You have to really want to get to Ganzi.

Several hours outside Sichuan's capital of Chengdu in central China, a wall of rock juts up from the rice- covered plains. Scraggly peaks, these are the foothills of the great Tibetan plateau. Two days later, after a bus ride of more than 36 hours covering less than 400 miles, across windswept passes festooned with Tibetan prayer flags and through verdant valleys luxuriating in barley and a riot of wildflowers, you're dumped, dusty and short of breath, in Ganzi, a highland desert landscape 11,220 feet above sea level.

Here, Tibetan herders--their long locks adorned with turquoise-inlaid jewelry, their black braids wrapped in crimson cloth--hawk sheep, yak and cattle pelts to Muslim Hui traders, sporting embroidered white fezzes, from China's northwest. Han Chinese soldiers, garrisoned in ramshackle barracks, jog through the early morning mist, their chants about the motherland echoing off traditional Tibetan houses fashioned from red logs and mud with Escherlike cube designs embellishing their roofs.

A trip to this county seat, hard along the roaring Yarlung River, framed by glacial peaks and spotted with Buddhist lamaseries, underscores China's struggle to turn an ancient empire into a modern country. That struggle is clearest at China's internal borders such as this one, where farmers meet herders, Han Chinese encounter Tibetans and the Hui, and the priorities of economic development clash with the delicate environment of the highland desert. It is clearest, too, in the little stories of this magical place--in Wang Xiaoying's big plans for big business and the love-stricken Mr. Ma.

The Tibetan village of Rambotcha is located along the Yarlung River, 15 miles west of Ganzi, in a valley of barley fields, small Tibetan townships and a salubrious hot spring. The Dajin Lamasery dominates the town, and before China's revolution in 1949 it was the region's biggest landowner. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, the monastery was destroyed by radical Chinese who systematically demolished almost every Tibetan temple in China.

A main target of the campaign were the rinpoches, or "living Buddhas," the spiritual leaders of the devout Tibetans. Dajin's rinpoches were defrocked, forbidden from preaching, jailed and tortured. In 1979, however, with China's opening to the outside world, many rinpoches were released from prison and allowed to reopen their monasteries. In recent years some have entered the government. The current abbot of Dajin is, for example, a member of the local parliament.

Dajin has been rebuilt, mostly from funds donated by the local Tibetan population. Today it cascades down a hill and hums with the prayers of its collection of some 200 monks. The mud remnants of the old temple crumble slowly next door.

Despite some improvement in religious freedom, monks in the region complain that in recent years Chinese authorities have begun to persecute their monasteries more, not less. They contest a belief held by some in the West that Tibetans outside Tibet proper are freer than their comrades inside Tibet. Tibetans can be found in wide areas of China, including Qinghai Province, southern Gansu Province and the western half of Sichuan Province--where more than 1 million Tibetans live, one quarter of the entire Tibetan population of China.

Dajin temple used to support more than 700 monks, but over the past decade hundreds have joined exiled Tibetans in India and only 19 have returned.

"It is not happy here," said a 22-year-old postulant, who returned to China from India to be with his elderly mother.

Inside the main prayer hall, there used to be pictures of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader who fled China in 1959 and now leads Tibet's government-in-exile in India. Local Chinese authorities allowed the Dalai Lama's picture to be shown in Ganzi county even though his picture was banned inside Tibet. But for the past two years, Chinese security officials have ordered these photographs removed. Most monks still keep them in their rooms.

On June 15 and 16, Chinese authorities arrested two monks from the sprawling Ganzi Monastery for allegedly handing out leaflets supporting an independent Tibet. Five other monks fled. Police in Ganzi have threatened to fine shopkeepers who still freely display the Dalai Lama's picture, but they've yet to deepen the crackdown. Nowadays, joining a monastery has become a political, not just a religious, act.

"I became a monk because I love the Dalai Lama," said one 19-year-old Tibetan. "I want Tibet to be free."

Crossing the river at Rambotcha over a footbridge of logs and stone, you mount a small hillock, dodging the occasional grazing yak, to find a hot spring shaped like a giant earthen tub. A handful of monks are lolling in the warm waters that bubble like Perrier, their crimson robes spread along the hillside to dry.

"This is a peaceful place," said one monk sporting a baseball cap with a bright yellow bill. "It is very nice in winter, too, when the snow is high."

Over the past few decades, western Sichuan has been enriched by the logging that has denuded many of its mountains and turned its once unclouded streams mud brown with soil from erosion. Gold mining, as well, has poured money into the pockets of Tibetans and Han Chinese alike.

But, as the mining and timber industries continue to shrink due to new environmental protection laws, a severe recession is expected here. Deforestation on the Tibetan plateau was highlighted last year during China's devastating floods in the Yangtze valley. Beijing enacted a total ban on logging that took effect last Sept. 1. Logging companies had until June 25 to bring out felled timber, after which lumber markets will permanently close.

"I guess I'll go back to the fields. What else can I do?" said a wiry Tibetan driver who was hauling a load of trees with trunks seemingly as big as redwoods.

While many Tibetans chafe under Chinese rule, they also acknowledge that their fate is tied to Beijing. Wang Xiaoying is a peach-faced Tibetan woman of 22 who works at the Gamba Hotel. A former elementary school teacher, Wang waits tables, studying English and hatching big plans for the future.

"I'm thinking about going into business," she confides. "I have a natural ability to lead people." Indeed, that's evident in the hotel's canteen, where Wang cajoles a bowl of spicy noodles from an off-duty cook in no time.

Wang credits some of her ambition to an elder cousin who is a rinpoche. He has encouraged her to go to Beijing to study. Curiously, another cousin also is a rinpoche, and so is her uncle. Wang can't explain her family's luck.

"It seems that every time they throw the gua and read the spirits, they always choose our house," she said, describing the mysterious Tibetan process of choosing a reincarnated Buddha.

Wang has already been offered a job by a travel company in Shenzhen, the boomtown on China's coast across from Hong Kong. Chances are they want to employ her as a nightclub hostess and all that that role implies in the sleazy China of today. Wang has refused.

"I may be from the country," she says, "but I know how to protect myself."

In Kanding, the first stop on the two-day bus ride to Ganzi, there's a one-room greasy spoon selling the garlic-drenched noodles of Gansu province, home to the Hui, one of China's Muslim minorities. Ethnically, they are Han Chinese, but several centuries ago they embraced Islam.

Mr. Ma is a Hui trader, specializing in animal skins. A bearded man with energetic eyebrows, Ma admits to being in love with a Tibetan song girl at the karaoke club next door.

"She's very beautiful. She's got braids down to here," he says, pointing to his feet. "I love her very much, but she doesn't love me. I don't have any money, and what she wants is money."

Ma is asked how many people live in Kanding. "I don't know," he says. "I'm from out of town."

How long have you been here?

"Ten years."

CAPTION: A Tibetan girl stands outside her log house in Ganzi, located in the remote western Sichuan region of China.

CAPTION: Monks from the Dajin Monastery, their robes drying on the hillside, bathe in warm springs on the Tibetan plateau.