Marion Chaygneaud-Dupuy, 30, from France, has spent the last decade in Lhasa after a trip in her teens had a profound impact ("I decided I wanted to study Buddhism in Asia, and I asked my parents when I was 16, and they said, "OK, but you can leave when you're 18, so I [did]"). She now runs the Lhasa branch of Global Nomad, a travel and fair-trade consulting agency she set up in 2008 with two compatriots.
You're one of five foreign nationals residing on a long-term basis in Lhasa. What has made you stay there so long?
My original goal was to work as a social worker, [so after five years of NGO work] I thought a business was the best way to do effective work in Tibet—working with Tibetans who have entrepreneurial minds and supporting them through promoting their products—tourism products and fair-trade products and selecting some very visionary Tibetans who do business for achieving a social goal.
What's the idea behind Global Nomad?
Global Nomad's mission is to promote social entrepreneurship in Tibetan areas so we are now partnering with Tibetans who have this type of socially oriented spirit. We just provide a platform for them to be more visible and also competitive in a way so they can really make the social impact that they envision. We have an ethical charter, a list of 17 criteria that looks at the social impact, the cultural impact, the environmental impact, and the economical impact of the business activities.
It's very important for us that with any product we are selling, the profits are going to a social project, like a school. In the Kham area of Sichuan, one entrepreneur is building a guesthouse and organizing tours around in the Dzongsar/Darge area, and he's making this school attached to the guesthouse for vocational training, so this is one typical example.
How do the locals react to your living there?
The Tibetan people are very friendly and full of insight, deep. Good-hearted people. So I always get inspiration from living among them. They are surprised and so touched by foreigners coming—they always say, "from so far away"—and being interested in their culture and language, and I guess it gives them some sense of appreciation of their own culture, to see that an outsider is making so much effort to learn for the preservation of the culture.
With the Tibetan diet mainly being based on yak meat how have you managed as a vegetarian?
The pastoral nomadic lifestyle is [also] based on milk products like yogurt, cheese, and butter. Food has never been a problem; we have plenty, and I can always eat less. I eat a lot of tsampa, barley flour which is mixed with butter tea to form a sort of non-baked bread. In the cities there is lots of noodle soup and a variety of food. In the countryside you don't taste very great food, but you get something else—food is not the main reason for going to Tibetan areas.
Well, then, let's talk about one of the main reasons for going to Tibet—the landscapes and mountains.
The mountains in Tibet are holy—they incarnate deities. And they are the center of the universe. The mountains care for the animals, the beings, all the human beings, and the relation you have with the mountain should be respectful. So it's also bringing a lot of awareness for the protection of the environment; humans are not supposed to have activities which can harm the mountain.
But people do—foreign climbers have been climbing there for decades. The locals don't?
Only the Sherpas on the Everest—for many years they were hired to carry bags and all the equipment for expeditions and they became professional climbers themselves and they have climbed to the summits many times. For them now, they still have this religious mind and respect for the mountain but still they can deal with climbing up and having two kinds of relations with the mountains. Mountains in Tibet are very important and all the stories and legends related to the mountains are what we are trying to revive through our trips—we are actually designing itineraries that are going to remote areas where people are willing to share their knowledge of the stories. Sometimes we are ask them to just tell the stories when we have a group coming to the area and sometimes we record the stories and make books and documentaries to preserve. Otherwise it's just beautiful landscape which is obviously very important, very nice but you miss the parts that are important to the Tibetans, which are the local beliefs, belonging to the place and their interactions with the mountains.
I think to really understand Tibetan culture someone really has to get into studying these two aspects; one is more monastic and intellectual and the other is more daily-life related and in nature and everywhere.
Do you plan to stay in Tibet for life?
My only plan is that this company I set up will at some point be managed by them and some director positions taken by them.
I feel responsibility for trying to offer a different way of traveling in Tibet which is more sensitive to the culture and more in-depth and more careful for the people living there and this is why this Global Nomad label—the label to guarantee some kind of ethics, how to travel with these ethics in Tibet. It is necessary because mass tourism is there. So we are just a glimpse of something else, but at least it's a model of how to do it differently. And I can say I feel very much responsible for doing that. This is the main reason I live there and why I'm going to stay there. After all these years of working in local development I think this is the main tool, the main method that actually can make a difference. If the people who want to come to Tibet become aware that there are ways that they can make a difference in their traveling.