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Norbu says what satisfies him most is that he's used some of his wealth to help restore the Buddhist shrine, or stupa, across the dustblown road from his house. For him, as with nearly all Tibetans, Buddhism is a constant, overriding presence, involving never ending rituals to assure good fortune and, ultimately, rebirth. In Tibet, as in all Buddhist countries, the faithful erect stupas and place relics inside them to bring good to their lives. Norbu’s shrine was one of thousands of religious structures destroyed by Red Guards during the decade-long Cultural Revolution launched in 1966; by the time it was over, youthful communist zealots had killed millions throughout China—including tens of thousands of Tibetans.

But Norbu represents the stubborn side of Tibetans. He and some of his neighbors recently won permission from the local government to reconstruct the stupa. "They told us that if we were willing to pay for it, we could do as we liked." Now freshly whitewashed and gilt trimmed, it resembles a giant upended ice-cream cone, gleaming in the brilliant sunlight.

For me Norbu's experiences suggested the first tentative emergence of what could become a significant change in Tibet. More than a decade has passed since I was last there, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and a previous civil uprising in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Martial law was in effect then, and foreigners weren't permitted to travel outside the city, where drab concrete Chinese buildings were already overwhelming traditional earthen and stone Tibetan architecture.

This time, though, I traveled more than 4,000 miles throughout the Tibetan Plateau, where 85 percent of the people live as subsistence herdsmen and farmers. I also made side trips to Nepal, a funnel for escapees, and India, where 100,000 Tibetans live. There I spoke with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan god-king who fled Lhasa in March 1959 and established a government-in-exile in northern India. The 130,000 Tibetan exiles around the world still dream of the Dalai Lama marching triumphantly home to a newly independent Tibet.

This unrealistic hope has been weakening ever since 1965 when China separated most of the Tibetan Plateau from the rest of China and designated it the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Parts of the eastern Tibetan states of Kham (where Norbu lives) and Amdo were made into so-called autonomous prefectures and grafted onto the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. In reality neither the TAR nor the prefectures enjoy autonomy—they are as much under Beijing's thumb as any part of China, with dissent banned and dissenters punished. For this reason I have changed the names of most Tibetans in the story.

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