Few places in the world have been so shrouded in mystery as Tibet, particularly during the past two decades when the Chinese government was busy consolidating its rule after a valiant but vain rebellion that ended in 1959.

The entire foreign press corps residing in Peking was recently invited to visit this extraordinary place, which few foreigners have ever seen.

Unlike the strenuously controlled trips made in the past by official delegations and a few selected Western journalists, the Chinese this time allowed journalists unprecedented access not only to the people of Lhasa, but also to the nomads and herdsmen of the interior.

Some of the Chinese work showed a genuine effort by the Communists to improve the quality of life for ordinary Tibetans. But many other things pointed up the contrast between reality and the official propaganda from Peking and gave the impression of a territory under colonial control.

Dispite lavish invitations to the exiled Dalai Lama, whose followers staged the rebellion 20 years ago, to return from India and play "a patriotic role" in the future of China and Tibet, the Communists will never allow him to officially retain his role as spiritual leader of Tibet. In unofficial interviews which a number of Tibetans, including Lameas -- Tibetan monks -- who were forced to become workers, it became clear that in exile the Dalai Lama wields more power over the hearts and minds of his people than he ever would as a token figurehead inside China.

That city of Lhasa has been gradually transformed from the capital of Tibet and symbol of Tibetan nationality to a sort of colonial Chinese out-post where the Han (Chinese) population outnumbers the native Tibetans by 70,000 to 50,000. This does not include the large number of military personnel, almost none of whom are Tibetan. Official refused to supply figures of troops stationed here.

Despite official denials, Tibetan independence forces still exist in what is now called "the autonomous region of Tibet." Although muted, these forces are sufficient to require China to keep Tibet under strong military rule.

The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s as well as official Communist policy on the supression of religion has closed or destroyed more than 2,000 monasteries of Lamaism, the Tibetan branch of Buddhism. More than 100,000 monks and nuns have been persuaded, by one means or another, to give up their religious garb and homes, according to officials in Tibet.

Dispite some good efforts in public health, much of the Tibetan population i still plaged by tuberculosis and serious skin diseases.

Many of the children in Lhasa had open sores on their faces, hands, arms and legs. The contrast between Chinese and Tibetan children in this regard is notable.

A low-level official, who was originally from Sichuan Province although he had been in Tibet for 20 years and had married a Tibetan woman, said that "many Chinese people sent to Tibet resent the posting, despose the Tibetans and make no effort whatsoever to correct local problems and grievances." Some aspects of his criticism were later confirmed by a senior tibetan official at a press conference.

Chinese who are sent to Tibet receive extra stipends and special concessions for accepting a job in a hardship area.

The Chinese concientiously have improved roads, electrification and agriculture. For the average Tibetan, life become more circumspect and dull, but his material well-being has improved from what he knows under the theocratic government before 1951.

Public education and official policy toward "minority people" are being used to undermine a sense of Tibetan nationality. Lamaism, which formed much of the substance of Tibetan nationality, has in effect been eradicated from normal approved life.

Although China's right rule Tibet formally was agreed to by the present Dalai Lama in 1951 and generally was recognized by all governments, the Communist authorities remain clearly paranoid about any suggestion of Tibet autonomy. Throughout their recent visit, Western journalists were bombarded with historic and contemporary evidence designed to prove China's right to rule. Nevertheless, for many Tibetans, China's sovereignty exists only because it is backed by so many soldiers and civilian officials.

By reasserting a pre-Cultural Revolution policy of allowing controlled religious activities, the Chinese athorities may have been surprised to discover how strong Tibet's distinctive form of Buddhism has been. Two years ago, the author Ham Suyin reported that religion had all but died out in Tibet. In her book, "Lhasa, the Open City," she wrote that she was only one person wielding a prayer wheel.

On the contrary, Lhasa is abounding with prayer wheels and beads. Hundreds of Tibetan take advantage of the three mornings (each) week that the faithful are allowed to go to their temples. The vast majority were well under 40.

Although they were charged an entrance fee to see "a culture relic," they very quickly began traditional prostrations while chanting centuries-old prayers that have obviously been passed on by both Lamas and parents.

As for the socialist revolution, it would be hard to find a more captialist corner of China than the older quarter of Lhasa, a section often closed to foreigners. Nearly 500 Nepalese still here and ply the merchant trade alongside free-interprising Tibetans and state emporiums.

Dominating this scence is the Potala Palace, home of the exiled Dalai Lama. It is morle than just a symbol. The previous power and traditions of the Dalai Lama mean that the Potala in Buckingham Palace, Westminister Abbey and Parliament combined, sitting on a jutting mountain top.

At the top of its seven stories, the Potala is nearly 12,000 feet above sea level.

It can be seen everywhere on the vast plain on which Lhasa is built. Although it has often been a source of autocratic and feudal despotism, it is such a resolute symbol of Tibetan nationalism that it mocks new Chinese structures around it. Dozens of Tibetans, clutching prayer beads, visit the potala nightly, and some of them asked Western visitors when the Dalai La,a was coming home.

The Chinese are eager for the Dalai Lama to return, too, but not to rule with Chinese backing as he was allowed to do between 1951 and 1959.

The Chinese want to end what they consider a chapter of history, and they recognize that so long as the Dalama remains abroad his power is potent. His stubbornness is annoying and frustrating to them.

[The exiled Dalai Lama. visisting supporters in Switzerland, told Associated Press in a interview that he welcomes Peking's new policies of "liberalization" and believes Buddhism and socialism can thrive side-by-side. But he said he remains suspicious of the Chinese 1communists and would not accept an invitation to return unless there is a "complete and satisfactory solution of the Tibetan problem."]

Domestic rebellion started in 1956, followed by its massive suppression in 1959. It quick succession came the Sino-Indian border war, the Cultural Revolution and the reign of the Gang of four.

Tibetans seem perfectly equiped to accept the better deal they are getting from China today, while at the same time holding out for their own distinctiveness.

They have a quilty that separates them from the average rural Chinese. On seeing a foreigner for the first time they do not stare with mute disbelief as at some strange animal escaped from a zoo -- they smile with mild surprise as at a fellow pilgrim through this world of wonders and sadness still untold. CAPTION: Picture, Chinese soldiers off duty in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa snap pictures of one another of the Potala, the palace belonging to the exiled Dalia Lama. AP; Map, no caption, By Dave Cook -- The Washington Post