- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

MOSUL, Iraq — Their bright blue-and-green backpacks, red complexions and tall, angular features contrast starkly with the softly sloping hills of the golden desert landscape they trundle past.

But Yuri Bolotov and Grigory Kubaytan, two Russian hitchhikers who are among postwar Iraq’s first bona fide tourists, are here to blend in.

“Traveling for us isn’t about staying in fancy hotels and eating good food,” said Mr. Kubaytan, the more talkative of the backpacking duo. “It’s about getting involved with the people and living as they do.”

The pair, walking along a highway in this northern Iraqi city, hitched rides all the way to Mosul from their native St. Petersburg, in northern Russia, winding their way through the Caucasus and Turkey before entering Iraq.

Never a major tourist draw to begin with, postwar Iraq remains an unsafe country beset by guerrilla warfare against U.S. occupation forces, as well as carjackings and robberies along roadways and in cities.

A search of the Web site for Lonely Planet, where adventurous travelers worldwide trade tips and announce plans, turned up not a single message from anyone heading into Iraq.

But Mr. Bolotov and Mr. Kubaytan said they were not afraid.

“Hitchhiking around Chechnya was scary,” Mr. Bolotov said. “Chechnyans don’t like Russians. Iraqis, they don’t care about Russians.”

On the plus side, they said, postwar Iraq is the only country in the Arab world without a visa requirement.

Even the heat, which can reach 140 degrees in Iraq, is not a problem. “It’s nothing compared to the Sudan,” said Mr. Kubaytan, who hitchhiked through Africa on a trip that he ended after contracting malaria.

The pair met through an informal network of like-minded travelers that number about 100 in Russia. They have formed an organization called the Unknown World Project with a Web site (www.geocities.com/koubatian/index_en.htm) where they post their photos, travel experiences and appeal for donations. They even have business cards identifying each as a “traveler.”

Between the two, they’ve hoofed it through much of the Eastern Hemisphere: Malaysia, Australia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and a dozen other countries and regions.

This trip began June 1. After navigating their way past the blood-soaked Caucasus, they made their way through Armenia and Turkey, and finally crossed the Iraqi border at the northern city of Zakho on Friday.

They hope to hitch their way through the Iraqi countryside on a two-year journey that will lead them through Iran, Pakistan, India and eventually across the sea to North and South America.

Mr. Kubaytan, 27, trained as an economist, and Mr. Bolotov, 38, a marine navigator and athletic trainer, both quit their jobs before they hit the road. “I usually get a job for six months, save up some money, quit and travel,” Mr. Kubaytan said.

Living out of a tent and eating food provided by kind strangers, they said they don’t need much money for this kind of travel. On this trip, Mr. Kubaytan brought a little more than $300 in cash and Mr. Bolotov started with $200. Between them, they have less than $300 left.

“We don’t need money,” Mr. Kubaytan said. “The only things we need money for are visas. Visas are expensive.”

Life out of a backpack is simple: Their supplies include some clothes, sleeping bags and mats, snacks, a water boiler, and a few Band-Aids they call a first-aid kit.

Their only souvenirs are the music cassettes of the countries they visit and photos taken with a digital camera they brought along.

They take any opportunity to bathe. Treated to lunch by another foreign visitor to Iraq, they scrubbed themselves clean in the bathroom of a hotel restaurant.

They conceded knowing little about the geography or history of Iraq. Mr. Bolotov, told that it might not be safe to hitchhike through former Saddam strongholds such as Tikrit or Samarra, meticulously copied a makeshift map of Iraq onto a napkin at a restaurant.

“Babylon, yes,” he said. “Where is Babylon? We have to go there.”

On such trips, they often ask locals whether they can stay in their homes. Or they try to beg floor space from relief organizations where they can spread their sleeping bags.

Getting rides is the easy part, they said. They merely wait for curious drivers to slow down and question the distinctive pair. Or they wave down vehicles and ask for lifts. “Trucks or tractors, we don’t care,” Mr. Bolotov said.

The hard part, they said, was thinking about home.

Mr. Bolotov began hitchhiking obsessively three years ago, part of a radical makeover of his life after a nasty divorce.

Mr. Kubaytan began hitchhiking in 1997, just as he entered the trials of adulthood.

“I wanted to feel like I had an extraordinary life,” he said. “When I’m at home, I feel so normal and ordinary. When I’m traveling I feel special, like my life has purpose and meaning.”

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