One of our many obsessions when we travel is to find magicians, circuses and old fun parks. In 2001 I performed my ‘Knife Dance’ on stage to an audience of more than a thousand people at Jadugar Samrat Shankar’s magic show in Amritsar, India. He had a troupe of teenage gogo girls and boys who danced, acted, were sawed in half and did whatever else was required of them. The art direction was amazing and in an interview later he told us he designed all the costumes, sets and back drops. They were of the surreal kind with huge eyes spinning into space, strange melting clocks and lots of geometric patterns. When I queried him as to his inspirations and if he had heard of Dali he said ‘No’. A highlight of the show for me was being taken up on stage, being hypnotized and then floating up into the air. Ben questioned me for days as to how it was done, but I had been under Shankars spell and had no idea!
We haven’t found any magic shows in Uzbekistan, but we have found another quirk. The Fun Parks. We have frequented every single colourful, ramshackle and broken down Fun Park from Tashkent to Khiva. The best of them are in the capital, Tashkent. After spying one outside the car window Paloma is now constantly asking to be taken to ‘The Park’. I must admit her patience has been amazing; a two and a bit year old being dragged from Mosque to museum, medrassa to market, middle of nowhere to mad cities by us for two months. Now it is her turn for some fun.
And so we indulge her every whim and in every Uzbek city we stop in we find the parks and go on almost every ride offered. Most rides cost just 500 cym which is equal to about 30 cents. We are like millionaires and carry around wads of cash. In Tashkent, the park was set out around a lake on which one can peddle a pastel-painted boat and eat ice cream.
There was a pirate ship flying straight up and into the sky with no slow build up. My thrill-seeker friend Gypsy would have loved it. And we saw the biggest jumping castle quite possibly in the world. Cartoon characters were painted with sinister looking eyes and happy smiles and looked all the more strange staring out from the sides of abandoned merry go rounds overgrown with weeds. All of this is accompanied by Uzbek techno music blaring from speakers serenading young lovers holding hands and eating puffs of pink fairy floss on benches in tree-lined avenues.
We are apprehensive about some of the rusty Soviet-era attractions, some even held together by rope and paint alone. But that doesn’t stop us from risking all going on them. My favourite is the Ferris Wheel, of course. Here, one has to hop on the constantly moving and creaking wheel, throwing your child on first, then jumping on yourself and hoping not to fall out. The sides of the steel baskets are usually open, the security chain without a catch and the seats broken. Ferris wheels are normally so safe and dull, says Ben. But in Uzbekistan they’re frightening.
We love how a Ferris Wheel takes us up over the park, showing us the trees below with big shaggy nests in their branches and hundreds of black birds circling. In Tashkent the snow-capped mountains are also a spectacular part of the view. While in Bukhara we see billowing black smoke fires and a thick industrial haze lingering over the countryside. In Khiva the Ferris Wheel stands alone in an abandoned field, so old we are hanging on for dear life while precariously gazing out and over the mud-walled old city at the blue minaret’s domes.
Paloma can spot all her favourite rides now. We know she is a dare devil, but we never imagined to this extent. In the Bukhara fun park she comes across a harmless-looking ride. But only her parents were fooled. In Uzbekistan, a country of so many rules and regulations, why are they forgotten in their fun parks? There is no mininum age for even the scariest of rides. So this one started off like most, in a slow spin, but before long the axis tilted at a crazy angle and we started to undulate as we rose higher and higher to almost vertical. Ben and I were screaming our heads off, I felt like throwing up. But Paloma just spun round and round at enormous speed, quietly smiling to herself.
When we eventually got off, a crowd had gathered down below to watch us stagger away. It is odd, but here in the Uzbek funparks no one screams on the scary rides. Even the teenagers and children are purse-lipped. All one hears are the motors of the rides churning, but no screams or shouts of laughter. On the other hand, I am very good at screaming. After collapsing on a park bench I hear Paloma start jumping up and down. ‘Can we go again Dad, PLEASE!!! Again!!!’ I look on as Ben, himself unsteady, braves the hideous ride again.