I recently saw a Belgian travel documentary called 'Reizen Waes” in which the host of the show traveled to Chiatura, an old mining town in Imereti, a region in western Georgia. After doing some research, I saw that it was less than an hour away from the Katskhi Pillar, a 40 meter high limestone monolith with on top of it one of the most incredible cliff churches in the world. Our initial idea was to hitchhike towards this unique pillar and camp there a few days but after seeing this documentary about Chiatura, I convinced Niko to also visit this strangely charming town, known for its 70-year-old cable cars.
Chiatura, the once-booming mine center of Georgia
On our way towards the region of Imereti we got a ride from Markus and Katrin, a lovely German couple who were on a one-year road trip from Europe to Central Asia. We had met them a few days earlier in Batumi but never planned to go on a trip together. What were the odds that they would happen to drive by us on that very same day, heading towards the same destination? Oh, how I love these 'coincidences' while traveling! We jumped in their car and happily joined them on this little road trip.
With Markus and Katrin in Katskhi (pillar in the background)
After visiting the spectacular Katskhi Pillar (read more about it in Hitchhiking to Katskhi Pillar) we drove along a windy road into Chiatura. The town is nestled between steep valleys and deep gorges and was founded in the late 1800's as a mining colony. It became a popular source for manganese and iron and was a booming center during the Soviet era. It was in this town that the Stalinist government installed in 1954 the first Soviet cable road; a “rope road” of cable cars that connected every corner of the town in the valley with the mines on top of the steep cliffs. This helped the miners get easily and quickly to their work instead of climbing the hills, which was a treacherous and time-consuming route.
The mines were high up on the hill tops, a hell of a route to get there on foot!
After the end of the Cold War the work in the old mines started drying up and many inhabitants left Chiatura in search of work elsewhere. The population decreased tremendously, many houses got abandoned. That was the first thing that caught our attention while entering Chiatura. We passed several large abandoned buildings and the apartment blocks that were inhabited, seemed to be in poor condition. At one point we drove along a huge Soviet war memorial. I didn't like the vibe from this statue at all. Its size was intimidating, the style and color very static and grim. It represented an angel protecting a soldier, or at least that's what I think it is. The whole scenery gave me an eerie feeling.
The spooky Soviet War Memorial
Many apartment blocks are abandoned or in poor condition
We continued driving towards the center of Chiatura. We really wanted to see those cable car stations. We passed many that looked deteriorated, some even completely destroyed. I knew there were still a few of those “air tramways” in service. I had seen it on that Belgian travel documentary and even saw some photos on the website of our friend and travel photographer Mitchell Kanashkevich.
We decided to park the car and walk around the town center. Although people describe it as a “ghost town” we thought it was still very lively and vibrant. It was obvious that the locals weren't used of seeing tourists. They gave us curious looks but whenever we greeted them in Georgian, a smile lit up their faces. We tried to ask a few people where to find the cable car station. Most of the time they didn't understand English, we didn't know the Russian word for “cable car” and unfortunately our language T-shirt doesn't have this symbol either. While searching for the station, it was nice to explore this town. Although we really felt the ghost of a distant Soviet past, it was a strangely charming place. The sun was shining, many people were walking along the banks of the Kvirila river and it felt like time had stopped. Even if we wouldn't find the old cable cars, we were still happy to have discovered this odd little city.
Street life in Chiatura
Walking along the bridge over the Kvirila River
After wandering around for about an hour, we eventually found the cable car station. It looked old and degraded but at the same time so beautiful and fascinating! There were two cable roads, one with blue cabins, the other with rusty brown ones, both going to different cliff tops. We decided to take the rusty cabins which were apparently part of the oldest cable car line in Chiatura. Walking into this station was like walking back into the past. The only difference was that the cabins had aged and the cable road wasn't exactly safe anymore. They run without a braking system and if one of the old rusty cables snaps, the cabin will roll straight back down the track at high speed and with deathly consequences. There's no money to repair or replace the infrastructure. Despite the danger, the locals who live on top of the hills and the few people who still work in the mines use these rusty old flying cabins as a form of free public transportation to travel daily up and down the valley. It's the only way for them as there are no other roads to reach their work or homes.
Inside the cable road station
Although it seemed for us a bit strange and slightly uncomfortable to ride these metal cabins, for the locals it's like taking a bus daily to work, to the shop or to meet their friends. While we were waiting for our “air bus”, we heard a ringing sound and saw a cabin descending. A few people stepped out, accompanied by a female operator. After five minutes she signed us to come up and step into the cabin. She manually locked the door, we heard another ringing sound and up we went towards the hill top. The ringing sound is apparently an indication for the operators in both stations to signal when the cabins will come up or go down.
Time to go for a ride in these rusty flying cabins!
The cabin lifted us silently towards the cliff tops. We felt pretty safe inside this metal box. The inside looked as worn out as the outside but it had a certain charm. An old phone was hanging in one of the corners and the operator who had joined us for the ride, saw Niko's curious looks. With a smile on her face she handed the phone to him and against our expectations, Niko could hear a dialing tone. The phone was like the cable car, looking rusty and old but still functioning very well.
The cabin also had big windows that fully opened. We stuck our heads out and enjoyed the beautiful view over the city while dangling meters high above the ground.
Niko and Markus feeling 'relaxed' in the cabin
Looking out the windows of the cabin - I kept my distance at first before sticking out my head ...
The view from the cabin
The view at the station on top of the cliff was spectacular! We could see all of Chiatura far below us. The station building looked as degraded as the one in town, with cracked walls and peeling paint, and oh so beautiful in the golden light of the sunset!
The cable road station on top of the hill
The station building - old, degraded but so beautiful!
While I was staying behind to take photos – as usual – Niko and our German friends were greeted by a group of young men. They lived in one of the buildings nearby and rarely saw outsiders. They were very curious about us, kept asking questions in Russian and inviting us for chacha (a home-brewed Georgian brandy with 65 – 80% alcohol, not for the faint-hearted!). We kindly rejected their invitation, knowing that we still had to get back to town, preferably with a clear mind.
They also insisted to take a photo of them
We spent about half an hour walking around the hill top, passing by large and mostly abandoned apartment blocks and enjoying the beautiful view over the city. There was definitely a special vibe and I felt so grateful to be there. I don't mind visiting stunning-looking touristic attractions but what I love the most, is learning from places that, although not spectacular-looking, will give me an authentic (cultural) experience and take my breath away. I was also happy to share this moment with Niko and our German friends, people we randomly met but felt such a great connection with.
The view over Chiatura on top of of the hills
Our stomachs were rumbling so we made the descent back to Chiatura's center. Just as we were about to leave the cable road station, one of the operators frantically signed us to follow her towards the blue cabins of the other cable road. Those cabins were a lot smaller and had a steeper angle, ascending towards the cliff tops opposite from the ones we just came from. Stepping into these cabins felt like stepping into a dark metal box that only had tiny circular windows out of which we barely could see. It felt claustrophobic and I understood why these cabins were nicknamed "death-defying metal coffins".
"Stalin's death coffins" - not very inviting at first sight but still we had to take our chances
I felt less at ease in this dark space but got rewarded once we reached the top. We met a few schoolgirls who were happy to practice their English with us. One of them asked us to follow her as she wanted to show us something. We weren't really sure what she meant but we knew that there wasn't any alcohol involved this time so we followed her. After a short walk she brought us to a viewpoint on top of a steep cliff. The view over Chiatura was amazing! The sun was about to set behind the hills and the town underneath us was bathing in a golden light.
Katrin and the girls that brought us to this viewpoint - selfie time!
I could have spent a long time there but everybody was getting hungry. We still needed to find a place to camp for the night so we returned back to the valley - descending in these tiny blue coffins.
The cable road station on top of the other cliff
Despite the poor-looking conditions and the daunting awareness that these cable roads can break at any time, they still looked pretty firm and solid. One of our followers on Facebook joked that USSR iron is durable and meant to last. He may be right, for now. Although the cable cars could use a good maintenance (and maybe an upgrade), I really hope that Chiatura can keep its name and fame of being the “Cable Car City”. If these cable cars would ever stop operating, it wouldn't only disconnect the people that live on top of the hills from the town – as there are no other roads or alternatives to connect them to the town center, it would also mean that these workers would have no other option then to leave their homes resulting into more abandoned buildings. Chiatura is too charming and beautiful to become a real ghost town. It would be sad to see those cable cars going, together with the uniqueness of this place.