, and needs to be de haired to separate the soft khullu from the guard hair that covers it. The factories that did this were in the Moslem town of Linxia, at the base of the Plateau, a processing center for all the products of the grassland; meat, leather and hair. We all tried to avoid the unavoidable by hiring seven, then up to twenty women to try dehairing by hand. Dechen borrowed a corner of the Machu family’s yard, an example of multi-use. One end was occupied by a big heap of bones separated into ribs, knuckles, forelegs and back legs. All afternoon men sat chopping and separating the bones, earning 25yuan a day. On the opposite side was a makeshift awning covering our sacks of yak wool, where the de hairing took place.

The women sat all day cracking chewing gum, their fingers separating the rougher guard hair from the soft fluffy khullu. The job was tedious and Dechen gave it a week to test whether the women could actually clean and separate the hair as efficiently as the factories.

While this was going on, they visited the Machu family’s nomad camp and learned all there was to know about the yak. Genam even made a drawing.

As it turned out, Dechen and Genam would have to spend a year and a half in the Machu yard to de-hair 2000kgs by hand. The process was abandoned and the factory solution sought out.