Just Back From

Just Back: Tibet's Norden Camp

July fills my head with sweet, sun-drenched memories of summer camp. Mine, located in Hancock, Vermont, was a decidedly bohemian affair, owned by the family of singer Pete Seeger. Those eight weeks of campfires, bunk beds and bug juice provided a delightfully scruffy, slightly tinged with mildew counter-balance to each year’s other 10 months in Beverly Hills, where Michael Jackson moonwalked at one classmate’s birthday party and I learned to swim in Monica Lewinsky’s pool. As much as my adult self loves a pillow-topped hotel bed, I still hold the unfussy fun of sleeping in a tent in high regard.

Canvas-clad luxury camps have been popping up lately on all continents, from French architect Reda Amalou’s handful of high-polish retreats at Kasiiya on 123 wildly natural, coastal acres in Costa Rica to Shinta Mani Wild, Bill Bensley’s 1,000 square foot tented camp, sprawling along a river and entirely off-the-grid in Cambodia. I look forward to checking into these. Yet my heart already holds a special place for Norden Camp, a uniquely stylish sleep (far) away camp that not only sustainably supports a community in need but also sells a selection from the wide-ranging inventory of sister brand Norlha, artisanal producers of Tibetan yak khullu, a high quality, non-piling alternative to wool cashmere.

Within a wildflower-strewn valley of the Tibetan Plateau, 10,500 feet above sea level,  the Los Angeles-based architect Blake Civiello collaborated with Yidam Kyap, a Tibetan nomad-turned-entrepreneur (with Kham warrior lineage) to design Norden’s five handwoven yak khullu tents and eight log cabins on 27 acres of gently undulating land that doubles in winter as pastures for grazing horses, cows, sheep and yaks. Here, in this remote corner of Gansu Province, one of China’s poorest regions, Kyap wanted to generate new and durable prospects for locals like his nomadic relatives.

Tibetan nomad traditional black yak hair tents are smoky, drafty and very basic: walls are lined with animal skin sacks full of food and supplies. Norden’s considerably cozier adaptations incorporate locally sourced wooden floors, traditional woodburning stoves, Tibetan antiques and imported European bedding. Amenities at Norden include fresh air, Himalayan-fed river water and vast expanses of emerald-tinged greenery, perfect for picnics prepared by the camp’s Aman-trained chef and riding the area’s small horses, which are saddled with vintage hand-knotted Tibetan carpets.

Civiello, who built sky-piercing towers at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and worked on the colossal $3 billion Abu Dhabi Midfield Terminal, returns here regularly to test out new green building methods and cold-weather insulation. I felt especially thankful for that during an early summer snowfall. It is far better than sleeping bags and scratchy camp blankets. Here on the roof of the world, guests like me take refuge under layers of Norlha’s pure khullu. The nascent lifestyle brand’s signature product gets made from the especially soft insulating layer of fiber culled from two-year-old yaks, considered the finest by cognoscenti. Founded by Kyap’s wife Dechen "Kim" Yeshi and her American anthropologist mother, Norlha, too, was conceived with community in mind. Norlha buys the raw materials directly from Tibetan farmers, who previously had to wait for annual visits from Chinese middlemen, and were often pushed to near starvation in the intervening months. After a crash course in weaving training in Cambodia and Nepal, these former nomads began producing their hand-spun, 100 percent yak wool.

A few well-placed contacts brought introductions to French fashion houses, including Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Balmain and Céline. All were eager to add Norlha’s sustainable yak-wool, yak-silk and yak-wool-blend textiles to their winter collections. More recently, Yeshi and her team have shifted focus to growing awareness for the Norlha label, mainly through China’s e-commerce channels. At Norden, the most pampered campers, myself included, can find the latest Norlha products at a boutique on the Norden campsite and a larger shop 20 minutes away, alongside Labrang Monastery, founded in 1709 and still one of the six great monasteries of the Gelukpa Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama’s sect.

Norden Camp, which first opened in 2015, remains an exciting work-in-progress. I returned earlier recently to discover Civiello’s latest minimalist structures made of traditional mud plus glass, steel and locally sourced wood. All make only the lightest footprint on this pristine environment, including a rustic cocktail lounge and open roof deck finished with exposed metal trusses and custom, unvarnished wood cabinetry, and the steel frame industrial-scale event space-cum-yoga studio. Wall-length glass doors on three sides and an extended wood-plank deck optimize views onto the surrounding snowcapped peaks. From May to October, when the camp operates, sightings of wild hares, marmots, gazelles, owls and migratory birds are common.

Despite the plush cashmere and photogenic design chops, this is still camping. Yet, Norden’s dry earth toilets seem a small, humbling adjustment for access to this awe-inspiring modern day pilgrimage spot.

Related: Q&A with Norden Camp Founder Kim Yeshi

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to discuss the destinations open to Americans now, and to learn more about coronavirus travel safety, new Covid-19 hotel policies and future trip-planning advice, inspiration and other ideas.

Published onMarch 4, 2021

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