(Reuters) - A journey on Tibet's "Friendship Highway" is a tightly controlled reminder of the tensions and anxieties that China hopes to push aside as the Olympic Games torch passes through here in coming weeks.
The government is still clearly worried after last month's riots in the Tibetan capital Lhasa sparked the biggest protests against Chinese rule for decades.
A party of foreign reporters in Tibet to prepare for the torch relay leg up Mount Everest in May -- only the second foreign reporting group allowed in since the riots in mid-March -- were whisked by officials from Lhasa airport to Shigatse, the region's second city.
The highway winds its way across the mountainous Tibetan plateau from Lhasa to the Himalayan border with Nepal, passing through Shigatse, about 300 km (190 miles) west of Lhasa, and then Lhatse, which is about 160 km further along.
Shigatse is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, the Tibet Buddhist leader through which China has claimed religious credibility for its rule since his counterpart, the Dalai Lama, fled to India in 1959.
"We respect the Panchen Lama more than the Dalai Lama here," 26-year-old monk Nyma Dundrop told reporters at the Tsam Monastery, perched above the main Shigatse-Lhatse road at 4,500 metres (14,850 feet) above sea level. "And we feel free in religion."
The 1,000-year-old monastery displayed several portraits of the 10th Panchen Lama, a popular figure who died in 1989, and he was much more in evidence than the current 11th Panchen, controversially chosen with the backing of Beijing.
Nyma Dundrop, one of 22 monks at the monastery, was also allowed to give his opinion about the role of monks in the riots before questions about the Dalai Lama were cut short when the translator was hustled out of the room by a Beijing official.
"That's not a proper way for a lama (monk) to behave. That's not right," the monk said of the riots.
Outside Shigatse, the pastels of traditional Buddhist prayer flags around houses have been conspicuously supplemented by the bold red of Chinese flags, many clearly new.
The highway was quiet, perhaps because of the dearth of tour groups ploughing their way through the Himalayan foothills to Everest or Nepal. The only significant traffic was a couple of military convoys heading back to Shigatse.
The military presence outside Shigatse was also lighter than it was heading out from Lhasa but even then it was now limited to a couple of helmeted sentries on a bridge and a few police checkpoints.
"There was no trouble here last month," said Dor Bujie, a retiree from Shigatse, whose visit to Xi Jin Hot Springs outside the city coincided with the arrival of the foreign media.
"Not in this prefecture, it was mainly in Lhasa. Here it is peaceful."
Like most of the people this far south in Tibet, Dor Bujie is ethnically Tibetan. The five percent or so of non-Tibetans in the region tend to live in and around Lhasa.
"From the religious point of view, it's the Panchen Lama around here," he added. "It's the separatists and rioters who did the bad things. The robbers and burners were monsters."
CELEBRATIONS FOR THE TORCH
Dor Bujie, who seemed to carry a lot more weight among the locals than a humble ordinary pensioner, was not inclined to get carried away with Friday's report that the Chinese government would open talks with the representatives of the Dalai Lama.
"It depends on what the Dalai Lama is going to say," he said. "I know this had something to do with what happened last month."
Se Wang, another Tibetan at the springs, did not want to tell reporters her age or job. Her traditional garb and weathered face, however, indicated that she was one of the many women who work the fields near the springs.
The attendant local official was not needed to translate her shrugs of ignorance when she was asked about the Dalai Lama, the March riots, the Olympic torch relay and the Games.
The same was true of the other locals at the hot springs -- which were past a marker proclaiming travellers 5,000 km from Beijing -- and so it was left to Dor Bujie to dominate centre stage once more.
"We are going to prepare for the celebrations," he said of the torch's ascent up the world's highest mountain over the next week or so.
"It's a really great thing for us Tibetans and we're going to make sure we're ready. I hope you can get a clearer understanding of Tibet and Tibetans."