Life around Norlha

When we began in 2007, we were big in thinking and small in means. We had a plot of land from the village, and the choice between a traditional wooden pillar and beam structure or a Chinese village style brick building with a tiled roof. The first was more challenging financially though more attractive, lasting, and in tune with the local environment. Since we had no architect, only the local builders and the limitations of 3 meters between each pillar, Dechen did something simple; she took the floorplan of the village house she was living in and blew it up; an elevated central part, with large rooms extending on either side and a surrounding wall, made of dry stone, artfully built by the local stone mason. There was room to expand on the lower part, and the kitchen and dining room were the first addition.

Our first office was in the room between the two workrooms; deprived of sunlight, it was tiny, cold and drafty, and soon became much too small. In 2010, we built our office opposite the dining hall, and in 2011, we rebuilt the office next to it, moving the new sewing room into the former office. In 2012, we built the felting room, behind the work rooms, with a courtyard in between. We had a slight scuffle with our neighbor who thought we were too close to his dung pile and had to beg for the extra meter, which was granted by the village council. In 2013, we added the guesthouse, to house visitors in comfort. It was also in traditional wood structure style, though we opted for the local dark tiles instead of the flat roof. It had an attic, soon occupied by a multitude of roosting pigeons. We built a kitchen outside, and when we requested our builder to add windows, he asked why we needed windows on a bathroom. When we explained it was a kitchen, he muttered in amazement “these people are crazy, they put the bathroom in the house and the kitchen in the courtyard”.

In 2014, we ventured into a new building style, confident with the direction and design of our architect friend Blake Civiello. Our new dyeing house had a metal structure and an ambitions ventilation system. In 2015 came the storage and the showroom, also the work of Blake, in the same style that effortlessly merged with the existing buildings. Then we took a break to catch our breath, though struggling with insufficient dining space competing with the need for a photo studio.

This year, we took the plunge and extended upward. The existing office was torn apart, the skylight taken closer to the sky, and stairs built to access the meeting rooms and photo studio. Dechen’s office, along with those of Dorje Jampa and Serwo disappeared to give way to open space. It was not a big loss, as Dechen’s office had become the after school playroom of the managing team’s children/changing room for models. On the 15th of July, we packed up the office tent we had been living in for two months and moved in. It is all bigger and better, but still a work in progress.

Tibetans are a people on the move. The endless space of the windswept Plateau required seasonal migration of domesticated sheep and yak and encouraged distant trade with goods from Italy or England finding their place in in the markets of Lhasa or Shigatse. Spiritual life demanded taking off to holy sites thousands of miles away, sometimes as far as India or China. Until recently, when a family member took off to a far-reaching destination, no one knew when to expect them back, resorting to various forms of divination which allowed them to prod the unknown for a clue of their whereabouts or their likely return.

Now there is the cellphone. At first, one had to climb on the top of hills to catch a signal, and the higher pastures were off limits to the networks, but now the smartphone is the nomad’s indispensable tool. A typical herder is no longer isolated; while taking his flocks to graze, he or she can listen to songs, engage with friends on a We Chat group, or shop online. The older generation does not approve of this distraction conducive to lowering the herder’s guard facilitating the loss of sheep to wolves or thieves, though they themselves most probably have their own chat rooms to catch up with friends and relatives their own age. The trend is there to stay.

At Norlha, the endless chatting on cellphones became a nuisance, distracting the artisans from their work and they check them into a box as they step in for work. This initially gave rise to a wave of protest, but has become a way of life, of staying in touch, of covering distances without having to move, of recording important events on camera and sharing them with loved ones.

Nomads used to camp all year long, but about 50 years ago, they began to build makeshift houses to help them pass the winter more comfortably. These usually had mud walls and thatch roofs and gradually grew into wood and stone or brick houses. The winter dwellings are spread around Ritoma land in hamlets regrouped by clan and animals graze on what is left of the pasture and eat the oats grown nearby. In winter, the animals are brought to these houses.

Jampa is a Manager at Norlha. His family house is the furthest from Ritoma’s main village and as a child, he had to stay with an aunt who lived closer to school. His parents live there, helping his brother and his wife manage their herd. On weekends, the family’s children all regroup there and play on the pasture. In Spring, it is bare, but full of young animals.

This year, Norlha is opening a small store on the Barkhor, in old Lhasa, in addition to our flagship store in a quieter area nearby. The Barkhor, which circles the celebrated Tsuklhakhang, Lhasa’s main temple, is still the gathering point of pilgrims and the heartbeat of Tibetan trade. In the past, people brought produce and commodities from all over the Plateau and set up stalls, alternating between religious devotions and the need to earn their living. Traders brought goods from beyond and one could find fedoras from Italy, cloth from America and perfume from France.

Nowadays, most pilgrims come to Lhasa in winter, when herding or farming is at a lull, and where the sun is warm, at least compared to the windswept Northern plains. One finds everything a Tibetan would want on the Barkhor; yak butter, dried meat, medicinal herbs, religious objects, thermos bottles, mixers for making Tibetan tea, traditional hats, hand woven chuba material from Southern Tibet and much more. It is the meeting of two worlds.. and two minds.

Norlha is located on the Tibetan Plateau the region otherwise known as the Roof of the World, an area populated by more yak and sheep than humans. Since few can come this far to view our work and buy our products, we sought a means to reach clients beyond the pasture. We didn’t have the resources to open stores in the world’s capitals, so we opted for the next best solution, one made possible in our cyber age.

Our first e-commerce website was functional in 2014, the year we decided to launch our brand. It initiated us to the complexities of e-commerce, and was a great learning curve. The second website followed the next year, an improvement on the first, then the third last year. We were beginning to sell, but this was not enough; we needed to develop the ability to communicate Norlha’s story and present the products to people who often had no idea about yaks or their khullu.

This year, we decided to get serious about our website, and pull in more resources. Early in the year, Dechen and Bill, the Website Manager appealed to web designers, videographers, developers, merchandisers, photographers and art directors to come to Norlha and give us a hand. In the first wave came videographer Crispin Hutton and photographer Dan Paton from the UK, followed by Merchandiser Anita Wong and copy writer Kwei Chee Lam from Hong Kong and Beijing, and photographer Matt Linden from Finland. Then came web designer Samantha Gaghan from Australia/Canada, Videographer Steve Pierce from Oxford, photographer Axl Jenson and Art Director Nicole Hardt from Berlin and Developers Melissa Johnson and Chris Dunder from Seattle.

All offered their time on a voluntary basis. While the first group endured extreme conditions in Spring snow, it was this last team that came under the most pressure, looming under a self-imposed deadline of September 1st. The work load was intense: The 400 studio pictures of the products involved turning our dining room into a studio, further training our studio photographer Lhabum to shoot the products on a background of white paper, getting up at 4 am and freezing in the pre-dawn fog waiting for the first, perfect light of day, and enduring rain and a drone that refused to work in wet conditions. Then Sam designed and Chris and Melissa developed, lending their genius to create a flexible and deeply functional website. Everyone but Sam left on the 2nd of September, after a weekend celebrating the new website at Norden Camp. One detail: We had to push back the launch date two weeks, during which Bill, Dechen and I sat around a table to complete the work. The good news: the website is up, come and see it!!! And a great thanks to you all for helping us make this happen!