updated 4/7/2008 3:19:44 PM ET 2008-04-07T19:19:44

The five-table restaurant is empty except for two men slurping noodles. In the tiny kitchen, the Tibetan owner is steaming dumplings, one of the few things readily available on the menu.

"Not many people come in anymore," says the owner's 19-year-old daughter, apologizing for not having much food on hand since anti-Chinese protests and an ensuing police clampdown in this historic Tibetan town. "They are too scared to leave their homes much."

Three weeks after anti-government protests led by Buddhist monks spread across western China, police checkpoints and roadblocks have mostly disappeared. Smashed panes of glass in shops and government buildings attacked by demonstrators have been replaced and businesses have reopened.

Despite the signs that life has returned to normal, a trip through Tibetan communities in Gansu and Qinghai provinces showed that unease remains pervasive. Some towns resemble armed encampments and residents worry about fresh violence. Monks say local authorities have stepped up their watch and warned them not to talk about what happened.

In Gansu's Xiahe, where more than 1,000 monks and lay Tibetans staged two days of protests and attacked government buildings, trucks with riot police carrying shields, batons and 5-foot-long wooden poles regularly rumble into town. Paramilitary police perform drills in the town square — their shouts an odd counterpoint to the prayer chants at the Labrang monastery.

On the main street, official notices stamped in red ink and posted on shop fronts and walls urge people to surrender for taking part in the March 14-15 unrest.

"It was so frightening the day those things happened. We just hid in here. We could hear glass breaking," says the restaurant owner's daughter, who lives at the eatery with her mother and sister and like others interviewed did not want her name used for fear of government retaliation. "I'm still scared although things have calmed down a bit."

Riot police staff checkpoints
To the south, in the town of Hezuo, it's much the same. Hundreds of Tibetans — among them nomads on horseback whirling lassos — stormed a government compound three weeks ago shouting "Free Tibet!" They raised the Tibetan national flag banned in China above a school yard.

Now, pilgrims turn prayer wheels and prostrate before the main Buddhist temple as a dozen riot police check vehicles at the main crossroads. At night, a convoy of police vans patrol the empty streets, lights flashing.

The region — mountainous, arid and undeveloped — has for centuries been the blurry frontier between Tibet and China. Tibetans, Chinese and various Muslim groups are long accustomed to uneasy coexistence.

The government has released little information about the protests in western China and the police actions that followed. The protests started in Tibet's regional capital, Lhasa, and the government said 22 people died there. It has not given a tally for casualties elsewhere.

Groups associated with the government-in-exile of the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, have said at least 19 Tibetans died in Gansu, where Xiahe and Hezuo are.

But Beijing's tight grip on information makes independent confirmation difficult. After the protests, authorities kicked out foreign media and sealed the region behind a barricade of police checkpoints that only recently began to ease.

Monks stay mum on riots
On Friday, a festive air pervaded in Labrang as Tibetans — including the elderly and mothers clutching babies — crammed a courtyard for an annual rite where monks spray holy water onto the crowd to heal physical ailments. Close to noon, about 10 monks appeared, taking sips from bowls and spraying the water through their mouths onto the people, who raised their faces in anticipation. The group then dispersed.

Later in the day, monks fingered prayer beads, hailed taxis and playfully jostled each other on the streets. They said things were fine but shook their heads or walked away when asked about the March riots.

"We can't talk about this," said a 20-year-old monk as he sipped tea at a restaurant.

The abbots are being more strict, forcing monks to adhere to an 8:30 p.m. curfew, and fewer are going to local Internet cafes, he said.

TV stations constantly play a report chronicling the explosion of riots across western China. Footage shows scene after scene of monks overturning cars, storming government buildings, tearing down signs and toppling brick walls as the narrator lists the names of the towns and how much damage was incurred.

The "beating, smashing, looting and burning incidents" were masterminded by the Dalai Lama and his supporters, the reports say, echoing the government's line about the unrest — the broadest protest campaign by Tibetans against Chinese rule in almost two decades.

"I've seen this already," the 20-year-old monk said as he watched a segment showing shouting monks swarming the streets of Maqu, a town south of Xiahe.

He said about 20 of his friends asked him to march with them last month in Xiahe but he declined because he was afraid of what would happen. In the end, he said, about four or five monks from Labrang were taken away by security agents.

Authorities deny arrests of monks
Officials with Xiahe's police and government offices denied any arrests of monks, calling them rumors, but an official in the local government's executive office said investigations were under way.

The heavy security and harsh criticism of the Dalai Lama offend a clergy that has come to see itself as a protector of Tibetan values.

"The impression they are giving of the Dalai Lama is wrong," said a 22-year-old monk in the 700-year-old Rongwo monastery in Tongren, a town in Qinghai province. "He is our supreme leader. ... There is a heaviness in my heart."

The monk and dozens of others staged a protest March 16, climbing a hill behind the monastery where they burned incense in a traditional Tibetan Buddhist ritual called "wei sang." That evening the rite became an act of defiance, he said, against authorities who had issued a directive not to gather in groups.

"It is our right, our ritual," the monk said with a stubborn set to his jaw. Nearby monks nodded in agreement. They said troops who had ringed the monastery were no longer there but plain clothes minders from the local government are keeping an eye on things.

In Rongwo's main hall, a picture of the Dalai Lama — an icon banned by the government — sits in a large frame. The hall is locked but a 52-year-old monk opened it to reporters.

"Hardly any tourists come here any more," he said. "I have been sad and angry since the disturbances. I have cried."

Further north, monks at three monasteries within a mile of each other said they have heard of recent unrest — but either would not talk about it or said they had been ordered not to.

"Life is fine," said a monk at one monastery, where a picture of the Dalai Lama sat on an altar, draped with white and gold silk scarves. "It's hard to say why all this happened, it's complicated."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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