Is it still worth visiting Chiatura in Georgia if the cable cars aren’t operating?
Most travellers to Chiatura have one thing on their agenda – taking a ride in the ancient Soviet-era cable cars that were first constructed under Stalin’s command to provide an easy form of transport for the town’s miners. But, they are no longer running and are closed for renovations.
It’s hard to ascertain exactly when the few still-operational battered cable cars in the western Georgian town of Chiatura stopped functioning. Some articles suggest that they haven’t been operating since April 2020 but I’ve read other reports that put the date back to the middle/last quarter of 2019. Either way, currently no cable cars are trundling up and down the mountainside in Chiatura and it begs the question, is the town still worth visiting? In short, the answer is yes and I’ll say why in due course but let me begin with a bit of background information and history about the town itself and the significance of the cable cars.
Stalinist Empire style cable car station in Chiatura. Inside is the artwork depicting a miner by Dr. Love (see below)
Chiatura is located in the Imereti region of Georgia. Tbilisi is 185kms to the southeast, while Kutaisi, the country’s third most populous city and a good base for exploring Chiatura, is 70kms or so to the west. Bordered in by mountainous valleys and deep ravines, it was this precarious landscape that put Chiatura on the map when, in the late 1800s, the largest reserve of manganese in Georgia (and one of the greatest in the world) was discovered in the area.
The company set up by the state, JSC Chiaturmanganese, to handle the extraction of the manganese had no issues exporting the ore between Chiatura and Zestafoni where the parent ferroalloy (cleaning) plant was located. A rail link connecting the two towns was constructed as early as 1905. But, where the company did lose valuable production time was with the transportation of the miners. For decades after the discovery, the workers would walk up and down the steep sides of the valleys to reach the mines. Having gazed down onto the town from one of the upper cable car stations, I can only imagine how tough it must have been to trudge up and down on foot. And to make things worse, once there, it was quite common for miners to work 18-hour shifts, sleeping in the shafts in the winter, and outside in the summer, and with no access to proper washing facilities.
The living and working conditions for the miners in Chiatura was very harsh and it is little surprise, therefore, that Joseph Stalin, who was Georgian by birth, was able to persuade the 3,500-plus workforce to back the Bolshevik cause during the Russian Revolution of 1905 (not to be confused with the more well-known one which took place in 1917). Over time, and with the assistance of the occasional strike and odd bit of thuggery, the miners’ conditions and pay did improve somewhat, although I’ve no doubt both were still pretty grim in comparison to other types of manual work.
The development of a cable car system connecting the mines with the town’s community didn’t happen until the mid-1950s. To improve man-management and increase productivity, the Soviet authorities installed a system of aerial tramways that not only operated up and down the almost-vertical slopes of the cliffs where the mines were located but also crisscrossed sections of the town itself. By 1954, the tramway system was fully operational and an infrastructure of seventeen lines was used by workers and residents alike to traverse the demanding terrain for many years thereafter.
One of the last functioning cable car in Chiatura
During the chaos and economic crisis that ensued in Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the manganese mines in Chiatura ceased functioning for a period of time. As a result, many of the town’s folk left to seek employment elsewhere. A population of nearly 30,000 in 1989 is more like 16,000 today. I can’t ascertain when exactly the mines opened again but, from what I can gather, they are either partially or fully operational once more and belong to a subsidiary of the British steel company, Stemcor.
Although Stalin died in 1953, his connection with the town and the miners from the time when he was a revolutionary led to the cable cars being dubbed ‘Stalin’s rope roads’ or ‘Stalin’s death coffins’. These days, the terms ‘iron/death/flying’ ‘coffins are more commonly used to describe them and are connected to the (lack of) maintenance that was associated with them before they stopped running. I’m sure the nicknames are also down to the fact that you tended to take your life in your own hands if you decided to ride in one!
Inside one of ‘Stalin’s rope roads’
Finding out anything tangible about the future of the cable cars in Chiatura is equally as difficult as trying to fathom when they ceased operating. In 2017, the Georgian Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure announced a US$15 million venture to refurbish both the stations and the cable cars to be co-funded by the Georgian and French governments. We visited Chiatura in July 2018 and the only real evidence that we saw that such a project was underway was the construction of the Central Cable Car Station on the south bank of the Kvirila River (marked on the map).
Only one cable car route was operating when we were there and we were even lucky to get a ride on that one. There had been a power cut all afternoon on the day we arrived and it wasn’t until 9 o’clock that evening that the solitary cable car started functioning again. As it turned out, this worked in our favour. Having seen the rust buckets up close earlier that day, as well as the steepness of the slope they crawled up to reach the top, we were a tad nervous about getting inside one. But, fortified by a few beers in the town square pre-dinner and a few more with our meal, by 9pm we were freshly installed with a sizeable dose of devil-may-care attitude and no qualms about giving it a shot! We even went on a second run the following morning to get a daytime glimpse of the splendid view back down onto the town.
All I can say is that if there is a plan to rejuvenate and restore Chiatura’s cable car network, it hasn’t happened yet. And in case you are wondering how the miners now get to work? Looking at Google Maps, it seems there is now a drivable road linking the town with the entrance to the mine.
Looking down on Chiatura from one of the upper cable car stations
Other things to do in Chiatura
Cable car stations and hanging cable cars
Even if the cable cars aren’t functioning, it is still worth wandering around town, and its outskirts, looking for some of the cable car stations. The architecture is mostly either Stalinist Empire style or Soviet Modernism and predominantly, the ones we came across were no longer in use. The most interesting station, and the one from which we departed on our ‘leap of faith’ journey, is situated to the east of Chiatura’s City Hall (see below), and not far from the Hotel Imereti. The architecture is Stalinist Empire style and inside is a piece of art depicting a pensive-looking miner. The art was created in 2015 and is the work of a prominent Georgian street art artist called Dr. Love. Among other places, his work can also be seen in Tbilisi and Batumi.
Street art by Georgian artist, Dr. Love
Examples of some of the currently-abandoned cable car stations in Chiatura
Unknown Soviet-era plaque
I couldn’t find anything out about this wall-mounted monument, which is located across the street from the Hotel Newland. To begin with, I thought it might be Akaki Tsereteli, who, besides being a well-known Georgian poet, was the person who originally discovered manganese in the area of Chiatura in 1879. But I looked him up and he doesn’t resemble the man on the plaque so I’m not sure who he is and what his association with Chiatura might be.
Unknown Soviet-era plaque in Chiatura
Like the cable car stations, other architectures in Chiatura are a mix of Stalinist style and Soviet Modernism. The town is not brimming with what I would call striking examples of either genre but there is enough to warrant a stroll around town if either style interests you. Notable buildings to look out for whilst wandering around include Chiatura City Hall. The building backs on to the Qvirila River and is a good example of modern Soviet architecture. Opposite the city hall is the interesting facade of the town’s central market and if you keep following the course of the river in a westerly direction, you’ll spot an overhanging modern Soviet building that I think used to be a restaurant but wasn’t in use when we were there.
One of the nicest structures we spotted was the Palace of Culture/community centre. Although not ornately decorated, the building is a good example of Stalinist architecture and one of the town’s grandest buildings.
Each of the above is marked on the map, along with a few more that we spotted along the way.
Chiatura’s Palace of Culture
Soviet-era architecture in Chiatura: market building (left) and (probably) a former restaurant (right)
Chiatura Railway Station and adjoining depot
We always head away from the centre of a town or city wherever we are as you never know what you might stumble across. In the case of Chiatura, we were drawn to the road leading out in the direction of the railway depot. The station itself, which is no longer in use, was late Soviet in design but more interesting for us in this instance was watching the goings-on on the tracks. Freight, which was presumably manganese or a form thereof, was being shunted from one area of the depot to another with reasonable regularity and we stopped for quite a while and watched all the happenings. The employees didn’t seem to mind us hanging around and we got a honk and wave from the crews of ageing locomotives on more than one occasion.
Railway depot in Chiatura
Temur Maghradze Stadium
When we were done watching life at the railway depot, we continued southwest along the same road. We passed a handful of concrete-panelled apartment buildings (often referred to as Khrushchyovka because this type of low-cost housing was advanced when Nikita Khrushchev was in charge of the Soviet Union (1953-1964)) and an atmospheric and abandoned cable car station before hitting on one of the highlights of our time in Chiatura.
At first glance, we presumed that the town’s stadium, which is named after Temur Maghradze (whoever he is: I can find no reference to him whatsoever), was also abandoned. But, on closer inspection, we noticed that the pitch was cared for even if the stands were not and after we’d come back from exploring the wooden underneath of one of the stands, we were greeted by a bunch of guys playing football.
I found out later that this dilapidated stadium dates back to the mid-1960s and had a capacity for nearly 12,000 spectators when it was originally built. It’s in such poor condition because it was affected by an earthquake that struck Georgia on 29th April 1991. Recording a magnitude of up to 7.0 on the Richter scale, Chiatura, along with other towns and villages in the area, was one of the worst affected places and recorded the highest number of deaths (270) in that vicinity. In the aftermath of the quake, fixing the stadium was a low priority compared to other damaged structures in the town and, from what we could see, apart from the pitch, it still is.
Temur Maghradze Stadium
Temur Maghradze Stadium
Former Pioneer Palace
Besides riding in one of the cable cars, our other primary reason for coming to Chiatura was to visit the town’s now-abandoned palace for young pioneers. Young Pioneers are akin to the Scout movement in the West, albeit with a bit of political ideology thrown in for good measure, and Pioneer Palaces were the Soviet equivalent of summer camps. The one on the outskirts of Chiatura was established in 1960 and remained in use until 1997.
The 1991 earthquake combined with the break-up of the Soviet Union were the reasons why the palace stopped functioning and is now in such a dreadful state of repair. In fact, it is probably one of the most dilapidated structures we have ever been inside and clambering up to the second level to get a decent shot of the building’s last remaining piece of Socialist realism-style artwork isn’t something I’d care to repeat any time soon (*).
(*) It was getting down the once-sweeping but now non-existent staircase that was the issue rather than the going up!
Former Pioneer Palace in Chiatura
As we explain in this more detailed post about the Pioneer Palace in Chiatura (POST COMING SOON), more than one restoration plan has been proposed in recent years to try and save the place from completely crumbling to the ground. What remains of the edifice is protected as a national heritage monument so it shouldn’t be purposely demolished but, as is evident from the enclosed photos, time is of the essence if the palace is to be rescued and I can find nothing online to suggest that any such bid has yet to be implemented.
We had to enlist the help of a babushka (granny) to locate the Pioneer Palace in Chiatura back in the summer of 2018 but nowadays it is marked on Google Maps, along with our map, also. There are some nice views of the town and beyond from the western edge of the park in which the pioneer palace is situated.
As far as I know, there is no public transport heading in the direction of the former Pioneer Palace and the only option is to walk or take a taxi.
With only one of the cable car routes working, we couldn’t figure out a way of getting to this hilltop cross that didn’t involve a nasty uphill hike or a round-the-houses taxi ride. The view would be the main draw if you do decide to give it a go.
Memorial to the Great Patriotic War
You can’t miss this impressive World War II monument if you are coming into Chiatura on the road from Zestafoni. It is situated on a grassy verge on the left-hand side near an apartment building and just before the road leads sharply down to the town itself. Because we spotted the memorial on the way into Chiatura, we didn’t have the option to stop and take a closer look but when we left the following day, we simply took a local bus up to where it was located, took our photos and then waited on the side of the road for a passing marshrutka (fixed route minivan) to continue the journey, which, in our case, was on to Kutaisi.
Memorial to the Great Patriotic War
Located 6kms west of Chiatura as the crow flies, and 12kms by road, Katshki Pillar is a 40-metre high limestone monolith with a small monastery on top. Shrouded in myths and legends and referred to as the ‘Pillar of Life’, it is believed that the rock was originally used as a medieval hermitage and dates back to the 9th or 10th century. The current church is dedicated to the Christian monk, Maximus the Confessor, and besides the house of prayer, the small complex also consists of a burial vault, three hermit cells and a wine cellar (priorities!).
Since 1995, the monolith has been occupied by a lone monk called Father Maxim Qavtaradze. A native of Chiatura, with the help of locals and money collected from donations, he has worked on restoring the elevated monastic buildings and also installed an exterior iron ladder running from the base to the top, which begs the question, how on earth did his predecessors managed to get up and down the vertical rock face?
Previously, male, but not female, visitors were permitted to visit the monastery using the ladder mentioned above but this practice has now been stopped (which is probably a wise move!) and, as a member of the public, it is only possible to wander around the base of the rock and look around the small church that has been constructed nearby.
You get a decent (distant) view of Katshki Pillar when travelling along the Zestafoni to Chiatura road but it will only be a fleeting one if you are not in your own transport and unable to stop. If you want to visit the area in more depth then take any marshrutka that travels along that road, which will include any going in either the direction of Tbilisi or Kutaisi, and ask the driver to let you off at the turnoff for Katshki Pillar. From this point, it is about a 1.5km walk to the cloister itself. Keep in mind you will probably be asked to pay the full (end destination) fare on both journeys as this is common practice in this part of the world.
Where to stay in Chiatura
There are very few hotel options in Chiatura and if you want to stay as central as possible, you’ll probably have to pick between the Hotel Imereti and the Hotel Newland. They are next door to each other and there’s not much to choose between them. We stayed at the Newland and paid 50 lari (~€14) for a double room with private bathroom. A little further out of town, Hotel on Pirosmani is one of the cheapest Chiatura guesthouses. The choice of Chiatura hotels and guesthouses is growing and you can check all the options here.
How to get to Chiatura by public transport
To reach Chiatura by public transport from anywhere, you’ll need to take a marshrutka as follows:
There are several marshrukta each day departing from Kutaisi’s main bus station. The times can be found on Visit Kutaisi’s website and are: 07:20, 08:20, 09:20, 09:45, 10:45, 11:45, 12:45, 14:00, 15:00, 16:00, 16:30 and 17:00. The fare should be 6 lari each way.
Marshrutkas to Chiatura depart from Tbilisi’s Didube Bus Station. They may not be that frequent so if you travelling to Chiatura from Tbilisi, you might find it easier to first travel to Zestafoni and take another marshrutka on to Chiatura. You’ll more than likely be picking up one coming through from Kutaisi but if you tell your Zestafoni-bound driver your ultimate destination, chances are he/she (most likely a he) will help you with the connection.
Although it’s not exactly the most direct route, it is possible to travel between Chiatura and Borjomi by taking a series of marshrutkas. We did this and first took one from Borjomi to Khashuri, another from Khashuri to Zestafoni and a final one to Chiatura.
Should you visit Chiatura as a day trip or overnight excursion?
If you’re wondering whether to visit Chiatura as a day trip, our advice would be that whilst a day trip is feasible from Kutaisi, from anywhere further afield, including Tbilisi, it’s too much travelling. This assumes you’re travelling by public transport – by private car it would be manageable. Frequent marshrutkas make a day trip to Chiatura from Kutaisi quite straightforward although we recommend an early start as the last one back leaves Chiatura at around 5pm.
We hope we’ve answered the question ‘is Chiatura still worth visiting if the cable cars aren’t operating?’ and have encouraged you to include Chiatura on your Georgia itinerary.
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