Our Tibetan guide sits sullenly in the passenger seat, his arms folded and his face set in a look of disgust as we bump over a rutted road into Lhasa, his hometown. The reason for his foul mood: we are following a People's Liberation Army truck full of soldiers towing a large water cannon. It is one of many reminders in this ancient city high on the Himalayan plateau that Tibet belongs to China.
As soon as we pass the truck, the natural grandeur of the place sweeps in. At an elevation of about 3,600 metres, Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world, and yet it lies in a deep bowl, surrounded by mountain ranges that rise up to 5,500 metres above sea level. It's a city at times almost blindingly white against the blue mountain sky.
The Trichang Labrang Hotel is said to have once been the residence of Trijang Rimpoche, the junior tutor of the 14th and current Dalai Lama. Staying in a room at the hotel is like living in a Thangka painting: a yellow ceiling with blue cross beams, red wooden posts with intricate flower carvings painted green, blue, yellow, red, purple, orange and violet. And on the floor, blue Tibetan rugs with red and white flowers. Dinner is almost as lavish. Yak dumplings, deep-fried flat bread stuffed with lamb, barley butter soup, a tomato and yak-meat stew, stir-fried yak meat with pepper, potato with red Sichuan chilli pepper, garlic butter nan and Lhasa beer. And at the end, coffee, with rich foamy yak milk.
The hotel sits in a narrow lane in the old section of Lhasa, next to the Barkhor bazaar. Throughout the day, hundreds of pilgrims spinning prayer wheels fill the alleys as they make their devotional walk around the Jokhang Temple, which, rather than the iconic Potala Palace, is regarded as the holiest place in Tibet.
Stepping inside the seventh-century temple is like walking through a curtain into a medieval world. The only light is from lamps - large brass basins with burning wicks stuck in rich, half-melted yak butter. Amid the constant murmur of prayer, the thick air is like a stream with overpowering eddies of incense, smoke from burning green cypress branches, yak-butter essence and sweat.
The ceiling is low and the beams and posts are made of ancient wood, made dark by smoke. Hundreds of worshippers, Tibetan and Han Chinese, packed close and holding canisters of oil for offerings, form a long line that wends through the labyrinthine building along a ritual passageway, called the Nangkhor. Calm, patient faces glow in the reflection of hand-held candles.
The guide stands in a dark corner and, as red-robed monks brush by, informs the visitors about the temple and Songtsan Gampo. Born in about 605AD, Gampo was the founder of the Tibetan empire and married both a Nepalese princess and the Chinese princess Wencheng, niece of a Tang dynasty emperor. Both women were Buddhists and Songtsan Gampo soon converted.
As part of her dowry, Princess Wencheng brought the Jowo Sakyamuni, a golden statue of a 12-year-old Buddha. To house the statue, she ordered a temple built, but the product of each day's work would collapse during the night. The princess soon divined that lying under all of Tibet was a giant demoness, who was preventing the spread of Buddhism.
'So Princess Wencheng ordered 12 temples built throughout Tibet to pin down the demon's hands and arms and knees and feet and body,' says the guide. 'But under Lhasa lay the demon's heart, beneath a lake. So the princess filled the lake, bringing stones and soil from all over Tibet carried by 1,000 goats. And there she built the temple on the demon's heart.'
Around each corner in the dark temple is another object of veneration - a room where a Dalai Lama studied, the tomb of another, a large cabinet of scrolls, painted statues dressed in silk robes, figurines carved from butter. Finally, along a dim passageway deep in the temple, we come to an alcove where, up a small flight of stairs, stands Wencheng's gilded Jowo Sakyamuni. Said to be crafted during his lifetime, the seated Buddha has a smooth, placid face, with red lips and blue eyes behind drooping lids that give him a dreamlike stare. He wears a jewelled headdress and is robed in brocade studded with turquoise.
As worshippers kneel and pray, the thick scented air disfigures the candle flames flickering off the gold and the sheen on the faces of the monks.
A short walk from Jokhang Temple, high on a hill, is the Potala Palace, the traditional home of the Dalai Lama and now a museum. Its splendour is best appreciated by walking around the soaring, fortress-like monument and seeing it from all sides. It's a vast complex of buildings, full of treasure and historical relics, that sits on Marpo Ri (Red Mountain) and rises for 13 floors. Divided into the White Palace, for living quarters, and the Red Palace, for devotional activities, it has more than 1,000 rooms connected by hallways and steep ladder staircases and is said to house more than 10,000 shrines and about 200,000 statues.
From its high parapets you can see a large, empty square below, dominated by the Tibet Peaceful Liberation Monument - to commemorate the 'liberation' of the country in 1951 - which looks like some sort of concrete Bauhaus rocket ship that never managed to take off.
For a more intimate look at Tibetan Buddhism, there is the 600-year-old Sera Monastery, in the dry rocky foothills north of Lhasa. Every afternoon, more than 100 monks gather under the trees in a gravel courtyard for ritualised debate, in which older monks test younger ones in a sharp question-and-answer exchange. Facing a small group, the questioner stands for a moment, thinking, then rears back with his arms raised as if ready to attack, then rushes forward, slapping his hands together as he hurls some arcane question of Buddhist orthodoxy at the defender, who must answer immediately or lose the debating point.
Scores of these lunging debates break out in the courtyard. The questions may be unintelligible but the expressions tell the story. Sometimes the defenders, who sit on the ground, wince at the aggression of an attack; others look astonished at their questions while many just hang their heads in defeat. One, after about 15 minutes of this abuse, begins to weep. But many are calm, snapping back their answers, even as elders lurch at them.
One very young boy is thrown question after question. He tries gamely to answer his elder but clearly does not yet know enough and is battered by flurries of questions. A friend sitting next to him offers earnest advice. The child doesn't appear to have a chance, yet he keeps trying, often turning his head away with a sheepish smile at his own ignorance, but always facing back for the next barrage. On and on come the questions, which the boy takes, looking bewildered but not beaten, until the elder rushes up one last time and rubs the child's shaven head.
Barkhor Square and its bazaar are crowded with tourists, hawkers, Chinese and Tibetans - many buying or selling prayer wheels, wind-horse flags, silk, Buddha figurines, daggers, bracelets or charms. Through it all, marching in a tight little formation, are about a dozen PLA soldiers, armed and clad in camouflage, each carrying a fire extinguisher strapped to his back.
The guide asks if I noticed the old pillar with an inscription next to the temple. 'You mean that,' I say, pointing. He doesn't look; he just pushes my arm down and shakes his head.
'You shouldn't do that. People are always watching.'
I don't know what he means and he doesn't explain. Later, I look it up. The pillar, or doring, was erected in about 822AD and records part of a treaty between Tibet and China. Translated, the inscription reads: 'Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet. Henceforth on neither side shall there be waging of war nor seizing of territory.'
The treaty, which is not very long, ends: 'All shall live in peace and share the blessing of happiness for 10,000 years. The fame of this shall extend to all places reached by the sun and the moon.'
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com), Air China (www.airchina.com) and other carriers fly from Hong Kong to Lhasa, with a connection in Chengdu, Xian or Shanghai. Travel to Lhasa requires a Tibet travel permit in addition to a China visa.