Nepalese weaving is a craft in danger of extinction. Against all odds a German-Mongolian husband and wife team founded a cashmere weaving mill in Kathmandu. Their blankets stand for the finest quality that money can buy. Also in a human sense. Heike Blümner visited Nepal together with photographer Thomas Meyer
There are many ways to approach the Nepalese weaving mill Altai-Himalaya. One of them is on socks, and Christopher Giercke insists on that. The 74-year-old German is a character you could hardly make up. Most often he wears purple knee-high socks with a black or eggshell-coloured uniform consisting of knee breeches and a tailcoat. A fedora made of felted cashmere and mink, by London milliner Lock & Co, rounds off the look. He founded this manufacturing business in Kathmandu in 1997 together with his Mongolian wife Enkhe. Although their son D’Artagnan has recently taken over the company’s management, Christopher is still the Master of Ceremony. “Shoes off,” he orders as we arrive at the premises.
Enkhe and Christopher Giercke in Kathmandu, November 2021
On the premises: The path of stones that leads to the weaving hall and the wooden pagoda, where Christopher Giercke likes to explain the ideas and values behind Altai-Himalaya
Mind you, we are still outside and ahead of us lies a stony, 20-metre path leading to the weavers’ hall. He urges us to walk over it and feel each stone’s different make-up and shape with the soles of our feet. The path, Christopher explains, resembles a riverbed. It serves as an allegory for the diversity of all beings to remind us that each and everyone needs be treated in an individual way. “I’m that chubby stone there,” he adds and lets out his characteristic laugh that brings Ernie from Sesame Street to mind.
In a similary playful way we have learned that at Altai-Himalaya weaving precious blankets, cushions and shawls, predominantly made from cashmere, is also a philosophical pursuit.
“Our guiding principle is to deliver a quality that borders art,” says the company founder. And indeed, the blankets that leave this atelier are so special in their designs and colour composition that you could easily have them framed on the wall. However, the way they feel would make that a rather questionable choice as they occupy a tactile space somewhere between firm and supple that simply demands body contact.
Cashmere blankets woven by hand for Hermès
Christopher’s customers are European luxury brands, most notably the French House of Hermès, as well as internationally renowned architects and a few private customers. They provide the designs and the workshop transforms them into hand-made artefacts. Joining us on this trip to Kathmandu is interior architect Gisbert Pöppler from Berlin, looking over the production of his line of blankets and a bed cover: “When we decide on a manufacturer, we always have a close look at their production site so that we understand exactly what they are doing. After that, working together is so much easier.” So, what exactly is it that they do at Altai-Himalaya?
Already the drive through Kathmandu – and it doesn’t really deserve this description since you are stuck in traffic as much as you are moving – is akin to visiting a drive-in cinema:
Views of Kathmandu: The sprawling metropolis is a wild mix of contemporary chaos and historic sights like the temples of Patan or the Boudhanath Stupa
Through the window a scene with an aimless plot is unfolding, played by a cast of thousands. Only one thing seems to be for certain: it’s complicated. To establish a company in this setting, especially as an outsider, is more than just challenging. First of all, there’s the potential conflict of society and politics to consider in one of the world’s poorest countries, where globalisation and mechanisation are leaving cultural traditions and traditional craftsmanship behind. The occupation of weaver, spinner, brickmaker and wood carver – historically carried out by Nepal’s Newar people – has over the years lost it’s status and the wages for these jobs are low: “I found the treatment of these workers degrading and thought ‘let’s turn things around’,” says Christopher.
Nepal was never colonialised and the country only opened its borders to foreigners some 70 years ago. Since then, it has been catching up on a thousand years at time-lapse speed, trying to connect a formerly feudal society and its medieval characteristics to a rapidly changing present – with polarising results. In 1996, around the time when Altai-Himalaya was founded, a ten-year civil war broke out, which is just another narrative thread that unfolds simultaneously as part of the company’s history: “The Maoists threatened me as well, but we exclusively export and I keep myself out of politics and support schools and hospitals in the country. That’s why they leave me alone,” says Christopher.
When the Maoist rebels did turn up at the factory gate, the women and men who worked there invited them in for a meal. “I didn’t even have to get involved,” Christopher recounts. The working conditions are as you would want them to be, the workers told the Maoists, the wages are above average, there are career opportunities, and leisure and medical provision. And so the rebels retreated. The revolution had already taken place, quietly.
Ultimately however, Altai-Himalaya’s success with a multi-million turnover, is a love story featuring a deep affection for Nepal and its people, for Mongolia, for craft and applied art; and above all it represents the strong bond between Christopher and his wife Enkhe. On the surface, the 46-year-old appears to be the quieter partner in this relationship. Which doesn’t necessarily give you the full picture since her husband takes a lot of the spotlight in every setting. He is the performer and those present are his well-entertained audience.
Enkhe and Christopher Giercke as a young couple
Still, the special kind of energy that runs between them is almost tangible and they merge together like warp and woof. The differences in their family backgrounds and ages makes their now almost 30-year relationship appear unlikely at first glance, but it is a complex tapestry: interwoven, partly unconceivable, but as a result compelling.
They founded their weaving mill classic start-up style in a garage – with two weavers, the nanny also working as tassle maker, their driver taking on the duty of master dyer and Enkhe as the designer. At the time they were a family with two young sons (another daughter was still to come), commuting between Mongolia, Kathmandu and Europe and a multitude of projects. Before that, both of them were living lives worthy of a novel, on barely existing financial means. But interesting ideas come for free and their idea was to weave cashmere blankets by hand in Kathmandu and sell them in Europe: “Twenty-five years ago I didn’t know anything about weaving or spinning, but I have a sense of touch. I have taste,” says Christopher.
And certainly chutzpah. He flew to Paris and met up with Henri d’Origny, design legend at Hermès and said to him: “Look, the blankets you have been selling are quite boring. I could really do something very nice for you. And he replied ‘Okay, you have a big mouth, show me’”. Christopher delivered and the handwoven blankets quickly sold out in Europe. “From there we went rocket fast. We had Hermès. Yves Saint Laurent bought for Haute Couture and Donna Karan came here immediately. They were like: ‘Something is happening in the Himalayas. There is this crazy German. They either came for me or for my beautiful wife”, he says and laughs. Today, he adds, their success has also led them to be “the most beautiful workshop in Nepal in a human sense”.
This place of promise has long outgrown the garage and is now located in Budhanilkantha, a suburb on the northern outskirts of Kathmandu, where the Himalaya mountains fade away into green hills. Dozens of springs rise in this area, a light breeze blows in from the mountains. Very close to the manufacturing site, a statue of the Hindu god Vishnu made of black basalt lies in a pond on a bed of petrified water snakes.
The premises of Altai-Himalaya with the two main buildings and the open canteen
The 10,000-square-metre property is located on a terraced plot behind whitewashed walls. It includes two equally gleaming white, multi-storey brick houses with colourful Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind on their flat roofs. In front of the weavers’ manufacturing hall an English lawn spreads out, featuring a wooden pagoda that is “all joined together, I don’t allow glue or nails”. The company’s own rose nursery in clay pots lines the houses and “The Hanging Gardens of Christopher” entwine on one wall, a splendour of blossom that changes according to the season.
At the foot of the premises lies a covered kitchen and canteen, open on the sides, where fresh meals are prepared daily and enjoyed together by the 160 employees who work here today. Dal Baht is the name of the regional dish which comes in as many variations as there are Nepalese families and is also eaten here from late breakfast time onwards. Lentils, rice and cooked or pickled vegetables are assembled in small portions on a plate. A gong summons everyone to the long tables, just like at school.
In a city which resembles a chaotic sketch it feels like being stranded on an island of calm, where the nervous vibrations of Kathmandu simply bounce off.
The cashmere that is processed at Altai-Himalaya is sourced in Mongolia. The country exports around 6,000 tons per year. However, the goat wool doesn’t come trouble free. Now that cashmere products are also being offered cheaply by big clothing chains, the demand for the soft natural fibre has risen astronomically and this results in erosion of the land caused by the increased herds’ grazing. It also means that “cashmere” doesn’t necessarily equal cashmere. Big retailers bleach, blend and dye the wool, so “cashmere” now says as much about the value of a garment as “meat” does about a hamburger patty.
The wool that is woven at Altai-Himalaya belongs to the best quality that the Mongolian nomads can offer: “We are deliberately collaborating with cooperatives that respect environmental protection,” explains Christopher. This means among other things that the composition of the herds is adapted to the respective soil so that different animal species graze in an area, thus maintaining the natural balance of the land. The general rule of quality for the fibre reads: the finer and longer, the more precious. Since the yarn at Altai-Himalaya is exclusively processed by hand in Kathmandu, particularly long fibres in natural colours are in demand. Seven to ten tonnes of it end up at the atelier per year for spinning, weaving and dyeing.
Chasing the cashmere of highest quality: At Altai-Himalaya the sought after material comes from sustainable sources
Enkhtseteseg, known as Enkhe Giercke, is Mongolian and initially had nothing to do with cashmere. Her father was an ambulance driver specialising in emergency calls in the most remote areas of the country where there are no roads or airports. On his journeys, he navigated himself by the stars, “a steppe-sailor”, as she puts it. Her mother worked as a Russian teacher, then later at the Foreign Ministry.
Enkhe Giercke on her wedding day
Born in 1975, she grew up in the late and final phases of the Mongolian People’s Republic: “It was expected that you fit in and it was not easy for me. I was curious and energetic and saying things that you shouldn’t be saying, because I sensed that something was not right.” She knew for example that the “marbles” her parents owned were a taboo subject and that she was only allowed to play with them when she was alone. In fact they were the gems of her grandfather’s traditional headdress that defined his aristocratic rank. “Everyone knew he was the last count from Genghis Khan’s youngest brother’s lineage,” she says. Because his ancestry was not considered in line with the regime, he had to falsify his official CV and pretend to be the child of nomads.
Until she started school, Enkhe lived with her grandparents, spending the summers with her extended relatives in the countryside like a nomadic child. Later her parents brought her back to Ulan Bator, where she experienced the collapse of socialism as a teenager and developed her own strategies to get by in those fragile times. She developed a trick that was soon picked up by other children and young people in the city to lay their hands on goods that were scarce, like bread. Shortly before a shop opened, she would jump on one of the men pushing past the long queues: “We were like monkeys on their backs,” she says and laughs.
After school she wanted to become a teacher and, at just 18 years old, worked as a waitress in a hotel near the capital, where a French film crew was staying at the time. The producer of the film was Christopher Giercke – almost 30 years older than her. He found her “adventurous and interesting”. Her strategy? “I just ignored him”.
The other way round it would have sounded more plausible, but if there is one thing that is consistent in the lives of the Gierckes it is not to jump to close conclusions. Also in terms of geography.
Enkhe Giercke as a young woman
A character you could not invent: Christopher Giercke
By the time he met his future wife, Christopher had already lived on four continents. He narrowly escaped the Chilean coup under Pinochet and worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. He also managed the US punk musician Johnny Thunders, annoyed the Chinese authorities with a documentary about Tibet, and, in a biographical side note, slept with a “beautiful blonde woman” in a film by German filmmakers Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz. But “being a sex star wasn’t my thing. The scene is quite embarrassing, very brief, and also the lamp falls off the table.”
Enkhe, on the other hand, had only left Mongolia once before for a summer camp at the Black Sea. Nevertheless, she knew exactly what she wanted: “not Christopher.” A cat-and-mouse game enrolled that was to drag on for several months. “When he came up to me, I changed direction. Maybe he was an agent and was trying to convert me, that’s what we were taught. In any case sexual attraction was not discussed. Only prostitutes went out with foreigners”, she says.
For a while he admitted defeat and travelled back to Paris, where he lived at the time. When the crew returned to Mongolia a few months later for another film, Enkhe was hired as a translator – an offer that amused her because she didn’t speak a foreign language. She could learn on the set, they told her. And so she agreed, and after a few more twists and turns, the attraction between the two of them broke fresh ground during a thunderstorm of cinematic proportions. Christopher rented the sanctuary of a dilapidated monastery near the set and for the rest of filming they lived there and talked to each other with the help of a dictionary.
The story could well end here, but: “He went back to France and I realised that I had fallen in love,” Enkhe says. “I thought it would calm down, but it didn’t.” And he wondered, “What’s wrong with me? Of course, I had lived with other women before, but this was something different.” He says his wife “took a big gamble” and “if she hadn’t had that strength of character, intelligence and independence, the relationship wouldn’t have been possible.” But so the two married in August 1995.
Enkhe and Christopher Giercke on their wedding day in 1995 with their oldest son Ich Tenger
This didn’t go down too well, to put it mildly. “The parents, oh, the whole of Mongolia was shocked,” Christopher recounts and it doesn’t sound as if he was entirely upset about it. They moved to Paris and initially only spent the winters in Nepal. They collected money from friends in Europe and used it to support, among other things, the hospital originally built by Sir Edmund Hillary’s foundation in the mountainous region of Solukhumbu, around 300 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu. To this day, there is always something to do in the area: a washhouse, toilets, support for the monastery and the school.
Ultimately though they designed their own utopia with the Altai-Himalaya weaving mill:
“Here we live and work by our rules. You cannot be separating into your different corners because of your ethnic background. When you leave the premises, you can do what you want, but when you come here, we expect it differently,” is how Enkhe explains their aspiration. “It took a very long time until that sunk in.”
Particular attention is paid to the women who work in the mill. In traditional Nepalese society, they come last: “I always focused on that because I was annoyed that guys were pushing girls away,” says Enkhe. The rules at mealtime were tackled, where traditionally men sit at the table and women on the floor and have to be content with the leftovers of a meal: “For two or three years I sat down at the table by myself every day and Christopher served me my food before he took some himself and sat with me. They found that shocking.” But gradually those hierarchies dissolved. Today, everyone eats together, even couples from different ethnic groups found each other and new friendships have formed.
An artisanal product of the highest quality – whether from Nepal or elsewhere – needs a sensual distinctiveness that draws from the power of the region and the individual artisan. On the third floor of one of the two houses at Altai-Himalaya, a good dozen spinners sit on sprawling wooden armchairs covered with white cotton cushions. Some have their legs bent at a comfortable angle, others have them stretched out on colourfully woven plastic stools. Their bodies seem relaxed, the spinning wheels whirr and the women wind threads to a reocurring rhythm. You can call it “flow”, or describe it as meditative, but for sure it is much more difficult than it looks. In addition to this about 400 women spin for the business at their homes:
The harmonious hand: In one of the main buildings at Altai-Himalaya women spin cashmere wool to yarn
“It is five times more expensive to have the yarn spun by hand than by machine. With the machine it would be more even, but what we want is the harmonious hand and it comes with a certain unevenness like a brushstroke,” explains Christopher.
Each woman has her own signature style and certain spinners are then used for certain projects, for example when it comes to spinning particularly fine threads for a scarf.
Berlin architect and interior designer Gisbert Pöppler follows the production of his designs on site. They are unique pieces for his customers. During the draft phase, the pressing question had been what was actually technically possible – and the answer at Altai-Himalaya was always: a lot! Sketches and samples went back and forth from Kathmandu to Berlin, the technical director, German engineer Rainer Schmidt, visited Pöppler’s office in person. Right now, the young CEO D’Artagnan Giercke is checking up on every step of the upcoming production at the mill.
One important characteristic of high-quality craftsmanship is that it always wants to surpass itself: for the architect’s final design, a spinner has to spin yarn for three to four months. An oversized loom with 2,600 warp threads was especially built by a weaver and a carpenter. Seven people will then weave on it for five days.
Berlin based architect Gisbert Popper with a sample of his oversized bed spread and the final piece
This exceptional piece is a bedspread measuring 3.20 metres by 3.20 metres. It comes in three shades of yellow and purple and weighs 600 grams per square metre. “I was aiming for a heaviness so that it would lie flat on the bed by itself,” says Pöppler. In the end the piece will weigh a good six kilos – underneath it probably feels like sleeping under a weighted therapy blanket. The oversized blanket is double face, or two-layered, which means that both the front and the back are woven simultaneously by hand in one weaving process. One of the challenges that arise is to make sure that the different coloured sides do not show through to the other side, so that “each side has its own brilliance”, explains Pöppler.
In the bright hall forty weavers work individually or in groups on multiple looms. Some of the equipment is collected in the region and then restored: “I buy a lot of it as junk,” says Christopher. “The Nepalis throw the looms away because they no longer have any use for them. I then pay these people at least the value of the wood.” But the real revaluation is non-material and personal. It is important to Christopher to give all his craftsmen a sense of pride in their skills: “I listen to what they need and pay them decently.” When he hires new workers, he likes to meet them in the pagoda in the garden and tell them about the historical achievements and the high standards of Nepalese craftsmanship: “They have it inside of them, we don’t have to invent it, we just have to bring it out”.
As with the spinners, there is this special atmosphere between concentration and contemplation in the weavers’ hall as well. The looms are painted blue, colourful pennants reach from one to the next. Sacks of wool lie on the floor and coloured yarn hangs on poles. This is a cheerful place where the decorative clutter is actually part of an elaborate system.
With the European gaze it is tempting to romanticise the place and the work. Yet what happens here is a mixture of technical and artistic sensitivity and engineering skill. Developing the punch cards for the looms alone, which define the pattern, can take up to three months.
A view into the weaving hall. The loom with the yellow threading was especially suit for the oversized bedspread of Gisbert Pöppler
Pöppler’s second design is a dark blue blanket with large circles in white and a lighter shade of blue. This is a special challenge for the dyeing department, which is located outside behind one of the houses under a roof. Pöppler’s blanket, originally woven in natural white, has to undergo three manual dips. Two men dip the precious cashmere fabric that hangs on a pole three times into a bubbling cauldron. With each pass, the colour darkens and takes on a new gradient. The lighter circles are created by pinching off the corresponding areas with a wooden stencil so that no dye can run into them. This technique was developed especially at Altai-Himalaya and it was practised 130 times on test pieces. Of the 130 dives, only 30 were successful. Now, however, as things get serious, the template fits and everything works perfectly. The result – after finishing, which included putting in a hem – is uplifting: “We chose the colour according to Pantone and it becomes even more expressive in the wool,” says Pöppler, beaming almost as brightly as his blanket’s colours.
This blanket is being dip dyed by hand. The lighter circles are covered in wood so that the color doesn’t bleed in. In the last step the blanket undergoes a finishing process and is hung to dry outside
After the blanket has dried on a line in the wind, Pöppler, the Gierckes, a few friends and staff stand on the lawn in front of the pagoda and pull it up like a rescue net. There it is, “the feeling of success”, says Christopher. “It strengthens the sense of togetherness. Everyone has contributed something crucial.” This is also reflected in the price – it’s in the mid-four-figure range. But there is something priceless that comes with it too:
“Human qualities have flowed into it, you can feel them,” says Giercke. „Blankets like this protect and shelter you.”
In order to experience the metaphysics of craftsmanship in interaction with nature, we board a propeller plane a few days later and fly to Phaplu in Solukhumbu, where the Gierckes have always been socially engaged and spend a lot of their time. In the tiny village at an altitude of 2,500 metres, whose main street could also serve as the backdrop for a Wild West movie, the “Happy House” stands on a hill, translating the aesthetic, if not spiritual, principles of Altai-Himalaya into hospitality.
The house made from natural stone is surrounded by tall pine trees in which the ravens roost. The window frames outside and the walls and ceilings of the large dining and living room are painted in bright colours and decorated with traditional Tibetan Buddhist symbols and deities applied by temple painters – another endangered craft. Throughout the house the heavy, colourful blankets and cushions from Altai-Himalaya are strewn on the sofas, armchairs and chairs, and of course on the beds. It is an ambience that embraces the guest and lingers long after having left.
The Italian explorer Count Guido Monzino, who led the first Italian expedition to Mount Everest in 1973, built the house together with the leaders of an influential extended family of the Sherpa clan, Ang Tawa Lama and his son Rinzin Pasang. They called it Hotel “Del Sherpa” and it was set away from the popular mountaineering routes. There were no roads here at that time either. Nevertheless, it soon became a fixture for Sir Edmund Hillary and his international circle of friends. Hillary, the famous New Zealand mountaineer and explorer who was the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest, later rented the house for many months to coordinate the relief efforts of his Himalaya Trust foundation. He called it his “Happy House”. Later, after the Italian count died and during the civil war at the end of the 1990s, the Lama family had to flee Nepal for New York. Rinzin Pasang asked Christopher Giercke to take care of the house in his absence.
In 2017, Rinzin’s now 30-year-old son Ang Tshering returned from exile and restored the place according to the principles of regionality and sustainability. It now has ten guest rooms and serves as a place somewhat between a chalet, a salon and an adventure playground. A long, white wooden table that seats around twenty people stands in the garden. During our visit it is of course Christopher who sits at the head of the table, taking in the parade of staff like an elated regent: “A toast to everyone. The good news is that the airport has shut down and there is no way out.”
Unfortunately, that’s not true. And it’s probably not the first time he’s made that toast, because whoever takes a seat here deep down never wants to leave. In any case, one thing is clear: the Happy House is also his territory. One of the white Labradors that roams around the table goes by the name of Christopher. Who gave him that name? “Me, of course,” says Christopher, letting out that Sesame Street Ernie laugh.
The Happy House in Phaplu – approximately 300 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu – has been a retreat for many international guests from it’s early days on. It aligns itself with the principles of Altai Himalaya, supporting traditional artisans and craft. Throughout the rooms there are cushions and blankets from the atelier
Only half-jokingly he describes himself as a “composer, conductor and dictator”. Obviously, he expects nothing less than a seat in the front row.
His energy is as big as his heart, his desire for control as big as his impatience.
From 3,500 metres above sea level, he whizzes down to Phaplu on his mountain bike and there he talks to his staff as enthusiastically as he would do to beloved family members. At the same time, he can fly into a rage over the faulty setting of a lunch table or, during an aperitif, unambiguously order one of his guests to take off their synthetic anorak because it disturbs his aesthetic sensibilities.
Christopher took to the spotlight already as a child actor in films made by the East German production company Defa. His father was a doctor who left the West for East Germany in 1949 and returned with the family using forged passports in 1961, shortly after the Wall was built. They moved to Stade near Hamburg; Christopher went to boarding school in Hesse. At the age of 15, he convinced his parents to let him travel alone during the holidays – first to Spain and Morocco, a year later to Iraq and Jordan, where he was briefly arrested as an Israeli spy and captured by nomads who wanted to sell him. He managed to escape at the last minute.
He toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist, but the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” rejected his youthful travel reports. Things weren’t going too well at school at that point either: “What interested me wasn’t taught there.” What did interest him? “Living, reflecting, gaining experience.” This took him to England, South America, the Philippines, France and the US, among other places.
In New York in the late 1970s, he met the German ethnologist, shamanism expert and later director of the Ethnological Museum in Zurich, Michael Oppitz, who would take him to Nepal. In 1981 Oppitz had just released the four-and-a-half-hour documentary film “Shamans of the Blind Country”, which he shot at the foot of the Dhaulagiri massif in western Nepal. Now he wanted to show this film to his protagonists. With a bed sheet as a screen, a diesel generator for electricity and 20 porters for the rest of the luggage, “the great scholar and the New York rock‘n’roller” set off. What followed Christopher describes what followed as a “through the looking glass experience in the style of Lewis Carroll”:
People who didn’t know what electricity was, let alone had ever seen a film, looking at moving images of themselves speaking.
A first time experience: The protagonists of the documentary „Shamans of the Blind Country“ (1981) watch themselves on a screen. Camerawoman Barbara Becker, Nepalese helper, director Michael Oppitz and Christopher Giercke (from left to right) bring the film to the remote mountain villages
After this experience Christopher decided to stay in Nepal and moved in with Oppitz, whose derelict Rana palace in Kathmandu was a meeting point and hangout for people from all walks of life. The US Tibetologist Richard Kohn was also living there. He was working on the translation of texts about “religious Tibetan rituals and secret processes for the harmonisation of the universe”. They were “highly esoteric and philosophical doctrines”, exclusively intended for “the initiated” or insiders with the respective spiritual preparatory training. For others they could even be considered “dangerous”. According to Christopher, Kohn was ultimately “overwhelmed by his knowledge” and died because of it.
At the time in Nepal though they made a documentary together called “Lord of the Dance/Destroyer of Illusion”. It observed the religious leader Trulshig Rinpoche, the 31st reincarnation of the “Destroyer of Illusion”, during ritual preparations and the execution of the Mani Rimdu celebration. In this ceremony monks become gods themselves, or rather make contact with them on a level that has to remain concealed to the viewer. “Lord of the Dance” opened in cinemas in 1987 and the “New York Times” wrote that the movie was “an acknowledgment of sorts that a camera is better suited to capturing the outer world than the inner.”
Meanwhile in the outer world, another question was brewing: “How can we free Tibet?”. Together with his then partner, filmmaker Marie-Jaoul de Poncheville, Christopher shot a movie about the French Tibetologist and travel writer Alexandra David-Néel. They were also secretly planning to make a documentary about the situation in Tibet following the Chinese occupation. During the filming, they were officially accompanied by Chinese secret service and military police. “We nevertheless did some filming on the side, they didn’t even notice that.” When the team wanted to leave the country, the Chinese customs confiscated all their material and took away Christopher’s passport, because he refused to leave the film material behind. He was stuck in Beijing.
This triggered an intervention from France’s former president François Mitterand – whose friend was Christopher’s then partner Marie. Allegedly Mitterand stated: “He is a bit of a womanizer, but he’s no spy.” In the end, he was allowed to leave together with the film material which was then turned into the movie “Lung Ta – The forgotten Tibet”. It had its premiere in 1991 in Paris in attendance of the Dalai Lama, which also caused a diplomatic incident. Enough of China, the next country for Christopher’s projects was now Mongolia, where he would meet his wife Enkhe.
How do you carry a company like this one with all its human energy into the future? This is now D’Artagnan Giercke’s task, the 24-year-old second son of Enkhe and Christopher, who has just taken over the management of Altai-Himalaya. He grew up in Nepal and Mongolia, with the mountains as a backdrop and the Mongolian expanses as his playground, where today he is the captain of the national polo team: “I love being outside. I need movement to be happy.” He received the finishing touches as a teenager at an English boarding school.
The young CEO D’Artagnan Giercke, who has just recently taken over the company
While his parents had to work and travel hard to become the extraordinary cosmopolitans that they are now, D’Artagnan belongs to a generation for whom networking and global thinking are the starting point of their lives.
His modern upbringing, though, means that he has a new nomadic sense. “I had a strange but nice childhood where we were encouraged not to follow the system. We were very privileged to travel and meet lots of different people and be part of different communities. I don’t feel that I’m stuck in one country and only belong to one culture. I don’t really belong to any culture, but I fit in with lots of different people.”
All this also has an impact on the way he wants to lead the family business into the future: collaboratively and with a focus on teamwork, as he puts it. D’Artagnan lives in a small flat on the roof of the manufacturing building and on the adjacent roof terrace is a Mongolian yurt which serves as a living room and space to meet his friends. There is not much time for socialising at the moment, though. The company is in a steep growth phase. More and more people in the world can afford expensive designer goods, while at the same time the idea of what luxury means is changing. The extraordinary is no longer defined only by appearances or logo, but also through the intrinsic values of a product. For D’Artagnan, it will be a matter of balancing this aspiration for all-embracing quality quantitatively.
Just as his parents’ focus was on the grand gesture and the belief in an entrepreneurial vision, sustainable growth is now not just his focus, but that of his generation. The young CEO has had to hire several dozen new employees, mainly weavers, in the past few months, which was not easy. “It’s not exactly a skill that’s booming. I have to find people that are so adept that we can train them.” In addition, fair, sustainable production is subject to a dynamic process. What is considered groundbreaking today can already be done better tomorrow. Currently for example the entire plant complies with Nepalese earthquake safety regulations, but now there are considerations to elevate them to stricter European standards. This may require removing floors from the buildings while operation is ongoing as well as building a new hall on an adjacent plot of land:
“You can’t produce luxury in circumstances that don’t reflect that,” Christopher claims. It also sounds like a mission statement directed towards his son.
The parents now spend most of their time outside Kathmandu; D’Artagnan’s younger sister Alegra goes to school there, his older brother Ich Tenger works as an IT specialist in Kathamandu. Nevertheless, Christopher and Enkhe seem present in the business in Nepal in one way or another: “My mother can step back and not act straight away. She waits for the right moment and sticks to her opinion. I admire that.” About his father, D’Artagnan says: “Christopher will always be our director, spiritual guru and have the final say on quality. But we need to be less reliant on one person delivering the energy. It has to come from the ground up.”
Incidentally, Altai-Himalaya is named after one of Nicholas Roerich’s diaries. The Russian painter, explorer, philosopher and archaeologist travelled through High-mountain Asia about 100 years ago. He already provided the superstructure for this weaving mill by saying: “It is our duty to create traditions of culture for the young generation; where there is culture, there is peace; there is achievement; there is the right solution for the difficult social problems.”
After our trip, and back in Berlin, I ask Christopher if he ever felt he had reached his own limits: “Fell of a horse six years ago and broke some ribs. I could not breathe, it wasn’t funny.” But the fun is far from over, of course. Exactly where the journey will take the couple next is not yet clear, but it’s not one into retirement. Nepal will remain a mainstay – he and Enkhe are currently building a new house outside Kathmandu. What is the feeling he gets when he looks back on his life so far? “I was lucky,” is the succinct answer. “But don’t try to copy it.” Well, how would that be possible? But you can let yourself be inspired: without coincidence and risk things only run – at best – evenly. That’s as true for weaving as it is for life.