Back to Europe by Ferry

We did end up taking a boat to Bulgaria as planned, though it was a bit of a mission to find one. I found two ferry companies, UKR Ferry and Navbul. Past experience has shown that phone calls are futile. Usually the person on the other end doesn’t speak English. If they do a bit, they want to be helpful and you think you have agreed something. But when you get there, you find that nothing’s been arranged at best and you’ve committed to buy the whole ship at worst. So email was the way to go.

The first email came back telling me to contact the office in Varna. The Varna guys then emailed me that since we are coming from Georgia, we should email the guys in Poti. The Poti office then had a quote for us, but gave no instructions as to where we could get a ticket. No one mentioned anything about a ferry from Batumi, where we were.

We heard that since Russia has been messing about it the Ukraine, less and less businesses have been taking their goods through the Ukrainian ports, meaning less and less was arriving by ship in the Georgian ports. So Georgia decided to close Batumi port for now and all ships must go to Poti instead. That’s about 70km up the coast.

We gave up on the emails and just packed up and headed off to Poti. But not without stopping in Kobuleti. Turns out you can just pitch your tent on the beach in town. So called Gregori, another biker we’d met, to come join us for a beer. Soon enough there were about 20 of us sat round the table at the beach bar and the vodka was flowing. The next couple of days were spent in a haze of beer, hangovers and swimming in the sea.

And we met an awesome old Lady called Maria and her Turkish boyfriend (she refuses to sign her life away to anyone by marrying them). Far as I remember she said she was 72! She is fighting cancer and they traveling around with in a little van that they sleep in. She had some great stories to tell, including driving a lorry instead of a car as a young woman and yelling at a policeman in former Yugoslavia, that had taken her passport, before snatching it off him and speeding away. She used to be a biker too!

A German guy, who was helping out to get the beach bar business off the ground and who could speak Georgian, called UKR Ferry for us to find out if and when a boat was going. Apparently there was one the next day. So on 3rd September we had a yummie, leisurely breakfast with Maria and boyfriend and packed up.

We got to the port around lunchtime, thinking we surely missed the boat and would just take the next one. They redirected us to the ticket agency in town. But Aidan had turned his bike off, so we were going nowhere fast. The battery was on its way out and not holding any charge. So we had to jump-start Pippa off Seven. That meant unpacking the bike, spreading the luggage on the road, opening the panels…. All that to the dismay of the port workers, who were trying to get their massive machinery around us to the gates. Whoops!

At the agency it took about four hours to get the tickets. First they have to check and recheck if a space is available. After one hour it was clear we could go on today’s ship. Then there were passenger and bike details to be taken, booked, then re-booked on another system. Finally they had an invoice for us to take to the bank. There a lady printed another document for us and finally a cashier took the payment and issued a receipt. That we took back to the agency who shuffled our papers about, got them confused, reprinted some and finally stapled them together. We were good to go. Then a guy took me past someone playing Animal farm on their PC to a guy with a phone. One call later it was confirmed. Come back at 8pm. There will be a bus taking the other passengers to the ferry and you can follow that.

Apparently that was rather painless. The German couple who had booked their tickets at an agency in Tbilisi three weeks in advance had received a phone call that the ship was delayed by a few days. Then it was supposed to leave on 1st September. Calling them in the morning to confirm, they were told to call again in the evening, only to be told then, the boat would be leaving 2nd. And so it continued until they were told to be at the agency’s office in Poti at 10am sharp on 3rd. Upon arrival they were sent away for two hours and then again two hours till finally someone told them to be back for the bus at 7pm. Seems we’d arrived on the right day at the right time 🙂

Some late lunch in the pub next door later, we stocked up on beer, crisps, chocolate and tins of ice coffee. Then we got Pippa going just in time to race after the bus at 7.30. It was doing at least 50mph through the small town and across amber traffic lights, us in hot pursuit, till we reached the port. Our papers checked we were sent across millions of train tracks to the ship.

As it turns out, it wasn’t a passenger ferry at all. The ship takes trains across the Black Sea. There are a few cabins on deck, so they do take a few passengers on the side, almost just as a favour. A train pays 4000 Euros per train while our ticket including bike was a meagre $415 per person including bikes. And unlike trains, we require three meals a day, showers and a bed!

There were seven lorry drivers and a couple by car, who were getting off when we stopped in Ukraine. Then there was the German couple and an Aussie guy, all on bicycles, and us, heading all the way to Varna. The cabins were surprisingly nice and comfy, although the cleaning must’ve been done in a rush each time for as long as the ship exists. Some health and safety notices were displayed (mostly in Russian), but essentially there were no restrictions and we could roam around on the ship as we pleased.

Upon arrival our passports were taken, then we were shown our cabins and left to our own devices. The ship wouldn’t leave till early in the morning, as they were still loading the trains, one wagon at a time (a giant lift would bring each wagon up to the second deck, where a little yellow thing would drive it along the tracks to where it would be stored for the journey).

At 3am there was a loud knock on the door: “Facecheck!”……What?? Turns out the customs officers had set up in the mess room, going through our passports and taking a picture of our sleepy faces with their laptop camera to compare and file with a scan of our passports. A rubber stamp to show we’d left the country and the passport was handed back to the big guy, who first took it from us.

Turns out Big Guy was sort of responsible for looking after us. He laid the table at meal times and knocked on our doors when dinner was served. He seemed real bossy at first, obviously a man used to being obeyed. But we soon found out he was real nice, searching the ship for us, if we didn’t turn up for a meal and making sure the food (which wasn’t bad) was saved, if we missed it. Once the others had left the ship in Ukraine, he’d hang out with us at mealtimes and tell us about his hometown Varna, other travelers he’d met and what news he’d got from his satellite TV about the Russia-Ukraine situation.

We spent the days updating our diaries, watching all the films we have downloaded, and eating all our crisps and chocolate in the first couple of days, just to suffer from withdrawal symptoms on the last few days. The Germans invited us and the Aussie for video evenings offering some of the fruit mountains and hazelnuts they’d brought. They are vegetarian and were prepared. But in the end the chef was more than happy to accommodate their culinary requirements so the squirrel food was spare. There were signs all over the ship saying that drugs and alcohol were absolutely illegal and the captain would have no scruples handing offenders over to the police. So we hid our giant 2.5Ltr beer bottles under some blankets and quietly slurped it out of our modified coffee cans 🙂

We went so close past Crimea that you could easily see the mountains.

Ze Germans

Ze Germans

That's Crimea behind us!

That’s Crimea behind us!

Three days after take off, just after lunch, the ship stopped for a day and a half in Illichivsk, Ukraine to unload and re-load the trains.

Then it took another 24 hours till we arrived in Varna. The customs officers came on board shortly after docking for another “Facecheck”, and then we were free to grab our things and leave the ship.

The port was quite far away from the city, much to the dismay of the Germans. Karsten had a broken foot and couldn’t cycle into town. And the train station was 4km and a small ferry ride away. Nothing to it, but to tow him to the ferry. We’re experts at that by now anyways.

By the time we’d bought some supplies in town, it was dark and our headlamps didn’t work. We went off the main road, down a sandy path into a little forest, pitched the tent, popped open the wine, and feasted on our much missed European foods (I’d managed to find mozzarella, rocket and Milka chocolate!) The next morning we awoke to find we’d pitched our tent amongst millions of discarded condom packets and wet-wipes….

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