In 2004, Ant Chapin, Keri Bean, Lauren Ditolla and I, flew to Moscow to begin the journey of a lifetime: Retrace Slavomir Rawicz’s escape route chronicled in the epic tale of survival The Long Walk: A true story of a Trek to Freedom. We were four good friends who had all read the book and wondered if it was true. There was only one way to be sure and that would be to retrace the journey ourselves. We were very fortunate to receive the PolarTec Challenge Award from Malden Mills and support from the National Outdoor Leadership School. In addition to those grants, we sold expedition t-shirts, pooled our saving and set off into the unknown September 4, 2004.
Did we walk every foot of the terrain Rawicz described in his book? No. The Long Walk gives few references to actual locations along the trek and even Rawicz himself was not sure of the exact route. We did however purposely visit and trek through the major obstacles Rawicz describes: Siberia and Lake Baikal, the endless desert in the Gobi and cross over the high passes of the Himalayas.
Summary of 2004 Expedition written for the NOLS Leaders Magazine
by Lauren (Edwards) Ditolla and Dave Anderson
The following dispatches were written during the expedition, using any computer/internet connection we could find. The entries are raw unedited glimpses into our incredible journey.
Get Set GO!!!
by Dave Anderson
The last few days have been consumed by the final details of our expedition. Putting my life on hold for three and half months is not an easy task. Mailing insurance payments, forwarding my mail and casting absentee ballots have all been accomplished at the expense of little sleep, but with a 13 hour flight just around the corner I am not worried.
OK, a last minute check. Bags packed..check, airline tickets…check, passports, visa’s…check. Permits for satellite phone and Global Positioning Unit……..uh…not really.
Four years ago I traveled to the Kondus Valley of Pakistan to an unexplored region near the India border to climb giant walls that were only rumored to exist. We brought along a digital camera, computer and satellite phone to share our findings with the Mountainzone.com audience. The red-tape securing a permit for our satallite phone delayed our expedition by two weeks.
For the Long Walk Expedition, I wrote emails, letters and even called all of the Russian Embassies in the USA in an attempt to go through all the proper channels for aquireing permits for our electronics. I received contradictory information and as a result we have decided to deal with the consequence of not having a permit if the there is a problem along the journey.
Finally, with 30 minutes to go before we leave for the airport all of the details that have to be accomplished our completed and I can take a big breadth and relax in the front yard of Lauren’s parents house. In the grass a robin is playing tug of war with an earthworm and I think by the time we return from the Long Walk the ground will be frozen and like us that robin will be thousands of miles to the south.
We flew SAS Scandanavian Airlines to Moscow. Efficient services with a quick smile was the standard behavior we recieved from the flight crew.
As we de-barked from the plane in Moscow I felt my stomach tighten with anticipation of dealing with customs of the Former Soviet Republic. I cleared immigration and grabbed Lauren’s and my backpacks turned around and Lauren was not in sight. I went back to the immigration kiosk, but there was no sign of her. Just as my imagination began to envision her in a small room with a bare light-bulb and loud Russian voices demanding answers she appeared from imigration. ” I couldn’t find my immigration card,” she said with the anxiety of a few tense moments still ringing in her voice.
Ahead of us, four customs officers dressed in dire green uniforms complete with large hats stared us down. I could feel my palms begining to sweat while grasping my backpack. One of the officers raised an imposing hand, palm out- STOP. Then he smiled and turned his hand to a wave, motioning us through the customs area and out into the general area of the airport.
We found our driver from the Traveller’s Guest House, piled into his small sedan and proceeded towards Moscow’s center. I have been terrified by traffic in places like LA, New York, Boston, Dehli, Bangkok, but in Moscow I was terrified by not the congestion or the erratic drivers, but the pure speed in which our driver and all vehicles were traveling. At one point, while driving on a four lane city street, we reached almost 90 miles and hour, and we were being continually passed. I would soon learn that accepting a given situation was the key to traveling in Russia.
by Lauren Edwards
We’re finally all here in Moscow, and excited to begin our journey. Despite the 12 hour time difference and lingering colds that Ant and Keri have, we set out our first day here with energy and enthusiasm to explore this huge city. Our first day here, Ant instisted on trying to learn the metro system, which turned out to be a good call on his part! The subway system here seems pretty simple at first, and really it isn’t so bad–if you know Russian, that is. We’ve ended up tearing out the metro map from the Lonely Planet guidebook and we try to match up the Russian Cyrillic with the signs and symbols posted on the underground walls. We’ve been getting better, but it can still be quite the process, especially when there’s more than two lines crossing at one station. Not knowing a lick of Russian definitly proves to be frustrating in a lot of ways here in Moscow!
The Lubyanka was the jail where Slavomir Rawicz was originally imprisoned. It’s a beautiful building, ornate and picturesque on the outside-and hard to imagine the tourtures and hardships Slavomir went through inside the basement of such a unassuming place. The huge wooden doors that Keri and I stood in front of while Dave took some pictures were pretty imposing. The curiosity to see what was behind those doors overwhelmed me. I bent down to peek through the keyhole of the door…and suddenly the officer standing across the street started blowing his whistle and marching towards us, waving his arms-that was our cue to beeline it the hell out of there. I’m not sure if it was because Dave was taking a picture of the building, or because I was being over curious-whatever the reason, none of us wanted to stick around to find out!
We’ve also done and seen some of the more touristy things here in this crazy city. The Kremlin and the Red Square are major historical hubs of not only Moscow but Russia as a country. The square is huge, and the perimeter is decorated with colorful, ornate towers, and many churches. St. Basil’s Cathedral is perhaps the most prominent, with brightly colored towers with an array of decorations and designs. Keri and I decided to buy a ticket and explore the inside, I’m psyched we did. The inside is even more beautiful that the outside. Intricate murals decorate the walls with different saints and biblical history. There were tons of rooms, little passage-ways, and the stone pathways that had hundreds of years wear on them were just cool things to see.
Tomorrow we’ll be getting on the train to head to Siberia to a town called Irkutsk, where we’ll then head north to the small town of Yakutsk. Yakutsk was the area where Slavomir was kept in a brutal prison camp before he made his escape down to India. Moscow has been an interesting experience, and I’m glad we’ve had time to
explore it a bit. However, I think we are all ready to leave the big city and are very excited to see what Siberia is like, starting the expedition where Slavomir started his long journey…at a gulag camp in the north of Siberia.
by Ant Chapin
It is simply too difficult to describe 84 hours of thumping along on an outdated Russian electric train. Visions of blurred forests, the swaying toilet, difficult to aim in without drinking beer and almost impossible after a few Larnac Premium’s (at 6.5% these can really shake your world a bit) and of course the infamous provodnitsa (Conductorett) with her keys of freedom, or imprisionment as it seemed in early morning hours. Russian trains are comprised of a series of sleeper cars (1st-3rd class). As we traveled the second class, it was assumed that we wanted a luxuriously hot cabin. Sealed windows, no fresh air and four smelly drunk people in one 8 foot cubic box is too much for one hour, let alone four days. We had a lot of time to sit, think, gaze upon the blurring world and sweat! We replaced our spent liquids with vada (water), vodka, and of course, beer. The trick to all of this train travel was to get on the good side of our provodnitsa as she is the said goddess of respective train cars. She rules with her iron key chain, and feigns complete indifference to all of our overflowing bladders by locking the bathrooms at the most in opportune times…like 6 to 9 am. We eventually won her favor by giving her some tomatoes and buying a few extra beers from her private enterprise. Still, we were on our best behavior in her presence…most of the time.
Our train followed almost exactly the path that Rawicz traveled 60 years ago. His fateful forced ride, packed into an open air cattle car in the middle of the Russian winter is something that we could never imagine. We drank beer, while they were sprayed with freezing water at random; we feasted on dried shrimp, pickles and borsch soup, but Rawicz and his unfortunate lot were dispatched with a measly kilo of stale bread for three weeks travel. The perseverance and will of those ill-treated prisoners is unbelieveable even at this early stage in our long, long trip.
Here in Irkutsk we are faced with a very interesting and most decidedly relaxed city. Beautiful old wooden buildings line the roadside, occasionally interrupted by an ill favored Soviet “Block”. Trees and even some crude drinking fountains dot the public courts. It is a haven that we wished Rawicz, like we, could have enjoyed instead of being rushed through in the middle of the night, unknown and lost. It is good to know that there is a place to rest here.
We look forward to spending some time along lake Baikal, simply walking.
by Dave Anderson
Our plan was to fly from Irkutsk to Severobaikal and begin our search for an old Gulag camp rumored to be located in this part of Siberia. At the airport in Irkutsk we were herded into the check-in area. More elbowing with babushkas and other passengers got us to the front of the line. Our bags, and despite my feeble protest my film, all went through the ancient X-ray machine. The guard then demanded I open my pack.
My palms began to sweat as I feared that the X-ray had revealed the presence of the satellite phone that we never actually got a permit for. Much to my relief it was our harmless camp stove that caught their eye and I was able to enter the boarding area. Our flight was announced and all the passengers carrying bags walked to the plane were a man standing in the belly of the ancient twin prop airplane loaded our luggage.
We had heard the stories of the horrible flight safety record, especially in Siberia, of Russian domestic flights and the condition of our plane did little to alleviate these concerns. The exterior of the plane had been painted over many times and large bubbles of red paint were peeling off the wings. Inside, the floor and ceiling was covered in 1/2 inch plywood and the seats were thread bare. I was sitting next to the emergency exit. The sheet metal around the window was bent and the gasket flopped out of the side indicating that this emergency window had been used somewhat recently….great!!!
The flight attendant stood in the front of the plane demonstrating how to fasten the seat belts. She was about six feet tall, wore an unflattering lime green polyester suit and the clump of dark hair on her upper lip had me questioning her gender. The propellers began to turn, Keri closed her eyes and we all crossed our fingers and nervously chatted about flying. But soon all conversation was eclipsed by the roar of the engine and the vibrating metal of the fuelsalage. As the plane gained altitude we stared out the windows at the effect of the recent cold snap. The higher peaks were coated in snow and the leaves of the birch forest were turning from a bright yellow to a dull brown as winter began to take hold of Siberia.
The wind cut through my fleece jacket as I briskly crossed the street towards the only “supermarket” in Severobaikal. Located on the northern tip of Lake Baikal the town sprung up out of the perma-frost of Siberia in the 1970’s when a new section of track was added to the Trans-Siberian Railroad. A quad of hastily built 8 story concrete apartments lined the roadway. These functional buildings had all the charm of the dull concrete block that they were built from, ah Communism. The graffeti plastered along the bottom of the apartments showed the desire for freedom of expression. However, there were more dramatic signs of a changing order in this previously strictly controlled society.
As I approached the supermarket in the early morning light I could see a black leather cap lying on the ground. From the cap a river of dark colored liquid flowed 10 feet down the side walk collecting in a large pool in the street. As I got closer the red color of the coagulated liquid stood out against the dull gray sidewalk. In my mind I had no questions about what had transpired here. Although the body had been dragged away by the time I got there, from the amount of blood it was obvious that someone had lost there life in the spot. My head was filled with other questions, who, why, how? The answers came slowly throughout the next couple days. The man who had been killed was a fishing inspector. Wanted posters complete with photos of four rough looking men appeared at the train station and other locations around town. When we left the city limits to visit a hot spring a surprise roadblock stopped our taxi and a serious looking policemen pointed AK-47’s towards our direction as they searched our vehicle for the suspects.
Was the murder a random drunken act, robbery or was the local Mafia sending a messageto the governments fishing inspectors? We never learned the answers to these questionsand certainly no one would volunteer this information to us.
Where is Nicolai? It reminded me of looking for Waldo. Everyone knew who he was, but not where. We were taking shifts hanging out in the drab parking lot in frigid weather asking taxi drivers if they had seen our soon to be guide. We were anxious to make the contact and leave the Stalinesque architecture of northern Siberia behind. Four hours later and still no luck. Apparently Nicolai was the only person in town who would give tours to the camp and we needed him to find the location.
By a stroke of luck one of our crew spotted his four-wheel drive mini van in the local market. Nicolai ushered us into his rig along with his Buryat daughter and adorable grandson. A quick stop to drop them off at their ramshackle wooden home and we were on our way. A potholed, bumpy road wound its way to the trail. The scenery along the way was breathtaking and it was hard to imagine that anything as depressing as a Gulag camp could have existed out here. While walking the five snow covered miles up to the Gulag we wondered what ghosts haunted the area. Rocky cliffs hovered above our heads. Nicolai explained that men in gun towers had been placed there to prevent any one from escaping. I began thinking about how lucky Slavomir Rawicz was to have escaped. The chances of making it out of the camps alive was very slim. More people had died under Stalin’s rule then under Hitler’s. Slavomir Rawicz was a Polish prisoner of war in the 1940’s. He escaped along with six other prisoners and walked for one year to India.
This particular Gulag had been a small mining camp. The wooden structures were collapsed but the foundations lay intact. The old cracked cooking pots were scattered about. I could only imagine the skeletal figures who used to eat here. Old mining carts lay about as well. Apparently it had been a camp that was used from the 1930’s to the 1940’s. Nicolai lead us through the camp showing us the old barracks, mess hall, and burial grounds used for prisoners who got out of line. When they shut down the camp in the 40’s they chained the prisoners together and marched them down onto the frozen lake to their deaths. I could imagine the cracking of the ice as the prisoners were enveloped by the silent icy waters of Lake Baikal. A chilling story. Luckily Slavomir escaped this fate. At the end of the day we were all ready to leave the eerie site. Needless to say, it was a fairly intense yet necessary experience. There was no other way to properly begin our expedition.
by David Anderson
After Slavomir Rawicz escaped from Gulag number 303 in central Siberia, he crossed the Lena River and continued south towards Lake Baikal. Rawicz knew that he was close to the lake without ever laying eyes on it. He wrote that he could smell the lake some 50 miles away. It was not a bad smell, just the unmistakable odor of a massive body of freshwater.
Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world and contains one-fifth of the world’s fresh water supply. While visiting the lake we met a professor from Michigan who was studying Lake Baikal. He put the size of Lake Baikal into terms that we could easily understand. He said, “if you took all the Great Lakes of the United States and poured them all into Lake Baikal, you still wouldn’t fill the lake all the way up.” The professor was studying the diatoms found in the lake. Diatoms are indicators of lake quality and Lake Baikal is known to have very clean water, with visibility of up to 50 feet in many places. The lake also has many unique creatures such as the Nurpa Seal, the only freshwater seal in the world.
After spending too much time in the metropolis of Moscow, then the crowded Trans-Siberian Railroad, we all wanted to put on our packs and use our legs for a while. On the train we met two Polish travelers who were also keen on hiking around part of the lake. The six of us along with all of our gear piled into a mini-van in Irkutsk and headed south to the small harbor of Listvyanka.
“Would you like some vodka?” asked a large Russian man holding a shot glass up in the air as Ant stepped out of the van onto the shore of Lake Baikal.
“Ah, sure” responded Ant, downing the shot. Then came caviar, more shots and chocolate before we could get away from our new slightly inebriated Russian friends. The small harbor was alive with locals selling various crafts and food items. The most common item for sale was Omul, the indemic Salmon like fish caught in Lake Baikal. Before we began our trek we feasted on delicious smoked and poached Omul.
Leaving the street vendors behind we began hiking, passing the main dock where several large fishing boats were moored. The wind kicked up the waves and whitecaps pounded the shoreline creating a foamy surf. Even though the air lacked the tart smell of salt and seaweed, it was difficult not to think of Lake Baikal as an ocean.
We followed small cobble stone beaches until large cliffs of crumbling metamorphic rock blocked our progress, causing our party of six to climb narrow switchbacks up the hillside above the cliffs. In some spots we had to use small handholds and footholds to pass safely. It was like skiing in a “no fall zone”, one slip could send you cart-wheeling down the 60 degree slope over the vertical cliff into the icy lake 300 feet below.
Soon this dangerous section was behind us. The crisp fall weather brought with it ideal hiking conditions. Plus, the hoards of mosquito’s and nasty ticks that can carry encephalitis had disappeared with the end of the summer. The coastline and surrounding forest was stunning and we began to see why thousands of Russians flock to Lake Baikal each summer. During our journey we did not see a soul for several days. Our trek around the lake coincided with the peak colors of fall foliage. The white birch leaves were in the process of turning to a bright yellow. This, combined with the orange needles of the larch trees formed a shimmering bronze canvas which was accentuated by small clumps of fire red ash leaves all working to complete a near perfect impressionist painting.
One morning I sat on the grassy bank above the lake. I was mesmerized by the small, two foot waves breaking in rhythmic intervals along the rock studded beach. To the south, a 50 foot fishing boat steamed effortlessly through the clear water while a small flock of gulls turned tight circles in the boats wake. East across the lake 8000 foot peaks rose out of the water, their summits decorated in a fresh coating of snow. To the north, the giant lake ran towards the horizon looking much like an ocean as it stretched out in a continuous plane until the curvature of the earth caused it to sink out of view.
Our trek ended at the small fishing/gold mining area of Bolshie Koty. Most of the residents had left for the winter. We wandered undisturbed around the unique hand hewed log homes with bright blue shutters while waiting for the hydrofoil that would return us to Listvyanka. It was hard to say goodbye to Lake Baikal. We all expressed a desire to circumnavigate the lake. However, such a journey would take at least three months and cause us to overstay our one month Russian Visa. Unlike other countries, where if you overstay your visa you are escorted out of the country, in Russia you can’t leave until you have resolved the legal red tape, and according to a friend in Moscow this can take a very, very, very long time.
Escape to Mongolia
by (Ant Chapin
We did not cross the exact border that Slavomir Rawicz crossed from Russia into Mongolia, or perhaps we did. There really was no way of knowing. No one in that intrepid group 60 years ago had a map and nor did we. In fact we still don’t. All we knew is that where the train crosses into Mongolia, the border is bound to be legal, and therefore relatively painless. When leaving Russia, we were actually in a very comfortable cabin on a train bound for Ulaan Baatar. Upon approaching the border a very stately young Russian chap decked to the nines (as his outfit was made of at least nine yards of fabric) marched into our open door and demanded that we leave the cabin. No pleasantries exchanged, we bounced out to the hall and handed over our passports. He decided it was prudent to check the bunks, the berth storage and even the overhead compartment for who knows what. We were petrified that he might discover our unclaimed $1000 USD cash, so we hid it in the most uncomfortable places. After about fourteen hours of cash concealment (we had practiced for three hours before the
border), we finally left Russia and entered Mongolia. What a literal world of difference. In Mongolia we were greeted with a warm “Hello, where are you from?”. “Please, Thank you and Good Day” were all so foreign to our Russian battered egos that before we could gain our composure the Mongolian money exchangers had swindled about $5 worth of rubles from us. Small price to pay for the warmth of friendly people. The elation Rawicz felt as he crossed into sovereign Mongolia must have been incredible after a two month Siberian winter escape. To be caught was certain death for Rawicz and his ragged group. Although the border Rawicz crossed was demarked by no more than a series of tall poles, it was an incredible accomplishment. We can empathize only remotely in how glad we were to have successfully and healthfully left Russia. Rawicz had so much further to go, and for that matter so do we.
Horse Trip Through Mongolia
by Lauren Edwards
Chu, Chu!! Our ponies lurched forward from the sudden smack on the rump that was applied by our horse packing guide. Mugee, our guide for the next three days, proceeded to laugh heartily at our surprise as our ponies lurched forward into a trot. They clearly understood the command that we didn’t.We quickly scrambled to regain our balance as Mugee yelled something in Mongolian and pointed west, indicating that was the way we were heading. It was a startling beginning to our horse packing journey and also a sudden introduction into the ways in which the local people travel.
The Mongolians are historically a nomadic people, and although modern times have brought them the motorcycle and the occasional jeep, horses are still the primary mode of transportation in their culture. We were pretty excited to get to know these people a little better: to travel the way they did, to eat the food they eat (with an emphasis on try), to sleep in a traditional Ger, and tointeract with the local families who proved to be so hospitable and generous with the little they had. Our curiosity and eagerness to experience horse
riding would be rewarded tenfold by the culture we experienced, the friends we made (despite the language barrier), and the extremely sore asses we all developed after 80 kilometers of riding small, fast-paced horses in primitive wooden saddles.
After Mugee startled our ponies into action and we had adjusted to the pace, we began our three day long journey. Mongolia is such a vast, beautiful country… it’s hard to take everything in. The countryside just goes on for miles and miles, and the endlessness gives you a warped perception of how far away you are from things. By lunchtime, we were all ready to get off our ponies and stretch our legs out. We thought we were pretty close to where we were going to camp that night, so we took our time. We were wrong! After two hours of riding, our legs and tail-bones were getting rubbed pretty raw. After four hours, the fun factor was running low and more or less turned into seeing how long our pain thresholds could last. After fivehours, I turned around and noticed Ant and Keri were really far behind the group and completely out of view. Dave, Mugee and I stopped for a few moments to let them catch up. Suddenly we heard giggles from behind the trees and both Ant and Keri appeared, walking next to their ponies. They’d had enough. After another hour, Dave and I dismounted as well and we all walked the final few kilometers into camp. Mugee didn’t quite understand why we were not riding, but laughed at us anyways.
That night we pitched our tents and camped by a near-by Ger, where Mugee would stay with his friends for the night. As we set up camp and started to cook dinner, we noticed curious on-lookers starting to shyly creep up to observe our labors in preparing dinner. Our little whisper-lite stove created quite a gathering. The food we were cooking; pasta, sauces, black tea, and chocolate, was food that was quite foreign to what Mongolians eat. We quickly learned that there is no “mine”….rather, it’s “ours”. My food is basically your food. We had learned this lesson the night before at Mugee’s Ger where we were offered a helping of goat’s head, yak butter tea, and fermented mare’s milk. It was expected that we would offer up our food as well. Dinner was a great festivity that night. Trying to explain what the various foods were through hand gestures and Ant’s crazy charades proved difficult, but left everyone laughing. Towards the end of the night, things escalated to a friendly, yet intense wrestling match between the woman of the household, (whom we only knew as “Yak Woman” for her impressive galloping on the family’s big bull yak) and Ant. Yak Woman was feisty and aggressive, and almost had Ant pinned about 6 times. Finally, Ant pulled through and wrestled her to the ground. The whole thing had everyone rolling in laughter!
The next day we relaxed by the lakes, resting our sore behinds. The day after we took off to complete the final 40 kilometers of our journey. It was a chilly and crisp morning as we started riding over one of the passes. As it started to snow lightly, everyone relaxed and enjoyed the stillness of the morning. Mugee broke out into the soft singing of traditional Mongolian folk songs, and the peacefulness of our horses moving through the wide open terrain definitely created a magical moment. We arrived late that day at a Ger where we would return our ponies to the breeder who lent them to us, and continued our journey south to the Gobi. Our experience with the horses and culture was one we wouldn’t forget.
Gobi Desert: In Search of Sands
by Keri Bean
After days of travel through Mongolia in our dust covered mini-van our driver Bataar informed us that we were in the Gobi. We all looked out the windows to see terrain that was indistinguishable from what we had already been viewing for the last four days. Flat, clumps of grass and desolate, the landscape seemed to stretch on forever. This didn’t fit the images we had of the Gobi prior to leaving. We had all pictured miles and miles of sand. To say the least the landscape was fairly uninspiring. Where were all of the rolling sand dunes that Slavomir Rawitcz had traveled through?
One thing however that did fit Rawitz’s description was the lack of water. It was difficult to find enough water to drink, let alone shower with. We were all excited at the prospect of taking a shower in the local aimag capital of Dalanzadgad. One of the few nice things the Soviets had left behind in Mongolia were public bath houses, a place where weary travelers and wandering nomads could scrub away dirt & sand. The bath house was fairly dilapidated. Dim lights, peeling paint and dirty corners however, were no deterrent to the four of us. The place seemed a god-send. The prospect of washing our grime away was much anticipated and long overdue. A few hours later and we were back on the road, freshly scrubbed and squeaky clean. Bataar had even taken the time to clean out the dusty van, inside and out. He took a lot of pride in keeping our rig immaculate, even if it did look the same in about ten minutes drive.
A few more days drive of the same monotonous land scape and we were all quite anxious to see anything other than flat desolation. It is no wonder why Slavomir skipped over this terrain. It all blended together and no one could remember how much time was spent driving through it. Maybe an hour, or had it been several days. An occasional nomad would remind us that it was actually possible for people to survive out here.
Just when we thought it would never end we spotted the mammoth sand dunes towering before us. The sand dunes rose 900 feet above our heads. The Gers in the steppes below were dwarfed by these gigantic mounds. We couldn’t wait to explore these beautiful, curving exotic sands which wound through the Gobi like a giant snake. Luckily, we had the sands all to ourselves. The silence proved to be quite profound and set us all at peace. The shadows that the afternoon light created were breathtaking. Shoes were discarded as we began our climb up the warm sands which massaged our feet.
It felt so good to be out of the rig, to be using our legs again. This was supposed to be “The Long Walk” after all. Unfortunately our asses had been getting the biggest work out lately and we were psyched to be moving again.
Back up in the sand dunes I heard Dave say, Wow!! wouldn’t it feel good to get naked right now? Why not? No one was here. A few seconds later Ant & I had left all clothing behind and were running through the dunes like small children. A great feeling until we spotted a local nomadic woman down below. Luckily she hadn’t seen us so we decided to quickly throw our clothes back on. No need to offend the locals. As the sun began to set and the stars slowly came out I wondered if these were the sand dunes that Slavomir had crossed. I felt very lucky to have experienced this place with food, water, warm clothing (yes, most of the time we did wear clothing) and shelter. Without these, I can not imagine how scary and intimidating it would have been to travel through this region of Mongolia.
by Ant Chapin
We arrived in Lhasa early in the morning; people were still hiding in bed. The frigid Tibetan air had solidified last night’s prayers. Were dreams to come true this morning for those waking to a bright and beautiful day? As we crossed under the steady gaze of the Potalas’s myriad windows it felt as though some dreams were coming true for us.
Trying to get to Lhasa, we had spent the better part of a week haggling over airfare, jeep rental and bus travel options, to no good end. Snowy passes, permit constraints and various other dynamics found us on the 2 hour flight to Lhasa. The Himalayas lay spread beneath us, a testament to the incredible difficulty that Rawicz and company experienced while making their winter traverse some 60 years ago. As we floated up at 35,000 feet it seemed as though some of the peaks scratched our plane’s belly. Yet, we felt nothing of the cold and altitude, nor felt any of the difficulties that this massive barrier presents to travelers. It is no wonder that people consider the Himalayas to be an abode of the gods.
As we approached the Jokhang for the first time incense smoke swirled out of the temple’s pores, emptying into the crisp mountain air. People use this sanctuary, the holiest of all in Tibet, not only to pay their reverance to Buddha, but also to make their annual shopping trips. Lost in the murrmer of thousands of Tibetan Nomads chanting their manmtras, we circumabulated the Barkhor three times before we realized. Traditional clothing, DVD players, Chinese boots, silk katas (scarves), woollen fabrics, hats of all kinds, and around we went. Whatever one needed is available and convieniently located on the holiest circuit in Tibet. Talk about a practical religion!
After a few days of wandering the mazy streets of Lhasa and succumbing to its incredible power, we began to wonder about the impact that China had and continues to have on Lhasa. It is a veritable Chinese disaster zone. Massive cement homogonized buildings have surrounded most of Lhasa. Lhasa has been taken over by the rat-race of the modernizing
Chinese nation. Old meets new. People are unable to identify their own language as it is swallowed up by Chinese! There are definately more Chinese people than there are Tibetans in their own capital. We have our own preconceptions though. People are not exactly unhappy with this Chinese influence. New roads, nice cars, hot water and cheap flights in and out of Lhasa are all excellant reasons to be happy with the Chinese government.
Rawicz and his haggard group walked right by the foridden city of Lhasa before the Chinese invaded Tibet. What did it look like? Did people have any idea what was to happen to this remote corner of the world years later? Had Rawicz known what kind and hospitable people the Tibetans are he might have stayed here for a while, and in fact so might we. It is still a truly magical place.
by Keri Bean
Om Mani Padme Omm! Om Mani Padme Omm! The sound of an elderly Tibetan woman could be heard floating down the hillside. I had become accustom to
hearing the “unifying sound of the universe” being chanted many times in Tibet. Dave, Lauren, Ant and I had decided to camp out at the 14,000 foot Ganden Monastery for a couple of days to acclimatize before we began our overland trek. This particular walk would take us up to 18,000 feet and we were already sucking wind. It was a beautiful, bright sunny day and we were lounging around our campsite near the monastery when Dave saw a weathered woman coming down the hillside. He quickly got up and rushed to help her with her large bundle. She was trying to get down a steep bank spinning her prayer wheel and carrying far too heavy of a load for her small frame. She had ancient sparkly eyes and smiled a huge toothless grin our way. She also stuck out her pink tongue to let us know that she was not a devil. Many Tibetans believe that devils have green tongues and want to let you know that they are not one. We all stared curiously at each other while relaxing in the sun. Tea was fired up and offered to her. She placed her finger in the cup and flicked a drop of the tea in the four cardinal directions to thank the gods. We could tell we were hanging out with a very devout Buddhist. We assumed the woman was on a religious pilgrimage. I wondered what part of Tibet she had come from and how far she had walked to get here. As far as I knew she had could have walked just as far as Slavomir Rawicz. Ant knew a little Tibetan but not enough to derive this information from her. Luckily, a couple hours later a group of monks stopped by to chat with us. One of them spoke English and Tibetan. He found out from the woman that she did not have a home and that she was seventy years old. It was clear at this point that our new Tibetan friend was going to camp with us for the night. We all proceeded to pitch in to help her with the evening chores. We needed to collect fuel so she could cook her evening meal. We
all helped gather brush and someone threw cardboard into the mix. Fire is sacred to Tibetans and one cannot just burn anything, especially not garbage. She must have decided to forgive our foe-pas. Instead she chanted and prayed over the cardboard to purify it before she used it in the fire. She pulled tsampa (roasted barley grounded into a flour), tea and yak butter from her potato sack and offered up large portions to the fire all while chanting and praying. I had never met anyone who was so reverent and thankful for the little that they had. Of course she offered food to all of us and I was surprised to find that it was actually very tasty. After dinner she began collecting rocks next to a bank and arranged them in a circle. Then she found a big stick and began whacking down the brush next to her and placing it in the circle. I realized that she was making her bed for the evening. The brush would help to keep her warm. She did not have any padding so Ant offered her his pad and Dave offered up his backpack to sleep on. She accepted with another toothless grin. She only had one thin blanket in her sack. The evenings were quite cold and I couldn’t believe anyone could survive with so little, especially at the age of seventy. I imagined that if that young companion of Rawicz’s, Christina, had not died in the Gobi Desert, she too might have made a wonderful cup of tea and shared a grand old toothless smile with us. Christina would be about 77 years old. The woman made gestures that she was not going to live long now. She seemed to be at perfect peace with her fate. A true acknowledgement and understanding of her future. She will stay with us, in our memories for a long while to come.
By David Anderson
“We were driven in a bus through the teeming, noisy Calcutta streets” Slavomir Rawicz 1942
Like Rawicz, I was on my way to a hospital where Slavomir and the others might have recuperated after their trek. Through the open window of the taxicab the city of Calcutta to flowed into my senses. The thick humid air was choked with exhaust fumes and mixed with smells of a city of 12 million people jammed into an area designed for less than half of that.
In 1690 Job Charlock, an employee of the British East India Tea Company, built a fort on the marshy edge of the Bay of Bengal. Later using typical colonial era swindling tactics, the English Tea Company paid the local Mughal emperor Farrukh-siyar $68 a year to rent the land that would become Calcutta. The city thrived due a growing textile industry becoming a center for the arts and learning and capital of English ruled India until 1912. Renamed Kolkata in honor of it’s original name in 2001, Kolkata is today one of India’s technology centers.
But the transition of Kolkata to the city it is today has not been easy. An estimated 60,000 beggars roam the streets. Famine, disease and despair have plagued the city and inspired people like Noble Prize winner, Mother Teresa to devote their lives to helping the unfortunates.
The sedan I was riding in was an Ambassador, THE car of India. Ambassadors look like snub nosed cousins of the classic American cars that rolled down the assembly lines in Detroit during the 1950’s. The fact that these boxy sedans have changed little in the last 50 years has more to due with trade embargos than timeless engineering. Still, they are a fixture in Indian car culture and still fill the crowded streets today.
The driver of the Ambassador taxicab alternately gunned the engine, blared the horn and slammed on the brakes. Due to the violent ride, I was tossed around the back of the cab like lost airport luggage and the streets of Kolkata became a blurry kaleidoscope of images. We sped past ornate Colonial buildings covered by ivy with bolted on billboards advertising everything from cell phones and motor oil to the latest Bolywood movie. Human powered rickshaws navigated narrow streets where small groups of men and woman gathered around public water hand pumps filling large plastic tubs and splashing themselves awake. We continued by an open-air market were great slabs of fish freshly sliced and diced lay alongside piles of shrimp next to mounds of carrots and bananas. I watched one man busily lashing two dozens live chickens to the frame of his bicycle.
We finally reached the large gates of the SSKM Hospital. The bright red brick hospital, formerly called the Presidency General Hospital during British rule, is the oldest hospital in Kolkata established in the 1767. A fleet of dented ambulances were park near the entrance. After some searching I located the information counter. Clutching a sky blue orchid to use as a persuader in my quest for admission records of The Long Walk survivors, I walked up to the desk. A pleasant woman wearing heavy black framed eye glasses and a purple saris told me, “We have some records from the 1970’s, but 1942, I am afraid that is not possible. I am sorry there is nothing I can ….”
Her words were cut short by the commotion of man in a bloody stretcher being rushed into the emergency room followed by his wailing wife and daughter. I turned back to information desks intent on continuing my battle, but with the chaos all around us all I could do was hand her the orchid and walk away.
by Dave Anderson
In Calcutta I board an international flight home, find my seat, secure the seatbelt and let out a big sigh. For the last 3 months every day had been consumed with constant questions and unknowns of retracing the 8,000 miles journey of Slavomir Rawicz chronicled in the book The Long Walk. What track does the train arrive on? How far can we expect to travel by camel each day. What if a storm comes in whiles trekking across the Himalayas? Will that meal of fried water buffalo pass smoothly through my digestive system? Now all those questions have been answered.
The plane accelerates down the hazy tarmac and lifts off above a large city called Salt Lake on eastern edge of Calcutta, India. I have 28 hours of travel time to reflect before I land in another Salt Lake City, in the United States. I pop on the headphones and contemplate the one question that is left. Is the Long Walk true?
Are the events in The Long Walk true or did Slavomir Rawicz simply fabricate the journey with his own imagination? Despite a concerted effort before and during the trip we found no hard evidence that would support or deny Slavomir’s alleged journey. Although more and more Soviet era documents about the Gulag system are being released every day, no records have yet surfaced that confirm his arrest, incarceration or escape. But with over 12 million people passing through the Gulag system the likeliness of such records ever surfacing is low. While in Calcutta, I interviewed administrators at the SSKM hospital were Rawicz might have recuperated after his journey; unfortunately the hospital admission records did not go back that far.
With no concrete evidence I am left with the comparisons between the events, people and places described in the book and my personal observations after re-tracing the journey of The Long Walk.
Attempting to find truth in every written word of the Long Walk dooms the book to skepticism. The two most poignant examples of this are Rawicz and his companions crossing the Gobi desert without water for 13 days and sighting the yeti in the Himalayas. However, both of these events occurred when Rawicz was close to death due to extreme environmental conditions. Other sections of the book, such as the descriptions of the local people and their customs are so accurate it seems impossible a Polish immigrant living in England could have made up such details without experiencing them first hand.
Giving Rawicz some creative leeway, considering English was his third or fourth language and he wrote the book more than 15 years after the long walk occurred, the events in the book take on a more believable tone.
Still, traveling 4000 miles by foot with no map, compass or supplies through some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth does not seem humanly possible. Thankfully the human spirit is not a simple mathematic equation. The variables of mental and physical determination cannot be delineated or exactly quantified. In this world of continued environmental, social and political instability, where the problems seem insurmountable we need heroes like Rawicz who persevered despite the horrendous odds. The truth is we all want to believe The Long Walk is a true story and I for one believe.