Former leader runs an exile government, but at home China is in control and tourists roam the palace.

It's hard not to feel a sense of melancholy while passing through the Dalai Lama's former quarters in Lhasa's Potala Palace.

In one room visitors view the throne on which Tibet's one-time ruler sat while addressing officials.

Further on - reached through a network of narrow passageways - is his bedroom, the first of the palace's 1000 rooms to catch the winter sun.

But the 14th and current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, no longer walks these corridors.

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He fled south to India, where he established a government in exile, during the Tibetan uprising of 1959.

Nine years earlier, the army of the newly formed People's Republic of China crossed the upper reaches of the Yangtze River and took control of Tibet.

The region was formally incorporated into the communist state in 1951.

Today, the 80-year-old Dalai Lama remains in his Indian exile and an army of a different kind - hordes of Chinese tourists - file daily through his old quarters.

Security guards in orange jumpsuits keep them in check, while red-robed monks stare at their smartphones or murmur prayers, seemingly oblivious to the crush of Chinese tourism surrounding them.

While access to Tibet is severely restricted for foreign journalists, the Herald was able to join an official media tour to Lhasa, the regional capital, this month.

It gave a controlled yet intriguing glimpse into life in a region that, like the rest of China, is forging ahead in the quest for development.

Chinese rule of Tibet rests on a platform of economic growth and substantial state subsidies provided to the indigenous population.

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Hulking tower blocks are emerging from the barren earth on Lhasa's western outskirts as investment pours in from the central government and wealthier, eastern provinces.

The region's economy grew by 12 per cent last year, well ahead of the 7.4 per cent national rate.

Access to the remote Himalayan region has been improved.

A high-altitude railway line linking Tibet to the rest of China opened in 2006 and carried 7.5 million passengers, more than twice the region's population, in 2013.

And in 2011 China's then Vice-President, Xi Jinping, cut the ribbon on a 38km, four-lane highway running from Lhasa to the city's Gongkar airport. It's a feat of engineering, with numerous tunnels beneath the jagged mountains on the route.

"The driving force of the Tibetan economy is basically the investment drive, rather than trading," said Yang Tao, of Beijing's China Tibetology Research Centre.

Despite the development, China's control of Tibet remains a sensitive issue. Activists accuse Beijing of suppressing Tibetans' cultural and religious freedoms amid a tide of Han Chinese migration into the region from other parts of the country.

Fatal anti-Chinese protests broke out in Tibet before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the Save Tibet organisation claims 142 Tibetans have self-immolated in China since 2009 in protest at Chinese rule of the region.

But China says its sovereignty over Tibet stretches back for centuries and the Tibetans were "liberated" from slavery and serfdom in 1951.

The extent of Han migration is evident in Lhasa, where Mandarin language dominates the signs above the shops, largely run by Han Chinese, that line the city's bustling streets.

Tibetan script is required, by law, to also appear. But more often than not, it is secondary to much larger Mandarin characters.

The Chinese Government says the region's population of more than three million remains more than 90 per cent Tibetan.

Today, the 80-year-old Dalai Lama remains in his Indian exile and an army of a different kind - hordes of Chinese tourists - file daily through his old quarters. Photo / AP
Today, the 80-year-old Dalai Lama remains in his Indian exile and an army of a different kind - hordes of Chinese tourists - file daily through his old quarters. Photo / AP

Jigme Wangtso, an ethnic Tibetan and director of Tibet's Government Information Office, said there was a misconception that the Government initiated Han migration to Tibet.

"It is normal and natural for people to migrate," he said, adding that migration was a two-way street, as large numbers of Tibetans had migrated to Chinese provinces.

But international travel remains challenging for Tibetans who, according to Human Rights Watch, can face a five-year wait for passports.

Asked about the obvious presence of large numbers of migrants in Lhasa, Jigme suggested Tibetans were being confused with Han.

"Don't judge all as being Han," he said. "Am I Han or Tibetan? I don't wear Tibetan costume."

He said he saw no proof of a separatist movement existing in Tibet today.

He said most Tibetans did not have "any special attachment" to the exiled Dalai Lama and instead appreciated the improvements in living standards, in areas such as health and education, which China's "preferential policies" had brought to Tibet.

"People are happy with the system," he said. "He [the Dalai Lama] brought nothing for me."

We do not see any obvious signs of discontent in Lhasa.

But on our first day in the city, we see a convoy of more than 40 trucks filled with paramilitary officers in full riot gear, accompanied by tanks and water cannon vehicles.

Our minders say the procession is "practice" for next month's 50th anniversary of the Tibet Autonomous Region's establishment.

In Lhasa's Zhaxi community we are taken to the home of Tibetan local Communist Party chief Suolang Bazhu.

His living room wall is adorned with photographs of party leaders, past and present, alongside a mural of the Potala Palace.

Suolang, 72, says he has seen huge changes in Lhasa under Chinese rule.

"Ordinary people are usually very thankful for these changes because they lifted us from poverty," he says. "We used to have nothing ... but now we have everything."

State subsidies to Tibet were increased after the 2008 unrest, and in 2010 exceeded 100 per cent of the region's gross domestic product for the first time, according to Andrew Fischer, of the Institute for Social Sciences in The Hague.

A "comfortable housing" programme has reportedly given millions of rural Tibetans new homes.

Our group is taken to visit one relocation village, Dekyi, near Gongkar airport. It is part of the nationwide "New Socialist Countryside" project, which began in 2006.

It aims to help the country's more than 600 million-strong rural population catch up, economically, with those living in China's booming cities.

In Dekyi, we are ushered into the home of Dawa, a 55-year-old farmer (like many Tibetans he has only one name).

Dawa's family was the first to move into the village, in early 2013 after their previous home was flooded.

He says he received a 115,000 yuan ($27,195) subsidy to help build his new house, plus another 20,000 yuan to construct a yak stable.

The rights group Free Tibet says Tibetans often suffer in new housing colonies and towns because they don't have the skills to compete for jobs in a different environment.

There have also been accusations that many rural Tibetans have been forced to relocate.

But Dawa doesn't have any complaints, or at least none that he will share with us.

He says it was his decision to make the move, which has enabled him to increase his agricultural production

"It would be impossible for me to have such a lifestyle without the subsidy of the Government," he says.