Searching the BAM For Russia's Lost Moustache
by Robert Reid

Russia's rise began with moustaches, but are there any good ones left? Robert Reid travels 10,000 miles on the Baikal–Amur Mainline to see.

There's no way to know the precise percentage of Russian men who wore moustaches in the first decade of the 1700s, but if you're like me you've spent some time wondering about it. If and when such figures did surface, could we even trust them? Did the tallies factor in beards or goatees – or disqualify them from the count? Was the tabulator seeking out facial hair–oriented areas of town to skew the results? Or avoiding them?

It's hard to know when history smudges truth. Take Peter the Great. Standing 6'8", Russia's barnstorming leader of the early 18th century began his lofty transformation of his country by touring Europe's greatest hits. He returned with glowing stories of canals, palaces and 'Euro chic' attire he saw in cities like Amsterdam, London and Berlin. He gathered his heavily bearded courtiers and told them of something else he saw too: moustaches. 'You look like Cossacks,' Peter scolded. 'Beards are too Eastern.' When he demanded they shave, a few resisted – the story goes – Peter shaved them by his own hand, leaving behind a juicy, Snickers–sized moustache, neatly matching Peter's own. History gets it wrong when it smears Peter as 'anti–beard' – and it really ticks me off to hear it – he was merely pro–moustache. And this is how Russia's rise began.

While the first 15 US presidents were beard–free (Chester Arthur's incredible stalactitic sideburns came later too), it's impossible to imagine a Russian history without facial hair. Ivans the Great and Terrible, authors Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and the last czar Nicholas II wore full beards, and gulag–survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn often wears a funny Amish–type one; Vladimir Lenin and satirist Anton Chekhov had goatees. But Stalin, Molotov, Gorky, Tarkovsky – all moustached. Leon Trotsky died with an ice pick in his brain and a moustache on his face. It may be no coincidence that the Soviet Union collapsed as post–Stalin figures – political heads from Khrushchev to Putin, and ballet/Sex and the City star Mikhail Baryshnikov – increasingly took to the razor.

I returned last year to Russia and saw heart–breakingly few on Moscow streets – I counted just seven of 100 men with one from a random vantage point outside an old Trade Union building. What would Peter think of this Russia?, I wondered. Perhaps moustaches reign in Siberia and Russia's Far East? Google yielded no answers, so I headed across Russia's nine time zones to count them myself.

Take the Train
Whether you're tabbing facial hair–tendency or not, the best way to see Russia is by train. It's comfortable, with beds and blankets, heaters and air–conditioners, and locking doors in all cabins. And, unlike Russian Tupelov planes, they don't crash all the time. It's gotten easier to keep an open itinerary, buy tickets as you go, and hop on–and–off the Trans–Siberian Railway that connects the Gulf of Finland and the Sea of Japan in eight days if taken straight. Stopping off some is important, but the trip, like any, is more about whom you meet. The Russians that can seem a little stonefaced when selling a blini in a store often treat you like part of the family on a train, pulling out cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese and black bread sliced into bookmarker shapes to share with you. Along with a 'just a bit' of vodka.

Few travelers stop in Novosibirsk, an Asian city 40 hours east of Moscow with 1.7 million. It's known mostly for its Akademgorodok suburb of institutes and a tick that can give encephalitis. In high school I did a little report on 'Life in the USSR' that focused on Novosibirsk, and I've always found the name a little funny, so I stopped. I wheeled my bag from the train station to a little Soviet–era hotel, the Tsentralnaya, which pretended to be full until I persisted. Later the staff called my room to see if I wanted 'some kind of woman,' but instead I used the phone to call Sasha, a young businessman I happened to meet at a breakfast buffet in Moscow. Sasha showed up with his 19–year–old brother Oleg, who had a flop–top mullet hairdo with bleached spikes. They took me in an old Soviet car they borrowed to see an 'Unknown Soldier' monument across the river, where kids played on WWII tanks. They pointed out a fading mural that read 'long live the working people,' and we stopped to see a folk–music show in progress next to a tall government building. My attention drifted to passerby, and I counted 11 men of 100 nearby with moustaches – mostly thin black moustaches, and more than Moscow already, but nothing swooping and triumphant.

Severobaikalsk lake

The Disastrous Soviet Wonder
Peter the Great may have made his great namesake city from a malarial swamp, but the BAM (Baikal–Amur Mainline) – a humble little 2630–mile railway that splinters off the Trans–Siberian Railway, 18 hours east of Novosibirsk – is easily Russia's greatest conquest of nature. But it's not exactly a ticket–seller (it supposedly loses some $70 million a year). Billed in Soviet times as the 'hero project of the century,' the BAM took 18 miles of tunnel, 4000 bridges, and supposedly some $20 billion to build. Half a million workers – some forced – took to the task for decades, dealing with icy permafrost that freezes and thaws seasonally, mangling rail lines not laid carefully. When it finally opened in 1980s, the USSR was already dying and Gorbachev lambasted it as a source of 'stagnation.' What a barefaced politician slags might be a moustache–breeding ground. I had to see it.

I shared my cabin with two large grandmothers, one a chocolate–giving Ukrainian who looked like Boris Yeltsin, the other a Siberian who resembled Joe Pesci (with a thin moustache of her own). Pesci tugged me into the corridor to point out the Bratsk dam, once the world's biggest energy producer and still quite a break from the monotonous taiga forest that covers most of Russia. 'It's wonderful,' she said, pointing to a 3335–square–mile reservoir. Darkness loomed, not from an approaching dusk but the smoke–spewing mills along the shore. After a night in Severobaikalsk, an ugly city on the north lip of beautiful Lake Baikal, I had just the wagonmates I had hoped to avoid the whole trip: drunken brothers with tattooed knuckles. In the next 26 hours to Tynda, they refused to say a word to me. I hid the cover of the gulag book I was reading, and quietly recorded that two of the three wore Selleck–ian moustaches.

BAM train station

I awoke just before pulling into the retro–futuristic station of the 'BAM capital' Tynda, built in the 1970s at the geographic center of the BAM. Despite hundreds of miles of wilderness around, life in Tynda's housing blocks is packed in like Hong Kong's 'Chungking Mansions.' Other than my taxi driver – a newly arrived, moustached chatterbox from Azerbaijan – many of the locals I met were railroad families, with at least someone in the family who had laid track. One with a Freddie Mercury moustache, and a cigarette dangling dangerously from his lips, lamented, 'BAM is not something that could ever be built these days.' He pointed me to an enormous statue of a BAM worker wielding a sledgehammer (from where I eventually counted a respectable 16 of 150 men with moustaches).

BAM worker with sledgehammer

Tynda is BAM's 'capital,' but Komsomolsk, 37 hours east (and 18 hours from the end of the line), is its heart. Its name comes from komsomol (the Young Communists League), whose members had been recruited in an 1930s 'hey–ho!' fervor to build up the BAM from this outpost on the marshy banks of the wide Amur River. On the train to Komsomolsk, a sweet old couple – squat and fleshy Tatiana, bald and moustached Sergei – helped me store my bags and prepare my bed, then spoke fondly of the Soviet days ('we got so many medals then – it was a great time'). Next came on two drunk truck drivers, who continued their vodka–athon en route to a 'job' in Khabarovsk; at one point, one's face was borscht red from laughing as he pointed at me in the face. The other, laughing too, apologized, 'Sorry, I know this is wrong.' On came a guy who looked like Kenny G – actually a heavy–metal guitarist from Blagoveshchensk – who sketched our portrait. In Komsomolsk, all gave me a farewell 'trucker hug' (a half–lean–toward embrace, with one hand on shoulder).

Komsomolsk is surprisingly attractive, with trams clanking past pastel–colored Petersburg–styled buildings along tree–lined Lenin and Mir Streets. Near an eerie WWII monument of stone, I counted 11 of 100 moustaches of Russian men heading to the river's beach to swim or windsurf on a day warm enough to want to. I stayed at an out–of–the–way gray dacha built for Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s. In the downstairs meeting room you can practically hear the nervously shaken kopecks from protective goons' pockets as the premier's footsteps came down the steps from the massive suite upstairs.

view from boat of Lena Pillars

How Does it Add Up?
The end of the BAM was near, so I ventured north and south on a whirlwind of tabulation. I took a hydrofoil a dozen hours north to the grisly town of Nikolaevsk, and drank vodka with lonely hotel staff and noted 7 of 50 men with moustaches in a town of leering locals; I flew to the weird oil–boom island of Sakhalin, where I spotted 9 of 50 moustaches at the corner of Communist and Lenin Streets and had a hamburger with two moustached ex–pats. Way up in the gulag–built town of Magadan I recorded a rate to remember, 26 of 100 moustaches. On a two–night karaoke–juiced cruise of the Lena River out of Yakutsk, I met a Yakut shaman with a moustache (and a head–band) and nearly scored an interview with World of Women magazine from a flirty, middle–aged Muscovite. I sadly spotted zero moustaches at a sprawling Yakut festival with a WWII battle recreated by soldiers in Central Asian attire; afterwards the communist party stand beckoned me in to eat some horse meat and look at their embroidered Stalin pillow.

Over pizza in Vladivostok, I finally tabbed up my results. In all I counted 151 moustaches at random spots over 10,000 miles of Russia. About 12% of the men I counted wore them – higher than Moscow's 7% at least. I learned the likelihood of a moustache is highest between the latitude points between 52 and 58 degrees north, and that towns with less than 100,000 people are twice as likely to be moustached as cities of over half a million. It's possible there is some relationship between mosquito density and moustaches, but I don't know. How all this would compare with the count on the Arbat ped mall in Moscow, 1708, we may never know.

Where the 151 moustaches were found

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Moustache percentages by region

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Moustache percentages by latitude

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I do know the moustache I'll remember the most – one that curled across the volcano–climbing host's leathery, sun–tanned face like an ocean wave in an exaggerated children's drawing. While in Kamchatka, a remote peninsula dangling in Alaska's face, I took a four–day tour of volcano climbs on snowy peaks and lava fields, all reached by roads so rugged only 6WD military vehicles can make the trip. The guide Sasha, a 50–something volcanologist, has carried the same mint–green Soviet backpack since the 1970s and hikes rough peaks in plain rain boots. He never swats at the swarms of mosquitoes, or wears bug repellent. And he has a very big moustache. One seemingly styled from an era when Russia was still three czars away from the USSR. He's worn it this way 'for ages,' he said proudly. Why? Sasha explained, 'It reminds me of wheat, the color of hair when I was a boy.'

A timeless moustache compared with agriculture, found as far east as Russia reaches. Peter would've liked this guy.

Robert Reid

Robert Reid writes travel articles and updates guidebooks from his Brooklyn home, but still considers himself an Oklahoman. He's updated Bulgaria, Romania, the Trans-Siberian Railway, Central America and New York City for Lonely Planet. Robert's celebrating Oklahoma's centennial in 2007 by creating his own, free online guidebook to Vietnam, where he lived in the late 1990s.

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