1. Back in Ukraine
3. A Ticket Odyssey
4. Crossing the Black Sea
Cycling in the dark, we don’t have a clue of where we will spend the night but we feel strangely relaxed. The whole day, we’ve been worrying about how we would manage to cross the border from Transnistria to Ukraine. Now we feel just light and relieved.
A moment later we find a quiet place in a field. As usual, we set up our tent and cook a nice meal while discussing the day’s adventure.
In the morning, we only have 70 kilometres to cover to reach Odessa. That day we see many Ladas and a couple of reckless drivers, just as usual.
By the road there are fruits and vegetables sellers. We are pretty sad to see that couple of meters behind the trees on the other side of the roads are tons of garbage, old fruits crates and plastic bags.
Odessa is a coastal city of about a million inhabitants. It takes us an hour to cycle from the dusty boulevards of the periphery until the wide paved avenues of the centre.
Tina: I was looking forward to being at the sea so much! Now, sitting in a café on the corner of Ekaterininska street, drinking a double cappuccino while watching the blue infinity behind the plane trees, I almost forgot to worry about where we will sleep tonight…
JP: Luxury cars are legion in Odessa. When I see just in front of me a huge black 4WD with a licence plate where it is written only “XXX”, I grin. Couple of days ago, I’ve read that Odessa is known to be the headquarters of the Ukrainian Mafia. Here luxurious hotels stand next to dilapidated buildings…
In Odessa we were first hosted at Svetlana and Igor’s place. They shared with us Ukrainian borsch and their stories from travelling across Central Asia. They also advised us couple of underground art cafés (like Exit bar or Shkaf) where we could hang out without having to endure the sadly common crap music.
One afternoon we walked to the beach. This is the first time we reach the sea this year but we weren’t that courageous to swim, we just had a picnic 🙂
Tina: Un coup de blues or maybe just a normal travelling fatigue? It’s raining again, it’s cold, no chance to rest on a beach or swim, if only there was a bit of sun… Odessa is terribly expensive, it’s ruining our budget and we still don’t have tickets for our ferry to Georgia. I miss having the real “chez moi”, a place to hide by myself and play guitar or read a book to escape from troubles around, corruption, poverty, arrogance, drunks… I miss my friends, my family.
After couple of days with Svetlana and Igor, we moved to Misha’s place. Misha is an English teacher and he has the most terrible neighbours we’ve ever seen. The first ten minutes we spent at his place were in the corridor watching a woman in her fifties with terrible make-up shouting like hell in Russian (in Odessa most people speak Russian). We just stood speechless, watching the scene like some kind of theatre, waiting for the moment she would finally get tired… Eventually she did 😉
Misha told us that in Ukraine it is common to pay for exams. We told him about this “XXX” registration plate, so he explained that with money you are allowed anything here, you can cross red lights and drive the speed you want…
At Misha’s place we also meet Diana, an exquisite Tatar girl from Kazan with whom we spent couple of evenings and did some cooking. Together we went to Privoz, an enormous market where fruits and vegetables sellers happily fill your bags for couple of coins! Even though Odessa is a pretty posh and expensive city, in Privoz market you can easily get a bag fool of tasty organic food for couple of euros.
We spent our last days in Odessa at July’s place. July lives with her mum and her younger sister in a flat between Odessa and Ilyichevsk. She is fond of downhill cycling but since she has already broke many times her arms and legs, she decided to try less “dangerous” extreme sports (if one can call rope jumping less dangerous 😉
July absolutely amazed us with her kindness and simplicity. She prepared for us delicious pumpkin soup and cakes. She even insisted on leaving us her bed, arguing that she feels like sleeping on the floor… We are really glad we could meet her!
Tina: Meeting July finally broke my grey mood in Odessa and brought me the real sun. Talking with people like her always reassures me that this travel actually makes sense.
JP: One evening we missed our bus (which are actually pretty random) and were advised by Misha to take a taxi. I never had in my life such a taxi ride. There was of course no belt on any of the seats. We were carried at light speed between the streets, with terrible trance-techno music which he explained us is some very best music produced by talented guys… We shouted at him couple of times to reduce the deafening volume. When he finally did he started telling us about some planet which will provoke a deadly earthquake this November and only some Russian millionaires who built underground houses and shelters in Siberia will survive it… He was so convinced of his story, wondering if he could also hide in Siberia. I wondered what kind of drug this guy took that evening and was releaved when we finally arrived…
For weeks we have been thinking about how to get to Georgia from Ukraine. We first thought we would cycle along the Black Sea coast in Crimea then take a ferry from Kerch (the easternmost seaport of Ukraine), but the only ferry company operating in Ukraine told us that there is no more boat leaving from Kerch this year.
The second option we had was to apply for a Russian Visa and use one of the recently opened border crossings between Georgia and Abkhazia (a pretty complicated region which was recently the scene of a bloody civil war, as Abkhazia fought for its independence). Getting a Russian visa is also a quite hard and expensive task; we would need to obtain (buy) an invitation from some official organisation, then pay quite a lot of money and apply at a Russian consulate on our way, then wait couple of weeks crossing fingers that we would both be given the visa. When we called the Russian embassy of Odessa from Poland, a woman rudely answered in Russian and hanged out.
We finally decided to forget about Russia and look for a boat directly from Odessa to Georgia. This way we will be able to explore the Georgian countryside and mountains before the snow blocks the passes. We are not really sure of what we will have to endure in November in the Caucasus but this is probably better than in January 😉
You might think that getting a ticket for a boat is easy… Well, we first looked at the schedule on the web, chose to take a boat for Batumi and went to the office. When we arrived there, a grumpy man told us in Russian that he cannot help, he wrote six numbers on paper (which we guessed was a phone number) and kindly asked us to leave.
The following day, our host tried to call but nobody answered. We finally found that there is a second office and decided to try there. The notice board by the door said the office was open from 11am to 3pm but we went twice that day and ringed for 10 minutes, nobody would open! The next day was Sunday, the office was closed, of course.
On Monday we tried again and a friendly man finally received us in his office. When we enquired about the ferry for Batumi, he answered with a very strong Russian accent:
“No feRy foR Batumi! Only one boat foooR Pooooti!”
Well, that changed our plans. The prices he gave us were also higher than what we saw on the web so we decided to think about it and come back the next day.
Back home, we asked Misha to call the company and enquire about the ticket price. The price they gave him were 10 Euro cheaper than what the man told us. We were then pretty sure we were being cheated but how to ask him for the real price without being rude to him? He might as well decide not to sell us the tickets…
The next day in his office we said we saw different prices on the web and showed him on a paper the price we want to pay. He was of course ready for this and he told us: “Of couRse this is the pRice, but theRe is hundRed Grivnas reseRvation fee”, then picked in a folder some obscure paper where it was written a reservation costs 100 Grivnas per person. Hum… We could as well print such a paper, but at that moment we weren’t sure about what to do. We thought in the worst case we could ask him to show us an official price list but this would be useless now because this reservation fee would not be written on the price list anyway. So we hesitated, talked in French and asked him if there isn’t any way to avoid paying the reservation fee. Tina finally saved us when she told him with her sad eyes that 200 grivnas is a lot for us, we travel with bicycle after all…
Behind his desk, the man smiled and told us: “Ok. I undeRstand, I am chief of this depaRtment, especially foR you, no ReseRvation! You will have a place but you don’t pay.” 🙂
We are really curious to ask the other passengers if they paid any reservation fee…
The explanations he gave us to get to the ferry were really funny:
“So boaRding time, pRobably Thursday afteRnoon. Maybe Friday moRning, I don’t know yet… BefoRe boaRding, you need go to Ilyichevsk. Before Ilyichevsk, you will see big Borey building. Ask foR… Miss Nataaaalia! AfteR Miss Nataaalia, you continue Road to Ilyichevsk until you Reach bRidge undeR water…”
We both wondered about this mysterious bridge under water but we thought we would find the place anyway…
One day before the departure, we received a phone call saying we should forget about Miss Nataaalia and instead, we should meet with “MisteR VladimiR KoRtus undeR the bRidge at 9pm tomoRRow”!
We are so thankful to July, our host, for coming with us by bicycle to Ilyichevsk. We were cycling for 15 kilometres in the night on the busy roads of Odessa until we reached the place where the boats are supposed to leave (according to the Google Maps)… There was a fence and couple of men in military clothes. We asked them about a ferry to Georgia and they just laughed, saying they never heard about a ferry to Georgia! So we turned back few kilometres and took another road in the night. We asked couple of people by the road about a ferry to Georgia but nobody knew anything about it so we decided to call the company. Nobody answered, of course…
After a while, we finally found the place, there wasn’t any sign by the road until we reached the very building of departure where we saw a small sticker of the company on one of the doors. This is insane! And where is Vladimir? Under what bridge? July started to ask everybody in Russian if they knew Vladimir Kortus but nobody knew anything. One man gave us two numbers we could call but none of them answered… Finally July managed to call Vladimir who confirmed to meet us so we could get the tickets and everything was well!!!
We are actually writing this article on the boat. We should arrive in Poti tomorrow morning, after four days on the sea.
Today we stopped for almost 24 hours on the coast of Russia because of some technical problem. One of the trucks travelling with us is carrying pigs and they were screaming in terrible agony for the whole afternoon. They are packed in cages day and night and today was surprisingly warm. The truck licence plate is from the Netherlands. Why do people carry pigs from the Netherlands to Georgia? We wonder… 🙁
Most of the people travelling with us are actually truck drivers. There are few tourists from Georgia as well. One of them became our friend even though we don’t really have any language in common. Together, we speak a mix of English and Russian, a little bit of Czech, Ukrainian or even Italian, everything is good to be understood. He taught us some Georgian, invited us to stay at his place near Batumi and gave us a Georgian SIM card for our mobile. Georgians are said to be some of the most hospitable people on earth, wait and see…
JP: I loved to spend these few days relaxing on the boat. I could write this blog, learn with Tina some Georgian, read… by the way I am reading now a book from Amin Maalouf called “Balthazar’s Odyssey” (in French: Le périple de Baldassare) and so far I love it. Maalouf is one of my favourite writers and, in my opinion, one of the best storytellers of our times.
I have just checked our GPS a minute ago, it says that we are now closer to Kashgar (in Western China) than to Paris. Georgia will be a new step in our travel. I really wish to take the time to discover the country and its neighbours, learn about history and culture in the Caucasus region, spend time in nature, interact with locals… We will probably stay for weeks, maybe months in the Caucasus and Anatolia before we continue further East.
Tina: For weeks I was wondering what to offer to JP for his birthday, nothing too heavy nor big to carry 😉 I was thinking of a book but he has just bought one. There’s definitely no chance to buy his favourite “comté” in Odessa, but with help of July I found an other of his favourites – a good piece of “halva”! However, there would be no birthday party without wine so I decided to smuggle some through the border check. Well, it was not so hard, our loaded bikes were too big to enter the X-ray and our shaking heads “No alcohol, No cigarettes, ONLY sport” convinced the guards that there’s no need to unpack our panniers 🙂
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