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Poti - the tourist town from hell…if I do one good thing in my life it will be to stop hapless travelers ever setting foot in this awful place. Words can barely describe just how painful my memories of Poti are and my ankles still bear the scars of the one night I spent in this almost unspeakable town.
Poti is Georgia's busiest port; it should really be a thriving prosperous place for two reasons. First, it sits on a plain in a valley created by the higher and Lesser Caucasus ranges; the Georgian government grandly refers to this as "the Euro-Asian Transport Corridor" because it is home to the main road and rail links from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea by way of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. And at the end of road? Oil.
It may be Azerbaijani oil and not Georgian but lucrative markets in Europe have meant that the oil has to be carried over to the Black Sea for shipping or piping to buyers. Azerbaijan has become a prosperous country from its oil but if Georgia has made anything from the process it isn't evident in Poti. Potentially Poti could be a wealthy port created with money from the oil and cargo industries; instead it is a run down miserable looking place that bears the scars of its ill treatment during Soviet times.
Poti is Georgia's busiest port by default; down the coast towards Turkey, Batumi is physically unable to expand for lack of space and Sokhumi to the north is in the breakaway and politically unstable state of Abkhazia. In the last ten years or so, business at Poti has increased, not just for cargo shipping but also for passengers. There is a twice weekly cargo ship to Ilichevsk in Ukraine that also carries a small number of passengers and passenger services to Varna and Burgas in Bulgaria and Constanta in Romania during the summer months. However, we came to Poti to take the passenger ferry to Sochi in Russia because foreigners cannot make the land crossing due to the unrest in Abkhazia.
Travelling towards Poti from the east you notice the decay quite quickly; closed down factories, disused and overgrown railway lines - signs of the decline of a once industrious town. Our guidebook had no map and gave us no indication as to where the bus might drop us. There was no discernible town centre. Finally we left at what appeared to be the "terminus" a bustling market where business was well underway. Nobody approached us - no old ladies offering rooms, no taxis drivers intent on driving us in circles, nobody wanting to sell us their grandfather's
war medals. Usually that would signify a fairly prosperous place - as a general rule, the less wealthy a town the more people approach you when you arrive.
Our guidebook mentioned one new hotel near the port - no name, no address - and one that might or might not be full to the rafters with refuges. We decided to hunt out the former on our way to the port where we intended to inquire about ferries to Russia. With no signs and nobody to ask we headed towards the tall cranes that dominate the Poti skyline like vultures. Before long we found the hotel where the receptionist ignored our request for the cheapest room and instead showed us a rather plush suite; ten minutes later were we installed in a somewhat cheaper (but still too expensive room) in the brand new annexe. It was one of the glitzier hotels we stayed in around the Black Sea - modern and spotless with air-conditioning and satellite television and twenty-four hour hot water in a beautifully tiled en suite.
The receptionist had no knowledge of any ferries to Russia but directed us to the port anyway. A number of vessels were moored including one that looked like it might be the ferry in question. This alarmed us because we had heard the sailing would be on Friday - the following day - and we had just paid for a hotel for that night.
However, approaching the building next to the vessel, two guards demanded to see our tickets and pointed to another building at the other end of the port when we said we wanted to buy some. But when we got there a strange lady, who wanted to stroke my arm, kept shaking her head and saying "Russia nyet!" So there was no ferry to Russia? We were panic stricken…would we have to bypass Russia and sail to Ukraine instead? What a waste of the £80 or so we had paid for our visas!
Finally we established that the original building was the place to buy tickets. The crazy arm-stroker took us there and explained to the little old lady behind the glass what we wanted. She picked up the phone, dialed a number and said something to the person at the other end before passing the receiver to me. An English speaker explained the time of departure and procedure for buying tickets and the phone was passed back. We had just over twenty-four hours to kill in this dead end town.
On our return to England we did a bit of research to find out what we had missed in Poti; we weren't able to find much on the internet other than information about shipping lines until we stumbled on the town's official website. Bringing up the English homepage was fine but clicking on each link passed us only to a "page not available" message. Its website is as extinct as the town itself.
The port and industrial (some working, some closed down) part of Poti is so vast that one could walk miles and mile without reaching anything approaching a beach so we walked back towards the market place. On the way we passed gargantuan blocks of flats that looked on the verge of collapse. In between the blocks a gully cut across the uncut grass crossed by makeshift bridges here and there. Giant pigs roamed free snuffling in the piles of rubbish and chomping on discarded clothing. Old ladies dressed in black carried heavy string bags of vegetables and children played barefoot on rusty swings and seesaws outside the flats. Now and again people would say hello and so we called out "Gamarjobat" to everyone we passed, getting a cheery response from most of them. One woman crossed the road and, in quite good English, asked if we were tourists. That was all she wanted to know; we said we were and she smiled and thanked us.
As far as we know, Poti has only a market and no conventional shops though these may be in some other part of town we did not discover. The market has two main sections; the meat, fish and dairy section is housed in a stone building where the goods are sold at open counters. Other goods are sold from conventional canvas market stalls; a canvas roof covered these outdoor stalls providing much needed shelter from the hot sun. We bought a knife, a Georgina flag, neckerchiefs (to soak under the taps at every street corner and cool us down), a straw hat, a bag of dill pickles and some erigs - delicious green plum-like fruit that are eaten widely in Georgia and Turkey.
We stopped to watch a gloriously fat pig eat a plastic drinks bottle in the street and then settle down in the gutter to sleep it off; we watched toothless old ladies trying to out-shout each other selling khachapuri (a kind of cheese pastry - its impossible to leave Georgia without having eaten at least one); we bumped into the arm-stroker from the port who jumped on us and took us over to meet her friends- all done in Georgian - we have no idea to this day what was being said!
Later on we found another street some way from the market that seemed much more like a town; most of the shops were run down and looked like they were closed but one or two had clearly had some money put into them. However, it still didn't look like a town centre. There was even an internet café but fifteen minutes of diligent typing went to waste when the connection died before we pressed send - never to return again!
Close to the port there are a small number bars and several cafes. We ate at a couple of the time we were there and we found the food cheap and filling - some of it even delicious. They served only Georgian staples but there was enough choice to offer something for most tastes. One place served the biggest, juiciest khinkali of our trip (a bit like a giant ravioli filled with spicy meat). The liveliest place was a wooden building that proved to be the Georgian equivalent of a Czech or German beer hall. The foaming tankards of Kazbegi beer were just the thing for a hot summer's day.
When I awoke the following day I found out I had been the chief target of Poti's mosquito population the previous evening in spite of covering myself with DEET. My swollen ankles grew as the day went on and when I scratched (I know I shouldn't) they oozed yellow liquid. I visit to the pharmacist offered only a shrug of the shoulders from a teenage assistant and I returned with the hotel receptionist who made sure I left with some cream. It was no use however and my arrival in Russia was heralded by a ride in an ancient ambulance with paramedics sent to pick me up by the Russian border officials who were concerned about my enormous ankles!
And this was Poti! If there is anymore to be seen and I have offended any of the good citizens of Poti I apologise profusely. At the time I could not understand why there was not more in Poti geared towards tourists since it is the only gateway open to Russia for foreigners whishing to enter from Georgia. I have since learned that Georgia had only 10,000 foreign tourists in 2004 and can't imagine that the number has increased dramatically since then.
My advice for anyone planning to take a ferry from Poti is this; all ferries depart in the early evening so you could pretty much get there from any part of Georgia in time for departure. If you are traveling to Ukraine, buy your ticket by telephone in advance; if you are traveling to Russia tickets are sold a couple of hours before departure. There is no need to arrive the day before and, indeed, very little to divert you in Poti.
Take my advice; Poti will not leave you with pleasant memories. I have for my ordeal scarred ankles and a deep dislike for pickled gherkins - something I loved before all this. The sad thing is that Georgia is a wonderful country and one I was sad to leave; it's shame that Poti wasn't as good as the rest.