THE PHOTOGRAPHERS LINE UP on the horizon, about 15 of them: head to toe Gore-Tex, cigarettes dangling, black cameras at the ready.

It’s late afternoon and the sun is about to set.

They’ve traveled here from as far as Beijing, perhaps — a fleet of expensive jeeps that are now parked at violent angles on the grassland below, windows sheened with dust.

Nearby, and several worlds away, a large circle of Tibetan pilgrims sit round a fire, drinking tea. The last of the sunlight catches on the red braids in their hair, as a woman’s high-pitched song spirals up towards us with a plume of smoke — both soon lost in the vast expanse of the plateau.

Chen flicks his finished cigarette in the direction of the cameras, jumps up, and bursts into a rough copy of a Tibetan folk dance: one leg bent, the other outstretched, a violent clap and whoop that echo down the valley. And then, just as quickly, sits back down beside me and offers another cigarette.

We’ve only known each other for an afternoon, and I can’t yet tell which gestures are real, which are for show.

The hand that holds the lighter is badly scarred. With only a few words between us, we make do with mime. He’s probably the same age as me, made older by high altitude and experience, an off-duty soldier walking back from Lhasa to Chengdu. This makes me look at him differently for a moment, taking in his worn boots and lean strength, flicking through my fixed set of beliefs about Tibet and China, about all I think I know.

But right now, on this cold rock in the fading light, he’s just another traveler with a simple kindness in his creased smiles. As we wait, a shaggy nomad dog sleeping by our feet, Chen acts out his story scene by scene, moving rocks, pulling up bodies from invisible debris, so that I finally figure it out. He must have been part of a rescue team after the Yushu Earthquake of 2010 — nearly 3,000 casualties and tens of thousands displaced. This explains his hand, scarred pink into a strange newness, and I suddenly feel humble and ashamed in a way I can’t explain.

The 5-minute timeframe of a setting sun, a monastery outline and the snow-capped mountains beyond: the image of ‘Tibet’ we’ve learnt to desire.

Around us, lines of colourful Buddhist prayer flags are strung out in all directions, while beyond the peaks of five holy mountains gleam white with the first snowfall. Down a steep slope are the dusty streets and marketplace of Lhagang, a wild-west town in western Sichuan, that only became part of China in 1950 and which still feels very much like Tibet. The golden roof of its temple and low-slung houses are already losing themselves in the long blue shadows of dusk. Higher up on the grassy mountainside, thousands more flags are planted in multicoloured triangles, alongside white stone mantras in curled Tibetan script.

Chen nudges me and gestures towards the horizon to signal that there isn’t long to wait. I’m grateful for his company, however surreal it feels. There’s no point trying to fit a narrative to it — neither of us have language enough for the task — so it stays as simple as it is. Compared with all the cluttered encounters I’ve clocked up over the past few years, backstories hustled into every conversation, this silence feels like ease.

The view in front of us is already beautiful, but no more so than a dozen others on this plateau, where the high altitude sharpens the edges of things, angles of rock exaggerated by clear-cut shadow and light. What will make it into an ‘attraction’ is the 5-minute timeframe of a setting sun, a monastery outline and the snow-capped mountains beyond: the image of ‘Tibet’ we’ve learnt to desire.

I wonder if I’m also waiting, no different from the photographers, deferring arrival until the composition finally ‘makes sense,’ only ever using the narrowest of lenses. Why is it that we want to capture it and return home with proof? A reassurance that things can fit the frame of our expectations? Or the hope that the exoticism will rub off on us in the process?

All it takes is a brief look around for the illusion to collapse. This whole plateau exceeds our usual ways of seeing. Scarcely marked by habitation, with only a few nomad tents and matted yaks dotting the grassland, this is a place that could never be scaled down.

The government is clearly keen to rein this freedom in. On the trip up from Chengdu, I’d passed through armed checkpoints, foreigners made to exit the bus and queue in the winter sun, while soldiers far younger than Chen, with brand new uniforms and expensive boots, eyed our visas with suspicion. The only other non-Chinese were a trio of Japanese students, one of whom had something anomalous in her passport, and so the bus had simply driven on, leaving them to retrace the 200 miles by themselves.

This was shortly after anti-Japanese riots had broken out in Chinese cities over the Senkaku Island dispute, but the real tension here comes from local ethnic unrest. Only the week before, 23-year-old Tingzin Dolma had self-immolated in nearby Rebkong. To date, 126 Tibetans have set alight to themselves in protest of Chinese rule, many in these borderlands — a wild act of despair that barely makes the international news.

Still, even as they close the ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’ to foreigners, officials are opening these areas to domestic tourism, building new airports and roads. On the bus I’d sat near a friendly middle-class family from Kunming decked out in new ski jackets and walking boots, each with a matching mala of green jade around their wrist. The mother cracked sunflower seeds compulsively as she explained her love of Tibetan music and Buddhist lamas, and across the aisle was ‘Sunny,’ a young teacher with blue contact lenses and a passion for backpacking. Anyone with a disposable income seems ready for adventure, and ‘Tibet’ is clearly being rebranded as the latest must-see attraction. All along the twisting roadside, only recently cleared of landslides after the summer rains, huge billboards proclaim ‘local Tibetan beauties’ and ‘traditional Tibetan concerts,’ while others advertise new hotels and housing developments, a slice of Westernized suburbia transplanted into the wild.

I can’t help feeling that the place is being undone even as we come to witness it, perhaps precisely because we come.

I had hitched onwards from Kangding (Lucheng) with a couple of Tibetan newlyweds, a love song belting out on the car stereo. As we reached the plateau the shift was tangible, even as the official signposts denied it, ownership spelled out in Mandarin while the Tibetan was either erased or relegated to a footnote. In fact, as the young Amdo guesthouse owner in town had pointed out, ethnic Han are systematically being moved here, in an attempt to make the population match the fiction of the maps.

The people of Lhagang, however, are predominantly still Kham — tall and proud, famed for their skill with horses and for their handsome men. On the grassland, we passed a young rider with his belted jacket hanging off one shoulder, cowboy hat set at an angle, long plaited hair, high cheekbones, bright teeth, and jade earrings flashing, while in town two teenage girls with red cheeks performed full-body prostrations around the temple, long leather aprons covering jeans, hands and knees wrapped in cloths. The woman who served us yak butter tea that afternoon out of a large plastic flask still wore traditional dress beneath an imitation North Face jacket, and the lama, to whom passers-by lowered their heads in reverence, had an air of the distant past about him, despite the Puma trainers beneath his long red robes. There is a history, then, that persists, and however much this may feel like romanticism, the lure of the people and their landscape is strong.

Back on the rock, I wonder what I’m doing here. Bearing witness to something under threat of erasure, perhaps, or just consuming my own fiction of it, which is no truer than any other.

The sunset comes and goes. I take a few photos, feeling vaguely like a traitor.

The photographers leave, in search of the next attraction, and tomorrow Chen will head south while I continue further north. A sudden sense of melancholy. The fresh paint of the tourist board, locals transformed into slick tour guides by each new busload — all this is true the world over. What deepens the sadness here is this deeper loss — a domesticated ‘Tibet’ beautified for tourists while its real identity is relentlessly censored and suppressed.

As I move on, passing through like those middle-aged men with their cameras or Chen in his dusty boots, I can’t help feeling that the place is being undone even as we come to witness it, perhaps precisely because we come.

Perhaps identity only survives out on the plateau, then, or in these unexpected small-scale encounters — shared mugs of tea and momos in a backstreet café, long after the sun has set.