PING'AN, Qinghai-- With rows of brick walls painted white with pink lines, the tiny hilltop village of Hong'Ai looks markedly different from the dusty mud-and-wood shanty towns common in west China.
The village, on the east edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, is the birthplace of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.
More than 70 years after the Dalai Lama left, Hong'Ai is at the front of China's massive drive to raze shanties and build safe,modern homes for the poor rural residents of the region.
By late September, construction will be completed and all the village's 54 households will live in homes built of brick and strong timber, says Xing Fuhua, chief official of Shihuiyao Township, which administers Hong'Ai.
Xing says the overhaul took about 16 months and cost the government 2.65 million yuan. Half the sum went in subsidies to households that built new homes on schedule and in accordance with safety standards.
"Everyone was enthusiastic. They tore down the old homes," says Gongpo, a deputy head of Shihuiyao. "Many of the mud and wood homes were about to collapse, but villagers could not afford to have them repaired."
Xing says each household could receive 19,000 yuan for building new homes and have their courtyard walls and the front door installed for free, which would cost roughly another 20,000 yuan.
These two investments equal the income of a family farming 1.67 hectares of land for 20 years, says Xing.
Hong'Ai remains a largely farming village with a per capita income of only 3,399 yuan last year, about two thirds the national rural average.
Gongpo Tashi, the 63-year-old nephew of the Dalai Lama, is one of the beneficiaries of the scheme, although he is among the wealthier villagers.
He spent 60,000 yuan, including 19,000 yuan of subsidies, building a small house with four rooms in his spacious courtyard with a modern flushing toilet.
But Gongpo Tashi, a stocky Tibetan whose prime job is to maintain the birthplace of his uncle, Tenzin Gyatso, says he is more used to the traditional squat toilet -- usually two planks above a dry trench. "Maybe when I am too old to squat, the flush toilet will be useful."
The new home has few Tibetan flourishes in the design other than a framed Tibetan painting with both the Chinese and Tibetan characters for "tashi delek," a Tibetan greeting, at the bottom.
He says he could have built the house in traditional Tibetan style with carvings and paintings on the wooden pillars, but few artists are still capable of such work.
"It is not so necessary anyway, as Tibetans here have long been living a life not so different from the Han Chinese," he says.
"Tibetan was not even widely spoken at the time when the Dalai Lama was born in 1935," says Gongpo Tashi.
Gongpo, the township official who is not related to the Dalai Lama's family, says Tibetans in Hong'Ai adapted to the Han way of life more than a century ago.
Every ethnic household was consulted for their requirements before the overhaul, says Dong Jie, head of the civil affairs bureau of Ping'An County, who oversaw the project.
The renovation of rural houses is part of the central government's on-going drive to develop the country's relatively poor western regions, which have lagged behind since reform and opening up began in 1978.
In a bid to build an all-round xiaokang (well-off) society, China launched a new round of West Development initiatives in the summer.
In a speech to mark the drive's 10th anniversary in July, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged to prioritize relief and development in a stretch of poverty-stricken areas, including the southern area of the predominantly Uygur-populated Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the eastern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
Wen said the government would double investment in infrastructure and livelihood projects to help improve the quality of life.
According to official statistics, about two-thirds of the 36 million Chinese living below the poverty line come from the western region.
In Hong'Ai, where farming incomes remain low, the government has been pouring in funds to build roads, provide stable power and water supplies, and connect the village to the world via the Internet.
Gongpo Tashi, who has visited the Dalai Lama twice in India, says he has not contacted his uncle for a while. "If I call him some day, I will definitely tell him of the changes at home."