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Wed, 22 November 2017

The Professional Explorer: Levison Wood on Walking the Silk Road

For many, being 22 years old means graduating, getting your first “proper” job and generally trying to make the sticky transition to adulthood. Not so much for Levison Wood. With a history degree under his belt and an army career ahead of him, in 2004 he decided to hitchhike from England to India – alone. Wood spent five months crossing diverse terrain from Poland to Afghanistan and Iran. Over a decade later, the traveller/writer/photographer has turned the journals he kept on the trip into a book, Eastern Horizons, which he summarises as an “account of my own youthful wanderings in a general easterly direction”. He dedicated the eye-opening tale to his parents “who had no idea where I was most of the time”.

Fast forward to today and Wood has visited 80 countries (and counting) which include walking the Nile, the Himalayas and the Americas, leading mountaineering expeditions in Nepal and jungle trekking in Colombia, with his adventurers becoming the subjects of four documentaries. Most recently, he has crossed the Caucasus for a second time – and shows no sign of slowing down.

We caught up with him while he was on the road, to find out exactly what it’s like being a professional explorer.

What inspired you to go on the trip?

As a student, I spent a lot of time reading tales of the Great Game and Silk Road, in particular the stories of Arthur Conolly, an overland traveller and spy from the 19th century, who is one of my heroes. I wanted to go on adventures that would follow in his footsteps – and so I did.

Describe the experience in three words.

Uncomfortable, impoverished, enlightening.

Tell us about some of your favourite places and experiences along the way?

The people in Georgia were particularly hospitable. I also loved the mountain villages with their cobbled streets and castles in eastern Europe, particularly Poland and Estonia. The wilderness of Afghanistan appealed to me, and in hindsight it was interesting to have been there as a civilian before going with the army.

And the worst?

Being arrested multiple times in southern Russia and the Caucasus was initially quite alarming but fast became very tedious. There was a lot of unrest in the region at the time and the police kept mistaking me for a Chechen rebel. I was in a bus crash in Afghanistan too, which was scary.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

Being on my own was a real challenge, particularly in areas that were still wild. One night I fell asleep in a very rudimentary bus shelter in the Caucasus mountains and woke up to very loud voices – they belonged to three men who were staggering by and sounded really drunk. Thankfully they turned out to be friendly, but it was a bit of an unnerving way to wake up. Yet the flip side is that when you are alone you naturally make more of an effort to make friends and meet people, both locals and travellers.

What’s the food like on the Silk Road?

Pretty varied. I ate everything from eastern European stew and Russian borscht to goat kebab in Iran and delicious mutton curry in the Indian subcontinent.

Tell us about some of the interesting characters you met en route.

When I got to Iran I found myself surrounded by an eclectic array of backpackers from all over the world. On the crossing to Georgia I made friends with a young man called Lasha who introduced himself as a footballer and knew a lot more about UK football than I did. He took me in and hosted me, showing me his hometown of Poti in Georgia and his university. I ate with his family and even though they had very little – no running water or electricity – they were still so generous.

What were some of the most significant cultural differences?

It was a journey from west to east, so you’re crossing the cultural divide between Europe and Asia, separated by the Caucasus Mountains. There was a stark contrast when I left Christian Georgia and entered Islamic Turkey, and the cultural differences were sometimes overwhelming, made all the more noticeable by the fact that I travelled on the day that Ramadan began. When I crossed the border between Pakistan and India, after weeks of time spent in Islamic countries, I was welcomed by a Sikh gentleman offering me whisky.

What advice would you give to travellers seeking a similar adventure?

Seize every opportunity. If you’re young and want to go and explore, don’t be afraid to travel alone, even if it’s only for a leg of your journey. It will encourage you to make friends and get stuck in. And don’t let lack of money put your off – if you are willing to rough it a bit you can get by on remarkably little.

How would you define a “traveller”?

Someone who isn’t afraid to put the experience before their own comfort.

Do trips like this change you as a person – if so, how?

Definitely. It was a formative age to be travelling and set the tone for later life.

Where’s your next adventure?

I’m currently on a trip around the Arabian Peninsula.

Other than walking the Silk Road, what’s the biggest adventure you’ve been on?

The one I’m on now is probably up there as it is one of the most ambitious ones.

If there was one destination you could go back to immediately, which one would it be?

I’d love to spend more time exploring India. It’s so diverse and I’ve always been fascinated by the history.

Where else is on your travel hit list?

I’d love to go back to Cape Town and spend a bit more time there. You have beautiful beaches and great food and it’s not far to get out into the African wilderness. I’d also like to check out Bali and I’ve never been to Portugal.

And for a holiday?

The last holiday I had was in Canada.

What’s in your SUITCASE when you’re on an adventure?

I’m rarely on the sort of trip where I carry a suitcase, but I always have a white-linen shirt with me. It’s ideal for impromptu visits to meet local dignitaries but can pack up nice and small. I designed a pair of quick-dry, hard-wearing espadrilles with Oliver Sweeney and I take a pair on all my expeditions.

Levison Wood’s latest book Eastern Horizons was published by Hodder & Stoughton on 2 November and is available to buy now in bookshops and on amazon.co.uk.

 

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