Escape From A Gulag!

Jan 15, 2014 by

Our heroines have arrived at their destination. They have explored! They have conquered! They have seen the undeniable truths of a dark history. Russia will not have the best of them! Or will it…???

Venture into the depths of a heatwave in the plains of Siberia. Find out what happens in the savage heat! What will be the fates of our cherished heroines? Will they live to tell the tale of the abandoned gulag? Will they ever see civilization again? 

Find out next… in ESCAPE FROM A GULAG!

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Upon arrival at the gulag, our two young heroines told the Russian gulag employees how they’d come on their own, from the city of Perm. The hostel staff had armed them with printouts in Russian that they could give to the ticket salesperson at the bus depot and the bus driver, altogether avoiding the impassable language barrier they had so far come to face daily on their journey through the great plains of Siberia.

“You’ve come on your own?” the women at the gulag asked.

“Yes,” the girls confirmed.

“Alone, wow. You must be very brave.”

The two girls thought nothing of this reaction. They’d heard time and time again that they must be brave just for visiting Russia, but bravery was not the word they would have attached to their actions. Seeking adventure was more like it.

Ha! Ha ha ha! laughed some formless villain in the tale.

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At the end of their stay at the gulag, our heroines were fortunate in that they could decide when to leave, unlike the gulag’s previous inhabitants. The two girls walked out the front door and said goodbye to their hosts. They continued down the dusty gravel road and peered over a picturesque creek, which added the sound of tinkling water to the air.

One of our heroines hails from Australia, and arguably this scorching heat should have had no effect on her, however her weakness was the same as that of our second heroine from Canada. Our otherwise invincible protagonists both boasted the whitest of white skin and were truly made for the cloudy countries of Ireland and England. They were not built for temperatures anywhere around +30C, yet over the years, they have challenged their kryptonite by venturing to countries like Brasil, Thailand, Mexico and the like. And yes, the sunburns were painful, the thirst intolerable, the heat stroke agonizing. The sun always wins, they learned early on in life.

And perhaps it was the heat that weakened them, preventing them from seeing the obvious problem they were about to face. The heat slowed their brains, and the two girls were blinded by the lovely scene around them. Our Canadian distracted herself from the heat by taking photos and enjoying the magical Siberian landscape.

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After several moments of photo taking, the two girls began crunching their way back down the gravel road. Here and there, unthoughtful drivers sped past, kicking up dust causing the girls to turn away, shield their eyes and cough in reflex to the tickle of particles in their throats.

For the first time, the girls wondered where they were supposed to catch the bus to return to Perm. Was it along the dirt road they were on, or was it back at the highway where they had been dropped off earlier that day? Before they admitted defeat, they resorted to walk back to the highway.

Then(!) there it was! A bus stop. Could this be the salvation they’d been waiting for? Was this where they were meant to wait for the people moving mobile?

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With no sign of a bus for as far as any one of the 4 of our heroines’ eyes could stretch, and absolutely no hint at a schedule, the girls decided not to wait around, although shade had never looked better. They resisted the urge to give in to their one weakness. The sands of the day slipped away, and as these things go, less and less of the day remained with more dawdling and shadow indulgences.

The walk became longer and hotter. And longer. And hotter.

Without speaking, our Canadian heroine wondered if they were in trouble. The Australian silently concurred. They both knew the situation wasn’t good. Neither dared to speak their fears.

Then suddenly the story changes. A super hero? A creep? came along in a car and asked if he could give our main characters a ride. The girls politely refused, knowing full well the dangers involved in accepting rides from strangers.

He smiled kindly, kind of creepily, but mostly kindly, and gestured for the two to take a seat in the back of his car. His overweight friend smiled, his gold teeth glinting in the sun of the bright day.

Fake smiles crossed the faces of the two girls. With no common spoken language, they relied on body language to communicate that they did not want to get in his car. Still, it wasn’t a surprise that a strange car was trying to collect them in the middle of nowhere. This was the third car that had offered them a ride that day, and if they didn’t accept a ride from these two men, it would only be the second ride they’d declined: The first car that day, they’d declined. The second car that had come their way had quickly become a necessity to survival in facing the heat of the day. This third car would soon become that as well.

The girls exchanged glances, and they agreed with a look they that they would take the chance. If nothing else, the time in the car would be a brief respite from the heat which was slowly searing the meat of their skin into a perfectly barbecued dish.

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Jovial chatter ensued. While the man in the passenger seat asked what the girls’ names were, where they were from and such, the wild imagination of the Canadian found her tied up in a strange abandoned building in a room of rusty, unnamed instruments, much like those found in the movie Hostel. Once they arrived at the intersection where they’d been dropped off earlier that morning, she nearly shouted, “Here is fine! Stop the car! Spasiba! Thank you!”

The men looked back at the two girls, wondering why on earth they would want to get out there, and obligingly stopped. The Canadian had already prepared herself mentally and as physically as she possibly could to have to dive and roll from a moving vehicle along the highway. Any road rash would be a small price to pay for not having her eyeball removed with a blowtorch, thank you very much.

Then there they were, the two girls.

The sun beat down, and there was that formless villainous laughter again: Ha! Ha ha ha!

Where it came from, no one knew, but it persisted, and our heroines knew the day was not to be an easy one or the one they had planned.

Cars blitzed past the intersection, as did buses and semis. No one showed any inclination to stop, especially not the buses, the only vehicle that should have stopped.

“Are we supposed to wait here?” the Canadian asked. There was no bus stop there at that intersection.

“I don’t know,” the Australian answered honestly, hiding the fear well.

The Australian knew she was running out of sunscreen, and though she normally applied it liberally throughout the day, she reached into her bag less and less. The Canadian asked if she could have a smattering of it; she’d left hers at the hostel.

“Maybe we are supposed to walk to the closest bus stop?” the Canadian suggested, half asking, half hoping it was the right answer.

“Maybe,” the Australian contributed, having no idea what they were meant to do. The hostel staff and their Russian printouts had not covered this part of the epic journey to the gulag, or rather, from the gulag. The handout for this portion of the trip would end up going unused.

Ha…

Our heroines began walking, and this is when the real fear began to set in. The highway was unkind. The gravel on the shoulder of the highway continued to crunch under their feet, but it could no longer be heard over the zipping of the passing trucks and buses and vans and cars. Horns blared, screaming past them and then faded into the distance.

Quick mental math brought terrible fear to the Canadian. The bus ride to the gulag took a couple of hours. Walking the entire way back to Perm would take ages. There were few things she hated more than camping, but in that moment, she began preparing herself to hunker down for the night in a forest beside the road.

Horns. Large trucks rumbling by. Horns. Heat. Dry air. Horns.

The sun struck them like molten gold. The Canadian covered her head with her cardigan. She’d burned her scalp before and had no interest in repeating the experience.

They walked and walked, the two girls no longer speaking. They put their heads down and focused on getting as far as possible, hoping desperately to find a bus stop.

Every now and then, a bus would pass them, without even suggesting it might stop somewhere. The Canadian tried to flag one down. It flew past them.

Then suddenly, a man in a large truck pulled over. Speaking no English, and with a huge grin on his face, he stood at the side of his truck waiting for the girls to approach. Russian words tumbled from his mouth incessantly. The girls told him over and over again that they spoke no Russian. He continued to prattle on, and when he was greeted with blank stares from our two travellers, he burst into laughter.

One thing was clear. He gestured vehemently to the sky and the sun and the top of his head. It was too hot, he was saying. He walked his index and middle fingers off into the imaginary distance and made a tired face. You will be walking a long time, he added. Then he motioned with both arms to his truck, inviting the girls to get in.

The Australian immediately knew this was their best chance at getting back to Perm, and the Canadian intuitively knew this too, but was reluctant to admit it. The Canadian tried showing this man the last printout in Russian, but he just shrugged his shoulders and motioned to his truck.

Looking back down along the highway, another bus appeared. The Canadian waved it down, and the driver pulled over. Though she was hopeful they could take this bus back, somehow she already knew that this option would not pan out for them. Getting on the bus, she showed the driver her last set of instructions in Russian, but the driver just shook his head. He pointed at the sign on the front of his bus and threw some Russian words at her. Dismayed, the Canadian got off the bus and looked back to where her friend was standing with the strange Russian man who’d pulled over to rescue them.

The Australian could tell the Canadian was leery, but they both knew this Russian man and his truck were their only hope. They accepted his offer and climbed in.

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The man chattered on and on in incomprehensible Russian. The girls gave him blank stares. He chattered on and on. Blank stares. He chattered. He waited for a response. He burst out laughing when none came. It was as if he didn’t believe the girls couldn’t understand him. Yet, he continued to yammer on. The girls began to tune him out. His excited solo conversation showed no sign of letting up the entire trip back to Perm.

He offered them oranges and other miscellaneous snack items that he had laying around in his vehicle. The two girls politely declined, feeling as if they’d taken enough from this man already and not wanting to increase their ties to him. He prattled on. He dodged in and out of traffic, narrowly missing oncoming cars. The Canadian began to close her eyes as a coping mechanism.

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The Russian truck driving hero pulled out his phone. He sent a multitude of texts, he phoned friends and had animated conversations with them. At one point, he passed the phone to the Canadian.

“Hello?” she asked. Apparently, the driver had a friend who could speak English… or something.

“Hello,” a thick Russian accent answered. “I will help you return to your hotel. Are you lost?”

“Ummm…”

“Why are you alone on the road?” the voice was a woman’s voice, calculated in kindness, precise and unfeeling in her English.

“We were visiting Perm-36, and we couldn’t find the bus back.”

“Are you lost? Do you know where you are staying?”

“Um, yes. We do know where we are staying-“

“I will help you find your hotel.”

The Canadian explained the situation more clearly. The voice on the line seemed to think the two travellers had been stranded on the side of the highway for no good reason and that they had found themselves in some kind of danger. Perhaps on the surface this would appear to be the case, but the root of the problem was not so severe. At the end of the conversation, they agreed that it would be best for the man to take them back to the bus station in Perm.

The Canadian wondered who this woman had been, what organization was she part of, and what an interesting concept! A help line like that…

The drive back to Perm went on without incident. The Australian, true to form, was tempted by sleep. A caveat to her one weakness of white skin was that anytime she was in a moving vehicle, sleep immediately gripped her tightly. The Canadian had bargained with her to stay awake if they accepted the ride from the Russian stranger, but the Australian passed the rest of the ride with half open eyes and a bobbing head.

Finally back in Perm, the truck driver moseyed down some back streets and parked his truck. The Canadian did not recognize their whereabouts; this did not appear to be near the bus station. The Russian driver got out of his truck and signalled for the girls to follow. Not knowing what else to do, the girls went with him, the Canadian opting to lag behind several paces in case she’d have to make a run for it. Their Russian companion cast glances back at the girls, urging them on, evidently reading the Canadian’s mistrust in him. They continued down a couple more side streets and then out of nowhere, the buses and people appeared. This was the bus station! The girls knew where they were!

The Russian hero smiled at the girls, stopping in his tracks. In Russian, he managed to explain to them that with the traffic and roads as they were, it had been best to park where he did.

Our two travellers exhaled in relief and shook the hero’s hand, saying goodbye and spasiba… spasiba… spasiba…

A bout of guilt danced within the Canadian for having mistrusted. Of course, a girl can never be too careful while traveling, but this man had done nothing but help them and offer them oranges. She thought about this as she and the Australian walked toward the bus which would take them to their accommodation.

The day had been a surprise at so many different stages: they’d had to walk far to get to the gulag, the instructions from the hostel failed to explain how they would actually get back, the buses refused to pick them up, and in Russia, you could hitchhike if you wanted, but even if you don’t throw up a thumb, cars will be stopping for you. Finding a man like the one who’d stopped for them was consistent with what the Canadian was discovering to be her travel super power: dumb luck.

Is there a history of travellers disappearing in these kinds of stories? Yes. So did the Canadian need to feel as if she’d mistreated their hero that day? Maybe yes, maybe no. His goodbye smile at the end of the journey was touched with a little hurt, and the Canadian could only hope that her gratitude could make up for that. He had, after all, saved their lives that day.

And this, friends, is the story of how our heroines narrowly escaped from a gulag…

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17 Comments

  1. Lauren

    This is not the sort of story a mother needs to hear, especially with the movies about Russian mobs and white slavery…..so glad you found the right Russian man. Dumb luck indeed!

  2. OH. MY. GAWD. Phoenix was sitting next to me as I read this because I kept grumbling out commentary at every paragraph or two, “No, don’t…!” Then, “Not them…!” Followed by, “Great some Mother Mafia has reeled you in…!” Phoenix rolled his eyes a lot at me. Thank gawd you girls were safe, Colleen! Honest to goodness truth as I was reading it I thought to myself, “Gawd, I hope her mother doesn’t read this…” 🙂

    • Colleen

      I enjoy that this was such an involved experience for you to read. Haha, yeah my poor mother… I usually have to filter what stories I share with her while I’m actually traveling. There isn’t normally any real risk, but I know how these things sound to a mother and I don’t like to make her worry more than she already does. Anyway, this ended up being our only chance at salvation that day! We were lucky.

  3. I love the way you tell this one and what a trip that was – Wow Colleen! Talk about adventure.

    • Colleen

      Thanks Maria! It was definitely an unplanned (and yes, adventurous) day!

  4. That would be so scary! My friend and I had to walk a couple of miles down a dirt road to work when we were staying in Costa Rica. At first, it was petrifying when a truck full of ticos would stop and ask, in Spanish, if we wanted a ride. At first we always declined, but eventually we learned it was just the way they did things there. Someone with a truck would drive down the road and pick up/drop people off along the way. Eventually started catching regular rides and always found ourselves hoping for random strangers to pick us up – especially when it was exceptionally hot or raining. Funny how that works. 🙂

    • Colleen

      You know… you’re probably right on some level to suggest it being normal for these guys to have stopped for us. The town near the gulag is so so small and I bet people give each other rides all the time. Then, well.. two young girls are walking by and of course they are going to stop. Haha. I can’t speak for everyone blitzing by on the highway and the guy who stopped for us… but I’m glad he did.
      Your story from Costa Rica sounds amazing…

  5. Haha oh man this has been us so many times, with your mind scrolling through an endless loop of what’s the worst that can happen/what would the headline in the daily mail be/my mum will be so pissed.

    And I will admit to being an Australian who is incapable of consciousness in a moving vehicle. People ask us about the trans-Siberian, and I can’t tell them much. Because I slept through all of it.

    Great story, and it took me right back to Siberia. Heat wave, meadows, dachas and creepy-kind smiles.

    • Colleen

      Haha, maybe it is an Australian thing? 😉
      I’m glad to hear this story took you back.. such a crazy place.

  6. Emy

    I remember when I was in Russia, after a concert quite late at night I had no money left (oh I was definitely so clever), no map and had no idea exactly how to get back to the hotel I was staying in, some people in the crowd told me to just stop a car and get in. I was like what? we simply never do that in France.
    Fortunately for me a girl whom I had talked with helped me and payed for the subway ticket and brought me back at my hotel but yeah…
    I’ve never felt more suspicious in my life than in Russia I think, yet I’ve never had to deal with any rude or suspicious people in the end. I guess it’s normal for us to fear and be careful as girls, but we have this… kind of image of Russia in the back of our heads even if we don’t want to think that way, people just make it scary.
    That was definitely an adventure that you had! You were lucky to have found this man!

    • Colleen

      I’m relieved your story turned out alright!
      Well… I have had to deal with some unsavoury people in Russia unfortunately, and while a lot of my stories turn out like this one (positively)… some of the others left a really bad taste in my mouth.
      And I think you are right about how we have an idea in our heads about Russia and Russians and I think that is a testament to their interesting and complicated history and relationship with the rest of the world.
      I feel lucky that I’ve been able to experience a trip through Russia twice in my life… just don’t know that I will be heading back anytime too too soon…

  7. Ah, the perils of independent travel. You get to choose when you leave, but whether you can actually catch the transport necessary to actually leave is a whole ‘nother question! I’ve done this so many times before as well—figured out how to get somewhere by myself, but never considered what might be involved in getting back to where I started at the end of the day. Thank goodness the two heroines had one another, especially when they had to resort to getting into a car with strangers. That is definitely one of those instances where I think it can be a lot scarier to be a female traveler, never mind a solo one! Even though I knew everything had to turn out ok in the end, this one was a real nail biter. Glad you made it out of the gulag and lived to tell the tale!

    • Colleen

      It is a case for group/organized tours isn’t it? Yikes… whenever I find myself in situations like this I question my choices to get there! In the end though, I always have faith that these make for the best stories. 🙂

  8. WoW! Great blog as usual. Choice of photos so exclusive. Colleen I just tell please share more photos. It just awesome………………………..

  9. Sometimes I’m so glad my mom does not understand English. If she read this post, she would never ever let me travel again :P!!! Go girl! 😀

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