Life around Norlha

The Norlha Atelier stands at the entrance of Ritoma village, after the basketball court and before the spread of winter houses and the sprawling monastery that marks its limit. Most people who work at Norlha are from the main village or the hamlets that radiate from it across the pasture. All have started out as nomads and most still have family members who herd for a living. Things are changing. There is now life in the village in summer, around those who live there all year around, and much of that life radiates around the workshop; stores that cater to its employees, a few restaurants, children who come there after school waiting for their parents to come home.

Animals are still very much a part of daily life and most keep a few sheep or horses they train for the races. It is a way of life in transition, but one that is still revolving around the village, bringing in new elements while retaining much of the familiar old ways, reaching a balance that will keep Ritoma’s inhabitants close to their roots, with new ways to weather the changes taking place all around them.

Glistening, cold, slippery, stark and pitiless, ice is an integral part of winter. Ice on the Plateau is never very far away; in late august, it transforms the dew into glittering particles that weigh down on the flowers until the sun shines in and releases them. By mid October, it is there to stay, and though the sun melts it away wherever it can reach, it remains entrenched on the northern faces on the hills, where it can’t.

Then the streams and lakes freeze over, trapping the last remnants of grass. The yak’s sure footing takes them onto the shimmering surface in search of moisture and children fill the air with shrieks of joy sliding over it on their makeshift sleds.

Clouds roll over the Plateau bringing rain and snow. In summer or early fall, when the air is humid, they often lie low creating a blanket of fog which starts thick in the morning and sometimes dissipates, revealing a bright blue sky. Nomads don’t like fog; animals disappear from view and become prey to wolves and foxes. Elders love to tell tales of devils and fairies that snatch children in the fog, which delight them and make them shiver in spite of the warmth and safety of the kang they are snuggling on. The fog makes our photo shoots at Norlha unpredictable. If we seek it, it may not come, but if we don’t it could suddenly roll in from a clear sky. We make do, for interesting results.

Tibetan nomads have lived in their black yak hair tents for as long as anyone can remember. Depending on the area they live in and the condition of the pasture, they move with their animals every few weeks or months in the summer and build a more permanent camp in the winter, which in most areas has now been replaced by houses.

A Tibetan nomad tent is a not comfortable dwelling. While a Mongolian gher affords some comfort, in some cases upgraded with wooden floors, glass skylights and wooden doors that shut out the wind, the Tibetan baku is a drafty, smoky affair with a grass floor and a drippy ceiling that doesn’t hold off the rain. It may have had a certain charm in the old days when the large families lived in spacious bakus furnished with altars and low tables. People would huddle around the hearth to hear stories at night, the walls of the tent lined with skin sacks full of food and suppliesand, and their earth over graced with ornate teapots and brass pans. These days are over, the families smaller and the ones who still stick to their baku do it out of nostalgia. It is heavy and hard to transport and has to be maintained, replacing one twelfth of the fabric, which the families wove themselves from yak hair, every year, so that the whole tent would be renewed after twelve years. The pasture which used to be dotted with black tents is now the site of the white or green specks of military tents, easier to handle for the now smaller families and lesser number of hands.

When Yidam Kyap created Norden camp, he wished to base its lifestyle concept on the baku, which he successfully transformed into a living area offering all the comfort one would wish for. He elevated the ceiling, made it waterproof, provided a stove pipe for the hearth and added wooden floors. Norlha furnished the Norden tents with carpets and felt soft furnishings.

The Lungta Cooperative, near Norden provides an example of a grand tent of the old days. Its walls are lined with traditional skin bags, woven blankets and skin covered wooded boxes used to store supplies, as well as the wooden cupboards used for altars or the family’s porcelain cups and the low tables where visitors would be entertained. The center of the baku is dominated by the earth stove that was built and rebuilt every time the family moved camp.

Tibet is sometimes called The Land of Snows, though not all areas of the Plateau see regular snowfall. In Ritoma, winters are too cold for snow and are more characterized by a blue sky, ice and a copper colored pasture. Snow prefers Spring or Autumn when it creeps in unsuspected, following a warm, sunny day. There is a sudden gush of wind, like a slap, and night clouds hide the moon. In the morning, the view is dominated by white, a blanket that covers the pasture as far as the eye can see. April snowstorms are plentiful, May ones occur often, sometimes even spilling into June, as it happened in Norlha’s early days, when a June snowstorm knocked down the tent that then housed the workshop. This snow melts quickly and by midday, the grassland is a patchwork of brown and white

Autumn snow comes early, light at first, beginning with mere flurries, then turning more serious and sticking to the frozen ground of the northern face of hills, which don’t receive sunlight. Animals like the snow, as rivers and ponds are frozen and the moisture, especially in the sunny areas, seeps into the ground.

At the workshop, snow also means snowball fights and for the children, the odd snowman.