Who is Sylvain Tesson? | An Adventurer of Words and Life

who is sylvain tesson

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Sylvain Tesson is a French traveler, adventurer, writer and philosopher, born on April 26, 1972 in Paris. Immersed in writing and literature since his early childhood, his father Philippe Tesson being a journalist and drama critic and his mother Marie-Claude Millet having founded with her husband the "Quotidien du médecin" in 1971, he quickly acquired a love of words and literature. This budding passion took shape when he completed a hypokhâgne and a khâgne at the Lycée Claude-Debussy in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

After training as a geographer and obtaining a DEA in geopolitics at the IFG (French Institute of Geopolitics), he set out to discover the world in 1991, undertaking numerous expeditions that he recounts in novels, travelogues, documentaries and photographic books. He won the Goncourt short story prize in 2009 for his book "Une vie à coucher dehors", the Médicis essay prize in 2011 for "Dans les forêts de Sibérie", the Hussars prize in 2015 for "Bérézina" and the Renaudot prize in 2019 for "La Panthère des neiges".

Among his most beautiful epics, 31 countries and 25,000 km that he has traveled by bike, 5000 km in 6 months across the Himalayas with his friend Alexandre Poussin, a crossing on horseback of the steppes of Central Asia with his companion of the time Priscilla Telmon or his experience as a hermit for more than 6 months in the heart of Lake Baikal in Siberia. Man of movement, protestor by nature and adventurer of the word, he tells his feelings and his critical vision of our society and its flight forward in works as poignant as relevant and full of poetry. 

sylvain tesson portrait

Sylvain Tesson in 2011 during the Rencontres du Livre La Comédie du Livre in Montpellier, 28 May 2011, author: Yve Tennevin, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

1993 - His First Great Expedition: Around the World by Bike

At only 17 years old, Sylvain Tesson undertakes his first expedition: crossing the central desert of Iceland by bicycle with 50 kilos of luggage and food reserves for 45 days. Fueled by a love of discovery, he then flew to the island of Borneo to discover caving, a trip that confirmed his attraction for adventure.

In 1993, Sylvain was 21 years old when he and his childhood friend Alexandre Poussin took on the crazy challenge of cycling around the world. The two friends set off with less than 1000€ each. In exactly one year, they covered more than 25,000 kilometers and crossed no less than 31 countries

Back home with a lot of memories (and rather large calves), Tesson and Poussin jointly wrote the story of their journey. The latter, entitled "On a roulé sur la Terre" was published by Robert Laffont in 1996, 3 years later, and won the IGN youth prize.

bicycle on the beach

1997 - The Crossing of the Himalayas: 5000 km on Foot from Bhutan to Tajikistan

Four years passed and the two friends decided to go back on the road, to tackle this time another environment, much more abrupt and inhospitable: the Himalayas. This time, it is not with the help of bikes but with hiking boots that the two friends will cross the mythical mountain range. 

From Bhutan to Tajikistan, it is not less than 5000 km which awaits them, a distance which they cover in 6 months, crossing even Tibet illegally. The two adventurers quickly got a taste for the immensity of the virgin spaces as well as for the unique and strong characters of the nomadic peoples of the region.

Traveling with very little food and equipment, they are fed and housed by the inhabitants of the communities they meet. Sylvain will develop a sense of being a "squatter, a freeloader" and will decide not to rely on the hospitality of the people as the sole means of provisioning on his future expeditions.

As with their previous adventure together, they recount their fantastic journey in the books "La Marche dans le ciel", published by Robert Laffont in 1998 and awarded the Explorers' Prize by the Geographical Society, and "Himalaya, visions de marcheurs de cimes", published by Transboréal the same year.

hymalaya

1999 - Crossing the Central Asian Steppes: A Horseback Ride with his Partner

After cycling and walking, Sylvain Tesson and his companion at the time, Priscilla Telmon, set out on horseback to discover the vastness of the Central Asian plains. This 5-month journey of nearly 3000 km led them from Alma Ata in Kazakhstan to the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.

During this trip, Sylvain will develop a real connection with his horses (and animals more generally), enjoying traveling slowly, in an "ecological" way, while integrating himself in the landscape and culture of a resolutely horse-riding nation. He values the freedom that such a mount imposes on him, which most often decides the rhythm.  

The presence of a woman, Prescilia, also opened a new perspective of adventure to him. On the one hand because it allowed him to develop the complicity of the couple and to question it, at the other end of the world in a particular context. On the other hand, the presence of a woman was often better perceived by the local communities, who were more open to welcoming travelers than if several men knocked on their door.

Here again, Sylvain and Prescilla told their travel stories by collaborating on two books: "La Chevauchée des steppes", published in 2001 by Robert Laffont and "Carnets de Steppes : à cheval à travers l'Asie centrale", published in 2002 by Glénat.

asian plains

2003 : The Long March from Siberia to India : On the Path of the Gulag Escapees

After a few years devoted to archaeological expeditions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Sylvain Tesson embarked on a new epic in May 2003 when he took up the route of the Gulag escapees, following precisely the information contained in the book "The Long Walk (1955)" by Slawomir Rawicz.

One of the objectives of this journey is to verify the truth of the facts put forward by Slawomir who, on April 24, 1941, escaped from a gulag in the middle of the Siberian winter and became a sort of adventurer in spite of himself. He would have traveled 6000 km in 2 years, without food or knowledge of geography, crossing Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi desert, Tibet, the Himalayas or the Bengal river. The quest for freedom and survival of these thousands of would-be escapees is a theme that particularly fascinates him. According to Sylvain, Slawomir's adventure is possible except for certain passages that he describes as absolute anomalies, such as "ten days without drinking in the Gobi desert".

This escape also serves as a thread for Sylvain Tesson, who seeks through this adventure, to discover the forgotten peoples and the immense horizons of a geography of desolation. This epic will lead him to cross ecosystems, climates, reliefs and extremely varied populations. 

He left in May 2003 from Yakutsk in Siberia with the objective of crossing Eurasia from east to west: the icy Siberian tundra and taiga leading to the shores of Lake Baikal, the immense Mongolian plains that he crossed on horseback as he had done a few years earlier, the arid Gobi desert, the high mountainous spaces of the Himalayan chain before ending up in the milder, tropical climates of Sikkim and the lands bordering Bengal.

In Tibet, he had the unfortunate experience of being trapped one night by his hosts. However, he managed to get out of this situation while playing on the superstition of the Tibetans to make them believe that a demon was at work and had freed him. He was joined by a procession of monks in Tibet with whom he shared a part of his adventure up to the foothills of the Himalayas, where he crossed a pass at an altitude of more than 5,000 meters to reach the Indian plains and his final destination: Calcutta.

This magnificent journey was notably the subject of a photographic album published in 2005 "Under the star of freedom, 6000km through wild Eurasia", with texts by Sylvain accompanying the images of Thomas Goisque, who accompanied him from time to time during his journey. Sylvain also published a book about his journey: "L'Axe du loup", published by Robert Laffont in 2004.

tibet mountains

2010 - A Hermit's Life on the shores of Lake Baikal

The second part of the first decade of this millennium was not lacking in adventures. Less reported and/or mediatized, these experiences are no less rich in learning and memories. Sylvain Tesson first turned his gaze to the East in the spring of 2006 for a journey on foot through Eastern Europe in order to reflect on themes related to Energy. In 2007, he went back on the road to accompany the director Nicolas Millet in the development of the documentary "Irkutsk-Peking, the road of the steppes", which relates his expedition along the Trans-Mongolian route.

In 2010, he finally realizes a project that he has often mentioned in the past: to live 6 months in complete withdrawal from society, in a small hut of 3 meters by 3, an isba of the Brezhnevian era, on the western shore of Lake Baikal. From February to July, he wishes to live in complete autonomy, like Henry Thoreau's Walden, nearly 500 km from Irkutsk in order to experience silence, cold and solitude, things that "will be traded tomorrow for more than gold". The first village is located not less than 120 km away, his days are punctuated by fishing, walking, lumbering, reading, a few glasses of vodka and a lot of tobacco ... According to him "the cabin is a cell of exhilaration"

This adventure is a real introspection which pushes him to question the relation of the men to the living and to the nature. He makes many hikes around his cabin, sometimes on foot, sometimes on ice skates, sometimes in a kayak, once the waters open up in mid-May. 

Alone but accompanied by two puppies and left to himself, in silence and confronted with the immobility of the natural world, he recounts his days in his notebooks which he publishes the following year in the essay "Dans les forêts de Sibérie" published by Gallimard, for which he receives the Médicis essay prize the same year. This essay is above all the story of a quest, that of happiness, so close and yet so far, in a society where we always have too much of this and yet not enough of that. According to him, the recipe for happiness is "a window on the Baikal, a table in front of the window".

baikal lake ice patterns

2012 - The Russian Retreat by Side Car: On the Tracks of Napoleon and the Grande Armée

On the occasion of the bi-centennial of the Russian Retreat, Sylvain Tesson undertakes a 13-day journey in a sidecar over 4000 km, from Moscow to the Hôtel des Invalide in Paris, in order to follow in the footsteps of the Emperor and to tell the story of one of the most tragic epics of French history. This journey is neither a commemoration nor a celebration according to him, but more a way to salute in his own way, these soldiers who launched themselves in a real race to death, blinded by their faith in the greatness of their Nation and especially of their Emperor.

Sylvain does not leave alone. He is accompanied by his photographer friend Thomas Goisque, the geographer Cédric Gras and two Russian friends, Vitaly and Vassili. They rented 3 side-cars from the Soviet era, of the Ural brand, which will give them a hard time throughout their trip. 

Traveling at 80 km/h, on the route of the suicidal retreat of an army in tatters, Sylvain Tesson describes a landscape that has a "hangover", a landscape gradually enveloped by a winter of ice. This deadly winter is the real enemy of Napoleon's troops, an invisible enemy that tears away one after another the soldiers of the First Consul. "The cold killed the weakest and drove the others mad. The limbs broke like glass".

The story of this journey marked as much by mechanical troubles, historical tales as carabined benders will be told a few years later, in 2015 in "Berezina" published by Guérin.

russian winter

2015 - On the Roads of the Eternal Heritage of France & its Renaissance: The Crossing of the Black Roads

Sylvain Tesson has had a passion for stegophilia since he was a child, which defines the activity of climbing onto the roofs of buildings, specifically those of cathedrals for Sylvain Tesson.

On August 20, 2014, he fell nearly 10 meters while attempting to climb the facade of a house of one of his friends with whom he shares a love of mountaineering, climbs and thrills, Jean-Christophe Rufin, in Chamonix. The fall occurred during an evening when Sylvain and his lifelong companions were celebrating the delivery of the manuscript of his book "Berezina". He was hospitalized in Annecy and then placed in an artificial coma for 8 days while he suffered 26 fractures. 

A few months later, he would say that this incident was in some way beneficial: "These three months of rest, sobriety, silence, and examination of myself were beneficial. My life was a wild and slightly suicidal carnival, it was good to slow down the inner boilers a bit, to get off the train. I still have a paralysis of the face that makes me look like a Prussian lieutenant from 1870. I have also lost the hearing in my right ear but, being a supporter of silence, which René Char called "the case of truth", I don't complain about it. Our society has become hysterical and noisy."

His body is mutilated by this incident and the idea of living a classical rehabilitation rebuffs him. He then decided to climb the 422 steps of Notre-Dame de Paris almost every day to prepare for his next adventure, which he had promised himself if he got out of it: crossing France by foot.

This journey will thus have a double purpose: to travel through France by the "black paths", the cross paths, forgotten by progress and modernity and to reappropriate during a therapeutic journey his body but also his bruised mind, fantastic and only tools necessary to this adventure he loves so much.

From August 24 to November 8, 2015, he crossed rural France on foot from the Mercantour to the Cotentin, passing through the Cevennes, the Massif Central, Touraine and Normandy, areas qualified as "hyper-rural living areas" by a governmental report. In other words, remote areas, interstices in which Sylvain inserts himself to escape the noise and the hyper-connection of our globalized society.

Through this journey, he seeks to take advantage of the passing time, of the disconnection with the world around him, provoking silence and immobility. He invites the reader to escape by refocusing on oneself and seeking our own "black paths". This adventure will be the subject of the book "Sur les chemins noirs" published in 2016 by Gallimard.

autumn trail

Because Adventure never Really Stops and Never Ceases to Call the Wanderer

Reinvigorated by this journey, both external and introspective, he once again embraced adventure, leaving between the Eastern Himalayas and the Nepalese Altai, in particular to observe the snow leopard with the photographer Vincent Munier, who had been tracking the beast for 6 years.  He discovers the powers of total immobility, learns the virtues of patience and tries to reconnect with his "animal part", experiences that he recounts in his book "The Snow Panther" published in 2019 by Gallimard for which he will win the Renaudot prize the same year.

snow panther

Snow Panther, author: Irbis1983, Source: personal work, public domain

In 2020 he returns with "L'Énergie vagabonde", a collection that traces his life of adventure and travel, his "crossings of the ephemeral" on foot, horseback or bicycle, both in the steppes of Central Asia and on the shores of Lake Baikal. This book envelops the vital energy of the "wanderer" that has animated him all his life. 

This notion of wanderer, which he borrows from Goethe in his "Small treatise on the immensity of the world" often comes back in his reflections and acts as a guideline during his expeditions. A wanderer is a traveler without ties, without expectations, traveling the world without looking back, subject to the needs of his/her body. According to him, "Only those who have no ties can live like the true Wanderer, capable of answering the call of the outside world without giving a glance to what they leave behind".

And something tells us that the wanderer Sylvain Tesson has not finished traveling the world...

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1 comment


  • Rob Leluie

    Quelle vie trépidante… ! Merci pour ce bel article qui me donne envie de lire les livres de cet aventurier hors du commun !


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