In 1960s Russia, wandering off into the wilderness became a way to escape the daily grind of the oppressive Soviet regime. A few families, most of them well-educated, began a tradition of pilgrimage back then, one that has been perpetuated for decades ever since. Swiss photographer Yann Laubscher has taken part in several such excursions, which take place every year for several weeks at a time. Like his fellow travelers, he eagerly plans and awaits each excursion.

At the same time, “the Russian wilderness and Siberia in particular are synonymous with exile and imprisonment,” he explains. “Forced settlers and deported populations have inhabited these landscapes since the end of the sixteenth century.” Encountering their reclusive descendants is one of the highlights of such trips.

Today, people who are engineers, artists, doctors give up their cell phones and laptops and head out into the wilderness for a sense of peace and to escape the sensory assault that is today’s technologically advanced world. They may discuss politics, current events and concerns, and the direction of the world; they might even try and solve a problem or two. But really they embark on this getaway to do just that – get away.

Cyril F., 28, surgeon, Lausanne (Switzerland) “The most radical change during these trips is your relation to time. We usually don't take watches with us and look at the time as little as possible. Time completely transforms, becomes much less directive. You stop paying attention to every passing minute. We are now so trained to optimize time, at work, going to work, and so on, that we forget we can have a much more peaceful relationship to it.”
Cyril F., 28, surgeon, Lausanne, Switzerland: “The most radical change during these trips is your relation to time. We usually don’t take watches with us and look at the time as little as possible. Time completely transforms, becomes much less directive. You stop paying attention to every passing minute. We are now so trained to optimize time, at work, going to work, and so on, that we forget we can have a much more peaceful relationship to it.”

It was through Russian friends based in Lausanne, a French-speaking town on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, that Laubscher, now thirty years old, was introduced to such journeys. “I’ve always been passionate about nature and I love escaping to faraway places,” the photographer says. “My friends would mention these trips … how extreme they were. ‘You will love it,’ they’d say.” His first foray into the Russian wilderness in 2010 would indeed be a turning point in his life, although he had no idea then how important it would be.

Every summer since, he has gone back into the wild with Russian and Swiss friends whose numbers vary between five and ten depending on schedules, work and family situations. They have seen much of Siberia, the Kamchatka Peninsula in the east, Lake Baikal in central Russia, the Mongolian frontier, and the extreme northern tundras. This summer, they travelled along the Shchugor River to Northern Ural. Although the destination, often reached via the Trans-Siberian Railway, changes every time, there is one constant: beforehand, the group sets its sight on a river where they will sail for 185 to 250 miles.

“The time we need to get organized depends on the river we choose. For example, it took us two to three months to plan everything and contact local people when we decided to sail the Kamchatka River in 2013.” Other rivers include the Gutara and Tagul rivers in 2012, the Vitim River in 2014, and the Shchugor River, taking them to Northern Ural, last summer. “We were in the heart of the Virgin Komi Forests, unspoiled by the wood industry or bear hunting,” Laubscher says. “Seeing the landscape unfold before your eyes makes you realize how immense and untamed it is.”

“The river is the one constant on these trips, in addition to, obviously, getting food and finding a place to sleep ashore every night, which comes up a lot in our conversations! The whole journey depends on its mood and course: floods, rapids, level, fishing, distances,” Laubscher says about the retreats.
“The river is the one constant on these trips, in addition to, obviously, getting food and finding a place to sleep ashore every night, which comes up a lot in our conversations! The whole journey depends on its mood and course: floods, rapids, level, fishing, distances,” Laubscher says about the retreats.

Staples like rice, oil and buckwheat for the kasha (traditional boiled cereal) are bought at the furthest village outpost before they start driving, riding on horseback or walking. Each traveller carries about forty kilograms of material on their back to the upper parts of a river. There, a raft is built, sturdy enough to withstand rapids. Every night, camp is set ashore. The days are spent sailing, with compulsory headgear and life jackets, as well as fly-fishing in five-degree waters – “water that you can drink unfiltered!” Laubscher says. “Where else can you do that?”

The only way of reaching civilization is via satellite phone.

“Every person you meet seems to leap out of the pages of a Tolstoy or Chekhov novel and shakes you to the core,” says Laubscher.
“Every person you meet seems to leap out of the pages of a Tolstoy or Chekhov novel and shakes you to the core,” says Laubscher.

The intensity of the landscapes and the overall experience were the catalysts behind Laubscher’s taking up of photography. He decided to study the art form shortly after his second journey, and on his third trip, he took along a large-format camera and photographed the landscapes. The following year, he started taking portraits with a view camera. He describes himself as both a participant and an observer.

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“When you are face-to-face with the wilderness, in survival mode, you constantly find yourself wavering between fascination and fear,” Laubscher observes. “I try to express that tension, which I find magical, in my pictures. What I want to show, more than anything, is this voyage inward.”

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Laubscher adds that his relationship to nature has changed significantly since he began these epic yearly travels. “I feel an increasing need to spend as much time outside as I can,” he says. This desire has, in turn, influenced his professional life; he’s taken a part-time job at a nature reserve, where he works as a wildlife educator. He says that the knowledge gained by all this direct and solitary confrontation with simple survival has given him a sense of relief.

He now knows where to go in order to escape civilization.

Stephan V., 36, musician, St. Petersburg, Russia: “My parents met in Losevo, a village not far from St. Petersburg with a huge rapid where people train for rafting. My mother first took me rafting when I was six. She's 69, and she still goes. Now I have kids, a six- and a three-year-old, and I've taken them along on trips twice. I've gone almost every year for the last three decades… I like to feel wild. But I wouldn't want to leave my city for ever. Roots are essential.”
Stephan V., 36, musician, St. Petersburg, Russia: “My parents met in Losevo, a village not far from St. Petersburg with a huge rapid where people train for rafting. My mother first took me rafting when I was six. She’s 69, and she still goes. Now I have kids, a six- and a three-year-old, and I’ve taken them along on trips twice. I’ve gone almost every year for the last three decades… I like to feel wild. But I wouldn’t want to leave my city for ever. Roots are essential.”
Anastasia, 31, architect, Lausanne, Switzerland: “We did a week-long trek with horses and two Buryat (major northern subgroup of the Mongols) brothers as our guides [in the Sayan Mountains]. I remember how in awe of nature I was on that trip. The changing landscapes, being on our own for what seemed like thousands of kilometers, crossing paths with a bear-cub... Thankfully, our guide had just lost his gun! They cooked the elk they had hunted before we started off, and we had it for several days, at every meal. We had unforgettable exchanges with Old Believers [starovyery in Russian. Their ancestors rejected church reforms and separated from the official Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century, fleeing to remote locations to avoid persecutions]. Even today, the Old Believers eschew all progress. They fed us jam, fresh milk, bread... We hadn’t taken enough food with us and the guys were starving. It’s really something to see this animal side coming out when you’re in ‘extreme’ situations. I find that every trip, every one of my friends and, I guess, I as well, becomes another person. Unknown aspects come out, selfishness, impatience, solidarity. You just start acting differently in a small group and in new situations.”
Anastasia, 31, architect, Lausanne, Switzerland: “We did a week-long trek with horses and two Buryat (major northern subgroup of the Mongols) brothers as our guides [in the Sayan Mountains]. I remember how in awe of nature I was on that trip. The changing landscapes, being on our own for what seemed like thousands of kilometers, crossing paths with a bear-cub… Thankfully, our guide had just lost his gun! They cooked the elk they had hunted before we started off, and we had it for several days, at every meal. We had unforgettable exchanges with Old Believers [starovyery in Russian. Their ancestors rejected church reforms and separated from the official Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century, fleeing to remote locations to avoid persecutions]. Even today, the Old Believers eschew all progress. They fed us jam, fresh milk, bread… We hadn’t taken enough food with us and the guys were starving. It’s really something to see this animal side coming out when you’re in ‘extreme’ situations. I find that every trip, every one of my friends and, I guess, I as well, becomes another person. Unknown aspects come out, selfishness, impatience, solidarity. You just start acting differently in a small group and in new situations.”
“Sometimes, when you’re in the middle of nowhere, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, cold and hungry, you think: this is the last time I do this, I can’t deal with this anymore. But the minute you get home, all you can think about is the next expedition,” explains Laubscher.
“Sometimes, when you’re in the middle of nowhere, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, cold and hungry, you think: this is the last time I do this, I can’t deal with this anymore. But the minute you get home, all you can think about is the next expedition,” explains Laubscher.
Nikolai T., 28, juggler and acrobat, Pully, Switzerland: “I was eight when I did my first trip in the forest; I was the youngest in my family. For instance, my sister was six when she first went, my half-brother was five. At that age, you can't really say going is a choice, but I remember being excited before we left. My first rapids and catches are strongly engrained in my memory. Now that I've grown, I would say my motivations are fishing, spending time in Nature with the only presence of my friends, and disconnecting from civilization and technology and forgetting about them for a while.”
Nikolai T., 28, juggler and acrobat, Pully, Switzerland: “I was eight when I did my first trip in the forest; I was the youngest in my family. For instance, my sister was six when she first went, my half-brother was five. At that age, you can’t really say going is a choice, but I remember being excited before we left. My first rapids and catches are strongly engrained in my memory. Now that I’ve grown, I would say my motivations are fishing, spending time in Nature with the only presence of my friends, and disconnecting from civilization and technology and forgetting about them for a while.”
“In these places, you really feel you’re in one of the last true wild places on Earth. Human impact is minimal,” says Laubscher.
“In these places, you really feel you’re in one of the last true wild places on Earth. Human impact is minimal,” says Laubscher.
“Spending the evening by the fire, eating potatoes cooked in fire coals while listening to guitar, is something natural. That is kind of what I imagined these trips would be like. In fact, they are much wilder, hard, deep and intense. You lose any notion of time, you live according to Nature’s rhythms and you finally breathe. Before you leave, you have no idea what you're about to experience, but you definitely come back addicted,” says Anastasia.
“Spending the evening by the fire, eating potatoes cooked in fire coals while listening to guitar, is something natural. That is kind of what I imagined these trips would be like. In fact, they are much wilder, hard, deep and intense. You lose any notion of time, you live according to Nature’s rhythms and you finally breathe. Before you leave, you have no idea what you’re about to experience, but you definitely come back addicted,” says Anastasia.

Albertine Bourget

Albertine Una Bourget is a freelance journalist based in Switzerland. She is glad that her first English piece combines her love for photography and off-the-beaten-track stories.

Yann Laubscher

Yann Laubscher lives and works in Lausanne. His work has been exhibited in Switzerland and in France, most recently at the PhotoforumPasquArt. He received the Prix Clara Camera, and is the 2016 laureate of the Globetrotter World Photo. He is also a nature educator and member of the associations NEAR and Strates. See more of his work on Facebook and Tumblr.