Henry Rollins: Beauty and Sadness in Uzbekistan

Henry Rollins: Beauty and Sadness in Uzbekistan
Photo by Heidi May

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.]

11-28-14 Los Angeles International Airport: If I get the odd month relatively free of obligation, I will usually try to get out of America and travel. It is a huge part of my life.

“Out there” is where I learn a lot of big lessons. For me, being in unfamiliar surroundings forces me to function at a higher level, and from that comes a greater awareness of things and optimum opportunities to grow.

The power of what I learn from putting myself in distant locations is far stronger than anything I have ever gotten out of a book. I have concluded that, if I really want to know, I will have to go.

My preferred mode of travel is alone. Not always easy, but being on my own schedule always beats the compromise of togetherness and the shared experience.

The main reasons I travel are to learn, to grow and, most important, to be broken down and made stronger by the daily grind of it. Being off the road makes me feel as though I am not living life nearly to the fullest. As wonderful as L.A. is, after a few weeks there without demanding employment to keep me occupied, I feel that I am blowing it.

I fear comfort. It ages the body, dulls the senses and destroys the intellect. I disgust myself at how quickly I become accustomed to the ease of routine.

11-29-14 Ataturk Airport, Istanbul: 1747 hrs. The first time I came to Turkey, I was 11 or 12 years old. I went with my mother. I remember the first time I walked around Istanbul, it was completely overwhelming. Loud, busy, frantically alive. Over the decades I have made a few journeys back and found the city very much to my liking.

I emerged from the airplane several minutes ago, after 11 hours and 49 minutes of flight. I felt tired but, as soon as I remembered I was in Turkey, I woke right up.

One of the things about travel, quite humbling and humanizing, is the general hassle involved in actually getting to the place. The lines and the delays are a drag, but once I arrive somewhere, within an hour it’s like it never happened. No matter the hassle, it’s always worth it.

I think the humanizing aspect of long-distance travel happens around seven hours into a long flight. People start to let it all hang out. Kids wander; people snore and lean on strangers. It’s always interesting to make that hike from the back of the plane after landing and see what slobs the passengers in business and first often are.

11-30-14 Tashkent, Uzbekistan: 1810 hrs. Just spent the day walking around the city until it got dark.

Uzbekistan is the country whose president’s name escaped Herman Cain when he was on the campaign trail in 2011. Talking to David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, he said, “And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know?”

The president is Islam Karimov, actually. He has been in power since his sometimes-debated election win in late 1991. He’s not a nice guy and his grip on the country is total.

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My repeated attempts to log onto the Human Rights Watch website have been thwarted, although I was able to read a summary of the group’s latest Uzbekistan report on the site of The Diplomat, a magazine that reports on what’s happening in the Asia-Pacific region. There is a lot to know about Uzbekistan and its treatment of the convicts who crowd its prisons, and any of those who oppose the policies of Karimov. None of it is good.

America seems to look the other way. Apparently, the roads through Uzbekistan that access Afghanistan, facilitating America’s supply lines, are of more importance.

Tashkent’s city center is at once fascinating and oppressive. I am staying near a lot of government buildings. They are all huge, almost featureless, in that overwhelming Soviet style. It being Sunday, they were all closed. No guards that I could see.

There were hardly any cars or people on the streets. I imagined a government that just moved paper from office to office, never realizing that everyone had left and they were only governing themselves.

I asked the guide showing me around if I could take photos of the huge apartment buildings that sprawl block after block. The laundry hanging out of the windows, the well-worn dreariness of the structures had so much humanity and exhausted sadness. I wanted to try to capture that. I was told it probably wasn’t going to happen.

My guide was friendly but as soon as we met, he laid down some guidelines. He told me he was “easygoing” and ready to tell me the historical facts of the country but would not speak on anything political. Not once did he mention President Karimov.

Tomorrow I am taking a short trip to Tajikistan, then coming back to Uzbekistan the following day. While the sights thus far have been less than thrilling, the history of this part of the world is extremely interesting. Everyone, it seems, came through here over the centuries. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Attila, the Greeks, the Chinese, the British, the Soviets. Walking around the bazaar, I saw the faces that represented a true melting pot.

There is a lot about this part of the world that we will never know. Conquerors often obliterate the history of that which came before them in an effort to destabilize the conquered and weaken resistance. It works.

More beauty and sadness to come! Stay tuned.


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