The flying tin coffins of Chiatura

We were accompanied by snow, rain and gloomy skies the entire day we spent in Chiatura, but the weather could not possibly fit the overall atmosphere of the city any better. Imagine a post-apocalyptic corner in the otherwise sunny and joyful country of Georgia. This is Chiatura.

In the Soviet times it was a thriving mining town, and during its heyday around 60% (!) of the manganese in the world came out of here. Manganese is a chemical element used in metal alloys, in particular stainless steel.

Due to the city being located directly on the cliffs surrounding a gorge, an alternative mode of transport was needed for the citizens and workers. An ambitious construction project was set in motion, with 17 ropeways connecting the different parts of the city with each other and the mines.

This was back in the 1950s, and they were actually the first cable cars built in the USSR. These are the same systems that are in operation today.

Once we arrived in town, we immediately sought out what we came for. There are currently 4 functioning cable cars that transport passengers. We started with the one that looked the most reliable. And considering they all have been slowly rusting away for the last 60 years, that doesn't say much. Most of the cabins aren't fitted with emergency brakes, so if the main system fails, you will have a speedy return down again.

But while Soviet design was primitive by current standards, things were generally designed with durability in mind. So while entering the cabin, I comforted myself thinking about our Soviet-produced refrigerator that still happily runs at home. My parents bought that one some years before I was born.

The cabin was manned by a shy, but fearless conductor.

At the top station we were gripped by feelings of despair and hopelessness. This part of the city is full of dilapidated and half empty houses, the result of an exodus caused by the closing of the mines when the Soviet Union collapsed. Operations were resumed some years ago, but far from the levels of the past. The city suffers an extremely high unemployment rate, and in such conditions it's hard to find money to repair or replace the cable car system.

At this point we should remind you that this is not a tourist attraction. This is the public transport system of the city, and often the only viable path to get from A to B. The locals risk their lives every day using these cableways. Although, it should be mentioned that they seem fairly undaunted by the prospects of failure. Our little group of tourists though, felt like we were flying around in rusty tin coffins.

Like I mentioned earlier, only 4 out of 17 lines are currently in operation. The systems are decommissioned the day they stop functioning - or the day they fall down: there have been fatal accidents. The latest incident occurred in 2008, when one of the cabins got stuck mid-way, and the passengers had to hang around for 12 hours before the technicians arrived from Tbilisi.

With all this in mind, we decided to conquer the next route, taking us closer to the mines. At the bottom station, we waited as the turquoise little tin box stumbled down to fetch us. With barred windows, it looked like a flying prison cell, ugly and adorable at the same time.

It kept swinging to and from the icy platform as we entered, and the cabin seemed to react to every single movement inside. This time, the conductor didn't enter, and as we got pulled away, the weather slowly turned for the worse, the wind catching on. I immediately regretted getting in, and judging by the faces of my fellow travellers, I was not alone. The cabin creaked and twisted as it crept upwards.

Our gloomy mood was smoothed out by a female watchkeeper at the top station. She laughed happily when she saw the bunch of confused foreigners climb out of the cabin. A bit of socialising turned into an impromptu photo shoot, and we were all happy to occupy our minds for a while.

At this point, we were one cable car ride away from the manganese mines, but since the winds were getting stronger, and our nerves were already worn thin, we decided to make our way down again, and finish our adventure while we were still alive.

Chiatura is definitely not the destination for the faint of heart. But if you have a sweet spot for quirky places and urban exploration, it's quite the gem. It's hard to say how long the city will stay in its present state. One day, the cableways will break down, and perhaps they will be replaced by new ones. Either way, it is sure to have an impact on the uniquely strange charm it has today.

Naya Makarova

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