Lhasa, Tibet - the plane emerges from the snow-capped Himalayas and swoops down through a narrow corridor of rock to the landing strip in a delicate green valley.
The two-hour flight to Lhasa, the ancient capital of Tibet, originated in Chengdu, China's westernmost city, in the province of Sichuan. Travel to Tibet is closely monitored by the Chinese, and permits must be arranged in advance.
Arriving in Tibet is an intense experience. An isolated place at the highest altitude on earth, it's here that the Tibetan people have learned the key to happiness, peace and spirituality. At 3,636 metres (12,000 feet) above sea level, the air is rarefied and colours have an extraordinary intensity: turquoise lakes, yellow fields of mustard, arid brown hills edged in deep red rock rising to a piercing blue sky.
As our driver approaches Lhasa, a city of about 250,000 people, we pass rows of faceless cement office and apartment buildings glazed with blue mirrored glass. Interspersed are Chinese clothing stores, restaurants and karaoke bars lit with neon signs. My two travelling companions and I stare out the window in stunned silence. This is not how we'd pictured Lhasa, the most secluded and sacred city on the planet.
But within a few minutes, we turn off the boulevard, and here before us is Tibet's most famous landmark, the Potala palace. The Potala is a vast white 13-storey fortress built in the 17th century on a rock outcrop overlooking the city. It's the former residence of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists, who was forced into exile when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959.
"The Potala was once a thriving headquarters believed to contain over 1,000 rooms and 10,000 shrines," says our guide, Yanzong, a Tibetan woman in her early 30s.
Although Tibetan pilgrims still visit the Potala, she says, it is now run by Chinese tourist authorities as a museum, and the practice of Buddhism is essentially banned in the palace. In 1996, photographs of the Dalai Lama were also banned throughout Tibet. Anyone caught with one could be arrested and imprisoned.
Our hotel, the Shambala, is modern, comfortable and perfectly located in the centre of the Tibetan quarter just a two-minute walk from the famous Barkhor Market. From our rooms, we can see the golden rooftop of the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred in Tibet, against a backdrop of mountains and the ever-present blue sky.
Although tired and feeling the effects of the altitude, we're excited to be in Lhasa and immediately set off to explore the market and temple.
Making our way through throngs of people, we feel like we're in a time warp, as though we'd stepped back hundreds of years. Open-air stalls laden with Tibetan artifacts fill the square, everything from jewellery of coral, silver and turquoise, yak hair vests, prayer flags and prayer wheels, to knives and daggers of all shapes and sizes.
Other stalls sell dried yak meat, ground barley and huge blocks of butter made from yak milk. We buy crushed juniper and throw it into tall conical incense-burners, which causes clouds of scented smoke to billow over the square. The incense is said to carry prayers and defend against evil spirits.
The Jokhang Temple is as old as Lhasa itself, dating back to the seventh century. Tibetans are fiercely religious, and pilgrims come here from all over Tibet. Some have walked for days or weeks. They circle the Jokhang, always clockwise, twirling prayer wheels and murmuring the mantra "Om mani padme hum" ("Hail to the jewel in the lotus"). Some wear metal hand protectors that scrape on the worn stones as they fling themselves onto the ground every 10 feet or so in full prostration. Buddhist monks in deep red robes with one arm bare mingle with the crowd, some wearing coloured hats to identify their sects.
Our guide tells us this is the heart of Tibet, one of the few remaining places where the pulse of Tibetan culture can still be felt.