The Chinese town where the Dalai Lama was born is undergoing huge redevelopment, and behind a mountain the exiled spiritual leader's family home has received a makeover of its own, with a three-metre wall and security cameras installed.
The building in Hongai village, at the summit of a towering peak, is the only place in China dedicated to the man Beijing considers a violent separatist. But the house has become a symbol of China's bitterly divisive policy in Tibetan regions following its USD 400,000 refurbishment, amid concern from international rights groups over the scale and speed of Tibetan housing and relocation programmes.
"This is not modernisation but Sinofication," Tibetan poet and activist Tsering Woeser told AFP. For Tibetans the building's transformation is a sign of lost traditions, unrecognisable from the simple farmer's dwelling found by a search party of Buddhists who identified toddler Lhamo Dhondup as the Dalai Lama's reincarnation in the 1930s.
Authorities who funded what appears to be a total rebuild, however, view it as a goodwill gesture to visiting pilgrims and part of a USD 244 million local regeneration drive.
But near the Dalai Lama's house, there is little sign of opening up. "You are not allowed in," said a neighbour on a narrow, leafy street in the eerily quiet village. Local authorities declined a formal request to enter the property. "We don't want to offer the Dalai Lama any publicity," an official told AFP.
The future Nobel laureate was taken to Tibet from Hongai and enthroned before he turned four. He was formally recognised as the 14th Dalai Lama in 1950, at the age of 15, but was forced to flee Tibet nine years later following a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
He later founded the government in exile in Dharamshala after being offered refuge by India, and has campaigned for the preservation of Tibetan culture on the world stage ever since.