Most gamers share the same religion. We believe in RNGesus. You know, this entity is kind of like Jesus, but a little different.
I played my first computer game when I was around five years old.
It was one of those puzzle games that ran off MS DOS.
Grandpa often played the game on the IBM desktop in the study room. He usually did so when Grandma was busy preparing dinner. I suppose that was the only time he had a reprieve from her constant nagging. But as precious as those quiet moments were, he never once refused to let me take over. He’d place me in his lap and teach me the ways of beating the computer.
I have been a gamer ever since.
When I entered primary school a couple of years later, my parents bought an 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System to keep my younger brother and I entertained. The console came with a game cartridge containing 40 games. It was awesome.
Battle City, Bomber Man, Ice Climber, Kung Fu and Tag Team Match MUSCLE were among our favourites. We would spend most of the day playing different games during the school holidays, to the point when everything because a little blurry.
After all, that was the only time we were allowed to play the NES.
Mummy later bought us this game called Cobra Triangle where you control a speed boat that could fire big grey pellets. It was a very challenging game and we really enjoyed taking turns to play it. We never got to complete it, though. It just stopped working. I remember how we would say a little prayer before puffing into the bottom of the cartridge. Nothing worked.
The next console we got was a SEGA 16-bit. It was a long-term loan from our uncle. My brother and I always played Bare Knuckle (Japanese version of Streets of Rage) together. Though we were a little older then, and the sibling rivalry had gotten stronger, those two-dimensional streets where pixelated gangsters roamed was the place where we could put our differences aside and work toward a common goal.
“Hey, you’re running out of life. Eat that chicken! I’ll eat the apple instead,” I would tell my brother.
“There are too many bad people! Should I use the special power?” he would ask.
We must have completed the game more than a dozen times. But each play-through felt like a new adventure.
Our gaming exploits were not limited to the SEGA. There was a PC game called Uncharted Waters which we were crazy about. I once accidentally saved over my brother’s game in which he had amassed a fleet of ships armed to the teeth with the best cannons.
Nearly on the verge of tears, he yelled at me and stormed out of the room. He did not talk to me for two days.
When I entered secondary school in 1994, the Playstation became one of our main sources of entertainment. Every one in school loved playing King of Fighters. Mortal Kombat was fun, too. I especially enjoyed Ace Combat.
When my close friends went on a trip to New Zealand during the school holidays, I spent most of my time at the home of another friend playing Resident Evil. We would take turns controlling the character and reading the game guide he purchased. We laughed and screamed and cheered. Fuck, that game was scary. Especially when the lights are switched off.
We became pretty good friends.
Back then, Winning Eleven was a far better game than FIFA, even though the names of the players were in Japanese, which we did not understand. Every Saturday, a whole bunch of friends would come to my place to play virtual and real football. Those were great times.
I hardly played console games during my polytechnic and national service days. During this period, I mostly played PC titles like Warcraft, Starcraft, Command and Conquer, Counterstrike and Battlefield with my pals at LAN centers.
As an officer in the army, I was given charge of the e-learning lab in camp. It was probably one of the most embarrassing postings to be given. After all, most people wanted to be able to train or command a platoon of men. But here I was, assisting a captain with his training duties and making sure the computer lab ran smoothly.
It was a great job to have, by the way. The corporals under me knew their stuff so I never had to check on them. The only time I was required to step in was when I caught wind of an imminent inspection.
“Guys, the captain will be coming to check on us this week. Make sure you aren’t playing Winning Eleven or Command and Conquer in the server room. And stash those controllers,” I would tell them.
“Yes Sir! By the way, we just installed Tiberian Sun. You wanna have a go at it later tonight?”
“Fuck yeah. Count me in.”
Many of those who had to stay in camp during the week days tried to get chummy with me in order to get access to the computer lab. I was a friendly dude. I allowed everyone to play whatever they wanted after office hours. Sergeants, lieutenants and captains from other wings all came to join the party.
To me, gaming during these times was all about bonding.
A 13-year love affair
My first year in university marked the start of a love affair with World of Warcraft (WoW). It was probably not the best time to start playing such an addictive game – I spent more time playing the game than studying, and as a result nearly failed one module. While I didn’t make many friends in Sydney where I studied, I made a number through the game.
I was a Tauren Warrior. I thought it was silly to pick a cow but that was the biggest character available. Everything else just seemed scrawny and squishy. I chose to be a warrior because I like charging into a crowd of enemies and smashing their faces in.
The first guild I joined was Absolute Dragons, which was started by a group of Asian American dragon-boaters based in San Francisco. I thought it was pretty cool to have an Asian woman as the guild leader. She played a shaman and seemed really authoritative over Ventrilo. Her sister seemed like a much nicer person. Maybe it was because she was a priest.
There was also a female huntress in the guild that I thought was gorgeous in real life. But every time I tried to chat her up in the game she would just feign death.
What I loved about vanilla WoW was the 40-man raids. That was seriously intense. The learning curve was pretty steep and almost everyone needed to bring their A-game if the raid group was to kill the boss. I remember trawling through the Auction House in search of fire resist gear. Because we need a minimum amount to qualify for the Molten Core raid.
I really enjoyed the teamwork and the boss fights. The one thing I hated was how those Pauldrons of Might never dropped for me. I had saved all those damn DKP points just to buy it, but when it did finally drop, I wasn’t in the raid.
“Wait for five sunders. Don’t pull aggro if you’re not the tank,” the guild leader would always call out before the boss fight. Back during those times, the tank determined the pace. These days, the new kids in WoWjust pull everything and expect the tank to deal with the mess. Self-entitled brats. Fuckin’ millennials.
When damage output was found to be lacking, the raid leader would call out: “More dots, more dots.” I loved that phrase. It made me imagine bosses to be covered in polka dots. It made me chuckle.
It has been 13 years since WoW was released. I’m still a subscriber. I don’t have any friends I play with anymore, but I still enjoy the game. It’s no longer about getting into raids to get the best gear or making new friends. These days, it’s all about discovering the storyline and just decompressing.
Before I got married and was living with my parents, my mother would often come into the room when I was raiding and exclaim: “Aren’t you a little too old to be playing computer games?”
“Would you rather I be out drinking and smoking and doing drugs?”
Yup, always worked.
A few months ago, a Taiwanese friend who was at my apartment saw WoW running on the laptop and said: “Playing games at this age? You’re really quite a zhai nan (宅男) aren’t you?”
I think that terms refers to being a geek. Well, I’m not a geek.
You know, gamers are really misunderstood people. Those who don’t game on a regular basis think that we are:
(a) socially awkward
(e) all of the above
And that’s really the furthest thing from the truth. I might be a little bit of an (a) at times but I generally love having a few pints while meeting new people.
I’m certainly not (b), while (c) and (d) can be pretty subjective term.
Am I immature? Well, how do you even define maturity? The size of my epeen? The wrinkles on my face? The fact that I play games? It doesn’t even make sense.
One can never be too old to be a gamer. Many people seem to think gaming is something only kids do. They believe that being a certain age means having to do certain things that fulfills the criteria of being that old.
Oh, you’re 28, it’s time to be a husband.
Oh, you’re 30, it’s time to be a father.
Oh, you’re 33, you should be focusing on your career and making lots of money.
Oh, you’re 50, time to think life after retirement.
No. We don’t have to follow these goddamned pre-determined routes in life in order to be happy. If you like gaming, you like gaming.
Gaming is a religion. RNGesus is our God. You don’t need to be a certain age to accept a religion.
My wife doesn’t find joy in playing games. That’s cool. Her psycho-motor skills suck anyway. The only game she was decent in was Candy Crush. When she tried to play WoW all she ever did was spend my gold on new clothes.
She told me that reading is a much more enjoyable hobby. She’s really good a reading. She can blitz through a 500-pager in one day. Me? Sony would’ve released the Playstation 10 by the time I’m done with a book this long.
Reading doesn’t appeal to me that much because I find it hard to get immersed. I always feel like a spectator.
Some people get satisfaction from completing a book. I get satisfaction from that glorious ache in my hands after an intense boss fight.
The beauty of gaming
I also love gaming because I love a good story. I mean, I’m a writer. Or an aspiring one, anyway. Gaming allows me to experience a story differently.
It allows me to be in the story. Sometimes, I am the story.
As such, I can still vividly recall all the scenes that took place in the games I have played.
I remember shaking my head in disbelief at how beautiful the ending to The Last of US was.
I remember sobbing when Mordin Solus sacrificed himself in Mass Effect 3.
I remember gasping in horror when Sephiroth impaled Aerith in Final Fantasy 7.
I remember feeling a mixture of sadness and awe when Thrall killed Garrosh in Warlords of Draenor.
I remember getting a hard-on when Morrigan bedded my Warden in Dragon Age.
More importantly, games have showed me what good storytelling should be – emotional, honest.
A reflection of life
When I was feeling depressed in the months followings my big move to Shanghai, Hearthstone taught me some important lessons about the RNG-ness of life. Like how sometimes you’re just dealt an atrocious starting hand and there’s little you can do about it.
Really? Drawing three 6-mana cards when I only have three 6-mana cards in the deck? Seriously, RNGesus. What the fucking fuck?
On other occasions, the cards you start with allow you to win within four moves, because everything just connects, and because the opponent just so happened to have a really crappy draw.
I once lost 12 ranked games in a row. Nothing I did went right. I could knock someone down to 5 HP only to lose in the next three moves. Shit happens. And that’s the world for you. Everything is uncertain. If RNGesus decides to fuck you up with a bad draw, you just learn to deal with it. When you lose, all you can do is pick yourself up and just go at it again.
What we can do, though, is set ourselves up for success; maximise our chances of not fucking up. Build a deck is suited to your ambition, your play style. Determine if this play style is suitable for the context you are in. Anticipate what the opponent might play. Have a contingency plan.
When you’re done building your strategy to life, experiment with it. Win a couple. Lose a couple. Go back to the drawing board. Revise the deck. Improve on it. Go out there again and play.
No, this isn’t what gaming or a fantasy card game is about.
This is what life is about.
My name is Alywin. I turn 35 in October. I am a gamer. And I’m damn proud to be one.
So, why do you game?
So, on the cusp of my 3rd anniversary in Shanghai, I reckoned it was time to do some reflecting.
My opinion of both cities has not changed but my outlook to life certainly has since the moment I set foot in China.
And this was only possible because I forced myself to take a step back to deconstruct everything I once believed in; to reset a life perspective that was molded by my 32 years in Singapore.
Okay, recap. In Singapore, I was an ambitious go-getter, or at least that was what I thought of myself to be. I was eager to be well-known in the tiny industry. I was eager to make lots of money.
I thought that checking emails during holidays meant that I was hardworking. I thought that having to leave a meal to take a fucking con-call was cool. Because busy is good. Because busy means I am constantly striving for progress.
I needed to live life in the fast lane. I looked down on those in the slow lane who were content to stay in their shells. I balked at those who refused to ride the never-ending waves of new trends. I stepped on people’s toes and refused to admit I was wrong.
I chased the Likes on Facebook, the followers on Instagram. Because they buoyed my sense of confidence. Having lots of friends meant having a big network. Having a big network meant more connections.
Connections are very important in life. Because meritocracy is a farce. Knowing famous and influential personalities is a much more efficient and effective way of getting things done. Singaporeans are renowned for our efficiency.
Yes, this modus operandi was correct, I assured myself. It had to be.
But deep down inside, a part of me silently protested this approach. And so I shut it out. Because I needed to be single-minded.
And then somewhere along the way all this toxicity exploded within. Just like how your stomach protests after you consume a whole bunch of stuff that don’t agree with one another, my soul started to lao sai.
It was a sign I needed to get the fuck out of Singapore. You know, detox a little.
I started this blog to track my self. I was intrigued with what living abroad could do to change perceptions of life.
My first year was horrid. You can read more about it in the other blog posts. I was essentially still in Singapore-mode. I was still chasing the same things in life.
But I got to learn one incredibly valuable lesson – that failing is okay, that we needed to just get up, move on and not mull over it. Because life’s too fucking short to be spent wallowing in self-pity.
Year 2 outside of Singapore was when the self started to change noticeably. It was no longer willing to just be a silent bystander. It wanted to be heard. It wanted to denounce those that was not like it.
I developed this desire to stir the pot and as a result learned that people don’t like to lose. I learned that in the midst of an argument, when emotions run amok, your ability to make sense of things gets compromised. I learned that you lose all objectivity when you go Hulk-mode. I learned that you end up trying to assassinate the other person’s character instead of clearly articulating your point of view.
I don’t apologise for my view that athletes are obliged to talk to the media. I still believe they are. But I guess I could’ve been more articulate and clear that it was MY stance, not the IOC’s.
I do apologise for being condescending to those who didn’t agree.
I know I only managed to learn all these things because I was not busy chasing fame and fortune.
Year 3 started with a life-changing trip to the Tibetan plateau. It showed me that we don’t actually need much to live, that simplicity was the key to happiness.
You know, it was actually bloody ironic – it took a luxury camping trip for me to realise I don’t need luxury.
I sought to declutter my life after that holiday. I began to see things for what they really are. I started to view us humans as a bowl of boring noodles that’s desperate to be filled with ingredients so that we look and taste better. Pork lard. Chives. Meatballs. Mushrooms. Lettuce. Fishcake. Vinegar. Chili.
Ok, yes, I’m describing bak chor me.
Anyway, I learned that there’s nothing wrong with plain noodles. What’s the point of having all these tasty ingredients if the noodles taste like rubber?
I learned to ignore so-called added value. A bag is just a storage tool. Clothing is just a means to cover up your body. A $20 bag from the pasar malam does the same job as a $20,000 one designed by some fashion icon. A $20 pair of denims from a Chinese retailer on Taobao covers your legs the same way a $400 pair does.
We willingly pay so much more for well-known brands because we associate it self-worth and identity. Okay, fine, sometimes we spend more because of aesthetics. But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re really not that discerning.
I also learned that social media is not an extension of the self, but a projection of what we think we want others to think of us. I once asked a friend, “So, why did you like this particular post. Do you think she did a great job with the project? She sure got a lot of likes.”
The friend replied, “Actually, I don’t know what the project is about. I just liked it.”
Yes, that’s how many of us operate. We sometimes click on “Like” or “Heart” or “LMAO face” not because we actually appreciate the content. We do so because we like the person. Because we admire the person. Because we aspire to be like them. Because deep within the darkest recesses of the mind we secretly wanna fuck some of them.
So, yes, meritocracy is a farce. But I no longer attempt to convince myself that this is the way to approach things.
I only have 679 friends on Facebook. I can’t be bothered to add more. I’m more interested in surrounding myself with like-minded people and growing the way I wanna grow.
I JUST WANNA BE MEE POK.
The people I met on the Tibet Plateau also showed me that everything in life is relative. The American dude who gets paid a paltry stipend every month loves being there even though he can make a shitload of money back home – he’s an MIT graduate.
There is a Chinese phrase that goes 不同人，不同命, which literally means “different person, different life.” The way I comprehend this is that everything is relative and there is no point constantly comparing ourselves to others.
I once met a Yunnan farmer who on a good year earns $2,000. Some new graduates in Singapore earn that in a month. Top footballers earn £200,000 in a week.
Does the farmer deserve to earn more because he has to work in harsh conditions? Or does a footballer deserve that pay because he’s so good with balls? How to compare? You can’t.
Yup, what the fuck. 不同人，不同命. Just move on.
China has been an amazing learning experience. Apart from whatever I have mentioned, it has taught me that everyone behaves the way they do because of their culture, their society, the things that surround them.
China has a bad rep for copying. But copying is not entirely frowned upon here. I learned that those who copied, improved the original product and succeeded were revered. That’s just how it works. There’s a particular Chinese brand that many people like to say is an Apple copycat. Well look how well they’re doing.
Chinese people love to treat their VIPs to massive dinners. Yes, this results in crazy food wastage, but this to them is the definition of good hospitality. I suppose in light of the state of the planet we should be encouraging them to cut down on wastage. But we should in no certain terms chide them for their way of life.
Because I believe there’s no right and wrong. Because like a friend recently said, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
I suppose one of the most important things I have learned since being in China is that we need to strip away all the layers of bias when dealing with others. Just because the person is mainland Chinese doesn’t mean he is uncouth. Oh come on, we Singaporeans aren’t exactly angels. Look at what we’ve done to damn Ofo bikes.
We need to view people for who they are – as humans. Not as gays or lesbians or Chinese or Malay or hipsters or believers of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. I’m all for equality, which is why the decision to barricade Hong Lim Park during Pink Dot upset me.
Seriously, after all that talk about making Singapore a more inclusive and empathetic place we go ahead and do this? It’s like wearing a condom over a condom. Kanina, no feeling liao lah.
So, no. I can’t to return Singapore yet. Because I know the vacuum will mold me and turn me into that person I don’t want to be. But why can’t I maintain this state of mind and be in Singapore?
I guess I’m just not ready.
By the way, I just extended my contract by another year.
Pen to paper,
the deal is done.
I might be a pauper,
but damn, I’m having fun.
I often think of time as a sandstorm, within which the countless grains of sand pelt us and slowly but surely pare the prevailing layer of beliefs.
It’s only been 2.5 years since I moved to Shanghai, but I reckon quite a few layers have already been exfoliated. I sometimes cringe when I look back at the Alywin of the past. It’s now hard to imagine how I used to have those beliefs and ambitions.
I’m in a happy place at the moment. And I’m not referring to the physical space.
Why am I happy? Because I’ve learnt, in the wise words of Mark Manson, the subtle art of not giving a fuck. I suppose the hokkien title to this blog post is a rough translation of that.
Before I left Singapore, I gave one too many fucks. About everything that had to do with money and success.
I was obsessed about drawing a five-figure salary as if my true self worth depended on it.
“Wah lan, zhun boh? 30 years old still drawing a pathetic $4,000 a month? Loser leh…Did you hear about our course mate from Ngee Ann who drew more than 10 grand when she was just 28?”
I was obsessed about holding a lofty title that would befit not my true abilities, but age.
“Hahaha! You haven’t even made managing editor by 32? What a sloth!”
I was obsessed with who I was in relation to my peers.
“Did you hear about our course mate from Ngee Ann who is already the managing director of her company? Geez I bet she had to suck a lot of cocks to get there!”
Looking back, that wasn’t healthy. Nope.
When you keep a constant tab on others, you lose sight of yourself.
The problem with me back then was that I couldn’t decipher between how much I desired versus how much I actually needed. Because, well, it was never really about the latter.
It was a case of self worth being pegged to my salary and to the salaries and achievements of people around me.
This was something I continued to struggle with during the acclimatisation phase in Shanghai, until I realised that I didn’t need all that much to be happy.
Because I stopped giving a fuck about everyone except myself.
I discovered that happiness had in a way stemmed from isolating oneself.
It was a fucking ironic twist. I used to be adamant that one needed to always be aware of the competition around him in order to excel in life. I despised hermits who lacked a world view. People who go about life with blinkers annoyed the shit outta me. And because of this I sought to stay ahead of the curve. Be in-tune with the latest trends. Maintain a constant high and enthusiasm for breaking new frontiers. If that hamster in the cage beside me was sprinting, I’d run so fast the fucking wheel would fall off.
This whole thing about money and success is contextual, and the thing with context is that you can choose to be in or out of the fucking box. I chose to step away from the maddening crowd and just disappear.
I chose to just fuck it all.
Earlier this year, I posted what some have described as “inflammatory” stuff about Singaporeans on this blog. I expressed my disgust with the myopia that’s seemingly gone pandemic on the island I used to call home. I got my fair share of criticism. I got flamed.
But that’s not why I haven’t blogged for some time.
It’s because I decided to fuck it all.
Fuck the trolls. Fuck those who are myopic. Fuck those who insist that you see things from their point of view.
Kanina, simi sai ma bo hiew liao.
Maybe it had to do with those trips to the remote recesses of China where I got a chance to experience how invigorating simplicity can be. Maybe it was all those features I wrote about inspiring people who had given up everything to help others. Or maybe it was just the result of the sands of time having scraped off that very last bit of beliefs from when I was still in Singapore. Maybe it’s a combination of all these things.
I realised that I was, by my own standards, writing some pretty solid stuff. I now have more time to spend doing things I love. I’m not constantly worried about not having enough money at the end of the month to pay the bills. I seriously enjoy just sitting next to my dog and watching it go crazy with her tennis ball.
Life is good. And I’m not even earning as much as before (well the fact that life in Shanghai is a little more affordable helps too). Evidently a big fat pay check has little to do with happiness.
I believe I’ve completely shed that old skin.
During dinner with one of my friends a couple of months ago, he told me about how his peers made him feel poor. Mind you, this is someone who’s drawing that coveted five-figure monthly salary and still complaining about feeling inferior. This is also someone who stands a chance of getting a SIX-FIGURE payout if he stays at his company for a certain period of time.
The Alywin of the past would’ve been envious and angry at the same time.
“Kanina lah! Earn so much still complain! You trying to rub it in right, you chao cheebai?”
Today, I find myself cringing and muttering under my breath:
“Siao, need so much money kum lan?”
Just months ago I was fuming about how much KOLs stand to earn. And how undeserving they are of it.
“$30,000 for ONE SINGLE FUCKING SOCIAL MEDIA POST? JESUS CHRIST WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO? TALENTLESS FUCKERS!”
Right now, I say fuck it. Fuck them. Fuck envy. Just fucking concentrating on yourself.
So what if they can earn that much money? Think about it – so what? Does it actually affect you?
Admittedly, we can’t do without money. Everything in life requires money. I once wondered if we could live a day without spending a single cent. I came to the conclusion that it’s impossible. You might think this is achievable simply by cooping yourself at home and surviving on what you have, but no.
You see, the moment you turn on that tap, every drop of water costs. That toilet flush costs. Turning on the air-conditioner costs. Turning on the television costs. Having broadband costs. Yes, money’s not departing your wallet immediately, but you’re going to have to pay for all of this in a few weeks.
My favourite buzzword these days is balance.
We all need to find that equilibrium between our actual needs and our desires. I have over the past year figured out that I can comfortably save around xxxx every month (unless there are big purchases that need to be made) even with my current pay.
Fuck me, I don’t actually need a five-figure salary.
Sure, earning big money would result in a much fatter savings account, but if I have to sacrifice time with my dog or time doing things I really wanna be doing, then fuck that.
Because it’s just not a worthwhile trade-off. Because it means being less happy or perhaps even unhappy. What the fuck for?
However, it is also imperative that we maintain a balance when it comes to “fucking it all” and “giving a fuck”, too. It’s important to be worldly. But it’s also important to not give too many fucks.
As much as I don’t wanna give a fuck now, I also want to give a fuck. I know, it’s a fucking paradox.
I’ll be embarking on a fundraising project soon. Because I want to help someone lead a better life.
Because all this not giving a fuck has given me a clarity of mind about what I really wanna give a fuck about.
Tucked away in the remote recesses of the Tibetan Plateau in Gansu province, Norden Camp exists in its own vacuum of serenity.
Apart from the occasional cooing of birds and the fluttering of their wings, the only constant sound that permeates this place is that of water sloshing in the small stream that runs through the compound.
From rolling hills to lush grasslands to the surreal canvas of resplendent stars above your head come nightfall, the scenes of what Mother Nature affords at this destination are, without question, spellbinding.
But the beauty of this so-called luxury resort lies not in the fact that it is an astonishingly picturesque getaway location.
Rather, the most poignant aspect of this sanctuary lies in something less visible and more visceral – the stories of the people within, which inherently help spawn new perspectives to life.
Opened in May 2014, Norden is the brainchild of Yidam Kyap, a former Tibetan nomad, and his wife Dechen Yeshi, a Tibetan-American, both of whom were eager to preserve the fast-fading nomadic culture and generate employment opportunities for local nomads via a travel destination that provides an authentic yet relatively luxurious travel experience.
The couple have certainly managed to achieve this, having conjured an immaculate blend where tradition meets modernity. Just like Tibetan nomads, guests can stay in yak hair tents, with the difference being that those in Norden are far more lavish – they come with coal heaters, wooden flooring, soft beds and yak wool blankets by Norlha, a textile brand helmed by Yeshi that has made its way to the shelves of luxury boutiques such as Hermes, Lanvin and Yves Saint Laurent.
Alternatively, travellers can stay in cosy cabins that come with their own en suite dry toilets. Shower areas, on the other hand, are located in two locations within the camp. Other amenities include a sauna, a beautifully constructed area for yoga and meditation, as well as a small boutique selling Norlha products.
In terms of activities, guests can choose to do archery, horseback riding, visit the nearby town of Labrang and its famous monastery, go on hikes to the nearby hills as well as have a meal with a nomadic family.
Nearly all the employees at Norden come from nomadic families in the area, and they only work from May to mid-October when the camp closes and becomes a winter grazing ground. During this break, some return to help their families with nomadic practices while others are transferred to Norden’s café in Labrang town and the Norlha textile workshop.
There seemed to be a hint of regret when Yidam said that he is still working toward providing year-round employment for all his employees, most of whom are in their early to mid-twenties.
“Young Tibetan nomads are kind of in a limbo these days,” said Yidam.
“Most of them don’t want to lead nomadic lifestyles anymore. These days they just want iPhones, computers and a cushy government job. But it’s hard for them to get good jobs because many aren’t fluent in Mandarin.”
When asked if he would ever turn Norden into more conventional luxury resort complete with all the bells and whistles, such as en suite shower areas and flush toilets for each room, Yidam simply shook his head.
“The whole point of Norden is about being eco-friendly so that we can preserve the original state and identity of the Tibetan Plateau. We don’t want to be digging up too much of the ground just so we can install pipes.”
This emphasis on the preservation of Tibetan nomad identity rings true in Norden’s kitchen as well. The specially designed menu by American chef Andrew Notte plays a huge role in introducing guests to local culture, with the predominant meat featured on your plate coming from the yak, an animal that far outnumbers the humans in this part of the world.
Apart from yak meat, Notte also utilises the animal’s milk as well as other ingredients typically used by nomads, such as lamb, tsampa, a roasted barley flour, as well as joma, a protein-rich root that’s available in the grasslands.
I was initially rather apprehensive about eating yak, expecting it to be a tough and gamey on the palate, but what I ate throughout the trip – yak burgers, yak momos (dumplings), yak steaks – were surprisingly tender and delectable. Of course, much of this had to do with Notte’s culinary prowess too – the American was formerly a chef at the upscale Aman Resorts in Bhutan.
Notte said that it was the camp’s passionate pursuit of the preservation of local nomadic culture that compelled him to be a part of the project.
“Yidam’s vision mirrors my passion and belief in using locally sourced ingredients to showcase local culture. That’s how things should be, as opposed to importing ingredients that are completely foreign to the local scene,” said Notte.
“Working with local ingredients also means freshness and quality assurance. Take yak for example – it’s the best meat I’ve ever worked with. Why? Because I know exactly where it comes from. I know exactly what the yaks are fed. I mean, I can literally see it walking on the grasslands,” he added with a laugh.
Notte is not the only American employee at the camp. Andrew Taylor and Willard Johnson, who hail from Los Angeles and Seattle respectively, said they were similarly drawn by the camp’s efforts in the local community, as well as the opportunity to gain new perspectives in this remote part of the world.
Taylor was initially supposed to home-school Norzin, the oldest daughter of Yidam and Dechen, but his background in yoga inadvertently led to him conducting wellness activities for Norden guests. As it turned out, Taylor is capable of whipping up a sumptuous meal too – he does so at the Norlha guesthouse, located a two-hour drive southeast of Norden – having taken a culinary course on holistic cooking back in the United States.
Johnson, a former basketballer who played for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several clubs in Europe and Latin America, arrived to coach the Tibetan nomads working at Norlha but somehow ended up becoming an athletics coach for guests at Norden.
During a hike up one of the neighbouring hills with Johnson, he revealed that he comes from a family of distinguished military personnel but had decided to go off tangent instead.
“My grandfather was the commander of a fleet of submarines. My dad was a fighter pilot. Me? I chose basketball,” he quipped.
“When I heard about the impact Norlha and Norden were having on the community I really wanted to come. When I found out that they played basketball here, I knew I just had to come.”
Taylor and Johnson are paid modest stipends for their efforts at Norden and Norlha. But though they could certainly own far fatter bank accounts by working back home in the US, the duo have had no regrets with their adventure in China so far.
“Back home in the US, I guess there’s an innate need to keep up with your peers. Many of my friends from MIT are successful engineers. Some are even rocket scientists. They’re all earning good money,” said Johnson.
“Still, I’m very happy here. Being here in the remote grasslands and seeing the locals go through what they do really changes your perspective to life. You realize that money isn’t all that important.”
— Willard Johnson
Forget the stunning scenery of the Tibetan Plateau. Forget the fact that you can get four seasons in a single day here (I suffered from some serious sunburn during the hike, only to wake up to snow the next morning). Forget the super fresh air here that makes megacities seem like toxic wastelands.
Such conversations were actually the highlight of my trip. And they were certainly in abundance.
Norden might be widely dubbed as a luxury “glamping” destination, but there are, perhaps fortunately, no televisions in the rooms. This means there is little to do after sunset when the entire area is blanketed in darkness. Guests either have an early night (those with children in tow always do) or participate in such discussions about life and current affairs at the cosy bar area.
I chatted with Notte about his culinary style, his favorite foods, the US presidential elections and his adventures on Bhutan’s treacherous mountain roads.
I chatted with Yidam about the current predicaments faced by the Tibetan nomads, if Dechen was love at first sight, his future plans for Norden and the feasibility of using solar power instead of coal to heat the rooms.
I chatted with a fellow guest from Shanghai named Alok Somani about the rise of American football in our adopted city and how this trip made us discover that we don’t actually need so many modern comforts to live well.
All these nightly conversations at the bar helped me gain new insights in a variety of matters. They also inadvertently taught me that it is probably wise to go easy on the tipple in the Tibetan Plateau.
At 3,200 meters above sea level, the alcohol gets to your head pretty quickly.
Most of all, they taught me that good vacations shouldn’t just leave you with a camera full of images or a wallet crammed with receipts – it should leave you emancipated by new perspectives.
This, is what luxury travel should truly be about.
This post is a reproduction of the original article here: