Afghanistan

Episode one of Walking the Himalayas sees Lev and his guide Malang begin their trek in Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor. They meet local Wakhi and Kyrgyz people, from whom Lev hires yaks to help carry equipment to the Pakistani border. 

Here, Secret Compass's Operations Director Tom McShane discusses the challenges of filming in the Wakhan.

Afghanistan - not the easiest place to manage a documentary shoot, even with four years of experience. Secret Compass has been running team expeditions to the incredible Wakhan Corridor since 2011. In 2012 we took Kate Humble to stay with Wakhi shepherds as part of the BBC's Wild Shepherdess series and in 2013 lead and filmed the first ever mountain biking expedition to the region. 

Image © Dan Milner

Image © Dan Milner

Over the years we've built up a wealth of knowledge, intelligence and, more importantly, a bank of trusted local professionals who helped us put together the many pieces of the jigsaw that make up this section of Walking the Himalayas. 

 

Getting In

Reaching the Wakhan can either take four days, driving from the Tajik capital of Dushanbe or, if time is crucial, three hours by helicopter from Kabul. The flight took us over the hills surrounding the city and into the snow covered Hindu Kush, giving Malang, Lev's local guide, the unforgettable experience of seeing his village from the air. 

 

Kit and equipment

As we only had a few pack animals to carry all our equipment we travelled as light as possible. Small petrol-fuelled stoves, dehydrated rations and light-weight tents saved on weight, but we couldn't compromise on the alpine equipment (ice axes, crampons, helmets and ropes) necessary to reach the snow and ice-covered Irshad Pass. Nor could we do without the mini-generator for charging camera batteries. 

One of our most useful (and favourite) pieces of kit was a DJI phantom 3 drone. Exceptionally light and easy to fly, the professional model comes with a 4K camera which produced stunning aerial video. For a drone that I could strap to my rucksack it was an exceptional piece of kit.

 

Conditions

Some of the shots in episode one highlight an ever-present problem. The constant winds and lack of rain in the lower valleys meant dust soon found its way into the camera and the lens, impossible to clean but giving some of the footage a truly authentic feel. 

While the altitude didn't affect the equipment, it did affect the crew. 4500m and thin air left us gasping for breath and, for some, mild altitude sickness - nausea, headaches and exhaustion - soon set in, making filming all the more challenging. 

 

Culture

The people we met were some of the friendliest I've come across. The Wakhi are notoriously hospitable and welcomed us into their homes with yak milk tea and flat bread. At one village in the Irshad Valley a friendly village chief offered us yaks to replace our horses and donkeys, which wouldn't manage above the snow-line. He then joined us for part of the journey.  

As they rarely meet foreigners, the Kyrgyz were a little more wary. They initially suspected Lev of being involved with ISIS, but once reassured they afforded us their traditional hospitality, offering us the sheep's eyes and brains reserved for guests of honour. 

 

Final thoughts

The Wakhan is a hard place in which to operate and film, and this shoot required a real expeditionary approach to get Lev and the crew into the Wakhan and up to the pass. It provided us with incredible scenery and beautiful shots, along with the magical experience of meeting the rugged and hardy nomads that live in this inhospitable environment. 

// Watch episode one on channel4.com
// Our top 10 photos of the Wakhan from the past four years
// Upcoming Wakhan expeditions