|The Ukraine-Georgia Black Sea ferry is no package tour|
|Tuesday, 17 June 2008|
June 17, 2008
The Black Sea, Ukraine - The ferry connecting Ukraine and Georgia across the Black Sea is, depending on one's point of view, either a tourist experience from Hell, or one of the world's last properly adventurous sea voyages.
But either way, if you get a chance to ride the boat running between Poti, Georgia (a five-hour drive from the capital Tbilisi) and Ilychevsk, Ukraine (a 40-minute drive from the port of Odessa) there is not even a ghost of a chance you will see a package tour.
The Ukrainian-Bulgarian shipping company Ukrferry (www. ukrferry. com) operates five ferries on the Black Sea, of which only one, the Ukrainian-crewed Greifswald, performs regular runs between Poti and Ilychevsk.
The remaining four ferries, two Bulgarian and two Ukrainian, sail in a slow counterclockwise circle around the Black Sea, touching at Varna, Bulgaria; Constanza, Romania; and Istanbul, Turkey. These are working cargo ships carrying freight throughout the region, and their passengers are mostly lorry drivers or shipment escorts. For practical purposes, a tourist insistent enough to make his way on board will be nearly the only one.
On a recent run by the 40-passenger Bulgarian Geroiv Sevastopola (Heroes of Sevastopol) from Poti to Ilychevsk, 17 paying passengers were on the manifest: a Georgian family emigrating to Ukraine, a 92- year old ethnic Mingrel (from the Caucasus region) visiting relatives in Kharkiv, three Dutch motorists and their intrepid Toyota 4-wheeler and Suzuki motorcycle back from Iran, a Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa reporter, and assorted lorry drivers from Georgia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan.
Freight noted aboard included a dozen or so ancient Kazakh freight cars, refrigerated and conventional lorries, a high-milage Mercedes 500 destined for resale at a suspiciously low price in Ukraine, and five semis trailers loaded with stage kit for - no joke! - Elton John's road show.
A ship's arrival or departure can be delayed for reasons as varied as occupied wharves, contrary winds, storms, national holidays, the end of the local work day, and time needed to haul rail cars onto the ferry. Calls to Ukrferry offices or their Georgian counterpart Instra, can be frustrating - often the person answering will not be able to say exactly when the next ship is leaving. Waits of up to five days are not unheard of.
The best way to obtain tickets, if one doesn't speak Russian, the local lingua franca, is to trust their arrangement to an travel agent experienced in the region - and even then some agents argue whether booking a passage on the Ukrferry boat is even possible.
But possible it is, even for a non-Russian speaker. Persistent telephone calls or even better personal visits to Ukrferry offices in Kiev or Odessa, or the Georgia agent Instra in the cities Tbilisi or Poti, will generally uncover an English-speaker willing to sell a ticket. Especially in Georgia, staff are extremely helpful and enthusiastic about bringing a "real foreigner" (someone not from the former Soviet Union) on board.
The upside is, the trans-Black Sea ferry is one of the region's few great travel deals. For 160 dollars aboard the relatively nice Greifswald or 120 dollars on the other four more Spartan ferries, one crosses the Black Sea in about 40 - 48 hours, living in a two person cabin with its own shower and hot water, eating three meals a day, and having the run of about one-third of the freighter.
Food depends on the crew's nationality, with the Bulgarians offering a diet heavy in meat and spiced vegetables, and the Ukrainians cooking up soups, dairy products, and cereals. Neither option resembles cruise ship all-you-can eat buffets; this is simple working man's fare on a plate. Service and food quality is considered better on the Greifswald.
There are plenty of things one can do to make the trip easier. Take a towel, shower shoes, instant coffee or tea bags, a way to boil water, and extra fruit and vegetables. Be sure you can carry your luggage easily, and preferably on your back: en route to your cabin you will climb the equivalent of six stories via narrow steps, and unless you are escorting small children or are over the age of 75 no one will help you.
Sounds rough? Well, maybe, but there are definite benefits to riding a freighter as well: Mobile phones don't work except near the coast, excellent beer sold on the sly for 1 dollar a half-litre, dolphins, unlimited free time, no security checks or X-ray machines whatsoever, Crimea coming over the horizon, actually friendly customs officers at both ends, and - perhaps best of all - a ship's safety briefing consisting of the single question "Have you ever been in a ship like this before?", which if answered "yes" ends the instruction.
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