DHARAMSALA, India (AFP) - The Dalai Lama indicated Thursday he was in informal talks with China to make a historic pilgrimage to Tibet after more than half a century in exile.
The Tibetan spiritual leader said he had "made clear" his desire to undertake the pilgrimage to a sacred mountain in his homeland to contacts in China, including retired Communist Party officials.
"It's not finalised, not yet, but the idea is there," the 79-year-old told AFP in an interview in the northern Indian hill station of Dharamshala, where he lives.
"Not formally or seriously, but informally... I express, this is my desire, and some of my friends, they are also showing their genuine interest or concern," he added.
"Recently, some Chinese officials, for example the deputy party secretary in the autonomous region of Tibet, he also mentioned the possibility of my visit as a pilgrimage to that sacred place."
The Dalai Lama has long expressed a desire to visit the Wutai Shan mountain, considered sacred by Tibetans. His comments Thursday come amid speculation of an easing of tensions with China, which in the past has decried the spiritual leader as a "splittist" and accused him of seeking secession.
The exiled monk, who retired from politics in 2011, says he is fighting for greater autonomy for Tibetan areas.
Last month, an anonymous blog post appeared briefly on a Chinese-run website describing the Dalai Lama's return in positive terms, before it was taken down.
It was seen by some experts as an indication that China's tone may be softening - a view shared by the Dalai Lama.
On Thursday, he welcomed recent comments by China's President Xi Jinping on the importance of Buddhism in Chinese society and said he was "optimistic" about the current leadership in Beijing.
"This is something very new, a Communist Party leader saying something about spirituality," said the exiled leader, who recently described Mr Xi as "more open-minded" than his predecessors.
The Dalai Lama, who enjoyed a close relationship with Xi's father before he fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising, also praised the Chinese leader for a crackdown on official corruption. "These things show he (Xi) is approaching these problems more realistically," said the Dalai Lama.
But he criticised China's treatment of dissidents, including the Uighur writer Ilham Tohti, who was recently sentenced to life in prison for separatism.
"There is some arrest of dissidents - some intellectual people - such as very recently a Uighur writer," he said. "These people firstly are not anti-government, not anti-people. So I think not necessary... I think actually long run, harmful."