The most treasured family heirloom of Pasang Norbu, a native of Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, is a palm-sized red book.
The faded gold letters on its cover say "Certificate of Deputy." It was awarded to his father, Chospel.
Fifty years ago, Chospel was a deputy during a nine-day congress that gave rise to the formation of the autonomous region and the election of its first chairman. This past week, Tibet celebrated its 50th anniversary as an autonomous region, marking a change in its political system.
Norbu, 69, later followed in his father's footsteps to become a deputy for the region before retiring. He said the book represents "a turning point in Tibetan history."
"The people's congress system and regional autonomy brought about modern democracy to Tibetans and pushed forward social progress. It was the right path for Tibet to develop," he said.
FROM SERFDOM TO MODERN DEMOCRACY
Tashi Dargye, 71, recalls the early elections in the 1970s, when regional autonomy was introduced.
"A bowl was put behind the back of each candidate and the herdsmen placed a bean in the bowl of the candidate they favored," Tashi said, noting high illiteracy rates among the people made written ballots difficult.
"No one had any idea what voting, a bill or a motion were, but people were happy that they could make important decisions," he added.
"The herdsmen would ask the deputies to speak about their problems to the congress, and the deputies would tell the public what was discussed and the new policies," he said.
Now Tibet has 34,244 deputies at the city, county and township levels, 93 percent of whom are ethnic Tibetans or other minorities. Tibet has elected 21 deputies to the National People's Congress, China's top decision-making body.
Seeds of a democratic mindset have bloomed over the past five decades.
Legislator Samdrup thought a regional regulation to protect the Tibetan custom of sky burial was "too soft" and he wanted to make it stronger.
The burial tradition, in which the bodies of the deceased are fed to vultures, is believed to represent the ultimate act of giving in Tibetan Buddhist doctrine.
"Touring the burial sites is inappropriate and disrespectful. A law should be in place, with punitive measures for offenders," Samdrup said.
He then spent five months doing research and made a proposal.
Earlier this year, the People's Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region passed a regulation protecting the 1,000-year-old tradition.
It is only one example of more than 300 local laws and regulations put in place to address Tibetan language, marriage, religious freedom, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and other issues.
"Law-based governance is a more scientific and modern way of governing Tibet, both at the regional and national level," said Palbar Lhamo, a Tibetan political researcher.
MODERNITY COEXISTS WITH TRADITION
One of the biggest draws to Tibet for visitors is its rich religious environment.
Lhasa, known as "Holy City," houses respected monasteries. Rolling prayer wheels remind the public of the legends and myths of the Himalayan region, while prostrating believers line the roads leading to the Tibetan capital, demonstrating their religious piety.
"Tibet is a place where modernity coexists with tradition, and legend lives alongside reality," said Liu Wei, a writer who has spent nearly 30 years in Tibet.
These traditions live on in 18-year-old Shabdrung Rinpoche.
Shabdrung Rinpoche is one of 358 living buddhas in Tibet. Since a young age, he has been respected and worshipped by followers of Tibetan Buddhism.
He has spent most of his life studying Buddhist scripture, literature, English and history.
"My responsibility is heavier than a mountain. I should offer salvation to sentient beings," he said.
Across Tibet, there are 1,787 religious sites housing 46,000 monks and nuns. In Lhasa, before sunrise, believers wait in lines to enter the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple.
Further south in Shannan, Yumbulagang, Tibet's first temple, also has no shortage of visitors.
For the past 20 years, Kelsang Wangyel has made a living by providing horseback rides to Buddhist believers and tourists ascending the mountain to see the temple.
"I bought my horse in 1996 and have been working here ever since," he said. A native Tibetan, Kelsang has learned to greet customers in Mandarin, English and Japanese.
"I'm in good health and I will continue to lead my horse here," said the 61-year-old.
The sanguine Tibetan has little to worry about. Tibet has led the country in covering all rural and pastoral residents with basic medical care.
Fifteen years of compulsory education are also provided, with free boarding for all children from rural and pastoral families as well as those from poor urban families.
BETTER LIVES, MORE DEVELOPMENT
Wangdu, a school principal of Lhasa, cannot resist the urge to talk about his own school days with his students.
"In 1988, I was sent to study in a Beijing school. My parents put me on a plane from Lhasa to Chengdu. Then it took me two days on the train to arrive in Beijing. Every time I needed to travel, the trip seemed to take forever," he said.
"Some Tibetan students like me who studied in Beijing went home only once every four years," he said.
A direct flight today from Beijing to Lhasa takes about four hours. Direct railway links opened between the two cities in 2006, and the trip takes about 40 hours.
Infrastructure has led Tibet's economic development. The region has five airports, with 58 flights to other cities. The number of tourists has reached more than 15 million a year.
On Wednesday, top political advisor Yu Zhengsheng celebrated the opening of a 400-km expressway linking Lhasa and Nyingchi in Dagze County. The road will improve logistics and make life more convenient for rural herdsmen in the mountains.
Norbu Tenzin, 53, made his first fortune as a truck driver on Tibetan expressways.
Now a multi-millionaire, Norbu is a major supplier of barley flour, a staple food for Tibetans. Norbu only has three months of schooling, but he insists that his six children attend university.
"I had my share of hardships when I was young. I want my children to have a better education," he said.
His eldest son now helps him manage his barley processing factories. "I'm grateful for what I have, but my children need to do better," he said.
Despite rapid growth, about 10 percent of the Tibetan population, roughly 327,000 people, are still classified as impoverished and live on subsidies. More than 70 percent of Tibetans live in rural areas.
"The central government will continue to implement preferential policies toward Tibet. More manpower and funds will be sent here," said Yu Zhengsheng.
"We will improve the lives of the people, ensure stability and security, preserve the environment and build a better Tibet and better lives for the people," he added.