[The camp was built at more than 10,000 feet in a clearing of yellow wildflowers near Yidam’s ancestral home, in the region that Tibetans call Amdo. “It was so challenging to set this thing up here in the middle of nowhere,” Dechen said. (Tibetans prefer to be known by their given name.)]
By Edward Wong
Yidam Kyap, left, who helps run Norden Camp, with guests including
Tibetan monks, around a bonfire last month. Credit Gilles Sabrie for
The New York Times
SANGKE GRASSLANDS, China — The campsite called Norden here on the Tibetan plateau is not quite as spare as the tent homes of nomads who drive yaks across these wind-scrubbed pastures.
The cabins and yak wool tents have wooden floors, custom-made felt blankets and access to hot showers. An American bartender in a new lounge with blond wood furniture mixes a cocktail called the Cloudy Nomad (barley wine and honey).
This year, the camp also opened a yoga center that doubles as a communal dining hall. A sauna sits nearby.
Needless to say, this is not your typical business on the plateau. Norden Camp is the first site for “glamping,” or glamorous camping, in the vast Chinese-ruled Tibetan region, one of the most austere parts of the world.
“In the high-end market, it’s difficult to get heard out there and reach the right people,” said Dechen Yeshi, 34, who runs the camp with her husband, Yidam Kyap, also 34. “We had to ask ourselves the question: What is luxury?”
The camp was built at more than 10,000 feet in a clearing of yellow wildflowers near Yidam’s ancestral home, in the region that Tibetans call Amdo. “It was so challenging to set this thing up here in the middle of nowhere,” Dechen said. (Tibetans prefer to be known by their given name.)
The camp and a carpet workshop in the area’s main town, Xiahe, are the newest pieces of an ambitious social enterprise started by the Yeshi family, which has a mother-daughter team at its heart.
I first heard about the Tibetan-American family from a filmmaker friend, Ruby Yang, and traveled this summer to Gansu Province to meet them. The camp is next to a road leading to Xiahe and its famous sprawling Tibetan monastery, Labrang.
The family opened the camp in 2013 to raise revenue for its core enterprise: a textile-weaving business called Norlha that employs mostly women from a nearby village.
The textiles are made of yak wool and are sold in New York, Paris and other Western cities, as well as online. A shop at the camp has products on display: shimmering blue shawls and smooth scarves and pillowcases with white cross icons, a traditional design on some Tibetan cloths.
I arrived at the camp, coincidentally, on the same weekend in July as an acquaintance from Beijing, Hung Huang, a fashion and publishing entrepreneur. She had come to stay three nights with her young daughter and friends, among them design teachers from Guangzhou. She has posted a stream of photos from the camp on Instagram.
“I miss it so much,” she wrote.
On another day, two red-robed Tibetan monks who once lived at Labrang checked in with several ethnic Han followers. Monks from Labrang arrived to greet them.
The Yeshi family has its immediate roots in the Tibetan exile community of Dharamsala, in northern India — the “forbidden land,” as Dechen jokes.
That is where Dechen’s parents live and where she grew up. There, the family had heard countless grim tales of China’s policies in Tibet, which the Chinese Army occupied in 1951. Nevertheless, they decided to try to engage with Tibetans in the Chinese-ruled region and make an attempt at social enterprise here.
“My standpoint is to work with what we’ve got; this is the situation here, and I’m just going to work with what there is,” said Kim Yeshi, Dechen’s mother and a scholar of Tibetan religion originally from the United States. “There are a lot of things you have in hand. If you deal with those, there’s a lot you can do to help improve the people’s livelihoods and preserve their culture.”
Ms. Yeshi met her Tibetan husband, Kalsang, while attending Vassar College. Then the pair moved to Charlottesville, Va., where Ms. Yeshi pursued graduate studies in Tibetan Buddhism at the University of Virginia. She then traveled to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, to continue her studies.
She said she became interested in textiles and in how weaving could help preserve a culture and provide employment for refugees who had crossed the Himalayas from Tibet. She helped found the Norbulingka Institute, where refugees practice traditional crafts.
Her focus turned to yak wool and creating textiles with it. She mentioned the idea to Dechen.
In 2004, Dechen, who had just graduated from Connecticut College, came to Amdo for the first time, as an aspiring documentary filmmaker. She returned the next year to travel for seven months with her younger brother, Genam. At her mother’s request, they gathered two tons of yak wool to bring to Nepal to have it woven at a friend’s workshop.
In 2006, Ms. Yeshi came to help her daughter set up a workshop here. It was the first time she had set foot in Tibet.
“The strangest reaction I had was that you could just drive through and get from one area to another,” she said. “The stories I had heard were that travel to places in this area was one to two days by horse.”
It was July, and Ms. Yeshi said some of the grasslands looked “shaved.” She concluded that overgrazing was a problem, and this contributed to her idea of helping to create employment for nomads that would not rely on traditional herding. (The Chinese government also points to overgrazing to justify a policy of forcing nomads into resettlement villages, which many Tibetans criticize.)
Ms. Yeshi said she also found that “young people don’t want to become nomads anymore.”
“Children who have been to school can’t imagine the type of life a nomad would have, especially the women,” she added. “It’s change that happens because of the way life evolves, markets evolve.”
They found land for the textile workshop by the village of Zorge Ritoma, which has 200 nomadic households. The Yeshi family members and some locals traveled to Cambodia and Nepal to train in weaving. Machines in the workshop are from Nepal, and Nepalese sometimes come to teach the nomads.
The textile business now has 120 employees, about 110 at the workshop itself.
“Providing jobs in a village, people could continue to live together, and people could stay with their parents and kids,” Dechen said. “They don’t have to leave their hometown for jobs.”
Her mother said the long-term goal is to figure out how to replicate these efforts around the plateau to create a sustainable economy for nomads.
“I think if we can be successful with Norlha, a lot of people will see what’s possible,” Ms. Yeshi said. “Other people may try what we’re doing. Maybe if we’re lucky, we can have basic management courses on how to run businesses in a modern way, in an efficient way.”
Norlha is trying to raise awareness of the region in different ways — for example, putting on a basketball tournament with Tibetan and American teams at the end of August.
Though he has ancestral roots in the area, Dechen’s husband, Yidam, said he had been reluctant to move to Amdo, having grown up among exiles in India. But he has settled here now, and Norden Camp is his project. Yidam secured a 10-year land lease because of his family background.
The head of food at the camp is an American, Andy Knott, who used to work at an Aman resort in Bhutan. Mr. Knott sometimes doubles as the bartender. The Yeshi family employs a few other Americans.
But the 20 or so camp employees are mostly from nomad families in the area. A front-desk manager, Jamyang, 30, grew up in a nomad family, then began traveling himself at age 16, going to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to learn English. He ended up at Norden Camp because he knew Yidam.
“I like working here because the environment is so natural,” he said. “I grew up on the grasslands. This is like the place of my childhood.”
Follow Edward Wong on Twitter @comradewong.
Gilles Sabrie contributed reporting.