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The Long Walk
By Lauren Edwards and David Anderson
Photography by David Anderson

Panic floods through me and I can feel my throat tighten into a knot. We have just landed at the Sheremetyevo International Airport, and I’m already lost. These Russian military men, the ones over by the gate with the big machine guns, are going to sit me down and interrogate me. They’ll send me back to the U.S.

I desperately look around for someone who can translate. Our journey to follow in the footsteps of Russian prisoner Slavomir Rawicz, and his famous book The Long Walk, is off to a surprisingly appropriate start. I feel as bewildered and startled as Slavomir must have felt—but at least I haven’t been arrested.

Frantic, I try one more time with the stern and unsmiling woman at customs. She doesn’t even look at me, just points to the end of the line with a “nyet.” The panic increases a notch as I wildly look around for my traveling companions. I promise myself that if the woman lets me pass through customs, I’ll study my Russian so much I’ll be practically fluent by the time we move on to Mongolia.

My trip began in September 2004, but Rawicz’ harrowing journey started in 1939. A young Polish lieutenant, Rawicz was captured by the Red Army in 1939 during the German-Soviet partition of Poland. The Army forced him to march across Russia in the depths of winter, where he was then sentenced to 25 years of labor in a Siberian Gulag camp.

In 1941, Slavomir and six others escaped—and made their way on foot 4,000 miles to freedom in Calcutta. With nothing but an ax, a knife, and a week’s worth of food, they traveled through the frozen Siberian tundra, around mysterious Lake Baikal, down Mongolia’s vast and desolate Gobi Desert, and into Tibet’s high mountains before finally reaching India two years later. The Long Walk recounts that harrowing adventure, and it is surely one of the most curious treks in history—and one of the greatest survival tales ever written—but the story remains controversial as to whether or not it is true.

Along with a team of fellow NOLS Instructors David Anderson and Ant Chapin, as well as NOLS grad Keri Bean, we wanted to re-trace Rawicz’ incredible escape as closely as possible. We would journey across Russia to the actual Gulag camp where Slavomir was imprisoned, and then travel via train, bus, rickshaw, horse, camel, jeep and, of course, on foot to India. After months of planning, applying for grants, fundraising and researching for the trip, the four of us met in Moscow after I finally got through customs. It was to be the trip of a lifetime, an amazing experience in more ways that I could have imagined.

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