Abandoned Buildings and Rusting Cable Cars
Chiatura is a treasure trove for a different kind of traveller. Anyone interested in industrial and abandoned buildings will find a visit to this former Soviet mining town fascinating. The main sight, besides the half empty shells of concrete buildings, is the extensive network of rusting cable cars that criss-cross Chiatura and the surrounding landscape. Increasingly, they have become an attraction in their own right in Georgia and are being re-discovered by adventurous tourists looking for an off the beaten path experience. Growing numbers of travellers are curious to catch an exhilarating ride or two. After some days exploring Georgia ancient sights and some amazing hiking in the Borjomi Kagurauli National Park we were en route to Kutaisi, and Chiatura made a perfect stop on route.
The Outskirts of Chiatura
Originally I had not planned a detour to Chiatura into our itinerary but after some convincing words and a few photos online, the boys were happy to alter our travels and stop for a few hours in the small town, east of Kutaisi. After a scenic drive through rolling hills and charming, remote villages we reached the outskirts of Chiatura. Container trains greeted us well outside the town. They are still used to transport the manganese towards other parts of the country and the world. It is said that Stalin used to hide in Chiatura during his revolutionary days, stopping trains to steal the chests filled with the mines’ pay.
The First Cable Car Station
We encountered the first cable car at the town’s entry sign post, a turquoise metal box, that even from a distance appeared to be counting its last days. It was hooked up on cables that ran along a thick rope, crossing a steep incline to the top of the cliff and some old factories high on the other side of the valley. Underneath the cable car we noticed abandoned shells of buildings that must have once belonged to one of the many mining factories in the area. It was almost an apocalyptic sight and I could feel that especially Jerome was reluctant to leave the car in this spooky setting. I had made my way up the stairs of the cable car station, where I met the operator of the gondola. The friendly woman, appeared to be used to tourists interested in a rickety ride on the cable car and although she did not speak a word of English she indicated for me to get into the capsule and go for a trip in the rusty gondola so I pulled the boys along with me.
History of Chiatura’s Cableways
The network of cable cars in Chiatura was the first of its kind and the largest ever built. It was used by workers and their families living in the housing of the many factories that used to mine manganese, the richest deposit of its kind in the world. The first ropeways were built in the late 1930s and the oldest still in operation dates back to 1954. However with the stepwise closure of the mines and factories, the gondolas have almost met the end of their era and only a very few are still in operation. The whole network of old cableways was free to use, some of the old lines still are. However, some ropeways on the main routes are now being replaced by more modern gondolas that somehow lack the thrill and charm of the old cable cars, much like the one in Tbilisi.
Is it Safe to Ride the Gondola?
I could not resist for a chance to ride Chiatura’s cable cars and persuaded the boys to join me in the rusty cabin. Of the few ropeways still in operation, this one was free of charge, while others take the tiny fee of 0.20 GEL for the journey. Once inside the cable car, the door closed automatically, and we slowly started our ride up the hill and across the valley. It is hard to believe that these cable cars are still running after decades, without ever being replaced or refurbished, it is said though that they are regularly inspected for safety. This was somewhat of a comfort to us, however a few rusty holes in the floor and the creaking sound of the cable did not quite reassure us.
A Rickety Ride
The small round, mesh windows gave us a peek of the valley a long way below, the abandoned factory and the progress towards the other station seemed very slow. While Jerome and I were trying to ignore our anxiety of the rickety ride, his Dad was definitely not enjoying the short journey. It was even worse for him once we reached the metal platform at the cliff top station the overhang was too much for anyone scared of heights like that.
I had wanted to explore the immediate area around the station, but I was aware that it was probably more important to get Chris back down onto safe ground again, I could see he was already terrified of the platform that he would have to negotiate to get back into the cable car – but there was no other option as a walk back to our car would probably have taken hours. We somehow managed to board the cable car again without falling through the metal platform and landed safely back at the valley station with a sigh of relief.
What a Thrilling Journey!
This certainly had been a hairy ride, worse than most fairground experiences! I had never anticipated that a journey on Chiatura’s cable cars could be compared to the thrills of going on a fairground ride and I was not sure at this point if I would be able to enter another gondola in town. First we needed to calm our nerves and lunch seemed the appropriate option!
Driving into Chiatura’s centre we noticed that its general state is not as post-communist and apocalyptic as expected from the state of the outskirts. Without the abandoned industrial monuments that dot the landscape it looked like any other city we had visited so far on our trip through Georgia. The riverside looked inviting for a stroll and we could probably have easily spend a day or two in the area exploring.
The Central Cable Car Station
After lunch at a quaint café we made a brief stop at the central cable car station in Chiatura, it can be found on the main road through town, just opposite Hotel Newland. At this station, two lines depart, a blue gondola up a very steep incline, the other on a long run, crossing the river towards a large housing block that looms over the valley. Inside the station a mural from a street art exhibition decorates the peeling walls and the rusty, yellow car features a cosy interior with curtains and pink walls from that artist.
Stay the Night to Explore Chiatura Extensively!
This cable car has the operator ride the gondola inside and she warmly welcomed us to join her for the journey. Although I was initially tempted to give it another go, I declined and instead we watched the cable car slowly cross the river valley. I now regret not taking another trip on the gondola and if we ever return to Georgia we definitely have to stay a night in Chiatura to explore the historic attraction and abandoned buildings in the mining landscape more extensively.
Operation Times and Hours
Anyone wanting to experience a thrilling and unique ride on Chiatura’s rickety, cable cars should hurry before they disappear. The gondolas are in operation seven days a week and apart from a lunch and evening break they seem to be running 24 hours a day. Bring some small change along for the chargeable rides. We offered a small tip to the women who operated our gondola but she declined. For those travellers who are too scared to ride the older cable cars in Chiatura, there are plenty of other options throughout Georgia that are by far less scary, and soon the modern ones will replace the old one even there. Kutaisi, Borjomi and Martvili are just a few of the destinations where ropeways can be re-discovered and provide tourists with an enjoyable, scenic ride.
Driving on towards Kutaisi
We drove on to Kutaisi, the second largest city in Georgia following a road along a ridge with views across the farmland, rivers, lakes and past the bizarre Katskhi Column Monastery. In Kutaisi, we would spend two nights to discover some incredible waterfalls, the fascinating Martvili Gorge and a walk in the footsteps of extinct dinosaurs.
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