Our Dacia Duster has crossed the Black Sea and poses in Batumi, Georgia.
This is Part 4 of our Dacia Duster adventure through 10 countries and 9000 km around the Black Sea, you can read Part 1: the road to Transnistria here, Part 2: Chernobyl, Ukraine here and Part 3: Belarus here. It’s now time to take a big leap and cross the Black Sea! Before we can do that we have to drive all the way back north from Minsk, the Belarus capital, to Odessa in Ukraine, one of the main ports of the Black Sea. Both the crossing by cargo ship ferry and the arrival in Georgia would turn out to be a lot more challenging than expected… As a reminder this entire Test Drive happened in September 2019 before COVID-19 travel restrictions were implemented.
Our Black Sea crossing itinerary starting north in Minsk and ending in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, at the bottom right of the map. Wolodymyr our Dacia Duster with a Ukrainian Renault twin.My cargo ship, the Kaunas.
It’s just over 1.000 km (640 mi) from Minsk all the way south to Odessa on the Black Sea. I arrive very late to my Odessa hotel which means I won’t have time to explore the city. The next day is departure day from the Chornomorsk port near Odessa for my cargo ship ferry, the Kaunas from UkrFerry. Note Kaunas translates to “B*tch” in French and that should have been a warning sign already… At 190 metres long and 28 metres wide, according to the Marine Traffic website the Kaunas has a carrying capacity of 25.606 Gross Tonnage and can accomodate up to 250 passengers. The departure day will expand way further than originally planned, as cargo takes priority over passengers and the ferry can only leave when all its cargo is on board. First step is picking up tickets for me and Wolodymyr the Dacia Duster at 9:30am. Check-in is scheduled at 1pm for an actual departure at 6pm which I thought was plenty of time…
Loading up on our Black Sea-crossing cargo ship ferry. The ground floor empty (top) and filled with train carriages (bottom).
The actual check-in stretched over two hours and included a thorough search of the car. Because the first check-in point didn’t understand I was boarding with a car, I am told off in full Russian (ok Ukrainian) fashion – read screamed at – and had to go through the process twice. Once inside the loading area though, I get asked again (the first time was when leaving Ukraine to get to Belarus) to get the declaration linking me to the Duster translated into Russian, otherwise I won’t be allowed on the ferry. The UkrFerry employee who helped me navigate the first few check-in steps just shrugs and… leaves? The border officer is uncompromising for a while, then when he deems he has asserted his authority long enough – and also perhaps realises that I won’t be able to get anything translated in any language in the loading area of the ferry, abruptly gives me the sesame piece of paper that authorises my boarding. I would spend the next few hours observing the non-stop loading of the ferry, with dozens of trucks filling the top floor and train carriages packing the ground floor to the brim. The handful of non-commercial vehicles (6) that are booked on the ferry are the last ones to board as we are the smallest cargo. Wolodymyr the Dacia Duster finds itself parked right next to its Ukrainian twin the Renault Duster…
Life aboard a Black Sea-crossing ferry
A bit after 8pm, I get waved in (just me, not the car), to grab dinner on board. I successively try sit on a few tables with the truckers only to be told off (again) and waved away loudly. Such a lovely welcome! I understand later than us tourists have dedicated seats in a specific area that will be my breakfast, lunch and dining spot during the entire crossing. The train carriages were late to board the ferry and everything is finally loaded by 11pm, but we would have to wait until the next day 11am – or 17 hours after our scheduled departure time – to finally leave Odessa. Why the long wait after everything is loaded? Unsure. The crossing to Batumi, Georgia is 562 nautical miles or 1.040 km, and is supposed to last roughly 40 hours with an arrival planned on Friday 20th September at 10am. But we would in fact offload in Batumi, Georgia, at 2pm on Sunday 22nd September, 52 hours after our scheduled arrival and after a 75-hour journey, almost double what it should have taken! The overwhelming majority of passengers onboard are truckers that welcome a couple more days rest so there isn’t much incentive for the captain to speed things up. I am lulled into a robotic routine of 3 meal calls a day over the loudspeaker which seems to have endured the wrath of an exasperated passenger before me (see picture above). Each announcement is made in both Russian and English and invariably ends on an ominous warning: “Please. Don’t be late” – make sure you play the sound bite below. The food is tasty, hearty and varied, and the experience, although frustrating at times, is enlightening and I make friends with an Armenian couple who proudly recommends all the good spots to visit in their country. Five full days without internet is something BSCB hasn’t experienced since a trip in the Mongolian Gobi desert in 2013… but on the plus side, I have accumulated enough sleep for a lifetime!
Georgia “no go” areas
And ready I’ll need to be, because the Georgian border control would end up being the most intimidating experience of this entire adventure. The border patrol sets up shop in the restaurant and whoever pushes, shoves and screams loudest can go through the process first. My French passport alongside a car registered in Romania but not under my name is a little too much to absorb, especially as they don’t believe Dacia is a real brand. I find myself looking for a Russian Wikipedia page for Dacia but… no internet. As fellow passengers start to become impatient behind me, the few tourists I spoke with during the crossing all come and pat me on the shoulder whispering their best wishes as they leave to enter Georgia… I am sidelined to a different desk with not one but two border agents: the most senior and the most junior who is also the only one speaking English. Cue palpable hierarchy tension between the two as the senior officer is dependent on the junior burger to communicate with me. Is this my car? No, it’s a loan. Did I pay to loan or rent this car? No. Did I get paid to drive the Duster into Georgia? No. I can almost swear I saw each of the agents’ brain explode in the back of their eyes.
Questions take a stern turn, calls are made, voices are raised (on the phone but never with me personally), and I’m told they need to call a “Minister” to decide whether to allow me into the country. Having to retrace my steps and spend another 5 days without internet to return to Ukraine isn’t exactly what I had in mind. After the longest 45 minutes of my life, the young English-speaking officer announces with a definitive tone: “The Minister didn’t understand why your name wasn’t on the car’s papers.” So do I have to go back? I attempt a frail: “Meeeaning….?” “You’re fine to unship. Welcome to Georgia.” ?!?? My steadfast calm and courtesy seem to have made an impact after all. Only problem: the Renault Duster that was parked next to Wolodymyr is now long gone and I don’t trust the port officers to “understand” there’s exactly the same car coming out the same boat but with a different badge. But I don’t have it in me to go into a lengthy explanation so their amused “Dacia? WTF?” is met with an impatient “it’s the same as Renault” which ends up being… convincing enough. I have arrived in Georgia! Beware the disputed no-go zones of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (in red on the map above) which we will cautiously avoid.
Batumi: Prius taxis and the famous tower with ferris wheel integrated. Picture adventurous-travels.com
Batumi is a seaside resort whose casinos attract tourists from Turkey where gambling is illegal, but the large majority come from neighbouring Russia and I indeed spotted quite a few Russian-registered vehicles in town. Batumi has boomed in the past decade with the construction of colourful high-rise buildings of dubious taste, including the shockingly cumbersome 2012 Technological University tower complete with a ferris wheel build into its facade (?) – the first (/last?) of its kind in the world. Hanging 100 metres (330 feet) above the ground are eight air-conditioned cabins that still aren’t operational. Plans to open a Technological University fell through, so the building stood empty for two years before being relaunched as the Radisson Blu Hotel. One striking element of the Batumi car landscape is the overwhelming presence of second generation Toyota Prius which seem to form the entirety of the taxi fleet in town.
Georgian countryside car landscape and Chinese workers.
But with two days lost at sea, I have to reset this adventure’s itinerary, removing stops and spending less time in the cities that have made it into the revised plan. Batumi, where I was planning to spend my first night in Georgia, is scrapped and we now need to reach the country’s capital Tbilissi by night fall. After leaving the coastline, the main artery taking us there is a tortuous mountain road where it’s impossible to overtake safely, and it takes way longer than it should. Very quickly I see a lot of construction signs in Chinese script as well as hordes of Chinese workers seeming way out of place here. That’s because as a strategically-located link between Europe and Asia but also Russia and the Middle East, Georgia is key to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the theatre of various infrastructure projects including (I’m assuming) a much needed Poti-Tbilisi highway. However since a Free Trade Agreement was signed between the two countries in 2017, Georgia has reportedly been disappointed by the lack of local jobs created by these projects, as evidenced by the multitude of Chinese workers I spotted on the side of the road. You can find more detailed information on the China-Georgia relationship here. As for the cars of the Georgian countryside, they unveil two marked trends: a swarm of Lada Niva 4×4 and a constant flow of Japanese imports such as the Toyota WiLL VS pictured above. More on this phenomenon further down.
The “welcoming Georgian lifestyle” described by my travel bible the Lonely Planet section couldn’t be farther from what I experienced in Tbilisi. Driving at night for more than 5 minutes in the capital will unsettle even the most experienced driver, and I consider myself one of those after extended travels in countries notorious for their “unleashed” driving styles (Italy, Iran and anywhere in Latin America to name just a few). I tried to fit in as hard as I could but found myself to always be in the wrong spot for at least a few drivers around who will make sure they let you know with prolonged honking and insults. Worse: try and venture in the old city and reverse back when realising the tiny pathways were never designed for an SUV and you may trigger World War 3 with locals shouting at the top of their lungs and getting out of their cars to menacingly gesture they want to punch me in the face, all the while double checking my licence plate and so perfectly aware that I’m not from here. What the actual f%%%? I hardly close an eye all night as street drunks manage to keep the noise to awake-level until sunrise. Georgia: I can’t wait to leave you, and do so promptly after a quick walk to the main highlights in town that include the Opera & Ballet Theatre, Rustaveli Theatre, the old city walls, the crooked Clock Tower in the Gabriadze Theatre, the Peace Bridge and Narikala Fortress (above and below).
Mercedes, US trucks and Toyota Prius taxis in Tbilisi.
The most common cars in Tbilisi are 1990s and 2000s Mercedes sedans as well as Toyota Prius taxis, which sometimes monopolise your front vision such as in the picture above. I also spotted Toyota Hilux and Hyundai Accent rentals as well as a good amount of US-specific used vehicles such as Ram pickups and Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban. Also popular in the countryside and continuing on to Tbilisi are the 1998 Opel Astra and 1999 Opel Zafira, the latter a favourite for the multitude of roadside fruit vendors that pepper the entire country. The local police uses either the last generation Skoda Octavia or the last two generations of Toyota Hilux. As we’ll get closer to the Azerbaijani border to the east, the Lada Zhiguli become omnipresent in a sign of things to come as you’ll discover in our next iteration of this adventure.
Used Japanese imports in Tbilisi
As we mentioned earlier, on top from the overwhelming presence of Toyota Prius taxis in the country, used Japanese imports are everywhere in Tbilisi, with the Mitsubishi Pajero Mini a clear favourite of rental car companies as the perfect choice to explore the mountainous surrounding regions. I also spotted rarities such as the Nissan LaFesta, as well as best-sellers in Japan like the Toyota Aqua. Strikingly, Georgia is the first (and last) country of this trip where Japanese imports with the steering wheel on the “wrong” side of the cars are allowed in, which shouldn’t actually be that surprising given those vehicles also account for a very large section of the neighbouring Russian car park – as witnessed in 2013 during our Trans-Siberian exploration. These cars are imported into Georgia through the Black Sea port of Poti, don’t require an inspection and seem to benefit from preferential import duties which would explain their popularity.
This is it for our Black Sea crossing. Stay tuned for our next stop, Azerbaijan which, in a complete turnaround after Georgia, would end up being, and by far, my favourite country of this entire adventure…