Life around Norlha

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!

Every year, Norlha hosts two international basketball tournaments: a 5-versus-5 event during the Spring, and a 3-versus-3 event (or 3x3) in the Autumn. The latter is a popular basketball style that although played for decades, has only recently received formal international recognition, and will become an official event in the 2020 Olympics. Our 2nd annual 3x3 event coincided with the Ritoma Lhatse, a local festival during which local men honor the mountain god of the Amney Tongra, the highest peak in Ritoma, by offering prayers and their clan's arrows. Last year's tournament included a men's and women's division; this year Norlha was excited to introduce a youth and wheelchair division.

Each clan within Ritoma - Winter Monk, White Horse, Horse Saddle, Golden Rock, Black Water, Cliff Nest - was represented along with a teacher’s team from the local school, two Ritoma all-star teams, two international teams made up of visiting Americans and Australians, Norlha men's and women's teams, and two Ritoma youth teams. Norlha was honored to have 3-time Paralympian Gold Medalist Alana Nichols, presently one of the best wheelchair basketball players in the world, join us to demonstrate wheelchair sports and the power and strength of those with disabilities to the local community.

Norlha teamed up with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Motivation International, ADU Tours, Seattle Adaptive Sports, and Pinnacle Hoops to kick-start it's new wheelchair sports program on the Plateau. Also present was volunteer Cecelia Black who helped organize the event and donated 6 sports wheelchairs. The chairs, sent from England arrived on a three-wheeler from Tso, the nearest town on the second day of the tournament.

They were immediately unpacked and dozens of people came forward to help assemble them. It was Sunday and the children soon grabbed the chairs and zoomed around on the court. Alana put on multiple teaching clinics and Ritoma saw its first wheelchair basketball game, the Americans and Australians versus the local Tibetans. Norlha was also pleased to welcome back former professional player, WNBA coach, and Guinness World Records holder Ashley Graham who has been training the Norlha women's team in preparation for another 3x3 tournament in Hong Kong next week. Combining our love for textiles and Ritoma's passion for basketball, we are proud to use both to promote community, women's empowerment, and disability advocacy.

Nomads lived in large yak hair tents moving camp 3 to 4 times in a grazing season, following their animals to new pastures. A generation or two ago, families were much larger and everyone participated in the daily chores; women milked the dris and processed the milk, making butter, dried cheese and yogurt and made the dung ready for use as combustible. Children from the age of six took sheep to graze, and men lead the yaks to higher pasture and brought them home every night. In the evenings, everyone gathered around the fire and a meal of thukpa, and the elders told stories.

Now families are smaller and scattered, children at school, old people nearer to the monastery and the children, leaving the young couples to tend the animals. The tents are more reduced in size and lighter, and most often made of canvas.

Lungta is a cooperative comprising about ten families and their common animals, 140 yaks. They have set up a yak hair tent as they were in the times of large families, with a large mud stove in the middle, bringing back typical nomadic implements, bags containing supplies lined up on the inside, yak hair ropes and cheese drying cloths woven from yak hair and sheep wool. It is a beautiful and inviting space for all to get a glimpse of a lifestyle on the wane. 


Labrang Tashikhyil was founded in 1709 by the First Jamyang Shepa, Jamyang Shepei Dorje, under the sponsorship of a Qoshot Mongol prince. Many incarnation lines have their seats at Labrang Monastery including the Jamyang Shepa, Amdo Zhamar and Gunthang incarnation lines. Labrang has six colleges, the largest of which is the debate college, Mejung Tosam Ling, which was established by the First Jamyang Shepa when he built the monastery. The Tantric Colleges, Lower and Upper, were established by the First Jamyang Shepa in 1719, and the Upper, in 1943 by the Fifth. The Kalachakra College and Medical Colleges were established in 1763 and 1784 by the Second Jamyang Shepa. The Fourth Jamyang Shepa established Hevajra College in 1879.

Tibetan Medicine has its roots in India, introduced on the Plateau along with Buddhist Indian culture in the 11th and 12th centuries. Tibet absorbed early Indian Abhidharma literature as well as wide range of Indian Vajrayana tantras, containing practices based on medical anatomy, all of which formed the base of the Tibetan medical treatises.

The Medical College in Labrang is the largest in the area, and has a very active clinic and pharmacy. Most medicines made there are based on the wealth of local medicinal plants that cover the summer pasture, and in summer, we often see monks gathering plants in Ritoma, whose Monastery falls under Labrang’s monastic jurisdiction.

Past Ritoma Monastery, hidden from view on a hill is a small temple devoted to the meditational deity Chanadorje. It was built in the late 18th century by Je Khedup Tenzin, also the founder of Ritoma Monastery, a disciple of the 2nd and 3rd Khunchen Rinpoche or Jamyang Shepa. When Khedup Tenzin first visited Ritoma, he did a retreat on the site of Chador Khorchen, the site of a renowned natural stone manifestation of Chana dorje, on which grew hair. Following the retreat, a small temple was built to commemorate it, and the site became famous for its healing powers.

Today, people come from all over Tibet to receive Chanadorje’s blessings and become cured of their illnesses. Chador Khorchen is a favorite circumambulatory spot, also offering a few rooms for visiting pilgrims.