Feng shui harmony in a Tibetan-style eco lodge
In Yunnan Province’s extreme northwestern town Benzilan, an unmarked turn off down a country road, up a narrow winding road, along a babbling brook, eventually an inscrutable door. Whose is it? Why is it here?
The most magical things in life are the ones that spring up where you least expect them to. In this case, several olive trees and a rosemary bush in the garden of a Tibetan farmhouse.
Estelle Achard is the current owner of the Tibetan house. The 60-year-old French architect, who hails from the Alps, created her own shabby-chic retreat in this remote village located in one of the green valleys about a two-hour drive from Shangri-La County.
“Three decades ago, at 30 years old, I traveled for the first time in Yunnan Province. Some of my friends advised me to travel in this far countryside after Guilin. ‘It will please you,’ they said. Oh yes, and it did. It was crazy how people were kind, helpful, offering food and even a bus ticket,” Achard said.
It was a special trip with stunning landscapes, several different minorities wearing shiny embroidered clothes, amusing hair styles, beautiful carved old wooden houses and local market places with exotic food.
“It was very safe even for a woman and that helped to improve my feeling of an adventurer,” she said.
“I came back again almost every summer for a holiday, exploring dust roads and caravan trails, mainly in the north of the county, trekking alone in Tibetan mountains without speaking Chinese.”
An independent spirit who left her own country to visit the East, Achard made another brave decision 15 years ago which opened another new chapter in her life in China.
After living in Kunming for the first few years, she finally came back to this beloved land and tried to find a soul-satisfying house.
“I tried to find a house in a small valley that I crossed before I went back to the Kawakarpo mountains. The big ram clay houses and old walnut trees remind me of the old houses near my hometown, while the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and gray olive trees took me back to my grandma’s house in Provence. Those impressive clay farmhouses were big enough to make a homestay lodge,” she said.
The special Tibetan farmhouse she now inhabits, with its main entrance facing a small river, makes for good feng shui. It is away from the noisy road and very near a high-end Songtsam hotel brand. Achard was fascinated by the charming spot and took a 30-year lease to rent the old farm in 2011.
Friends thought she was crazy to do this alone in such a remote place. But the lovely dwelling had two functions: a home and a guest house. Friends and guests love to visit, enjoy the shaded garden with hammocks, the sunny weather and the forest trails.
“I love to cook for those guests who appreciate my special French food made with local ingredients, such as bread with stone-mill flour and wild morels with yak burger,” she said.
The house was in a very poor condition when she first saw it: no running water, not much electricity, very rough inside and the first floor still housed a huge pig, which Achard named “Grongron.”
The property outside was strewn with litter and rubbish and cows still grazed nonchalantly on the land for the first few weeks of her buying the lease.
“With the help of a French architect intern and some other young French guys who arrived from France, we started to renew the main roof in the same aesthetic way as before,” she said.
“It took a week to find out how. We tried two samples of bulkheads with clay and straw drying under the sun and interior clay plasters. Then with some local people we started to open the flat roof and made a new one completely waterproof but in a traditional way.
“It was difficult to find a real company to install electricity and plumbing at the time so I asked my cousin in France and a plumber from my hometown to come and fix the problems.”
It took two years to renovate the main parts of the house.
“I was trying to create a peaceful retreat out of pollution and wanted my guests to have peace of mind and a place to exchange and understand more about our souls and our cultures,” Achard said.
“Inside my Tulu Lodge, there is no TV and smoking is not allowed. It’s all about a welcoming garden with trees, flowers and vegetables growing in a permaculture way, without any chemical treatment. You slow down, take your time to enjoy the sound of running river and birds.”
Achard meticulously kept the original features of the house without destroying its traditions. Clay and wood are key materials of the building inspired by her love for Japanese architecture.
She had to integrate more natural raw materials, such as clay plaster, which can absorb humidity when it’s raining and then release it slowly back into the home when humidity levels drop.
Tutu Lodge is truly an eco lodge.
“Because the house is near a small river and it’s impossible to do a septic tank, I have dry toilets in the public area and in each bathroom: a bucket covered with sawdust to be thrown out every day on a composting heap. It’s not easy for my Chinese guests and for me, but it means no pollution for the water and environment. Many small guest houses in French national parks for example are experimenting in this area to be more eco-friendly,” she said.
Achard didn’t use any varnish for wood in order to erase the invisible chemical pollution and a lime floor was created to help the clay walls to breathe.
“The key is to keep the soul of the house,” said Achard.
Two big portraits of loving Tibetan neighbors, taken by French photographer Didier Louaneau, welcome visitors at the entrance.
“It’s like totems. The woman had two husbands before and they were brothers. It was a custom in the area for some family,” she said.
“I didn’t display too many decorative items, just some antique furniture. A lot of things were abandoned on-site that I reused, including some items for horses or old jars.”
All the small furniture, like handles or curtain rods, is handmade. In the bathrooms, shower floors are made with Yangtze River pebbles.
“I tried my best to keep the spirit of this place, even if I mixed it with my French experience, culture and soul, which sometimes disturbed my Chinese guests,” she said. “I love to decorate the bedrooms with quirky ideas and re-use old Chinese homeware in my own way. It shocks some of my guests when they see old Chinese portrait photos displayed in the bedrooms.
“There is never one style in my lodge as I love to mix different minority fabrics, antique pieces and different details to create different themes for different rooms.”
On the second floor, a stunningly beautiful Tibetan cupboard and a typical Tibetan old-style kitchen were kept and well maintained with a great sense of taste.
Achard simply displays some objects she has collected over the years, as well as the jams, wines and liquors all made by her locally and naturally.
“On the third floor, every Tibetan house in this region has a temple inside, but mine was not finished by the owner. The lamas from Dongzhulin Monastery told me that I could use the place as I want. However, I created a corner for a Buddha statue and a green Tara Tanka,” Achard said.
This beautiful lounge room is a private heaven for Achard where she keeps some of her family heirlooms, which are mixed with some amazing carpets, boxes and chairs collected over the years living in China.