Tibetans living near the birthplace of the Dalai Lama in northwest China welcomed Thursday's scheduled meeting between their exiled spiritual leader and Barack Obama with a defiant show of fireworks.
Buddhist monks in Tongren, an overwhelmingly ethnic Tibetan part of northwestern Qinghai province, said they were celebrating the meeting in Washington, which is going ahead despite warnings from Beijing that Obama's act will hurt Sino-U.S. ties.
Tensions with Washington have already risen over issues ranging from trade and currencies to a U.S. plan to sell $6.4 billion of weapons to self-ruled Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.
The midnight display of fireworks along a valley dotted with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries was a bold and noisy reminder that, in spite of Chinese condemnation of the Dalai Lama, he remains a potent figure in his homeland, and his meeting with Obama will be noticed here by both supporters and opponents.
"My heart is filled with joy," said Johkang, showing off an enormous smile, standing at his monastery in this arid and mountainous part of the Qinghai province, which lies next to the official Tibet Autonomous Region.
"It is so important for us that this is happening, that the U.S. has not given in to threats and will meet our leader," added the monk, who like many ethnic Tibetans goes only by one name.
Qinghai, called Amdo by Tibetans, is where the Dalai Lama was born in 1935. He fled into exile from Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, and since then has campaigned for self-rule for Tibetans. China brands him a separatist.
Tibetans set off fireworks at this time of year anyway to mark the start of their traditional lunar new year.
But many Tibetan monks in Tongren told Reuters that this year they were also marking the Dalai Lama's scheduled meeting in the White House.
"We do this whenever something big, and good happens," said Losan, swathed in the vermillion robes of a Buddhist holy man, standing on a hillside above a monastery where monks were lighting fireworks in the early hours of Thursday.
"He's really going to meet Obama?" interrupted a monk standing next to him, sounding somewhat incredulous.
"I heard it on Voice Of America," Losan told him confidently.
The sound of conch shells being blown echoed around the valley as a group of monks burned an offering of flour and a ceremonial Tibetan scarf on a fire.
Veneration for the Dalai Lama transcends the Buddhist clergy and extends into broader Tibetan society where many resent Chinese rule and the relative wealth of Han Chinese.
"I'm very excited about who the Dalai Lama is going to meet," said one Tibetan woman, who declined to be identified citing the sensitive nature of the topic. "But I worry about what measures the government could take against us in retaliation."
Word of the Dalai Lama's meeting with Obama has filtered through to Qinghai through Tibetan-language foreign radio broadcasts, monks say, though news that the meeting was happening has been mentioned in passing in state media.
Some spoke proudly of the Dalai Lama's Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1989.
"That the 1.3 billion Han Chinese have never had one of their number win a Nobel prize and that we have, with just 6 million people, says something powerful," said a monk, Tedan. "Now you understand why we love him so much."
While technically Tibetan monasteries are not supposed to show pictures of the Dalai Lama, many in Qinghai do, the government generally having a more relaxed attitude outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Still, a sense of wariness pervades Tongren.
A large new paramilitary police headquarters is being built outside the county seat, and monks mutter about occasional fines if their public devotion to the Dalai Lama becomes too much.
Around 12 months ago, also during the start of the Tibetan lunar new year, Chinese security forces maintained an obvious presence in Tongren, though lighter than in some Tibetan areas, especially Lhasa, capital of the official Tibet autonomous region.
The year before had been marked by anti-Chinese violence across Tibetan-populated parts of China, centered on Lhasa, where at least 19 died after protests by monks gave way to bloody violence, with Tibetan rioters attacking Han Chinese.
China blamed the Dalai Lama for inspiring the unrest, and regularly condemns him for seeking Tibetan independence. He has repeatedly denied being a separatist or supporting violence.
"CCTV is always saying this and that about him and about us Tibetans," said monk Tarkey, referring to China's main state-run television network. "The world will get a better idea about who he is once he meets Obama."