Scratch only a little bit, and Dorje, a Tibetan nomad, lets loose with a tirade at the people he simply calls "the Chinese," the majority Han who he says will get no respite from Tibetan frustration this year — or for generations.
"After I die," the 53-year-old grizzled herder says, "my sons and grandsons will remember. They will hate the government."
On the cusp of the first anniversary of a mass revolt on the Tibetan Plateau that marked the worst ethnic unrest in China in nearly two decades, many Tibetans still seethe at living under China's thumb. Some engage in small-scale civil disobedience. Others, including monks, brazenly display photographs of the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader they revere as a God-king but that China maligns as a "beast." Nearly all gripe about a lack of religious and political freedom.
Another imminent anniversary date adds to the sensitivity of the Tibet issue. March 10 marks 50 years since the Dalai Lama fled across the Himalayas to exile in India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. Fearful of a spasm of new unrest, Beijing has closed off many ethnic Tibetan areas to journalists and made scattered arrests of organizers of resistance campaigns.
Tibetan monks, nomads and students interviewed recently by McClatchy said ethnic tensions have deepened in this eastern region of Qinghai province, which still remains open to reporters.
More than 1,200 miles separate this mountain town from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Ethnic Tibetans still predominate in this region, though, and two of the six most important Tibetan monasteries are in the dry, arid mountains that rise at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
At the Kumbum Monastery, which once housed 4,000 monks but is down to 800 today, a 29-year-old monk said Tibetans were defying China by refusing to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which Han Chinese celebrated on Jan. 26 and many Tibetans celebrate under a different calendar system on Feb. 25-27.
"How could there be celebrations? Last year, they shot so many of us," said the monk, who is not being identified to avoid reprisals against him. "Tibetan people are trying to stand up for ourselves by not celebrating."
If anything Tibetans are more frustrated and restless than at any time in recent memory, and there are no indications that will improve in the near future.