A touch of luxury on the Tibetan Grasslands

OUR INTREPID BECKY HAS BEEN OUT CHECKING ON SOME GORGEOUS NEW DESTINATIONS

DID YOU THINK THAT TRAVEL IN TIBET HAD TO INVOLVE ROUGHING IT? 

NOT HERE AT THE GORGEOUS NORDEN CAMP WHICH BECKY GAVE 10 OUT OF 10 FOR LUXURY, AUTHENTICITY AND COMFORT!

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As we crossed the line from the end of the sealed road onto dusty gravel, bounded on both sides by rolling green grasslands dotted with yaks and sheep, I knew this place was remote. Turning off the dusty road at last toward the Norden Camp, and driving under the tall banners of prayer flags whipping in the wind, I knew this place would be something different.

Founded by a local Tibetan man, based on the concept of traditional Tibetan nomadic culture mixed with modern eco-friendly practices and western comforts, Norden Camp is a unique accommodation near the famous Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, eastern Tibet.

Winding stepping stone pathways lead guests through the trees and bushes from the reception room out to the communal lounge, bar, library, dining, and relaxation areas, and further over the small ups and downs of the natural landscape to each carefully placed tent and wood cabin.

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The camp manager, Jamyang, led me around the wide space. Smiling broadly, he was clearly proud of the place he was leading into the start of a busy summer season. All of the staff are local Tibetan nomads – many from the owner’s extended family – who are being trained in specific tasks such as housekeeping, cooking, and waiting tables. Although many of them can’t speak a word of English, smiles seem to be the lingua franca and for the most part communication doesn’t need words for them to understand and expect what guests require.

The tents and cabins are built on raised platforms over the grasses, to reduce their environmental impact, and have systems in place to ensure water is conserved wherever possible. The interiors are beautifully appointed with wool and felt products from the Norlha handicrafts range – Norden’s older sister project based nearby. From blankets to slippers to pillowcases and hot water bottles, the simple yet elegant designs add warmth to the rooms. Each room also has a stove for extra cosiness on those cold nights, carefully tended by the housekeeping staff through the evening so that the guests feel comfortable and warm by the time they retire for the evening.

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Boutique touches such as the wide space of the yoga room, located next to a low bubbling stream, the hot tub that overlooks the grasslands and mountains in the distance, and the Finnish-style sauna add to the experience guests looking for comforts and warmth in the high plateau.

 

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After coffee on the deck outside in the last of the afternoon sun, I headed inside to the bar area to relax in front of the fire while waiting for dinner. With multiple dining spaces, groups have their own privacy to dine in without worrying about others. I was treated to the “Yak Story” – one of three “Stories” that Norden serves, created by the excellent American head chef who lived for two years in Bhutan running the kitchen of a luxury resort. At Norden he has embraced the creative challenge of using all locally sourced ingredients, mostly traditional Tibetan ingredients, to create a range of dishes that appeal to western palates while showcasing the best of the plateau’s unique flavours.

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The meal was stunningly presented and tasted as good as in any fine dining restaurant back home – a delicate broth of yak and barley, reminiscent of a French onion soup, followed by a main course of yak steak with mashed potatoes, spinach, and yak bone marrow served with barley toast. Finally, a small yak-milk crème brulee completed the menu.

But not every dish is so meat-based - the kitchen is well equipped for dealing with special dietary requirements, providing alternative menus for vegetarians, vegans, coeliac, and other allergies or requirements. After speaking with the chef about this, his passion for food and experimenting with the local ingredients became clear: he seemed to enjoy the challenge of adapting a traditional Tibetan meal – which is typically meat- and dairy- based – to suit individual needs of customers.

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From inside the comfort of the wood-cabin bar, I watched as the grasslands outside turned from green to deep blue and purple and finally settled into darkness. With no light pollution from any nearby towns or houses, the night sky out here seems deep and endless, and completely peaceful.

Hidden out here in the rolling hills of the Amdo grasslands, under the brightly coloured prayer flags, a haven of peace has been built in harmony with the environment. Norden Camp is the perfect escape for anyone seeking a spiritual or romantic retreat with a difference; a touch of luxury in the Tibetan grasslands.

A Taste Of Trekking: Highlighting the Sagala Trail

 Camping on the Sagala Trek

Camping on the Sagala Trek

Many people dream of trekking in the Himalayas.

It's on thousands of bucket lists all over the world.

Travel writers rave about the unforgettable experience of being in the shadow of high mountains and crossing windswept passes. 

But what if you're not an experienced or serious trekker? 

The experience doesn't have to be missed. In western Bhutan, the short Sagala Trek is one of the most popular for giving a taste of trekking in the high altitudes of the Himalayas, without committing your time or your body to a more serious route. 

The trek begins in the tranquil valley of Haa, bordering on Tibet and shaped by the Haa Chhu River.  Local people consider the hills around Haa to be holy and inhabited by local protector deities, so you'll see shrines and temples dotting the forested slopes and around every village. A walk through the quaint villages of the Haa valley allows you to experience traditional Bhutanese customs and everyday life, as you can interact with the local people. 

From the small village of Talung, resting at 3,150m at the top of the valley, the trail gradually climbs through meadows and coniferous forest to the Sagala Pass - the highest point of the trek at 3,720m above sea level. Enjoy the excellent views as far as the Tibetan border, Mount Jomolhari, Tiger's Nest Monastery near Paro, and Drukgyel Dzong. Crossing over the pass toward Paro, the descent begins through rhododendron forest to the peaceful Dongney Tso Lake where camp is set up for the night. 

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Waking up in the morning to the sound of birdsong in the trees and sunrise illuminating the distant peaks, enjoy a coffee with your breakfast as you warm up and prepare for the day's hike. Trek down a steep hill through thick vegetation that's thriving with animal life - see how many laughing thrushes, magpies, and pheasants you can spot - until you reach a small village and temple. From here there isn't far to go to Balakha Chhu, where the trail ends and your car will meet you to take you the rest of the way to Paro. 

Done as a three-day/ two-night, or a shorter two-day/ one-night journey from Haa over to Paro, the Sagala Trek is the perfect introduction to Himalayan hiking for those who have never done it before. You will be accompanied by a guide, mules to carry your luggage, and a cook to prepare nourishing meals. Camp will be set up for you each night, complete with mattresses, warm sleeping bags and blankets, a dining tent and bathroom tent - you don't have to worry about the cold or your comfort. 

Short on time, unsure of your trekking stamina, or nervous about committing to a multi-day hike at high altitude? Don't let these stop you; the Sagala Trek could be the right one for you. 

Check out our trip page here for more information, or contact us to enquire more

 Cairns and prayer flags at the Sagala Pass

Cairns and prayer flags at the Sagala Pass

The Top 5 Festivals to Visit in Tibet

 Lhasa locals gather in the Norbulinka Summer Palace to watch traditional Tibetan Opera performances during Shoton Festival in summer. 

Lhasa locals gather in the Norbulinka Summer Palace to watch traditional Tibetan Opera performances during Shoton Festival in summer. 

For the ultimate cultural experience, nothing can beat a festival in the land of snows. 

There's something so enchanting about Tibetan festivals - the rich colours of the Buddhist robes, the warm smell of butter lamp candles, the melodious chanting of prayers punctuated with droning trumpets and thundering drumbeats, and of course the enthusiastic atmosphere created by the local pilgrims and monks in attendance. 

All across the Tibetan plateau various different festivals are celebrated, each with their unique practices and traditions. From the month-long Saga Dawa (often in May/June) during which thousands of Tibetans renounce meat, to the sunrise unveiling of a giant thangka at Drepung and Sera Monasteries in Lhasa, to the lighting of thousands of butter lamps in towns and villages across the country. Eastern Tibet's Kham and Amdo regions are well known for their horse racing festivals, while central Tibet's monasteries take center stage for a number of important days throughout the year. 

Out of all the festivals in Tibet, we've got a few favourites of our own. Which ones appeal to you? 

Here are our picks for the top 5 festivals to visit in Tibet: 

1. Shoton (Yoghurt) Festival, Lhasa. 
August 11 - 16, 2018 / August 30, 2019

This week-long festival in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa begins at sunrise with the grand unveiling of a giant thangka (embroidered image of the Buddha) that is only brought out for this one day, once a year. Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery - the two largest monasteries in Lhasa - each have their own thangka, which are simultaneously unravelled, but devoted pilgrims who wish to see both usually begin at Drepung in the morning, then carry on to Sera for the afternoon. The ceremony involves dramatic traditional music with much clashing of cymbals and pounding of drums, and a ritual dance by trained monks. Thousands of local pilgrims queue for hours to see the thangka and receive a blessing from it. 

After the first day, the environment relaxes as Lhasa locals all spend a week's holiday picnicking at the Norbulinka (the summer palace of the Dalai Lama) and watching Tibetan Opera performances in the park. 

 The giant thangka at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa. 

The giant thangka at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa. 

2. Butter Lamp Festival, All Over Tibet
Dec 2, 2018 / Dec 21, 2019 

To celebrate the achievements of the great Tibetan saint-scholar Je Tsongkhapa, people across the country lights tens of thousands of butter lamps in every monastery and ordinary house's windows and rooftops. Known in Tibetan as "Ganden Ngamchoe", it has become famous in English as the "Butter Lamp Festival". Je Tsongkhapa was responsible for creating the Gelug, or "Yellow Hat", school of Tibetan Buddhism, of which the Dalai Lama is now the head. 

In Lhasa, hundreds of locals and tourists pack into the Barkhor Square to see the lamps lit on the roof, balconies, and windows of the sacred Jokhang Temple. In Kangding and other towns across eastern Tibet families spend the day in the monasteries helping to fill empty lamps with yak butter, ready to light at night. 

 The Butter Lamp Festival in Kangding, Kham. 

The Butter Lamp Festival in Kangding, Kham. 

3. Tsurphu Monastery Festival, Lhasa
May 24, 2018 / June 12, 2019 

The head monastery of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, and home of the Karmapa Rinpoche, is tucked away in a narrow valley west of Lhasa. Not many tourists visit Tsurphu, making it an ideal place to have an authentic festival experience, surrounded by Tibetan pilgrims from near and far, immersed in the Buddhist culture. 

For three days monks perform symbolic dances while wearing elaborate costumes and masks, representing and embodying different deities. Interspersed are comedic acts with laypeople dressed as clowns, yaks and snow lions who entertain the crowd to lighten the mood. It's a jovial experience that has everyone laughing. 

 Monks in elaborate costumes and masks parade around the courtyard during the Tsurphu Monastery festival and cham dance performance. 

Monks in elaborate costumes and masks parade around the courtyard during the Tsurphu Monastery festival and cham dance performance. 

4. Yushu Horse Racing Festival, Kham
July 25 - Aug 1, 2018 & 2019

Khampa people are known for being the horsemen of Tibet - wild and strong, fierce on horseback, but lovers of having a good party! Horse racing festivals are a highlight of any trip to the Kham region, and are also popular in Amdo. The horse racing festival at Yushu is one of the biggest events of the year in eastern Tibet, and a unique experience for any visitor. 

For a week, watch as Tibetan men show off their talents on horseback, performing acrobatic tricks such as standing, firing a bow and arrow at targets, and sweeping up scarves from the ground while at gallop. There are also yak races and a full carnival of fun and games for families to enjoy. This is nomad Tibetan culture on display at its finest, as the empty grasslands fill with traditional yak hair tents as families pour into the area, wearing their best new clothes. Mingle with local people, and have the experience of a lifetime. 

 An agile rider shows how he can lower himself to the ground, and then pull himself up again, during the horse racing festival in Tibet. 

An agile rider shows how he can lower himself to the ground, and then pull himself up again, during the horse racing festival in Tibet. 

5. Cho-Kor/ Ri-Kor Festival, Lhasa
July 16, 2018 / August 4, 2019

The whole of Tibet celebrates the Cho-kor festival - the anniversary of the day the Buddha first "turned the wheel of dharma" by teaching his disciples about the four noble truths. But in Lhasa the celebration is unique - hundreds of people take to the mountains to complete a day-long pilgrimage from hermitage to hermitage across the mountains that form the northern border of Lhasa city. This pilgrimage is called the "Ri-Kor", or "Mountain Circuit". 

From early in the morning friends, families, young children and grandparents walk along the old mountain trails from Pabonkha Monastery to Sera Monastery, via 3 or 4 different hermitage retreats. They carry with them new prayer flags to hang from the mountain, and bags full of juniper and dried herbs to burn in piles of incense. Many sing and tell jokes as they walk, and at lunchtime stop to play games as they picnic high on the mountainside with panoramic views of Lhasa city below. 

 A Tibetan woman waits for her friends in the mountains, during the Rikor festival. 

A Tibetan woman waits for her friends in the mountains, during the Rikor festival. 

Bonus: Losar, All Over Tibet
February 5, 2019

The Tibetan New Year is usually a time for Tibetan people to be with their families and at home, similar to Christmas in the west. However, for tourists it can still be a beautiful time to be in Lhasa as people come to the holy city from all corners of the plateau wearing their best new clothes and showing off the fashionable dresses and jewelry of their home region. In Amdo, at Labrang and Langmusi Monasteries, the ceremonies to welcome in the new year go for days and involve displays of painted butter sculptures. People from all of the surrounding villages come to the monastery for blessing and to see the celebrations for the new year begin. 

 A Tibetan woman from Kham walks the Barkhor in Lhasa during Losar. 

A Tibetan woman from Kham walks the Barkhor in Lhasa during Losar. 

The Legend Of The Flying Tiger

It's an unmissable icon in Bhutan - clinging like a swallow's nest to the edge of a cliff high above the Paro Valley, it makes many foreign visitors wonder how such a monastery could ever be built. It is only accessible by narrow mountain paths, and surrounded by dense forested mountains and dramatic rocky drops, yet it has become one of the most popular places in Bhutan for pilgrims and awe-struck tourists alike. 

To the local Bhutanese, there's no doubt as to why or how this difficult to reach temple earned it's name Taktshang - "Tiger's Nest". The legend goes that the great Indian master Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan, was called to Bhutan from Tibet to subdue demons who were causing difficulties for the people of Paro Valley. He flew from Tibet to Bhutan on the back of a tigress, landing at a cave high up in the cliffs above Paro. This cave is where he then spent the next three years, three months, three weeks and three days meditating and performing rituals to subdue the demons of the land, and the place became known as "Tiger's Nest". Some believe that the tiger who carried the Guru was actually his disciple and consort, Yeshe Tsogyel, who transformed herself so that she could assist him in travelling to the Land of the Thunder Dragon. 

Guru Rinpoche is regarded in Tibetan Buddhism - the religion which is dominant in Bhutan as well as in Tibet - as the second Buddha. His magical feats are famous and his image is seen in every monastery and temple across the Tibetan Buddhist world. He was invited to Tibet in the 8th century in order to tame the demons of the land and convert them to Buddhism, which he did through many battles and contests. He then travelled to Bhutan for a similar purpose - to calm the demons and harmful spirits so that Buddhism could flourish and the people could thrive.  

The fantastical stories of the Tiger's Nest don't end there though - Guru Rinpoche apparently returned to the site hundreds of years later, reincarnated as Tenzin Rabgye, the man who built the structure that turned the meditation cave into a temple.  It is said that many miraculous things happened during the construction and consecration of the temple, which proved its highly sacred status. According to one legend, the buildings were even anchored to the cliff using the hairs of dakini - otherworldly celestial beings from Tibetan Buddhist mythology.  

Over the centuries many famous Tibetan, Indian, and Bhutanese yogis came to the temple to meditate, drawn by its powerful energy. Today, still, the monastery is in use as a hermitage by monks from monasteries near and far, seeking to attain the level of enlightenment that the Buddha and Guru Rinpoche achieved.  

Visitors are welcomed to visit the Tiger's Nest, this place of myth and legend, to see for themselves the incredible temple and perhaps believe - even if just for a moment - that the stories of flying tigers and magical gurus may be real. 

Why Nepal Should Be On Every Travel Bucket List

Adventurous and curious travellers have been heading to Nepal for decades in search of new experiences, but what is it that draws them there? 

For a small country, Nepal has a little of everything, geographically - towering peaks, dense jungles, lowland plains, turbulent rivers, glaciers and hot springs. The old hippy haunts from the 70's heyday can still be found in some pockets of Kathmandu and Pokhara, but they've been overshadowed by the recent trend of adventure tourism that's developed over the past decade in the Himalayan country. 

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Here are ten reasons why Nepal should be on every travel bucket list: 

  1. It's home to Mount Everest and some of the highest mountains in the world: Okay, let's get the obvious one out of the way first. Mount Everest, standing tall at 8848m above sea level, straddles the border of Nepal and Tibet, allowing trekking access from both sides. However, given the difficulty of accessing Tibet and the remote EBC north, this incredible mountain is easiest to be viewed from the Nepal side. Standing at the foot of the mountains, feel dwarfed by the intimidating Himalayan range 
  2. Adventure sports are booming: There's not many places in the world where you can paraglide one day, bungy jump the next, and go white water rafting the next day, all while returning to a comfortable lodging overnight. Nepal is the home of adventure tourism in Asia, with options to suit every level of confidence. 
  3. See endangered animals in the wild: In Nepal's Chitwan and Bardia National Parks, take a walking safari or jeep tour to see endangered tigers, rhinos, gharial crocodiles, wild elephants, and more. If you're extremely lucky, you could even be one of the few people who sees the endangered leopard in the wild. 
  4. It's culturally diverse: You may think of women dressed in sari and visiting Hindu temples when you think of Nepal, but the country is actually multi-cultural with different dress, religious traditions, languages, and food in each community. From the Sherpa people who live near Tibet, to the Newar people of the Kathmandu valley, to the tribes of the Terai in southern Nepal, the culture and traditions are so different you'd be surprised to think they're all Nepali. 
  5. You can experience old-world charm in the modern melee: Kathmandu is a city of chaos and contradictions, where the modern world has grown around ancient alleys and shrines, buses hurtle past cows in the main streets, and you can drink your chai from a five-star restaurant or a cart on the side of the road. Hidden in pockets of the city you'll find charming restaurants, boutique hotels, or colourful shrines that can make you feel like you've stepped back in time, far away from the modern world outside on the street. It's discovering your own hidden gems that make the journey so rewarding.  
  6. Trekking has never been more comfortable: On the Annapurna circuit, renowned for its breathtaking views, you can enjoy the full experience of trekking in the high mountains without having to worry about where you'll sleep for the night. The Annapurna Circuit is a tea-house trek, meaning each night is spent in the comfort of an established tea-house, complete with nutritious meals and hot tea to start your day. 
  7. It's a spiritual haven: From Hindu temples to Buddhist monasteries, meditation retreats to yoga camps, Nepal has long been a home for foreign tourists seeking spiritual enlightenment. The clear air of the mountains, the hum of the jungle, and the slow pace of life all lend themselves perfectly to a spiritual retreat. 
  8. It's perfect for families: Nepal is a safe country to travel to with children, and you'll have no problems finding comfortable hotels, agreeable foods, or fun experiences to keep them entertained. While many people think of Nepal as a backpacker's destination, it's also very family friendly. 
  9. The food is unforgettable: You know you've been to Nepal when you crave a big plate of daal bhat for breakfast, with a chai on the side. The hearty dish of rice, lentils, and curry is a favourite among tourists, trumped only by momos - the Nepali dumpling - which come with various fillings from meat to veg to chocolate! 
  10. You'll see some of the best sunsets and sunrises of your life: Whether you're in the valley, the city, or the mountains, Nepal has some of the best sunsets and sunrises to offer. Colourful, highlighting the mountain peaks or touching the tips of the trees, they're worth waking up early for. 
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For a country so small, landlocked in the middle of a continent, Nepal is packed full of stunning scenery, adventurous activities, cultural charm, and unforgettable experiences to make it worthy of a top spot on any traveler's bucket list. 

Itching to pack your bags already? Check out our tour and trekking options in Nepal, or contact us for more information. 

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