Explorer Levison Wood braves wolves, minus 40 and the Russian secret service

"You can prepare for landscapes and environments. But what you can’t account for is drunk men with guns, and there are a lot of them where I go"

Levison Wood

Levison Wood has walked the length of the Nile, hiked the Himalayas and trodden a path from Mexico to Columbia for Channel 4. In his new series, he journeys 2,600 miles through the Caucasus mountains from Russia to Iran and accepts lifts and donkey cart rides. He tells us it’s not because he’s got sore feet.

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This is the first series you’ve done that isn’t titled Walking, you seem to be getting quite a few lifts…

The concept was basically to travel as the locals do, but there is a hell of a lot of walking still. It’s a by-any-means expedition. I retraced a route that I first took when I was 22, back in 2004, when I hitchhiked the length of the Silk Road. I wanted to retrace that journey in a similar manner and see how things had changed. That meant sometimes hitchhiking, sometimes travelling by horse, sometimes on the back of a donkey cart.

It looked quite hairy in places…

It had its moments, yeah.

Was it like that the first time?

The first time I was backpacking on my own with a budget of pretty much nothing, so I wanted to try to stick to those principles of just roughing it, camping where I could, sleeping in caves. While there were some dodgy moments, overall I found, in the most unlikely places, people look after you and the locals are welcoming and hospitable.

Levison Wood in a sweat lodge in From Russia to Iran
An evening in a Russian sweat lodge where Levison is beaten with dried leaves

You were being watched by the Russian secret service, weren’t you?

It was par for the course. We had a government minder in Iran as well. But it actually happened a lot less than I was expecting. In places like Chechnya we were just left completely alone, probably because the Russian embassy didn’t want to go there to be honest. We were going to places that Russians just deem too dangerous.

Your guide, Rasheed Bakharov, is Muslim – was that a conscious decision?

Absolutely, the majority of the North Caucasus is Muslim, so it was important.

In episode one, you’re greeted by a border guard in a balaclava who’s heavily armed. What were you thinking?

That was the entry to Dagestan. It’s tricky, it’s not the sort of place that you can just sneak around; you’re best off just going up and introducing yourself to these people and hoping for the best.

In Walking the Nile, American journalist Matthew Power, who was writing about the expedition, died of heatstroke in Uganda. Were you more aware of the dangers of this kind of travel after that?

Yeah, I’m always aware of the potential risks and hazards, and I do my best to mitigate the dangers. We spend many months planning these journeys, doing our homework and getting in touch with the right people. That’s why I’ve been successful in getting through these places. But there’s a lot of work that goes into it behind the scenes.

As an explorer in the modern age, when everything has been explored, is it difficult trying to find a new way to do it?

The title “explorer” is an odd one, isn’t it? It’s not what you’d normally put on your business card. For me, these journeys are about sharing and documenting adventures in places that tend to be in the news for the wrong reasons. My job for the past 15 years or so, and I include the Army in that, is going to places and trying to get a proper understanding beyond the normal media narrative. I want to go to misunderstood places and show that there are positive stories, too – it’s not all doom and gloom. I’m not there as a journalist doing current affairs. I consider myself a fairly normal bloke going to show what these regions are really like.

What are your biggest fears when you set off travelling, or are you pretty fearless by nature?

It’s people, actually. You can prepare for landscapes and environments and take the right equipment. What you can’t account for is drunk men with guns, and there are a lot of them where I go. And you’ve always got to be on the look out for the political dangers along the way.

You’ve been described as “ten times tougher than Bear Grylls”. How many times tougher do you think you are?

Ha, I wouldn’t like to comment. I’ve met Bear a couple of times and he’s a really nice guy. I don’t think we’re about to have an arm wrestle any time soon. I think we do different things. He’s more into survival in extreme environments. For me, it’s more about meeting interesting people along the way.

You show off your riding skills in one of the episodes, don’t you?

I do ride. We got horses from a town called Tschoch in a remote part of Dagestan, which was one of the towns on the old Silk Route. It’s now almost deserted because all the young people left to go to the cities. It’s populated almost entirely by old people, and the place is crumbling. The only way through the mountains was to borrow some horses from the locals.

Is it safe in the hills by yourself in Dagestan?

Well, one of the local villagers came with us with a rifle. That particular region was known as a hub of the Islamist insurgency against Russia (which began in 2009), but also lots of the people who went off to Syria to fight for Isis came from that region. But when we asked him about that, he said: no, the rifle was just for the wolves.

Did you see any wolves?

No, we saw plenty of wolf droppings.

What was the weather like?

We had everything from -40C on the top of Mount Elbrus to lots of snow, hail and storms, a hell of a lot of rain, all the way through to sweltering heat in the deserts in Azerbaijan and Iran.

Is it a trip you would recommend? Is it safe?

Yeah, totally. I highly recommend going to that region. The main obstacle is getting the permissions. It takes months of negotiation with the Russians to get into that side of the Caucasus. It’s much easier in the South Caucasus, so places like Georgia and Azerbaijan are very easy to travel to.

Levison Wood at a Cossack feast in From Russia to Iran
Being plied with vodka at a Cossack feast

Can you tell us about the feast with the Cossack family in episode one?

The Cossacks are a Russian warrior tribe. Most of the regions through the North Caucasus are Muslim, but the Cossacks in that particular part are Christian so they drink – and they drink lots of vodka. We were invited by them to a feast, I think it was for Easter, and everybody just got p—– on vodka. I think I had nine glasses. I couldn’t do much walking after that.

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Levison Wood was talking to Chris Harvey. From Russia to Iran begins on Sunday 20 August on Channel 4 at 8pm