Long Walk to freedom
The pure facts
“You must follow your own path”.
We heard these words one March afternoon in the small cottage somewhere in the very far end of Cornwall Peninsula. The man who said them indeed had chosen his own way and made one of the most epic escapes in world history. His name was Witold Glinski. He told us an absolutely amazing story which began in the 1940’s.
On the remote North of Siberia, seven prisoners got out from Soviet labor camp (lagier) in Yakutia. Walking on foot, they escaped to Calcutta in India. They fled during a snow blizzard and crossed around 7.000 km through one of the most inhospitable parts of, not only Asia, but the whole world. They forced their way through the Siberian taiga, the Gobi Desert, the Tibetan Plateau and at last the Himalayas. The group of seven came from diverse backgrounds. Four were Poles, one American, one Ukrainian, and one Yugoslavian but only four people reached their goal. Three Poles people died in the Gobi and on top of the World staying forever among the Asian wilderness.
This extraordinary story was described by another Polish former GULAG prisoner Slawomir Rawicz. His book entitled “The Long Walk. The True Story of a Trek to Freedom”(1950), with the help of English journalist from the “Daily Mail” Ronald Downing, turned out to be an overwhelming success. It became a bestseller, especially in the USA and UK. The book was published with a few million copies and it was translated into twenty five languages. Even today “The Long Walk” is regarded to be on the most famous book ever written by Polish author.
However, there is one problem: Rawicz wrote the book as his memories. Simply, he claimed that he escaped for Lagier. For four decades nobody doubted his truthfulness. But in 2006, after Slavomir Rawicz’a death, BBC reporters found out the documents that clearly show that indeed the “Long Walk” author was imprisoned in Lagier but he could not have escaped from it because he was released on the basis on so called Sikorski – Majski agreement (settlement between Polish Government in Exile and USSR authorities).
Doubts grew bigger and bigger. It started to become obvious that the whole tale about the Great Escape was imagined and then suddenly, another journalist John Dyson from Reader’s Digest meet by accident Witold Glinski the man who said to be the real hero of “The Long Walk”. Dyson, as a journalist investigated and concluded that Glinski was not a liar after all, Glinski indeed escaped from Siberia and reached India. Dyson based his theory inter alia on the report of British intelligence (MI 5) officer Rupert Mayne, who was serving at that time in Calcutta and who strongly, claimed that Mayne was interrogating the group of people who told the same story as Glinski.
These are the facts. But what about us and our project “Long Walk Plus Expedition”?
It is true that “The Long Walk” was worldwide bestseller and indeed it was almost everywhere except in Poland. In our country almost no one has ever heard abut the Great Escape. The book could not be published during the communistic era and after the collapse of totalitarian regime, no one was interested in publishing it. Eventually, the very small circulation was printed by a little publishing house and it occurred that readers were absolutely not interested in reading it.
This year the Hollywood movie “The Way Back” (directed by Peter Weir) is going to be released. This incredible escape is probably going to become famous once again. But what if history repeats itself? Will it be popular everywhere with the exception of Poland? I thought no we have to do something to remind people in Poland and around the world that the leader of the escapees was a Polish hero. We wanted to show a fascinating part of our history cannot be forgotten.
So we did it. We organized expedition on the trails of prisoners and traveled by boats, horses, bicycles and finally on foot the distance from Yakutsk to Calcutta. We had to challenge rapid rivers, thick taiga forest, thousands of mosquitoes and midges. We were suffering hungry in remote Barguzinskie Mounatians and dying from horribly thirst in the Gobi desert. We fought hurricane winds and high elevations when cycling through Tibet. We encountered dozens of extremely friendly people. On the other hand, we experienced extremely dangerous forces of nature. Somehow we touched the travels of our heroes. Of course, our situation was incomparably better, we were well-equipped, physically prepared and we a good idea about the regions on our route. Still we managed to feel the inhuman reality of loneliness traveling across Asia and we proved that such an escape was extremely difficult and a demanding challenge, but still a possible one.
During last six months we also had an opportunity to compare content of “The Long Walk” with the reality. We discovered that there are a lot of mistakes in Rawicz’s book. I do not want to make a register of errors but some of them are so obvious that I just have to mention them. First of all Mongolia is still a nomadic country and definitely it was even more nomadic half a century ago. For centuries the most common Mongolian shelter is “ger” – round movable tent. When Mongols move looking for the new grasslands for their herds they just fold their tent and change living place. Contrary to Rawicz’s opinion houses with flat roofs were popular in Tibet but not in Mongolia…
The Gobi desert is not just a big dune. It’s not Lawrence’s style Sahara with sandy mountains glittering in the sunshine. In its biggest parts it is flat, rocky plain without plants and extremely little inhabited. But Gobi is also one of the most diverse deserts in the world. There are also deep grassy gorges, semi-deserts and high mountains. But it is not possible to walk through Gobi for a week or two without any water supplies. Temperatures there reach 55°C degrees and in such conditions traveler gets dehydrated very quickly and is dead after two/three days. We were drinking three bottles of water a day and in spite of it we were getting dehydrated extremely quickly. Our noses were bleeding, lips cracking and our minds totally focused on two simple things: water and shade which can protect us from the burning sun. Water is essential for survival.
The Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world with famous colossuses: Qomolangma, Annapurna and Kanchanjunga; the land of eternal snow and steep, rocky ridges. Summits that have become the obsession for dozens of adventurer souls with whom many died trying to reach their dreams. When British mountaineer George Mallory was asked: “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest”, he simply replied: “Because it’s there”. He vanished during this attempt but the question if he was able to conquest the peak is remains open. “The Long Walk” descriptions of going over the Himalayas are the literary record of the mythological idea of mystical Roof of The World.
There is myth and there is reality. In fact, it is possible to cross the Himalayas without any climbing. There are of course huge inaccessible summits but at the same time there are also wide, vast passes that can be reached, using the modern word, trekking. The Nathu La Pass between Tibet and Indian Sikkim has been a caravan route for hundreds of years. Over 3,000 of British Soldier, commanded by colonel Younghusband, crossed it during the British Expedition to Tibet. If they could do it why should it have been a problem for the small group of seven wanderers? We cycled through the Himalayas and surprisingly it was one of the easiest parts of our journey. Tibet itself with its hurricane winds, low temperatures and constant uphill roads was much more challenging.
So as for the Gobi, Mongolia, the Himalayas –we were there, we saw it, we experienced it. And I can say that, to my disappointment, at least this part of the “Long Walk” was written by somebody who has never been there…
It requires a deep, professional knowledge to properly understand the meaning of evidence gathered in the case of Rawicz/Glinski dispute. To my mind evidence about Slavomir Rawicz and also the serious mistakes in the book itself clearly support the theory that he did not escape from the GULAG. Nonetheless it is unquestionable merit of Rawicz that thanks to his book the whole world has heard about Long Walk. If he had not written it, maybe we would have never known about Great Escape. As for the author of “The Long Walk”, his contribution was to publicize this incredible story.
On the other hand, I met Witold Glinski at his home in UK. I made an interview-documentary movie about him for Polish public TV. We were talking with Glinski for three days, asking him many, many questions trying to find out if he was telling the truth. It occurred that his story was very coherent and full of details that seem to be difficult to process. Moreover, his speech was extremely emotional and it was obvious that he must have been personally engaged in this story.
It is important to stress that he is very old and also bed-ridden. He has been blind for a few years, and he has recently undergone a major surgery. It is hard to imagine that this man in his age can lie in such a convincing and precise way. Since this meeting I have been strongly convinced that Witold Glinski is the real hero of “The Long Walk”. But… doubts remain. The reason lies in the crucial time frame. There is no evidence which might prove that Glinski is a conman. Although there is also no crucial proof that can definitely settle this argument. We just need the documents which confirm that such a prisoner escaped from labour camp. They have not been found yet. However, it’s possible that they would never be discovered because a lot of documents from Lagier’s administration vanished or destroyed. It concerns especially the prison camps which were not gathered in bigger “camp groups” (e.g. Siewwostlag governed by Dalstroj Company in Kolyma range) and which functioned like independent units. To the best of my knowledge almost all Lagiers in Yakutia were such an “independent entities” so very often there is no evidence of their existence, not mentioning the register of their prisoners.
In Yakutsk we met with historian from Yakutia University and he gave us the register of Lagiers in the Republic of Sacha with the map of its localization attached. After a few weeks we reached the forgotten labour camp in the middle of taiga which was not indicated or in the register or on the map. How many more unknown Lagiers is waiting deep in the wilderness for a discoverer? We do not know it and maybe we will never get to know because they disappear extremely quickly destroyed by swamps, weather conditions and seasonal taiga fires.
The History Strikes Back
The Siberia; the distant and dangerous world almost unknown for the most of Europeans but for us, Polish people, Siberia is something more than just a fascinating, sinister Land of the East. It is place where thousand of our compatriots were imprisoned and murdered by the communistic regime. It is some-kind of cursed land. Solzhenitsyn’s “The GULAG Archipelago” has a very tangible meaning for Poles. Actually, this Archipelago is the part of our history therefore it is also a part of us as a nation.
However, I do not like martyrdom and I hate grieving over past tragedies. I prefer to talk about the history in the modern way, show it as a fascinating adventure with great heroes. Especially, taking into consideration that the evil was defeated, USSR collapsed and dozens of nations regained their sovereignty. That is the point of “The Long Walk”. It is great, romantic story about freedom, which should be something familiar to us but is sometimes not. It is not only an adventurous story about surviving in the extreme severe conditions. It is a more universal tale about fighting with the totalitarian system which was designed to change individuals into the slaves. The essence of this story is that these people won! Seven starving and exhausted men defeated the whole NKWD machinery of violence.
I am not a historian, and I do not feel qualified enough to evaluate the authenticity of historical documents. In fact, it was not my aim as an explorer to resolve this dispute. “The Long Walk” and Witold Glinski are the symbols of undeniable will of survival who became a free man. They are first of all symbols of Poles, Ukrainians and other nationalities that suffer from tyranny of insane dictators who built the GULAG Archipelago. American journalist, Anne Applebaum says in her book “Gulag”: This book was not written “so that will not happen again” as the cliché would have it. This book was written because it almost certainly will happen again. Totalitarian philosophies have had, and will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people”. I hope that Long Walk Plus Expedition will contribute –even in a small extent, to remind people about the nightmare of totalitarianism. I do not know if it will change anything. Probably it will not, but at least we have tried.
Tomasz Grzywaczewski – inhabitant of Lodz, law student out of reason, journalist and traveler out of passion. He ate couscous from one bowl with Berbers in the Atlas Mountains and took Mongolian snuff. The press spokesman of Explorers Festival, one of the biggest in the world festivals of mountains, nature and extreme sports. Regular partner of travel sections in newspapers: “Wprost” and “Dziennik. Gazeta Prawna.” Fascinated by treasures of the Solitary Planet which we will never wholly learn, but which we can try to explore. That’s why he “doesn’t waste time, doesn’t wait” and in his reportages tries to describe and understand reality that surrounds us. He may forget his toothbrush, but he will certainly not forget his notebook and camera. He detests routine, and feels the best on the way, when everyday is a new adventure and challenge. In his life and expeditions, in accordance with the words of Robert Frost, from “two roads diverged in a wood” he chooses “the one less traveled by.”