In 1984 Gyatso returned to the TAR to continue his training at the fine art department at Lhasa University. His arrival coincided with the period of liberalization, when some restrictions on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism had been lifted. He therefore arrived in a rather different city from the one he had left: the Jokhang had been reopened and Tibetans (including his own grandmother) were once again reciting mantras, using rosaries and generally reviving popular religious practices. At a less visible level, cassettes with speeches made by the Dalai Lama in exile were in circulation. When Gyatso heard the Dalai Lama's account of Tibetan history and its status as an independent nation, it galvanized his resolve to try to create 'something Tibetan'. But how was this to be achieved? Gyatso had no knowledge of 'Tibetan techniques' (such as thangka painting) and had only ever learnt Western and Chinese styles of oil painting, so his first attempts to illustrate the special characteristics of the Tibetan environment were still forged in the stylistic mould of Sino-Realism.
Ironically his abilities in this type of representation meant that the process of devising 'something Tibetan' was interrupted in 1985 when Gyatso was required to return to Beijing to complete the Yarlung River mural for the Tibet Reception Hall. Although the subject enabled Gyatso to depict the Yarlung Valley where the first Tibetan kings had ruled, it was an official commission for a Han Chinese audience. On his return to Lhasa, Gyatso became even more painfully aware of the contradictions between his status as the son of party workers (and now also an artist to the state) and his growing consciousness of the distinctiveness of his Tibetan heritage. Around this time he tried to express his frustration:
. . . all my attempts to get at my Tibetan identity and cultural roots. The result was a feeling of depression and emptiness, which I tried to depict in a self portrait. I drew myself with half a face, reflecting the boredom and feeling of vacuousness I had felt during these idle days of senseless arguments.