Wandering through a goods yard was not exactly the way I had expected my voyage to Odessa to begin, but that was precisely what I found myself doing. Picking my way across the rutted mud between truck cabs, I searched for signs for the passenger terminal. A man with a backpack passed me, striding purposefully towards the little yard I had seen from the flyover. Abandoning my search, I followed him, hoping he knew where he was going better than I did. A few minutes’ walking and a quick hop across the railway line which served the port brought us to the small yard, where an assortment of backpackers and locals sat about, reorganising their luggage or sipping coffee in paper cups from the tiny convenience store tucked into the wall. I joined a pair of Georgian truckers at the window and asked for a coffee then settled down on a wooden bench next to a grandmother surrounded by woven plastic bags, watching a couple with backpacks and dreadlocks play with a joyously panting dog.
After about an hour, the gate in the iron grille slid open, and we poured through it towards the ship. Passport control was a kiosk in the open air, where we queued through a turnstile as if we were waiting to go on to an amusement park ride. One by one, we held out our documents to be stamped and were nodded out on to the loading ramp with a variation on “We hope you liked us, come back soon.” Standing at the base of the loading ramp, I unsuccessfully scoured the area for the foot passenger entry. The same man I had followed through the truck yard passed me and walked straight up the main on-ramp, which I had assumed was the vehicle entry. A security guard nodded amiably at him, so I followed him once more, and soon found myself in the bowels of the ship, heading up an oil-scented staircase to the reception.
Once at the top, I exchanged my passport for the key to my cabin. I had booked a bed in an ensuite 2-berth with a window, which I would be sharing with a fellow female traveller. The cabin bore the marks of many renovations, here a built-in control for a radio of which there was no trace, there a switch that flipped but controlled nothing. Overall, the cabin was fairly basic but comfortable. After hanging my clothes in the rack and putting my toiletries in the bathroom cabinet, I headed up on to the deck.
After about half an hour, my watch showed 1pm, the time we had been told lunch would be served in the dining room. I went down to the reception, and found the dining room doors shut and a variety of passengers milling hungrily around. After waiting fifteen minutes, I approached the reception, where the man on the desk told me the ship ran on Ukrainian time. That was an hour behind Georgian, so I resigned my rumbling stomach to waiting and went back on deck.
A fresh sea breeze was blowing, and the weather, although not as sunny as the day before, looked settled. The online horror story about the girl who got stuck in the port for five days because of a storm started to recede from my mind. I leaned on the rail with the wind flipping through my hair and looked up at the distant hills holding the church I had walked to without a plan one day. A thud from below made me look down. Lorries had started to be loaded, and one had broken loose from its moorings and started to roll backwards. Shouting, the driver scrambled into the cab and slammed on the brakes while another hurried to re-secure the wheels.
Walking into the dining room an hour later, I looked around for the buffet every traveller’s report online had told me would be there. However, bowls of soup and plates loaded with roast chicken and mashed potatoes sat ready-made at each place. Thankfully, when I explained the situation, the kind but extremely straightforward lady in charge of the dining room was happy to swap my plate for a buckwheat and mixed vegetable pilaf. Feeling guilty for not having known the food was table service and for causing difficulty for the ship’s staff, I sat down with my allocated table mates. Only one person on the table spoke more than rudimentary English, so we resorted to a camaraderie made almost entirely of smiles, and awkward pantomimes to communicate things like needing the pepper or asking for another bread roll. The older couple sitting next to me, also vegetarian, took great care of me, insisting that I take the spare orange left over from dessert and generally treating me like an unexpected daughter.
Back in the cabin, I got to meet the woman I’d be sharing it with. A former government worker from Hong Kong, the riots had been the last straw that pushed her to leave on a round-the-world backpacking trip she had been dreaming of for years. She had already completed a marathon in North Korea and travelled through most of the countries in South-East Asia and India. I sat with my mouth wide open stuck halfway between envy and admiration, listening hungrily to her stories until she decided to take another look outside.
Despite having been told to board at 10am, we were still in port at Batumi. It was now about four in the afternoon. Hanging off the back deck, we watched an elderly goods train rumble up track in the middle of the loading ramp and into the ship, followed by more lorries. At around five, there was a heave, and the ferry began to chug gently away from the dock. I watched as the shoreline receded, docks and beaches and pleasure boats fading gently into a watercolour in the twilight.
The following day dawned cloudlessly blue. After breakfast, I ordered a coffee from the bar and sat sipping espresso in the sun on the back deck, enjoying the morning breeze and chatting to a group of four German girls who were backpacking through the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. The Greifswald was a small ship, without any of the amenities found on larger vessels. The only public areas were the dining room, a seating area around the reception, and the outside decks, and there was no wifi, shop or place to take out cash. It was an excellent chance to switch off, get to know the people around me, meditate, read and journal. The day passed in a lazy blur, lying on the top deck in the hot sun like a seal on a rock, or sitting with my arms crossed leaning on the rail, staring into the cloud-pictures thrown up by the churning foam beneath.
Towards sunset, there was a shout of “Dolphins!” from someone on the starboard side. Everyone rushed over to look. Amid the sparkling waters of the Black Sea, sleek dark bodies leapt from the waves, one after another. The man next to me exclaimed something excited but incomprehensible, clearly aimed at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Ah, English,” he replied cheerfully. “Beautiful, yes?” he added, pointing to the dolphins. He turned out to be a truck driver from the Ukraine, and this was a regular route for him. As the sun set into the sea, he described the cars he’d bought in Georgia, and the home he hoped to one day build for a family, and I described my life in England, my job, my friends in Manchester as the coast of Sevastopol drifted by in the hazy distance. In the end, the dinner tannoy ended the conversation, and we both headed downstairs to our respective tables. The meals on board consisted of a bowl of soup to start, followed by something of the meat, potatoes and two veg variety, and fruit for dessert. The vegetarian option was usually vegetable soup, the starch and veg without the meat, and fruit as well. I barely needed to touch the extra supplies I had brought along in case of getting stranded at sea, although I did tuck into the hazelnuts out of concern for my protein intake.
That night, standing on deck in the starlight as the ship plunged through the waves, I ran into the driver and his friend again. After chatting happily for a while, we made our way down to the cabin decks. On the back deck, another group of Ukrainians were drinking spirits. They cheerily handed us a shot each as we passed, and raised a toast. The nearest one’s eyebrows raised as I lowered my glass at the same time as they did, and he reached out to check it was actually empty. The ship tossed, the glass fell over, and the man jostled my arm and said something in jocular Ukrainian that I couldn’t understand but grinned at anyway.
Back in the cabin, my new friend was reading on her bunk. She had tried to wash a few essentials earlier in the day, but we had been told off for opening the window, so that they were now drying on the curtain rail. After chatting for a while about travel, and life, and what waited for us back home, she revealed that after Odessa, she was planning to go to a forest park not far from Lviv.
“I’ll probably come to Lviv first,” she said. “I think it’s easiest for transport.” Since the reason I was going to Ukraine was to visit a friend in Lviv, I invited her to meet up with us there. It was difficult to plan much, since we had no wifi on the ship and were far out of signal range, but we would have a couple of days to discuss it when we reached Odessa. I had failed to find a couchsurfing host in the city so would be staying in a hostel, but had been reluctant to book one as I had heard so much about the possibility of the ferry getting stuck at sea in case of bad weather.
We docked in Chornomorsk on time, at around 9:30 the following morning. We had to check out of the cabin almost immediately after breakfast, and spent the next couple of hours sitting next to our bags on deck, watching tugs and fishing boats hum around the harbour. I logged on to the Port of Chernomorsk wi-fi as soon as I came in range, and booked into the same hostel my cabin-mate was staying at – we had decided to hang out together while in Odessa. Once the ship docked, everyone congregated in front of the reception for immigration. The border officials came on to the ship and set up shop in the dining room, calling us in one-by-one to check and stamp our passports at the same tables we had eaten our breakfast on.
Once we had been processed, we were free to disembark, although actually getting out of the ship turned out to be more of a challenge. The queue for the lift was so enormous that we tried the stairs instead, only to find that the door at the bottom was locked. The lift had started to malfunction under the strain, failing to stop at our floor several times until I found myself choking down a panic attack. If you are claustrophobic like me and find crowds frightening, you will want to prepare yourself well for this part. You may potentially want to ask someone to be there to support you, although to be fair to UkrFerry it was the only part of the voyage that was anything less than enjoyable. Fortunately, my cabin mate was very kind and kept me talking so that I made it out of the boat in one piece, if rather shaky and drenched in a cold sweat.
Once outside the boat, we were guided over to a small bus stop where we sat in the sun for what felt like an eternity, waiting for a minibus. Our bags were taken separately on an odd little vehicle that looked like an inverted snowplough. After waiting in the minibus for over an hour, it trundled us about 200m across the tarmac to a long low building, where we had to go through customs. The whole process was immensely inefficient; budget plenty of time for getting out of the port if you have a connection to make.
From customs, we stumbled up a bank on to the main road in search of the bus. We had got chatting to a German couple on the minibus, and the group of us strolled through the highway dust until we saw a bus stop.
A packed bus rolled to a halt – the German couple just managed to squeeze on, but Lau Kaping and I couldn’t fit. A minute after the bus had rattled off up the road to Odessa, we realised this had been a blessing in disguise. The port in Batumi had had no currency exchange facilities and neither had the ferry, so neither of us had anything on us but Georgian lari and a small reserve of dollars and euros. Fortunately, there was a petrol station across the road with an ATM and a currency exchange window, where we gratefully swapped our leftover lari for hryvnia, dashing back across the tarmac just in time to squeeze ourselves into the next minibus as it rattled to a halt. Suitcases safely placed in the boot, we squashed in through the door and found ourselves face-to-face with the kind restaurant manager from the ferry, on her way to a well-deserved break in Odessa. Swaying from the hanging straps amid the press of bodies, we jostled and bounced into Odessa bus station. Grabbing our packs from the boot, we set off in search of our hostel and lunch, eager to explore the city.