A Journey Into Siberia, a Wilderness of Tigers, and Lost Pianos
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Five years ago, I heard a David-and-Goliath story about a conservationist protecting one of the world’s rarest big cats and flew to Russia’s Far East to meet him.
Alexander Batalov—a broad, short man in his mid-60s, dressed in felt boots gifted to him by an army colonel—found me in the city of Khabarovsk. For the first time, I was headed into the taiga. The so-called tipsy forest, it’s named after the landscape’s swaths of leaning trees, many of them propped up by their densely packed neighbors.
Humble and eloquent, Batalov had given a large portion of his life to safeguarding the Amur tiger—a Siberian subspecies distinguished by its orange striped fur and vast proportions. An adult male can be 14 feet long and weigh 400 pounds, and its territory can span 1,000 miles or more.
Only 500 or so of these animals remain in the wild; even for professionals such as Batalov, seeing one might happen once or twice in a lifetime. So for the next few days, we would simply be setting motion-activated cameras to better understand their behavior. In the taiga, Batalov explained, oak trees are threatened by logging. Their acorns are food for wild boar. And the wild boar are food for tigers. Take out the oak trees, and the whole ecosystem collapses. As a journalist focused on conservation, I hoped to learn and tell Batalov’s story.
Deep in the forest, snowdrifts hugged the birches like petticoats. Our truck rumbled on through the silence. Then out of nowhere, a line of crisp new paw prints appeared. Batalov grabbed my hand. “Tiger!” he whispered. “Tiger, tiger!”
As I cautiously stepped out of the vehicle and put my ungloved hand against the paw print in the snow, the scale became real. A 6-year-old tiger, Batalov said. Probably a male.
A few moments later we turned a bend and saw the tiger asleep in a clearing. It stood up on all fours to reveal its dazzling stripes, the snow falling off its back. Then it looked at us with a steady, fearless gaze before ambling into the trees, its fierce golden flare soon concealed by a billion spindly trunks.
If a life-changing trip is born of reflection—a gradual shift in what we believe, how we perceive what we see, or how we choose to live—the tiger marked the beginning of mine. It was uncanny that such an unlikely encounter not only should have happened so soon, but should have occurred at all. It felt as if the meeting meant something more than a stroke of luck.
I was intoxicated by the silvery sheen of the taiga. In Batalov’s company, I was also profoundly inspired. His life was driven by a yearslong, patient effort to protect something precious—with nothing but a modest budget to help reason with local loggers.
Our time together created shared confidences. Batalov told me about his father, a talented musician whose music brought solace to a remote Siberian town. I told him about my friend Odgerel Sampilnorov, a Mongolian concert pianist. The extremes of the steppe climate had wreaked havoc on her Yamaha; the previous summer we’d spoken about finding her a soft-sounding, historic instrument to withstand the test of time. The best place to find one, we agreed, was Siberia, a place rich in classical music culture and tied to her family heritage. A piano that had survived generations there was surely what she needed.
Batalov nodded. He didn’t try and tell me that Siberia was too big or that Putin’s Russia was too forbidding. “You must give it a go,” he urged. “The tiger will bring you luck.”
So I began a treasure hunt that would last more than two years and require eight trips to a land mass whose former imperial boundaries stretch across 1/11 of the world’s surface. I worked with Siberian piano tuners, who led me to interesting instruments in private hands. I made appeals on the radio. Sometimes it felt as if everything was against me: climate, logistics, the eye of the authorities, who, after a full day of questioning halfway through the project, made it clear they didn’t much like foreign writers poking around restricted zones.
I also felt my search for beauty in the region might be misplaced. Estimates say that roughly 1 million people had been exiled here under the czarist penal system and an additional 2.7 million forced laborers killed in the Soviet Gulag. But when I felt discouraged, the tiger would flash before me: persistence.
As my favor for a friend turned into a personal obsession, I found the real hallmarks of the region were warmth and stoic hospitality. During the czarist period, I learned, Siberians would leave bread on their windowsills for exiles who would walk past in chains. Today you can turn up as a stranger and, by dinner, be sharing stories at a local’s kitchen table.
I also learned the twin values of taking risks and staying patient—traveling for 2,000 miles on the back of a tip that might come to something, or nothing. I itched to share those lessons with my school-age kids; soon they were joining my mission and camping with me along Lake Baikal.
The tiger did its job. I found the piano I was looking for, and the story resulted in a book, The Lost Pianos of Siberia. But just as my quest for the giant cat had taught me about the forest and the trees and the acorns, the pursuit of the piano revealed much about the world around it.
Along the way came a little miracle of a lead, then another. One instrument I found had been gifted by members of a collective farm to a child of precocious talent. Another, on a ship in the North Pacific, was purchased by sailors to pass the long polar nights. Each instrument came with heroic tales about music’s transcendental beauty against all odds, whether Catherine the Great’s 1774 piano anglais—which survived the Siege of Leningrad—or the prerevolution grand piano once treasured by concert pianist Vera Lotar-Shevchenko. During her eight years in a gulag, she’d practiced on a keyboard carved into the side of her wooden bunk. On the day of her liberation, she walked straight into a local music school and released a magnificent squall of Bach and Chopin, her stubby, red-raw fingers not missing a single note.
How strange that the encounter with the tiger should have led to this. I know now that only by trying to undertake something difficult do the most interesting things happen. This sometimes naive, almost blindly optimistic ethos has since sent me to northern Chad—digging into the life of an Italian explorer trying to protect some of the oldest rock art in Africa—and to the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, where, as it happens, I found a 19th century Russian piano. Next I’ll go deeper into the Congo and farther into the Sahara. There will be difficulties, of course. But there will also be untold beauty, as long as I keep on looking for the tiger’s flare of golden light.
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