Sophy in Tanzania; a volcanic lake in the Kuril Islands, Russia
Travels with Sophy
One of our favorite travel writers and conservation activists discusses her latest adventure, The Lost Pianos of Siberia, and how we can all travel more sustainably.
Travel journalist Sophy Roberts’ Instagram feed is a daily must-scroll for us, a color-saturated, hyper-informative plunge into some of the world’s remotest places, from Chad to Mongolia. In her signature Penelope Chilvers sh*t kickers, and with recorder and notebook in hand, Sophy has earned acclaim by shining a light on the planet’s fragile landscapes and the people who call them home. Her new book, The Lost Pianos of Siberia (Grove Atlantic), takes us far into the frozen East Asian steppe to the tip of Kamchatka, Russia—a vast region she visited several times with a photographer colleague and friend, Michael Turek, tracking vintage pianos brought from Europe and hauled by banished aristocrats and exiled Soviet artists to the far reaches of the continent’s edge. We caught up with Sophy at her home near the coast of Dorset, England, to ask about her great adventure and the future of travel.
You’ve been in some version of lockdown for months now, on your small farm in Dorset with your husband and two sons, plus some geese and pigs. What has this change been like for you, to be held more or less to a single place?
I am – as you know – deeply restless by nature, as well as by profession. So it has been hard, and also worrying, given how I earn my living. That aside, I miss the human interactions travel gives, not just the movement itself. I miss meeting strangers, and hearing their stories, which is the part I like most about my job. But there are silver linings to lockdown, including getting my hands back into the earth. Nurturing something other than my own wanderlust is deeply therapeutic, be they animals, vegetables, or doing more homeschooling with my kids. The rewards of stillness – well, let’s just say it’s the part of being human I have long overlooked.
"The journey I ended up making was emotional, profoundly sad and also uplifting."
Your book took several trips to Russia and three years to write. Siberia is not a landscape that most people fall in love with – historically, thousands of people were sent there against their will in exile, and later, to work camps in Soviet gulags. What did you connect with in it?
I have always been inspired by the romance of Russia, ever since reading Tolstoy and the other greats of nineteenth-century literature. So when I came across true stories about pianos being dragged into the snows of Siberia, against all odds, the idea grabbed at my latent love of a good romance. In 1818, a Russian admiral delivered a piano on his man-o’-war to Kamchatka — a gift for a bureaucrat’s wife as she eked out a “civilized” existence on this volcanic peninsula on Russia’s Pacific fringe. In 1823, a blind English traveler remarked on a piano he encountered in Irkutsk, carried to the so-called “Paris of Siberia” on a sledge. With instruments from clavichords to novelty “pyramid” pianos penetrating these wildernesses long before the railways, I thought I’d found a story to counter the more familiar, sinister Siberian narratives. But I’m also a journalist, not just a hot-blooded woman besotted by images of Omar Sharif wading through the snows in Dr. Zhivago. The tension between the romance and the darkness was interesting to me, given the human depravity which had given this land its ferocious reputation. Was there any room for music given what had occurred? If Siberia represented humanity at its most cruel, could I justify looking for the opposite? I found the question hard. The journey I ended up making was emotional, profoundly sad and also uplifting. Siberian people are among some of the most poetic, kind, humble, educated folk I have ever come across. In pianos I found stories of their extraordinary grace and fortitude. I also, to be honest, loved the landscape. Siberia gets under your skin: the pink dawns, a frozen Lake Baikal, the snow floating rather than falling onto a milky river in the Altai Mountains. Siberia is shaman country: it talks to something primal in all of us.
Clockwise from top left: Riding across frozen Lake Baikal; Numto, Siberia; Sophy with one of her found pianos; all by Michael Turek. The US edition of her book.
Looking back, was there a moment you would deem the most perilous of your journey?
In Kamchatka, five hours into the backcountry on a snowmobile, we turned too fast and the machine capsized like a ship. Our guide — a mountain specialist in his 70s — took off his shirt, and, bare-chested, managed to heave the skidoo back to upright. I was scared. Remote Kamchatka is a place you don’t want to get stuck – out there in the volcanoes, where no-one lives. And especially in winter, when the winds and blizzards are swift.
How about the most ecstatic moment?
Swimming in Lake Baikal with my children on a hot summer’s night with noone else for miles and miles. And then, out of the surface, the twitching nose of a nerpa seal. Magical.
But then, nature also moves me. Just imagine. It was on my very first trip. I had barely been in Russia for 24 hours and there, lying in the middle of a snowy track in the forest, was a Siberian, or Amur tiger — a huge, golden, wild tiger, looking at me straight in the eye. With just 500 or so of these animals left in the wild, it is extremely rare for conservationists to encounter these creatures by chance. I took that sighting to “mean” something more than luck. I became obsessed, like the tiger was my talisman somehow — and that all would be well, in fact better than well, if I kept on with the crazy project which was forming in my head. If I could find a tiger in the wild, I told myself, then surely I could find an old piano for my Mongolian friend. It was as if the tiger — the most powerful creature in the forest — urged me to believe that magic can happen. I just have to believe, I told myself...
As you just mentioned, your story was set into motion with a mission to find a piano for a young virtuoso in Mongolia. I don’t want to spoil the outcome, but at the beginning of the book you describe such an extraordinary scene of her playing in a ger in the Orkhon valley. I believe you have footage of her playing there. Can we see it somewhere?
The book’s website, lostpianosofsiberia.com has a couple of videos. I have many more, which I add now and again. And links to music, too. My colleague, Michael Turek, is currently working on a larger documentary-length piece. More on that soon!
In the Ennedi desert of Chad; in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, by Michael Turek.
Were you always such an adventurous traveler? Did you grow up traveling with intrepid parents?
We didn’t have any spare cash to travel when I was a kid. But my parents are inquisitive people, and they always encouraged my curiosity for what lay on the other side of the horizon. I was brought up on a farm in Scotland. I went to India when I was 18. Since then, I haven’t stopped travelling – ‘til now…
Let’s talk about your love of the African continent (which Chantecaille shares!). As a journalist focused on vanishing landscapes and cultures, you’ve visited many different African countries, some several times. What are a few of your favorite places and why?
So many… Senegal because it rocks with music that makes my heart soar. Congo because the forests make me think we haven’t screwed up every last patch of forest left on Earth. Tanzania because the ground literally trembles with the migrating herds. Kenya because of some extraordinarily inspiring conservationists who are trying to change the world, one elephant at a time. Chad because of the light, the feeling, of an ancient world. One of the last assignments I took on before lockdown was a visit to the Ennedi Desert. It has this curious thrum, as if nature is talking to you through your pores.
We’ve of course heard reports that Covid-19 is dealing a devastating blow to conservation efforts. What are your friends and sources reporting about the situation on the ground, and what is to be done in the absence of travel revenue?
It’s desperate. Conservation tourism was already a very fragile economic model. But with this pandemic? It’s a tragedy unraveling every day with job losses, and a consequent rise in bushmeat poaching as families do everything they can to survive. How to fill the void? Government stewardship and urgent philanthropy, from those who can.
At The Happy House in Nepal; the house’s exterior.
You’ve spoken openly about how you’re rethinking your itinerant lifestyle from a sustainability perspective—the carbon footprint of plane travel, writing about pristine places knowing it may encourage less responsible visitors. What is your mindset on that now?
We have an opportunity with this pandemic to make use of the pause. To think, rest, and return with greater conviction about what matters to us as travelers and global citizens in a very different world. I am not against plane travel per se. I am just much more aware of consumption versus return. Who is benefitting from the trip? Could I stay longer in a place to lessen my impact? I don’t believe we’re living in a world where the sybaritic can be the only factor in the decisions we make. It sounds earnest, because it is: we have to reverse the damage done to our planet. We are moving into a different zeitgeist: travel can no longer be just an act of consumption; it needs to be an act of empathy.
For those of us who want to travel more responsibly and sustainably, how can we do better?
Ask harder questions of ourselves, our travel fixers, and everyone else in the chain. And speak truthfully to others rather than perpetuate damaging clichés.
Is there a place you’re dreaming of going first when this is all over?
Nepal. To a place called The Happy House in the Eastern Himalayas. My family and I have been going for years. It’s a place we feel safe, loved, and loving towards each other. Where we have friends, nature, eat like kings, drink wine by candlelight, laugh, cry and play games (not computers) in front of a roaring fire.
Okay, we have to ask: you’ve spent time in a lot of harsh environments. What are your tricks for taking care of your skin? I mean…Siberia!
Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize! I cannot tell you how brutal the cold is. As for make-up? In some of the photos, I look like I am wearing frost, not mascara.