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Adventurer Says 'Walking The Himalayas' Wasn't About 'Sticking Flags In Peaks'

Levison Wood walked 1,700 miles, from Afghanistan to Bhutan, along the Himalayan Mountain range. He says that seeing Everest, the highest mountain in the world, was "just magical."
Ed Jones
AFP/Getty Images
Levison Wood walked 1,700 miles, from Afghanistan to Bhutan, along the Himalayan Mountain range. He says that seeing Everest, the highest mountain in the world, was "just magical."

When we talked with British adventurer Levison Wood back in 2015, he had recently completed an epic, nine-month journey, along the length of the Nile River. When we asked him where he was headed next, Wood told us he did have another big expedition planned but that it was "top-secret."

Wood is now back from that top-secret journey — which turned out to be walking the length of the Himalayas, from Afghanistan to Bhutan. He joins NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about "a few high points, literally and metaphysically."

Wood wanted to explore the valleys and foothills of the great mountain range, but the expedition much more than a trek. "For me this wasn't necessarily about climbing mountains or sticking flags in peaks," he says. "It was really an opportunity to share story of the Himalayas, the history, the geography, the cultures."

Wood chronicles his 1,700-mile journey in his new book Walking the Himalayas.

Interview Highlights

On how he'd known his guide for years

I actually met Binod when I was 19 years old. I traveled in the Himalayas as a young backpacker. So when I was 19, I was there in the mountains in Nepal and it was actually a civil war going on at the time between Maoist insurgents and the government.

Binod actually rescued me one day — there was some fighting going on and the entire royal family was actually killed in Nepal. And Binod took me into the hills and looked after me for a couple of weeks. That's how I met him — that was 14 years ago. And so when I decided I was going to walk the Himalayas he was the obvious guide. I wanted to go repay my debts to him and it was great to have this reunion and go and see his family after all this time.

On the people who live in and near the Himalayas

It's such a diverse region; the people in the western edge of the Himalayas in Afghanistan and Pakistan don't really have that much in common with the people in the east in Bhutan and Tibet in terms of religion, or ethnicity, or language. But what they do share is this common bond of living in the foothills of this great mountain range and sharing those daily perils and the dangers and challenges that come with that.

On how he had previously traveled in Afghanistan

I traveled to Afghanistan before, both as a soldier — I was there on operations in combat back in 2008 — but also I traveled there a couple times as well as basically a backpacker. I'd actually gone kind of undercover dressed as an Afghan, I learned a bit of language and trekked across the country way back in 2004. So it was kind of a homecoming to go back.

Afghanistan — there are parts that are very dangerous, you've got the Taliban and all the rest of it ... actually though, there are still parts that are so remote that it actually means they're safe because the only people that live there are nomads.

In the area where I started walking in the northeast, the only people that lived there were nomads. These people were the descendants of Genghis Kahn, the Kyrgyz people that have got nothing in common with the Taliban that live in the southern regions.

On the day he got dropped off to begin his trek

So the journey began in ... this very, very remote part of Afghanistan. I got dropped off by helicopter because that was the only way to get there ... it's called the Wakhan corridor, it's this narrow valley that separates Afghanistan, from Tajikistan, from China, and from Pakistan.

[We] get dropped off there — literally on the roof of the world. The first person we encountered was actually this nomadic shepherd and he had a big stick and he came up and he was sort of prodding us, wondering where we came from — out of the sky? He actually asked us if we were Islamic State. He thought we'd landed to convert his tribe into fundamentalism and he said: "Look, we don't want any of that around here."

On his experience in Bhutan

It's very difficult to describe. It's one of these very unique places in the world where nothing else comes quite close. After the chaos of Nepal and India going into Bhutan felt like entering a completely different world. Suddenly the streets were clean there was no pollution ... I think Bhutan is the only carbon negative country in the world. ...

And it was just so pristine it was like going back in time 500 years. All the houses are very beautifully decorated, very ornate, the people are very happy, they live in this kind of feudal system where ... everybody is a big fan of the monarchy and everybody seems very happy. There's not much dissent there. ...

It was an education to go to somewhere like that and literally feel as though you're being transported back in time.

On the high points of the trip

I think from a purely personal point of view going to visit Binod's family after all these years and sort of closing that circle that was a real high point for me. ... But also physically getting over some the highest passes in the world, going beyond Everest base camp, seeing the highest mountain in the world, right there on a beautiful clear blue day, was just magical.

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