By Chris Buckley
Tibetan herdsmen in cowboy hats and traditional robes roar by on gaudy motorbikes. Sun-baked nomads wander around shops owned by Han Chinese migrants. Tibetan and Cantonese pop blares from music stores.
Welcome to Litang, a 4,000 metre-high (13,120 ft-high) town in China's mountainous far west where Tibetan-populated highlands spill over into Sichuan province. China's social and economic metamorphosis meets head on here with traditional herding ways.
"Here is in Sichuan, but it's really Tibet," Tseri, a young Tibetan hotel worker in jeans, said of her hometown. "Sometimes I feel like we're changing so fast I'm not sure how much is Tibet."
China has built the first railway to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet proper, marking another step in its absorption of the region. But traditionally Tibetan areas like Litang have long grappled with China's presence.
The life of this frontier town suggests that while many Tibetans chafe at government controls on religion and the growing number of Han Chinese migrants, China's rising economic tide is also creating new choices that are reshaping, but not obliterating, traditional lives and values.
"The most significant thing currently about Tibet is not the political strife -- that's gone on forever. It's the massive changes in the economy and ways of life," said Melvyn Goldstein, an anthropologist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, who has long studied Tibet.
In Litang, the most vivid sign of this transformation was swarms of cheap Chinese-made motorbikes decked in garish ribbons, traditional Tibetan motifs, and pictures of pop stars and Living Buddhas that proclaim their owners' cultural pride.
The spread of motorbikes, roads and modern communications is connecting once isolated herders, said Goldstein.
"They're allowing people to come and go, and that's changing lives rapidly," he said.
On a recent day, Litang's main street throbbed with hundreds of bikes; their herder owners gathered around the town's several bike shops to chat, cut deals and eye each others' pride and joy.
Part of the money fuelling this explosion of bikes comes from harvesting wild caterpillar fungus, a traditional Tibetan cure-all that has exploded in popularity among wealthy Chinese. Part of it comes from selling yaks for meat and skins, as well as occasional menial work, said locals.
Dangtse, a herder who lives about 100 km (60 miles) from Litang, said he sold two yaks to buy his Jialing-model bike for 4,500 yuan (304 pounds) last year.
"We are very proud of our culture," he said, explaining the explosion of ribbons and Buddhist images on his machine. "You need a bike these days, but a bike without these looks ugly."
Opportunity is also drawing in migrant shopkeepers -- mostly hardy Han Chinese and Hui Muslims from China's west. Official statistics say the Litang area population of about 50,000 is more than 90 percent Tibetan, but local Tibetans say many remain desperately poor and resent the commercial dominance of migrants.
"Litang isn't tense like Lhasa, but it could be if this keeps up," said a Tibetan medicine trader who regularly travelled to the Tibetan capital. He asked that his name not be used.
But if money is changing Litang, it is also reinforcing some traditions. Contributions from pious locals are helping to expand the five century-old Litang Monastery, monks there said. A large hall to house a massive stone image of Buddha is being built next to the main hall, due to be completed in 2008.
China's Communist Party fears Tibetans' reverence for the exiled Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in 1959, and tries to strictly control monks and limit their numbers.
"Uphold the leadership of the Communist Party," state rules posted on the temple wall said. "No activities are allowed to come under the domination of forces abroad."
But across far western Sichuan, an area Tibetans call Kham, religion appeared far from bowed. In some monasteries, boys of 13 or 14 were studying, despite a government ban on minors joining.
In many, pictures and writings of the exiled Dalai Lama were kept in reverent semi-secrecy and many monks travel to India to study with exiled teachers. But as well as government restrictions, growing opportunities to make money are drawing men away from monastic life, said some monks.
The Litang Monastery had 700 monks, a decline of a several hundred on years past, a 40-year old monk said.
"It's strong, but we've shrunk a bit in recent years," he said. "Families are more interested in making money, so they don't send so many sons to us."