Go away! They will arrest anyone who looks in there," said a middle-aged woman standing near the closed red doors of a small temple in China's northwestern province of Qinghai.

My nervous taxi driver jumped into his car and started rolling downhill with the doors still open and his two passengers stranded.

We were in the mountain village of Hongya at the gate of what Chinese officials and tourists call the "Hongya Former Residence", with no sign to give the name of the illustrious former resident. Thick sheaves of dozens of white silk scarves hung from the double brass door rings offered the biggest clue that this is a special place to some.

The sensitivity of the walled compound stems from its attraction to Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims loyal to the 14th Dalai Lama, their exiled spiritual leader, who was born - or reincarnated, according to Tibetans - on this spot in 1935. The Dalai Lama was taken from the village for education in Tibetan Buddhism two years after his birth. Twenty-two years later, in 1959, he fled China following a failed uprising against Chinese rule of Tibet.

Police reportedly sealed off Hongya village, which is known as Taktser to Tibetans, for most of last year after violent protests against Chinese rule in many Tibetan areas from February to April. But on the eve of the traditional Tibetan lunar new year festival, or Losar, no-one tried to prevent us from reaching the Dalai Lama's birthplace.

Just 60 miles from Hongya, over several barren mountains and deep valleys on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, is the Qinghai town of Tongren, or Rebkong. Tongren is home to the famous Rongwo monastery and several smaller monasteries. Last year it made the news not for its renowned Buddhist art but for protests and arrests.

The conflict reportedly began in mid-February when Rongwo monks and a group of Tibetans protested against the disruption of a religious ceremony by paramilitary police. Police used tear gas on the crowd and arrested more than 200 people, according to reports by Tibetan exile groups.

Monks at the monastery said that police arrested more than 100 people from Rongwo last year. As ordinary Tibetans in sheepskin-lined robes spun giant gilded prayer wheels and bowed before images of the Buddha, the Dalai Lama and other revered Tibetan gurus, three monks who sat around a stove in small room said they were heeding calls by Tibetan exile groups to boycott this year's 15-day Losar celebrations.

"We don't have a happy life. We have no freedom," said one of the three monks, whose names are being withheld to protect them from possible reprisals. "We are not celebrating the new year," he said as he refuelled the stove with a mixture of coal slack and dried cow dung.

Another monk, in his mid-20s, handed me his mobile phone to show a video of last year's protests. They began in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, on March 10, the 49th anniversary of the 1959 uprising.

Then he showed two photographs of the Dalai Lama in meetings with the US president, Barack Obama, and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"It gives me hope to know that these foreigners are supporting the Dalai Lama," he said. "I have more hope and strength when I see these photographs and I hope that Tibetans can find a peaceful solution."

I asked him about the spindly blue lines of a tattoo on his arm, which he said he did himself, but he failed to understand my Chinese. "It says Free Tibet' in Tibetan," his older friend answered for him. "We don't like to speak Chinese," he added.

The older monk was visibly emotional as he spoke, his face gradually reddening. He peered several times through a gap at the side of the curtain to see if anyone was approaching his room.

One of the others put his wrists together as if he was handcuffed, then thrust his hands behind his back to show the treatment he expected if security officers found him giving negative statements to a foreign journalist.

About one million of China's estimated six million Tibetan people live in Qinghai, which is home to more than four million other people from the Han Chinese, Hui Muslim, Mongolian and other ethnic groups.

Many other monks and ordinary Tibetans in other areas appear to have joined the campaign to boycott the Tibetan new year. It was launched to protest against the crackdown by Chinese authorities following last year's unrest.

Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser, who lives in Beijing under heavy police surveillance, talked on her blog recently of a "great civil disobedience spreading throughout all of Tibet".

The ruling Communist Party has tried to counter the movement by urging Tibetans to take part in government-sponsored new year events, and some lay Tibetans in Qinghai said they were visiting monasteries to mark Losar. Police have also increased security in many Tibetan areas in the run-up to the anniversaries of last year's protests and the flight into exile of the Dalai Lama.

In Lhasa, though, most Tibetans reportedly stayed indoors on Wednesday, the first day of the new year. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, apparently the only overseas news organisation to get a reporter into Lhasa for the new year, said the streets and temples were "deserted".

The newspaper described "extremely tight" security around the city's Barkhor square, which is outside Tibet's most important temple, the Jokhang. "Fully equipped armed police patrolled the area in small squads, wielding machine guns and tear-gas guns," it said.

The Tibetan government-in-exile reported that about 200 Tibetans were shot dead by paramilitary police during last year's protests. China said only 21 people died in the violence, most of them non-Tibetans killed by rioters. Exile groups produced some credible reports of Tibetan deaths, but the Chinese government's ban on foreign journalists visiting many Tibetan areas, and the climate of fear, mean it is impossible to verify the claims.

In his new year message, the Dalai Lama talked of "hundreds of Tibetans losing their lives and several thousand facing detention and torture". He said the new year was "certainly not a period when we can have the usual celebrations and gaiety".

The US State Department this week said the Chinese government's human rights record in Tibetan areas "deteriorated seriously" last year.

"Authorities continued to commit serious human rights abuses, including torture, arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial detention and house arrest," it said in a report on China.

The Dalai Lama accused China of "such a level of cruelty and harassment" that Tibetans will be "forced to remonstrate". He urged patience "so that the precious lives of many Tibetans are not wasted".

"Above all, the path of non-violence is our irrevocable commitment," he said.

The level of control is particularly strong in major monasteries around Lhasa, such as Drepung, Sera and Ganden, said Robbie Barnett, an expert on Tibet at Columbia University in New York.

"Of the 2300 monks in Drepung 18 months ago, of whom two-thirds were unofficial and unregistered, now only about 400 are left in the monastery and even they are having to spend time every day to do political study," Barnett said. "The rest have been expelled and banned from being monks, or sent back to their home villages."

Some Tibetans still want independence from China, while many others support the Dalai Lama's "middle way". For several years, he has publicly renounced independence in favour of maximum autonomy for Tibetans within China. His representatives have held seven rounds of talks in China since 2002, the latest in July. Yet Chinese officials continue to accuse him of fighting for independence and sometimes lambast him as a "wolf in monk's robes".

"Consistent use of intimidating and aggressive language within the Chinese leadership on the Tibet issues has made it impossible for moderate officials to risk expressing views about Tibet that suggest any kind of compromise, so at the moment any progress in the talks is impossible," Barnett said.

Barry Sautman of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology sees intransigence on both sides. "There are people in both camps who don't want the dialogue to succeed and it will go nowhere without the Dalai Lama acknowledging that Tibet is legitimately part of China," he said.

"If he does so, it's possible for religious and cultural autonomy in Tibet to be expanded.

"The odds are that Communist China will outlive the Dalai Lama, a fact that he must become convinced of in order for actual negotiations to be possible," Sautman said.

Some observers believe the lack of progress in talks on Tibet's future are a major cause of the frustration and tension.

Amonk set fire to himself on Friday after Chinese authorities prevented him from observing a traditional prayer festival, the London-based Free Tibet Campaign reported. The monk poured petrol over himself and set light to it after walking from the Kirti monastery into the nearby centre of Aba town in the south-western province of Sichuan, said Matt Whitticase of the Free Tibet Campaign.

"While he was walking, he was shouting and holding aloft a Tibetan flag with a picture of the Dalai Lama on it," Whitticase said. "As soon as he set himself alight, he was immediately surrounded by armed police." Whitticase said witnesses reported hearing three gunshots.

The monk, identified by the name Tarbe, reportedly fell to the ground and police put out the flames and took him away in a van. "We don't know whether the monk is alive or dead," he said.

New York-based Students for a Free Tibet said the monk was shot in the incident. The two reports said the self-immolation followed the turning away of hundreds of Kirti monks from a locked prayer hall earlier on Friday, despite orders from officials and the abbot to stay away.

"That a young monk felt compelled to self-immolate in protest shows that China's repression in Tibet is driving Tibetans to the brink," said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet.

An earlier report by US-based Radio Free Asia said paramilitary police sealed off the Lutsang monastery in Qinghai on Friday after more than 100 Tibetan monks staged a candlelit vigil outside local government offices. Several other small protests were reported in Tibetan areas this month, and Whitticase said they "show the depth of resentment" of Tibetans.

"Tibetans are resisting peacefully and those acts of resistance are beginning to spread," Whitticase said.

How far the disobedience will go remains unclear. The monks at Rongwo said they believed the heavy presence of plain-clothes police, and the use measures such as stop-and-search on the streets of Tongren, would probably prevent a repeat of last year's large protests.

"I don't think there will be protests because they have such strict controls," said the oldest of the three, in his mid-30s.

Whitticase said he had shifted his view after Friday's self-immolation, suggesting there is "much more general active resistance". "It now seems that protests are more likely than I was thinking a few days ago," he said.

At Rongwo, the monks asked to see what I had shot on my video camera. They watched clips of Tibetan pilgrims prostrating themselves repeatedly in front of the monastery and footage of a military convoy on the road from Tongren to Xining, Qinghai's provincial capital.

"It's like that every day," the older monk said of the military convoy. "If we had a video camera we could record what's going on here and let the world know." Comment on this story here