The Wilderness Man

Why the freedom of a life spent wandering is worth giving up everything for - even sex

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The main motivation of my travel is to give me something to write about. I do not have a single piece of imagination, so for 20 years I have been forced to travel just to find material. I am very jealous of those people who can just sit in a chair and write a novel because they have a world in their brain. I have to use my eyes before I use my pen.

I grew up in the western suburbs of Paris, not far from Versailles. I became interested in climbing when I was quite young, about 16, and then I started on the Parisian monuments with a friend. We were free climbing – no ropes – which is much more exciting. When you are young, you think you are immortal so you like to live fast. In every country where you have monuments there are people who want to climb on them. It is a sort of poetic activity and a little bit surrealistic, just climbing at night and walking on the rooftops.

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We didn’t do that just to break the law; it was to see the city from above. When you are on the top of the tower of Notre-Dame you see Paris like a big carpet of light and it is really impressive. I climbed Notre-Dame many times, the Eiffel Tower, too. That is like a big ladder, very high, but technically it is not difficult. When I was in London not long ago, I saw the Houses of Parliament, which is a beautiful Gothic mountain. That would make a very, very nice climbing spot, but it is rather difficult to approach.

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Unfortunately, my friend died while city climbing when he was 17 and I was 18. Then I started to use a rope and climb on cliffs, which is a much more traditional way of improving your skills.

When I was 20, I decided to ride a bicycle around the world with a friend of mine, Alexandre Poussin. A bicycle is very good because it is not too slow so you don’t get depressed but it is not too fast so you can really appreciate the countries you are passing through. We went riding for 14 months, through the north of Africa, the Sahara, South America and then from Singapore to Paris through the Tibetan Himalayas.

I discovered the real meaning of feeling free. When I came back to the city, I felt a little bit jailed by the necessity to be polite and follow the rules. Of course, when you are on the road, it doesn’t mean that you can do anything and act like a gangster.  It is very banal what I say, but the further away you are from human beings the more you are free. Liberty – freedom – is not a lack of laws. It is just to obey your own laws. That’s why I decided to travel all my life.

Alexandre and I did not plan to write a book about this trip, but both of us liked to keep a diary. By chance, when we came back we met a big French publisher. He told us, “Please, try to put together some chapters and I will see what we can do.” So, everything started from pure coincidence.

The book, On a Roulé sur la Terre, was published in 1996 and was a surprise success. We showed it was nothing to go on a huge trip. You just have to want it and go like a wanderer. Before that, all the people who were travelling considered themselves like heroes on a very big adventure that was hard to accomplish. We said the opposite.

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Sylvain Tesson relaxing with a book outside his cabin on the shore of Lake Baikal, Siberia

Most people think the definition of luxury is to purchase some expensive goods or to have an experience that is sophisticated and complicated and very pleasurable. I think, in fact, real luxury is when you stop suffering. That is very different. Luxury is the time when you are no longer starving or thirsty or exhausted or too cold or too hot. It is not to bathe in donkey milk in a gold bathroom that has been decorated by the stylist of Saddam Hussein. Real luxury is to find the spring of a little river after two days walking in the desert. That first drink of the water will make you feel like you met God.

Adventure is a very difficult word to describe. What is adventure? At the beginning of his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles says that there is a difference between a tourist and a traveller: a tourist knows when he is going to come back but a traveller does not. Perhaps an adventurer does not want to come back, maybe that is the difference between these three categories. Of course, you like to think you are the big adventurer, but this is no use. When you meet a shepherd in the middle of the Gobi Desert, he will look at you as a tourist because you came to see him just for your leisure or out of curiosity; you don’t need to do it. Everyone should know that they are really a tourist.

Being scared is bizarre because you can be very frightened, but then you forget it: it does not imprint on your memory. That’s why I don’t believe in being “experienced”, as you always make the same mistakes. Experience should convince the traveller never to go again. In fact, the traveller always goes again and then says, “What am I doing here?” A hundred times I have said to myself, “No more.”

In 2001, I was in a big car crash in Afghanistan. There were eight of us and four were killed. I remember when I was carrying back the bodies of my friends, I said, “This is the last time. From now on, I will stay in the paradise that is Europe.” Of course, three months later I was back in Afghanistan. You never respect the lesson that destiny gives to you.

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I am 41 now. When I was approaching my forties, I felt I’d done enough kilometres: in 1997, I walked across the Himalayas; a couple of years later, I spent six months with my fiancée riding horses from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan; in 2003, I went alone from Yakutsk to Calcutta. I was a little bit fed up of being like a hobo. I just wanted to settle somewhere and see the time pass; I wanted to tame time. That’s what I succeeded in doing in my hut in Siberia.

In 2005, I was riding a motorbike and sidecar around Lake Baikal when I met this little hut. It was like when you meet someone and have a coup de foudre; you fall in love. I fell in love with this place, with this hut, and I decided to go back for six months in 2010. The nearest neighbour was about 20 kilometres away and it was six days’ walk to the local village. I felt that to be alone is a way to understand the world much better.

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Lake Baikal is 700km from north to south. It is the deepest lake in the world. My hut measured 3m by 3m but I never felt it was too small. It was comfortable. I had a bed, a table and a chair. I took all the good stuff from civilisation: cigars, vodka and nearly 100 books. This is enough for life. I always travel with a recorder, like a tin whistle. I also play the bagpipes, but I never bring them as you have to oil the bagpipes and be very gentle with them. It is a very delicate instrument.

In the mornings, I would read and smoke and learn some poetry. They were very calm hours. I finished all of my books except for Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. I have tried to read that several times and I am not able to do it. This book is still on my table.

In the afternoons, I cut wood and fished and walked in the mountains. Sometimes, I took my tent and slept in the snow.


After reading in the morning, Tesson spends his afternoons fishing and chopping wood

I love the idea you can live in a very sporty way and also be quite an intellectual. The problem in France is that we make a gap, a frontier, between the athletic people and the intelligent people. We say that if you are very well educated then you have to be a little bit weak: if you are strong and have a lot of muscles then you must be stupid. This is a pity.

English people do not make this divide between the body and the spirit. For example, Lawrence of Arabia was a fantastic writer and also a crazy warrior. We don’t believe in that type of man in France but I like to think you can be both.

Now I am missing my hut, but in my hut I was not missing Paris. I never felt lonely. I was not even thinking about sex. I lost my girlfriend when I was there because she did not like the fact I was always going away, which I can understand.

When I met soldiers in Afghanistan, sometimes they were on a mission for six months, and they just forget about sex because they know that if they open that little door to think about it then they are going to become completely insane. So, something closes in your brain, you know that for six months you are not going to meet a beautiful Russian girl from the Bolshoi who is walking on the shores of Baikal. This is impossible.

I did have two dogs with me in Siberia, which made my solitude fake because they were my confidants and best friends. We are always thinking about tomorrow and future projects; dogs just melt into the moment and I tried to do that. It is very important not to waste time. You have to be aware of each minute that is given to you and just be there like a dog.

Before I was in the hut, I never took an hour to settle in front of my window and just look at what is happening in the street. Now I do it. I think that those empty hours are very necessary because that is when you allow your mind to work.

I just spent six weeks climbing in Chamonix. This is much more risky than travelling. Every day, the helicopter arrived to rescue people who had fallen. I broke my hand. If you want a little bit of adventure then my advice to you is to do some alpinism.

When you climb a mountain, even if it’s not a high level of difficulty, you will feel the intensification of your life. From morning to evening you will suffer, you will be happy, you will be frightened, you will be hopeful, you will feel despair and then you will recover your hope. You will feel a concentration of all human feelings in just one day. Writing and climbing; I would just like to do that. 

Sylvain Tesson is the winner of the 2011 Prix Médicis for non-fiction. His latest book, Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga (Allen Lane, £17), is out now. Tesson was talking to Ben Mitchell.

Photographs by Thomas Goisque.

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