On the way of freedom: Georgia
At last the journey has begun! Faster to South, to warmer climate, sea and mountains!
From Rīga to Krāslava we are bothered by extremely cold Northern wind combined with rain drops and small technical problems – Andis’ bike has issues with tank’s ventilation and the fuel does not flow from one tank to another.
Around 9 pm, when twilight dominates over daylight, shortly before Krāslava we notice the road sign to Skērškānu guest house right by the river Daugava. We are lucky because the owner Jānis was already packing to go to the city. We accommodate in a comfortable house warmed by a fireplace. We leave our rides in the yard, where they are guarded by Tyson (a dog not the boxer).
In the morning we find the bent air tube, fix the problem and prepare breakfast. 30 kilometres to Belarus border.
The weather forecast doesn’t impress us – rain, strong Northern wind and 13-14C air temperature. We prepare our rain equipment and go to border-crossing point Pāternieki. No queues. At the Latvian side our documents are checked, boxes are not checked and we are let in to Belarus, where the procedure takes around two hours – we need to declare bikes, compare frame numbers and unpack our boxes to check the content.
3rd day. Belarus and Ukraine
We can’t stop being happy about Belarus. Despite the country being quite poor, everything around us is in perfect order. Road quality is not the best, but we see no holes on them. Riding with bikes would not be enjoyable but enduro rides feel wonderful here. At the fuel stations you need to fill the 95th, which seems to be of a good quality, because engines sing songs of praise. Anyway it is at least two levels above fuel in Russia. As a supplementary bonus is the price – it is cheaper by one third compared to Latvia!
A few kilometres further we are stopped at the blockpost, where heavily armed officers and soldiers of Ukraine’s army start a conversation about social topics. Attitude is favorable and positive. We wish them to have peace as soon as possible in their war plagued land. Ukrainians don’t need much time to reply wishing us never to run out of songs and liquor. The roads are totally different in Ukraine as they were in Belarus – quality is a lot worse, chaos everywhere. We understand – the state has other priorities at the moment.
20 km before Kiev at the side of the road we find a hotel.
4th day. Kiev – Odessa. Local bikers greet us
Odessa is 500 km from Kiev. We are going down the E95 highway which is beaten up and in bad shape. Of course we are on our enduro bikes and not affected by it. Traffic on the main road to the South is minor and we can enjoy riding through blooming rapeseed fields glowing in electric yellow colors.
It seems like this is the wonderland for the gourmets of vareniki and chebureks as huge billboards appear on the side of the highway.
At 5 pm 20 km before Odessa we meet up with members of local motor club «Motor-Life». They were eager to greet us and show the city, and also provide accomodation.
5th day. Famous Odessa’s catacombs
Leader of motoclub «Motor-Life» Ruberoid and his comrades have greeted us like old childhood friends. So the myth about Odessian hospitality is true and definitely not exaggerated.
Olga who works in the tourist sector is a walking encyclopedia, enlightening us with fresh and unheard stories about city’s history and events.
Chief Ruberoid has found two juveniles Jura and Ksjusha – diggers, who today will show us the famous Odessa’s undergound catacombs – in a district 20 km away from the city. Tourists usually are not allowed in there.
Below the city’s buildings are 2,500 km long catacombs, which are cut in limestone. First known catacombs were made at the beginning of the 17th century. Most of them are cut at the beginning of the 19th century, when excavated limestone was used to build the city. Shortly after that catacombs were the hideout for criminals, eccentrics and rebels. During World War 2 despite the fact that Soviet army had fled the city dozens of guerilla groups were hiding in the catacombs. For 13 months, they hid right below Nazi’s noses.
Nowadays in Ukraine there is a special subculture with tens of semi professional groups who explore the catacombs and their history. They go on expeditions for days to create maps of the catacomb. Weapons and grenades are often found in the caves. Once in five years dead bodies of guerillas are discovered. Sometimes those remains are in perfect shape – like mummies because of the cold and dry air.
The temperature outside is 20C, but our two guides recommend to wear jackets when going underground, because the temperature below varies from 10 – 15C. Entrance to the cave is located next to a steep cliff hidden by bushes and grass. It is easily predictable that there is little to none movement on a daily basis. A random wanderer has no chance of finding the entrance to the catacombs. Jura before going down under calls his friend, gives him our coordinates and tells approximate time of how long we will be gone. The friend has contacts with MCS (rescue team) that in case of. can try to help us. The satellite and mobile phones, GPS and compasses are not functioning in the caves. We crawl through half ruined alleys and pits for two hours, listen to interesting stories. Air is fresh and it is easy to breath. Even at the moment when Jura gets lost in the labyrinth, I am not scared one bit, because strangely I have the feeling that the guy knows his business. It would be madness to go down to the caves without a guide, because orientation without experience and knowledge is impossible down there.
Dirty and sweaty but in great mood we crawl out and get on our bikes to go to the Odessa city.
Two days in Odessa dominated by blooming acacia trees are way too short time, but you can try to feel its spirit, flavor and special energy.
If you have had a chance to read Petrov’s and Ilf’s novel «Twelve chairs», it will give additional value and reinforce the feeling of the place.
Odessians say that Ostap Bender was a real person and a prototype for the novel’s main character. The most interesting part for us is the fact that he has a connection with Latvia – in the Jekaterinovskaya street building where Ostap’s gymnasium was located there was a union of Odessa Latvians in 1910.
Odessa has to thank Catherine II for its place on map. Right from the start she wanted to make the newly founded city the pearl of the south.
There are many versions about Odessa’s name origins, but the most popular and also the interesting one is quite simple – before the city was built, there was a small fishing village «Hobuchej», and Catherine II did not like it, because the pearl had to have a tuneful and beautiful name. It is known that in territory of Bulgaria was a place with similar name and it had some kind of connection with Greek mythological hero Odysseus. So Catherine II accepted it with minor fixes.
The city grew rapidly thanks to the port and trade. The colorful style of architecture is inspired by many nationalities of Odessa. Greeks, Italians, French and Jews all had a share.
We try to feel the true Odessa charm by parking our bikes next to the cafe «Vienna sausages», where local bikers usually meet up and go walking down in the city’s old districts, streets and special patios, where laundry is being dried by hanging it on laces. Walking down the Deribasovkaja street its really easy to imagine how the smuggling took place here for more than a century by using underground catacombs and alleys, which were used to smuggle the cargo to the port. In the eighties 90% percent of the jeans «Montana», popular and illegal in the USSR, were manufactured here. We were sure back then that the jeans come from across the sea.
At the moment Odessians are worried about struggling economy and uncertain future because of the warfare 300 km away. Complicated relationships with Russia are not helping. Georg ribbons can’t be seen on cars here and Russia’s Night Wolves are not welcome.
Ruberoid, the president of the motorcycle club «Motor-Life Odessa» says: «I personally know Hirurg (Surgeon), the leader of the Night Wolves. Three years ago at the memorial day of the 9th of May I also had the Georg’s ribbon attached to my jacket, but now, when two good friends of mine were killed by the separatists and their guns are decorated with those ribbons, my attitude has changed. We can’t accept the philosophy and ideas of those people. We just hope that common sense will win and life will go back to normal.»
Olga, who relentlessly participates in motorclub’s social life and who is a determined patriot of the Ukraine, is worried about a different problem: «Since the beginning of the warfare I often get involved in fundraising campaigns for Ukrainian soldiers. I have noticed that people tend to donate more if the funds are asked for the Odessians at the front. If we raise money for Ukraine, the responsiveness is much lower. Of course you need to be the city’s patriot, but when we are talking about the nation’s future we all have to be united.
Odessians keep smiling and having fun in their lives with humour that only they are blessed with.
The ferry that provides cargo, vehicle, motorbike and passenger movement between Ukraine (Illichevsk 30 km from Odessa) and Georgia (Batumi) has an irregular schedule around once a week. The biggest load comes from railroad cargoes that dictate the ferry’s schedule which is published approximately one month before. Delays from one to three days are possible, so tourists seldom choose this opportunity. The cabins are limited and you have to book them early like we did more than month ago. Crossing of the Black Sea takes more than 50 hours. Ticket for one passenger costs 2800 grivns (120 eur). Price for one motorbike is 5900 grivns (260 eur).
This is the one and only ferry line that can take you to Georgia from Ukraine. Our first reservation for the ferry was planned on May 19, but one day before the departure it was moved for 24 hours. We are not saddened by this fact and accept it like a gift, because we are in love with Odessa from the first sight.