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Life around Norlha

After completing their training in Cambodia in January 2007, the Norlha team moved on to Nepal. In Cambodia they had learned silk weaving, in Nepal they would learn how to spin, dye and weave wool.

Dechen, Yidam, Dunko, Drukmo Kyi and Sonam Dolma spent two months in Nepal, training in Christopher Giercke’s workshop in Katmandu. They worked with camel hair and some of the yak wool Dechen had collected over a year before. They also bought second hand looms and other weaving equipment that were loaded in a truck and driven over the border to Dam, then onto Lhasa, followed by three days up the Lhasa Golmund Highway. Sonam Dolma rode with the truck, arriving in Ritoma in mid-April. She said the truck driver, seeing her on edge, had urged her to sleep. “How could I? With all the overturned trucks that I saw lying along the highway. I was shaking the whole time,” she recounted.

Several times a year monks from the monastery in Ritoma are invited to Norlha to conduct rituals. These vary according to need; usually, a divination is performed and a particular ritual is advised. A well functioning workshop is for the good of all.

One of these is the Fire Offering, as illustrated in the photos. A hearth is built and a fire started by the monks. An elaborate display of various ingredients including an array of grains, honey and incense are displayed on a table. The monk conducting the ritual throws them one by one onto the fire, which is kindled by the addition of oil. As he does so the monk visualizes a celestial bath house and invites the deities to a ritual bath that clears obstacles.

Wind spreads the fragrance from the burnt offerings far and wide, long after the ritual is completed. Birds, especially alpine choughs, love to pick though the charred remains. This also prompted the visit of a particular, tall sheep, a tsethar, an animal whose life has been spared, that is always around the guesthouse picking through the garbage. It spent many hours nosing through the smoky grain, sometimes attempting to swallow an apparently delicious morsel but burning its mouth instead.


Before roads, cars and trucks, and in spite of its remoteness, Tibet was very much a land of travel. Travel was for trade and discovery, and a lot of time was spent on horseback, whether to get from one point to the next, or as part of moving one’s herd along with the seasons. Travel involved travel gear, and Norlha has striven to recreate some of the chosen elements, as illustrated in these photos. The cup holder is the most interesting. Due to its proximity to China, Tibetans valued precious porcelain cups as well as their traditional wooden bowls. Wooden bowls could be tucked in the folds of a chuba, but porcelain cups needed more protection, so that someone at some point came up with the concept of the cup holder, handmade from wool and yak hair. The Norlha cup holder was modeled on an older version belonging to a nomad. There was also the saddlebag, which came in several sizes, one to throw over a horse, with a pocket on each side, and a smaller one to be flung over the shoulder. Inside, the traveler would stuff his cup holder, tsampa bag, dried meat bag and butter bag or box so snacks could be readily available along the way, whether on foot or horseback.

Making a cup holder (here the cover) at Norlha, made from white sheep wool and dark yak wool. Antique cup holder from Amdo. The wool is braided, then sewn together.

In the spring of 2009, the initial building of the workshop had been completed for over a year, and it was time to embellish the surroundings. We decided to plant trees. Ritoma has few trees, the only noticeable ones being those planted on the hill facing the monastery and they are fenced off, protected from the herds of roaming animals. I used to think Ritoma, at 3,200 meters, was above the tree line, but the monastery trees proved otherwise. Rather, it was Ritoma’s exclusive dedication to herding that gave the area its rolling, treeless hills. Grazing animals thrive in an ecosystem of plants, low bushes and flowers.

We bought pine trees from a nursery in Tso and planted them all around the walls of the workshop, adding a fence to protect them from roaming animals. Now, seven years later, they are a few inches taller, often decorated with bits of wool, and their lower branches are gone. The sheep, especially in the early spring when grass is scarce, and fall when it is largely gone, managed to squeeze their way inside the fence to graze anything within their reach. The trees inside the courtyard fared a little better, thanks to the guards. One day we hope they will tower high above the roofline…

In October 2006, the core Norlha team traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia to train in weaving. Some on the team had never been further than Labrang, let alone left the country. They stayed in Cambodia for four months and were plunged into a new world where they learned not only weaving and spinning, but how to ride a bicycle and cook from strange ingredients. They saw the ocean, beautiful houses, ancient temples, crocodiles and westerners sun bathing on beaches. They returned with new ideas and a new understanding of the world.