Holy wheels and deals

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By Kenny Yum

We saw those prayer wheels everywhere — in shops, in stalls and on a random Tibetan hand. They spun them around, endless and smooth in motion, effortless in execution.

One caught the fancy of my friend, an Australian tourist. It was small, unassuming, built of a silver-like metal, easy to stash away into a knapsack as a handy souvenir. The Mani wheel, as the Tibetans call it, looked like a radio tower: a crushed pop can on a stick, a chain with a weight attached to the body so each orbit can be witnessed. Its handle was carved, an Asian-influenced pattern engraved not for grip, but for price.

Never mind religion, never mind spirituality in a country that tries to stifle it. Here was a customer, and money to be made.

The vendor approached the tourist, bombarding her with the only English words he knew — “lookie” and “cheapie.”

It was business as usual though, since he had a calculator and made his first offer.

She typed back.

Three, zero. 30 yuan. $5.50 Canadian.

“You don’t really need this,” I said. Now I was involved.

He punched again, knocking off a few yuan.

“Just tell yourself, ‘I don’t really need this,’” I advised the Aussie backpacker who had confided minutes earlier that she was a shy haggler. Now he wanted 125 yuan, about $22.

“No,” she said, punching in the same two numbers as the last round.

Clear. Three. Zero.

He bowed his head, shaking it violently as if to say that 30 yuan was insulting.

His counteroffer.

Clear. One. One. Zero.

I look up to see that, as the only foreigners visiting Lhasa during the low point of the tourist season, we had attracted a dozen Tibetans: a woman who pointed to her child, then her stomach; four monks who stopped to listen; pilgrims who had just exited their holiest temple.

We were on our way to the main market in the Tibetan quarter of the capital, where the temple is boxed in by an influx of wares in short stalls. It was day two of a short stay in the city and somehow, after a morning of touring, we ended up on that street.

We fought the crowds, realizing later on that we were moving against the flow. They were walking clockwise around the temple; we weren’t. We’d duck in a corner and a mass would approach, but just stop short. They’d look, point, smile and move on, content to see a few people with fair skin unmarked by the endless sunshine.

We stared back, or at least I did. The faces, each sun-inspired line and wrinkle, every point on the nose and cheek tinged with red. These were not Chinese people. Not like the Han Chinese whom we’d see in other cleaner, better-developed and richer parts of town. They were kids — those who could use a clean cloth on their runny noses, and those who clung to your arms. They were the monks, waving one jaio notes, inviting an addition to their pennies. They were — and are — a people with a leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, in their hearts, but absent in exile. And among them, on this day, there were pilgrims, walking in their holy city, twirling their prayer wheels.

He was a tough one, this vendor. Knowing that we were one of a small group of tourists in the city, and knowing that at least 40 other stalls sold wheels, he still refused to budge or some down to her offer.

I told her to go, that if she walked away, he’d give in. Or at least accept defeat and sell.

She started to move.

A phrase, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” is uttered when the wheel is used, a mantra accompanied by a continual clockwise movement. Pop the top, and you will find a tightly wound, rolled-up paper with script, so that with each turn, the effect of the prayer is greatly magnified. They vary in size, from a hand-held contraption that’s spun by passing worshippers. Mass-produced or not — there is even an Internet praying wheel that features a revolving graphic — the wheel is constructed with one reason in mind. It invokes the blessings and attention of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion.

We turned our heads and took a step away from the stall, still trailed by the child-carrying mother, the monks and, now, a desperate vendor. He waved. “Lookie, lookie,” and with a few final strokes of a calculator keyboard, she won her souvenir for a mere $5.50, her original price — 30 yuan.

We left, confident and impressed by our bargaining skills. She gave it a few revolutions and it spun clumsily, like a dying propeller on an antique airplane.

After a few more steps, she turned it upside down for inspection and its top fell off, nearly dumping the script on the ground. She sheepishly picked it up and in a few second, with the wheel stuffed in her knapsack, we continued to shop, against the clockwise flow.

At the airport two hours outside of Lhasa, soldiers, families and an odd tour group, none Tibetan, were getting ready to depart for Chengdu, a Chinese city in a nearby province. A Chinese man peered through a glass case that revealed cigarettes, water, jade rings, miniature yaks and Tibetan prayer wheels.

He asked the attendant to see the wheels, and she pulled them out and placed a half dozen on the countertop. He picked one up, then another and, trading one in, selected two souvenirs.

He half-heartedly twirled one. No mantra was chanted. No compassion was seen or heard.

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