From Russia to Iran: Crossing the Wild Frontier TX: 20 Aug 2017, Week 34
Explorer Levison Wood – famous for Walking the Nile, Walking the Himalayas and Walking the Americas – is taking on a new expedition in this four-part series: to cross the mighty Caucusus mountain range that lies between Russia and Iran. And as well as a new region of the world, Levison is taking a new approach to exploring: making his way by any means necessary. Travelling with the locals and living as they do, Levison’s epic, 2,600-mile journey takes him through five countries, crossing the wild lands on the tense frontier between Europe and Asia and visiting some of the most fascinating and diverse people’s on earth.
Beginning in Southern Russia, Levison will track the mountains through increasingly dangerous terrain where Islamist fighters hide out in the hills, toward Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and into Iran: a captivating nation that’s been off the tourist track for decades. Known as the ‘lands in between’, Levison will travel through these countires that sit at the crossroads of two continents, and form a large part of the historic and mysterious Silk Route.
Crossing snow-capped mountains, canyons and volcanic deserts, Levison will see some of the most spectacular but little-known landscapes on the planet. Trailed by secret police, and passing through forgotten war zones, he will meet an array of extraordinary characters, from gold-toothed wolf hunters and reclusive monks to mothers of ISIS fighters and an Iranian biker gang.
As before, Lev films much of his expedition himself, capturing extraordinary, intimate moments rarely seen on screen - to deliver television’s rawest and most authentic travel series.
Episode 1 sees Levison fly into the Caucusus region by military helicopter. After being dropped off on a remote mountain track by helicopter, he searches for someone to take him to the nearest town. Levison is making this journey with the help of locals – hitching lifts and catching rides where he can – and he finds a driver willing to take him. But this driver is a Russian Orthodox Christian who believes cameras are evil – and he takes a disapproving view of Levison’s filming, telling him that he will have to ask God’s forgiveness for what he’s done.
Levison finds his guide, Rasheed Bakharov. But no sooner have they met, than Rasheed insists Levison strips naked. He wants him to experience a traditional Caucasian ‘Banya’ – or hot sauna – which involves Levison being sweated, then brutally thrashed with oak branches. Only once cleansed, do the pair then set off for the highlands.
The Caucasus people are famed for their hospitality. It rarely takes long for Levison and Rasheed to catch lifts. And they are soon invited to experience a traditional Cossack lunch – a highly raucous, lively affair, at which it is rude to decline the 70% strength homemade vodka that keeps reappearing in Levison’s glass. As he struggles to say sober – and complains he might need a new liver – Rasheed begins to suspect that the pair have already attracted the attention of Russia’s infamous FSB – or secret police. Two quiet, clean-cut men at the end of the long dining table are quietly filming everything they do.
As the pair head into the remote mountains, they are sometimes forced to camp by the roadside. The landscape becomes increasingly spectacular as they head into Ingushetia – the first of the Islamic republics along Russia’s southern border. The republic has had problems with Islamist terrorist attacks and the authorities insist Levison and Rasheed are accompanied by a government minder. Walking through what feels like an unknown paradise untouched for hundreds of years, Levison finds piles of bones – the remnants of ancient Ingush burial ceremonies - in centuries old fortified towers. Later, in the old capital of Nazran, they attend a sacred Sufi ceremony in honour of a young boy who has recently died.
Levison and Rasheed are given a lift by a local mayor to the border with Chechnya, one of the most heavily policed in Russia. Its capital, Grozny, was once known as the most destroyed city on Earth. Now, it’s benefited from billions of roubles of spending by the Russian government. But it’s ruled by a hard-man president, accused of murdering his political opponents and authorising the rounding up and killing of gay people. The president denies this, claiming that homosexuals don’t exist in Chechnya.
Levison and Rasheed join a wedding celebration and a bizarre mock bride kidnapping during a motorcade involving what appears to be a real policeman and live ammunition. Later they join in with the Lezginka national dance of the Caucusus, in which the men mimic eagles while the women glide around like swans.
It’s time to move on from Chechnya and on to the little known republic of Dagestan – which the British Foreign Office warns against visiting under any circumstances. They’re heading towards the town of Andi, known for having one of the highest concentrations of Islamist insurgents in the region. But as it gets dark, Levison and Rashid are having problems finding somewhere to stay the night.
Series Producer and Director: Jamie Berry
Line Producer: Martin Long
Executive Producers: Jos Cushing, Melanie Darlaston
Channel 4 Commissioning Editor: Alf Lawrie
Production Company: October Films and Motion Content Group
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