At last, we reached Lhasa. The name means “the habitation of supernatural beings” and it has been Tibet’s capital since the 7th century. The city, spread out over a stark desert plain, herded by mountains, is dominated by the 13 story Potala Palace. Set on the highest hill, the 1,000 room palace was once home to the country’s secular and spiritual leaders. You can still see the private quarters of the 14th Dalai Lama, untouched from the day he escaped the invading Chinese Army disguised as a Tibetan soldier.

After years of suppression, religious ceremonies are held here again. Prostrating pilgrims approach the complex clockwise, bowing and praying even before they enter the inner chapels. Many of the faithful tote plastic bags filled with yak-butter used to fuel lamps flickering before the images of their saints. Even though I’m not a Buddhist I felt that I was standing on sacred ground.

Given the altitude (12,139 feet), the crush of people, and the smoky rooms, hiking up and down the steep stairs was dizzy, thirsty work. I was more than ready for a relaxing cup of tea. Our guides drove us to the entrance of a narrow street edged with whitewashed stone and cement block buildings, many with elaborately decorated iron-work doors. A short walk led to a courtyard where we were greeted by a smiling grandmother wearing the traditional Tibetan full-length dark dress, a bold striped bangdian (apron) and bright red embroidered boots. Opposite her in the courtyard, the family had gotten a jump start on tea heating water in a large metal kettle positioned over a “butterfly-fold” solar panel.

Inside, four generations presided over the tea table set up in the house’s main room. Beds are pushed to the walls during the day and low banquettes and stools are used for seating. The family offered plates of home-made cookies that looked like fat noodles, toasted barley, fruit, seeds, hard candies and dried yak cheese which tasted a bit like aged pecorino. Strong, salty, milky black tea was pre-brewed, and served from a Chinese-style metal thermos, but our hostess demonstrated making tea the old-fashioned way, in a wooden Jhandong churn, with a little help

from her grandson. Read Part 2