Many commuters will be familiar with the trials of a poorly functioning mass transit system. However, the challenges faced by residents of one decaying city in the former Soviet republic of Georgia seem particularly gut-wrenching. Here, the morning commute can involve a singularly perilous trip in a rusty cable car. And the locals call them “metal coffins” for a reason.
Located 113 miles north-west of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the city of Chiatura spans a deep gorge on the Qvirila River. The extreme geography of the region could be diplomatically described as “topographically challenging.” Here, rugged mountain and vertiginous chasms present a formidable test to would-be builders of infrastructure.
Back in 1990, one year before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the population of Chiatura was approximately 69,000. However, between 1991 and 1993 a civil war left the country marred by crisis and instability. Since then, as it happens, thousands have fled Chiatura in search of new opportunities.
In fact, the 2014 census reveals that fewer than 40,000 people now inhabit the municipality of Chiatura, representing a decrease of 42 percent over 24 years. Furthermore, according to the Social Services agency, around a third of the population are “socially vulnerable.”
According to Pavel Makarov, who contributed a piece about the town to the website English Russia, Chiatura is “permeated with the spirit of the Soviet era, dilapidated houses and a sense of hopelessness.” Indeed, the decaying apartments that he photographed during his visit to the town are the very portrait of abandonment and despair.
But Chiatura wasn’t always this way. In 1879, following the discovery of large manganese deposits in the region, it became home to a thriving mining community. Indeed, by 1905 the city was producing no less than 60 percent of the world’s manganese.
Manganese has a variety of useful applications. First and foremost, it adds strength to steel alloys and helps inhibit rust and corrosion. Naturally, then, it would have been in some demand during the Soviet Union’s industrial and military expansion. Manganese is also essential to produce aluminum cans.
In the early 20th century, some 4,000 miners were employed to extract manganese from the mountains around Chiatura. They would work in 18-hour shifts in order to maximize production. Moreover, many of them slept in the mines and took baths infrequently, if at all.
Then, Josef Stalin changed everything. In 1905 the Communist Party in Russia was divided by the competing factions of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Georgia at the time was overwhelmingly allied to the more “moderate” Menshevik wing. Stalin, on the other hand, was a proponent of the more hardline Bolshevism.
During a visit to Chiatura, however, Stalin was able to convert the miners to his side. And thereafter, his activities in the city descended into outright gangsterism. For one thing, he organized militias and extorted local mine owners, destroying their mines if they did not pay protection money. The workers dubbed him “sergeant major Koba.”
Fast-forward to the 1954 – the year that work started on Chiatura’s cableway system. By that time, Stalin was dead after three decades of absolute rule and the Mensheviks had long been eradicated. Georgia, meanwhile, had been annexed to the USSR and renamed the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Did the politburo feel the influence of Chiatura’s historic loyalty to Bolshevism? It seems possible, considering the fact that its vision for the city was nothing less than a futuristic “workers’ paradise.” And part of that vision was the then cutting-edge cableway, designed to efficiently transport workers between the city, the mines and the processing plants.
Today, there are still six working mines in the city and a production plant that works 24 hours a day. The city’s transport infrastructure includes a bus station, a railway station and – of course – several cable car stations. The cableway – which is known as “Kanatnaya Doroga,” meaning “rope road” – has apparently barely changed in 60 years.
The antiquated network uses a so-called “jig back” mechanism to transport the 17 still-functioning cable cars. As the cable motor pulls one car down, its weight pulls another one up. The controls include an electric, manual and automatic braking system. And in the event of power failures, the cars can be moved manually.
Nonetheless, the “rope road” seems far from safe. In 2008 the hauling cable on one car snapped entirely. Fortunately, the automatic braking system did its job. The car and its 12 passengers hung for some 12 hours awaiting rescue, but ultimately there were no injuries.
Sadly, other incidents in the region have not ended so well. In 1990 in Tibilisi, a cable on a similar network broke. The lower car smashed into the wall of the station. Meanwhile, the upper car experienced brake failure, accelerated downwards and eventually dropped more than 60 feet to the earth. At least 20 people died, with 15 injured.
Despite the dangers, though, the Chiatura cableway does attract a handful of adventurous international travelers. It boasts five stars on Tripadvisor and ranks as the city’s number-one (out of two, granted) attraction. Reviewers have described the ride as “extraordinary,” “brilliant” and “amazing.” Indeed, the views look thrilling.
Writing for English Russia, Makarov noted, “Chiatura – non-touristic city. Nevertheless, it is worth a visit, as it’s an atmospheric and unique place with its lifestyle, hospitality of local residents and the incredible beauty of the views…” Indeed, there’s plenty to keep visitors captivated here.
For example, beyond the cableway and manganese mines, the village of Katskhi is home to an extraordinary 130-foot-high, naturally-occurring limestone pillar. At its summit stands a church and hermit cells. And, elsewhere, the fascinating eighth-century monastery of Mgvimevi, built into a cave, is intriguing.
Ultimately, however, without significant investment, Chiatura is unlikely to benefit much from tourism revenue. For now, the city remains a curiosity, its deadly cableway an icon of decaying Soviet infrastructure. Would you dare to ride it? And, having done so, could you ever again complain about your morning commute?