The Long Walk: the True Story of a Trek to Freedom was one of the most inspiring, dramatic and compelling books that I’ve ever read. I was lucky to run across it in the bookstore, as it is a re-release of a book that originally came out in 1956, but a timeless true story of not only a very long walk, but also an unquenchable thirst for freedom. I was drawn to the title, as I’m drawn to all books that involve journeys, but quickly found that it was not a traveler’s tale, rather a survival story of a group of people with infallible spirits.
The book offers the clearest glimpses into the rural life and culture of the Mongolians and Tibetans that I’ve ever read, so it seems appropriate for those interested in learning more about various cultures and traveling through those remote areas.
The author is a Polish Calvary officer who was captured by the Russians in 1939 and accused of being a spy. With no evidence against him, the Russians tortured him for months in order to get him to sign a confession and he endured it all in order to keep his life. After being severely drugged and passing out, he fears he may have unwittingly signed the confession.
Shortly after, he is sentenced to 25 years hard labor at a Soviet prison camp in Siberia. He begins a grueling two month journey to the camp by cattle car across Russia and then about 40 days by foot trudging through the waist-high snows of the Siberian winter. Many prisoners die on this heartless journey and when they passed away their chains were cut and they were left.
Those who survived the journey arrive at the camp in northern Siberia where they promptly have to build their own living quarters before they freeze to death and then begin their long sentence of work, mostly logging the vast Siberian forests.
Eventually, the author comes up with a daring plan to escape and enlists other prisoners to join him. They save some of their meager provisions for the journey and strategize about the details. Their plan is to travel south across Siberia, Russia, Mongolia, outer China, Tibet, and finally crossing the Himalayas to India, which is run by the British and considered their best chance to reach freedom.
On the night of escape they make it under the fence and run all night. They hide during the day and travel at night across Siberia and much of Russia. This long walk out of captivity is where the book really takes off. The ways they find to survive and keep walking despite incredible obstacles are awe aspiring.
When they finally reach Mongolia they become more confident about traveling during the day and are welcomed into nomads’ tents to share their food and sleeping quarters. Occasionally, they do day work for food, but they mostly keep moving toward their destination and are taken in at night by generous Mongolians when they come across their tents. As China is in collusion with the USSR, they have to be careful in outer China. Crossing Tibet is one of many physical feats, but also a window into the world of another indigenous culture. The Tibetans are wholly welcoming and even if they are very poor they share all the food they have with them. It is part of their culture to be generous with travelers. It was fascinating to read details about their culture from a time when there were almost no foreigners there to tell about it.
I was inspired not only by the braveness and ingenuity of the escapees, but also the generosity of the Tibetans and Mongolians, without whom the escapees may not have ever survived.. Without giving away the book’s dramatic ending, I’ll just say that this is one of the most emotional, incredible stories of human survival I can imagine.
The Long Walk: the True Story of a Trek to Freedom, Slavomir Rawicz, The Lyons Press (2006 edition), $16.95
©Christina Kay Bolton