Tales from the Black Sea
(aka the ferry from Batumi to Odesa)

Walking to the port from Batumi is not super easy. It's not far - about 20 minutes from the cable car - but not a pedestrian friendly route. Also the layout of the roads is different from what I could see on maps.me. If you think you can follow the road around, you can for a while until the pavement literally crumbles into nothing. I traipsed through smashed up concrete on the side of the road for a while, as I thought that was the only way, but eventually it was just fenced off, just as the road starts sloping up and curving around to the left. It's a big and busy highway, so I didn't fancy walking along the side of the road. I contemplated squeezing past the fence, but then wondered if I'd fare better on the other side of the road, presuming of course I'd be able to cross back again when I reached the actual port. By this point there was a large bollard in the middle of the road, so I backed up to where the pavement was whole again, and there was no bollard, and crossed.

It became apparently on this side that the road forked; one sort of side road, which initially I thought was more of a layby for trucks, ran alongside the main highway. There was clearly no pavement on the other side of the highway either, so I walked along the layby road a little way.. and a little further. I'm not sure why some instinct told me to keep going, even though it was really not clear where it led, because this turned out to be right way. The layby turned into a real road which went under the curving highway and.. led to the port! There wasn't any real footpath here either, but it was much much less busy than the other road, and vehicles that did pass were going a lot slower.

Under the bridge/highway there was a carpark of sorts; pass straight across that and over the next road, and the ferry waiting area appears. It was visible due to the huddle of other soggy passengers under a small shelter. I saw two friendly looking people with bikes, and confirmed they are waiting for the ferry. It was about 8pm by the time I got there, having been told to go for boarding at 2130. The couple, W and A, are from Ukraine and had been cycling around the Georgian coast. We chatted about travel and Georgian politics before eventually boarding well after 2130. After fleeting passport and ticket checks, before finding the way to the ferry itself, I met another young couple with backpacks, in good humour despite the weather and the wait; P from Germany and R from Mexico.

Day 1, after boarding

In the line to pick up our room keys at the ferry reception, I met yet another couple; O1 who carries a UK passport but doesn't sound British and handwaves "long story" when asked, and O2 from Belarus. O1 found many things to complain about. Upon collection of our keys, our passports gained a green sticker with a number on it, and further information was scribbled onto our tickets - "first shift" (for meals) and an assigned table number (I was on table 18, it turned out, with O1, O2, P, R, and a family of three).

Amongst the other passengers, all of whom seem to be Russian-speaking (except for three grey-haired queue-jumping German biker-types) are a few families with young kids. The rest are either lads on a booze cruise, or the drivers of the various transport vehicles on board.

I'm in room 8020, which has two beds in bunk formation, a table with a chair, a wardrobe, three power outlets, a servicable bathroom and a view of the ocean. I waited with baited breath to see if my other bunk would be filled, and to my relief I remain alone. It was always unclear from the website whether I was booking a bed or a room. Even now, I don't know; it does say it's 'shared'. By the time I got to make a reservation, the 4 and 6 berth shared cabins were long gone.

I walked on the deck and took some pictures of Batumi after sunset, with all it's silly lights.

We didn't leave and didn't leave, and I stayed up late writing blog posts and waiting to sleep after we left. I gave up, and slept anyway.

Day 2, after breakfast

I woke at 6 and looked out of the window to see we were still in the Port of Batumi. I woke again at 7, just before an announcement came through a little speaker right next to my head announcing it's time for passport control on the deck below. Mercifully an English announcement followed the Russian. I met O1 and O2 in the line, and we waited for some time. Queuing was not particularly orderly, constrained only perhaps by the narrowness of the corridors. Eventually my passport was stamped, and kept.

I returned to my room until two hours later, on Ukrainian time, breakfast was announced through the speaker - "don't be late."

Breakfast was the most distressing pink sausage, a plasticky looking omelet, and a single slice of tomato and cucumber. The salad was gone before my butt hit the chair, and I tried to chew on some white bread, but it was quite quite terrible. No coffee, only tea and lemon. O1 was particularly upset about the coffee dearth, and I promised to bring the remains of my Turkish grinds the next morning, and gave him my omelet. Nobody wanted my terrible sausage. Back in my room, I ate Georgian bread and adjika.

We finally started moving after 1030. I have no idea if this was the expected schedule, and passengers are normally tricked into boarding the night before departure, or if we are running late. Guess I'll find out. I kind of hope we're late. I went out on deck to take pictures as we passed Batumi seaside. I heard the kids in the room next door violently throwing up.

I slept, and read, and thought about writing.

Day 2, after lunch

I was even a little hungry by lunchtime, but as soon as I saw three glistening parts of a bird with bones protruding on top of my heap of rice and smattering of presumably sweet and sour vegetable goop, my appetite deserted me. P the German offered me his salad, which were thankfully in separate bowls, so I ate two paltry offerings of lettuce, pepper and cucumber. I picked at the edge of my rice but the disembodied legs really weren't doing it for me. I thought I'd be able to eat around it; after all, meat on other peoples' plates at the same table doesn't usually put me off food unless it's particularly grotesque. But to get at the rice I had to get closer to the body parts than I could stomach.

The kitchen is staffed by tall, sultry Russian speaking skinheads, but there is one lady who was helping to clear dishes more on my eye level. On the way out of the dining room I managed to catch her, and pleaded on behalf of myself and O1 - who is vegetarian - for a plate without meat at the next meal. She asked if eggs are okay, so I elaborated.. yes for O, not for me. She relayed this message to one of the tall dudes, and everything seems to be okay. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I'm going to eat my Uncle Feng's Chinese noodle leftovers.

Day 2, after dinner

Rumour has it that we'll arrive late on Monday, around midnight. The 'guy in the bar' said so, via O2.

Dinner was successfully meat free for O1 and I; potatoes and pickled vegetables. It was plenty. The side salad had a liberal sprinkling of grated cheese this time so I ignored it. There were chocolate marshmallow things too. P seemed to really enjoy his, so I gracefully donated mine to the cause of the hungry German.

I watched the last 20 minutes of Sully, all of After the Ball - both movies I'd caught snippets of on buses this month. I photographed every page of my full notebook so I can trash it, and backed up my laptop onto my harddrive. I spent some time reading Blindsight on the 9th deck in the sun. I might return there before sunset.

Day 3, after breakfast

I took coffee to breakfast, but O1 didn't come down. I told O2 that if he wants to knock on my door for extra food, I have way too much. Which I do. My meat-free egg-free breakfast this morning was of course a bowl of cottage cheese. But there was optional oatmeal with didn't seem to be milky, so I ate that instead, and it was more than enough. I really need to eat more of my own supplies though..

I have a slight encroaching headache, so I'm going to go back to sleep a bit..

I watched Wonder Woman, which turns out to be all about Chris Pine, and A Wrinkle in Time which is also all about Chris Pine (I did not know Chris Pine was in either of these), read Blindsight, and napped.

Day 3, after lunch

Apparently the ferry stopped for two to three hours earlier, to do tests because the weather is good. Now we're due to arrive at 8 or 9am tomorrow. Updates courtesy of P, who asked at reception. Not sure what I'll do. Maybe go to Orpheus Hostel anyway, where I am booked to stay tonight, and drop my bag and take a wander around Odesa. I could take a night train straight to Lviv and arrive on Wednesday. Maybe that's better, work-wise. And general timing. Then I can leave Lviv at the weekend and have some time in Tartu before Tallinn. Or I could spend one night in Odesa and go to Lviv on Wednesday. I guess it just depends on the bus or train options. It'll be nice if I can get a train straight to Lviv.. and I suppose a two hour change in Kyiv isn't so bad. But if I'm going to Kyiv, I should spend a day there too perhaps? I'll think about this more when I have internet.

Lunch was a giant pile of cold spaghetti, with orange mush of unknown origins. Everyone else had chicken on a stick. There was soup, as usual, and two bowls of a meat-free edition on the table for O1 and I. It had mushrooms in, and was pretty good. All I needed was soup, but I ate spaghetti anyway.. Feeling bloated now. Also melon.

We were summoned to reception to fill out customs declarations. The forms were in Turkish.. obviously.. so every single passenger needed help filling them out, which wasn't the most organised affair. One of the questions I was told which box to tick, but the guy couldn't tell me in English what the question was. OH WELL. JUST SIGNING THINGS I CAN'T READ. NO BIG DEAL.

Think I'm gonna take Blindsight up on deck while everyone is fucking around in reception.

Day 3, after dinner

I finished Blindsight, and tinkered with sloph and read through the parts of Quest for Brothers I've already written and maybe one day soon I'll write some more. Oh, and I learned most of the Russian alphabelt, so I can sort of read signs now.

Dinner: potatoes! And pickles! The salad had solid chunks of something feta-like in; I picked mine out and traded for O1's olives. There was chocolate cake (and fish), for those who wanted it.

Day 4, arrival

Announcements only in Russian this morning! Great fun. Especially the important ones, like the 7am "pack your stuff immediately and go to reception to change your room key for your passport." Fantastic. Good job I bumped into O2 at just the right time so she could tell me what the instructions were. No breakfast today. Instead, waiting in non-lines for many hours. First to retrieve passport and hand over room key. I just dumped my backpack in a corner in reception, it didn't seem to be going anywhere. A line was forming for passport control / customs, but we were definitely still in the process of mooring, so I figured border agents aren't coming on board any time soon and went to wander around the deck.

I was right. I joined the line when people in uniform eventually appeared. Swathes of people skipped the line, for whatever reason, and we waited at least an hour to get our passport stamped. I was asked "why are you going to Odesa?" Good question mate.. cos that's where the ferry stops? I mumbled something he probably didn't understand, and that was enough. He also wanted an address.. so I showed him the address of the hostel I had booked for the night I'd just missed, where I wouldn't end up going.. which was also fine.

After passport control, it took a while for them to actually let us off the ferry. When they did, we were met by more dudes who wanted to see our passports, and ask us what we had in our bags. They were happy for P to speak for both R and I as clearly he must own the womenz who were trailing behind him, and then pointed us at a minibus. We got on that and.. waited some more. 20 minutes maybe. Eventually all foot passengers made it, and it drove us.. 30 seconds around the corner, to the customs office. We definitely could have walked. There we - you guessed it - waited some more. The next level of the process was to pass our bags through a scanner of some kind, and then we were free.

Only.. we were in a carpark. By a port. Freedom sucks.

We (O1, O2, P, R and I) bumped back into A and W, and between the Russian speakers they extracted the location of a bus stop from someone, and A and W guided us. A bunch of other random people followed us too. It was quite a trek along some bumpy roads, until we reached a main road that busses were clearly passing by on. W took off on his bike to find the actual bus stop, and returned a while later having found a spot where "people are waiting but the bus didn't stop." Well, that was the best we had. A and W cycled away, and the rest of us trekked to maybe-the-bus-stop. Eventually the number 25 approached and we waved it down. It was full, but somehow there was still space for five people. Our backpacks went in the boot, and we crammed in standing sardine style. It was a marshrutka, so it was already a tiny cramped minibus type thing. It cost 22UAH each for person + baggage to Odesa train station. I think it took at 30 minutes, but it felt like eternity of balancing, swaying, and smooshing into other sweaty people. I paid the bus fare for P and R, cos they didn't have any local currency yet. No biggie, that's like 0.60EUR each.

All photos from the voyage.

Day 4, Odesa at last!

We milled around in the street for a while, and eventually got ourselves together. O1 and O2 went to find a cab to their lodgings, which turned out to be very far away, and I followed P and R to their hostel, which was a 20 minute walk away, and was closer than the one I'd booked for the night before.

Hostel Komuna was absolutely invisible from the street. With the help of an old woman on a balcony and another guest attempting to get in (who was on the phone to someone in the hostel, I think) we made it. For reference, it's at number 41 where there's a small alleyway. There are absolutely no signs, in any language. There's a door on the right of the alley, with a keycode. The other guest got the code (417 all at the same time) on the phone, and we followed him up several flights of stairs, to another unlabelled door, perhaps on the top floor. We buzzed and were let in. It felt like an apartment, and a bit of a dingy one at that. P and R had a double room, and I had a bed in the dorm. It felt very much like there are many long term residents. It's not super clean, and certainly not new, and there's no air conditioning. But it'll do for a night. The people who welcomed us are friendly.

Every time I checked in the last couple of weeks, there were absolutely no available trains from Odesa to Lviv. But the Ukrainian woman I met in the Batumi hostel had said there are sometimes last minute tickets available, so I looked again.. and sure enough, an almost empty train was available tomorrow morning. It's 11 hours :O but there are no night trains, so it'll have to do. I spent an hour in the dorm calculating my onward travel plans - a few days in Lviv, then Tartu, before I reach Tallinn - and I think I'm all set.

I ate some delicious healthy stuff at Vegano Hooligano, a lovely place conveniently around the corner from the hostel, and now I'm going to wander around the city..

(Photos from Odesa.)

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