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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

He Rides for Free, Across Africa

With his slight build and boy-next-door looks, 21-year-old Phillipe Leontyev hardly epitomizes the image of the swashbuckling adventurer. However, since 1993, Leontyev has clocked 101,000 kilometers hitchhiking through some 18 countries on three continents.


He has plans to clock even more. But first he needs to drum up financial support for an ambitious journey traversing 15 African countries -- including hot spots like Angola, Nigeria and Zaire. To that end, Leontyev took part Thursday in a press conference attended by some 20 journalists hungry for information.


They wanted to know not just about the trip from Morocco to Capetown, but about an activity that appears to defy logic in the New Russia -- scoring a free ride.


"Everybody says it's not possible to travel for free here -- that the drivers will always ask for money," said Leontyev, clad in a bright yellow track suit, during the 2 1/2-hour press conference. "But we never get into a car if the driver demands money."


According to some enthusiasts like Leontyev, Russia is not only a place to thumb a ride but the place to do so.


"In my experience, Russia is the best place to hitchhike because people look after you -- they will offer you a bed for the night," said Leontyev, who is enrolled as a student at St. Petersburg University of Finance and Economics. "It's all about mutual interest. I also have to consider whether the driver will be an interesting person to spend some time with."


Leontyev can speak with some authority, having just completed a 16,000 kilometer journey designed to check out hitchhiking conditions in Africa first-hand. He began his trip at St. Petersburg's Zvyozdnaya metro station on Aug. 8 with only a 55-liter rucksack weighing 20 kilograms and $1,200 in cash. Right on schedule two months and two days later, Leontyev said he arrived back in his native St. Petersburg with many a story to tell.


In the course of his travels, he was initially refused entry to Italy when border guards insisted hitchhiking was not possible in their country, was mistaken for a drug baron in Morocco and was detained several times in Western Sahara by troops.


"In Western Sahara, the military were everywhere. I haven't seen so many since the days of the Soviet Union," said Leontyev with sarcasm. "It was like being interrogated by the KGB. About 90 percent of the people I encountered were hostile and would constantly give me wrong directions on purpose."


Leontyev was also plagued by back and stomach problems and lost 8 kilograms, but that didn't cause him to break his tight, self-imposed schedule. One reason for such a rigid itinerary is the need to stay one step ahead of a visa's expiration date.


"Getting visas to these countries is always our biggest problem. The entry and exit dates have to be precise. It took me five months of going back and forth between Petersburg and Moscow to get a Moroccan visa," he said. "I've spent about $1,200 on visas so far."


The African trip is but the latest journey endorsed by the 18-year-old St. Petersburg League of Hitchhikers, a nonprofit group with 67 members. The cost of the upcoming TransAfrican expedition is an estimated $10,000 for Leontyev and a yet-to-be-selected fellow traveler, said Valery Loshits, director of the Association of Travellers, one of the sponsors.


"The costs are really low because the boys are forbidden from paying for their transport," said Loshits.


For Leontyev, it all started three years ago when he was planning a vacation. After deciding that he wanted to hitchhike and learn French outside Europe, he settled on Africa as a destination.


"Europe is not really that interesting for me," said Leontyev, who noted that the most difficult places to catch a lift were southern Spain, Italy and Portugal. "I respect the right of the driver not to pick me up -- of course -- but the European psychology is completely different from the Russian or African psychology."