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©2019 Shawn Basey | Tbilisi | Prague | Travel blog and tips

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Chiatura: The Steel Roads of Stalin

July 17, 2017

 

This season never makes me nostalgic for Georgia. July and August are sweltering no man's zones, when the streets empty out and the cities turn into virtual graveyards, nothing but plastic bags blowing in the wind like tumbleweed and a grandmother's cackling laugh as her and her friend share jokes about the kids these days. 

 

But this season is the perfect time to start planning trips for the fall, which is definitely the perfect season to visit Georgia, just in time for the harvest, when the grapes are growing from every crook and cranny, filling up the air with such an exuberance of fruity smells that just breathing can make you stuffed. 

 

And if you're planning a trip to Georgia, then make sure to include some real adventure. Make sure to include Chiatura. 

 

 Looking down on Chiatura


Young Stalin

 

Chiatura first came into my radar when I was reading Simon Montefiore's half-adventure, half-history book, Young Stalin. If ever you want to read an Eastern European history book that somewhat resembles a Western flick about an evil version of Jesse James, check that one out. It really is a history book, but the writing is so fluid and vivid, and the character is so out-of-this-world, that it feels like you're reading a fiction.

 

After many of Stalin's robbery schemes, he would take his bags of gold by donkey over the mountains to the small mining town of Chiatura, which was in 1910s Georgia a Bolshevik stronghold. The people of Chiatura were rewarded for their fidelity too: under Stalin, development soared, with electrification, a road link to Tbilisi, and new housing blocks piling up. It also soon became the Manganese mining capital of the world, a fact that would have a double luck for the town. Though mining certainly put it on the map, it also turned the waters of the river black, an interesting site to see in and of itself. The more than unique thing about this canyon community, besides the Manganese mining, is how many of the city outlets and work areas are connected by a network of seemingly ancient gondolas.

 

Steel Roads of the Man of Steel 

 

It was the gondolas that led me to really want to go to Chiatura. This article from the Daily Mail - I know, not the best source - and this one from the Atlantic on the things went viral, talking about how rusted, old and dangerous they were and how they hadn't been updated since their construction 70 years ago. It also wrote that the town Chiatura itself was somewhat of a post-apocalyptic nightmare community straight out of Furiousa Road, and that heading their might get you killed via pollution, frog plague, border creep, or whatever have you.

 

 Chiatura with a cable car going to apartments

 

 

The road to Chiatura was riddled with scenic outdoor cafes, snuggled amidst the forests and brooks that litter the Shida Kartli and Imeretian countryside. When the forests end, rolling hills take over, with the vaguest outline of the towering Caucasus in the distance. Most of the hillside lies mysteriously unused, as it seems to be premium farming land, but for the proximity of the occupied territory of South Ossetia just nearby. Finally, after entering well into Imereti, the road descends back towards the main East-West highway, following a sharp and huge canyon, not so grand as America's Grand Canyon, but big enough to mystify any common viewer, and steep enough to send any cliff climber into spasms of ecstasy. If you go to Chiatura, forget going for a dilapidated town, go for the countryside, preferably with a car of your own so you can take as much advantage as you can. Especially also because you'll want to stop afterwards at the Katskhi Pillar, a place taxis seem to fear to go. 

 

The Black River

 

 

In fact, contrary to what that aforementioned article hints at, Chiatura is quite a nice little town, once you get past the complete black waters of the lazy Kvirila River that it traverses. The river is black from some process of the Manganese mine, and littered with Coke and lemonade bottles and cigarette packs, but that latter part is to be expected in any Georgian town. Besides all that, the center of the town shows some beauty and perhaps even potential for tourism. The concept has only recently woken up, with a few hotels popping up. You can follow this link to booking to find accommodation:

 

 The buildings of the city are a mix between the grand Soviet styles and the more blocky housing units, but most are painted and fairly nice looking. We stopped at one hole-in-the-wall cafe that was on the park which served as a boardwalk along the inky river. They served a kebab that came in a soup - which ended up being quite amazing and spicy. We also had some Imeruli xatchapuri, which was again better than most places I had tried in Tbilisi.

 

 the black river

 

 The cable car building near the main square

 

The Steel Roads

 

From the cafe, we went to find a car of the famous steel roads, which wasn't hard to do. All you have to do is look up and follow one of the lines that hang over the skies to their base and there you can find your Soviet-era pot of gold. Some of the lines have been retired from lack of use - more than half the town is a ghost town - but there are still many that continually function. They operate on a "jig back" system, where there is one car for each way and they run on the same line; as one car goes up, the other goes down. We walked up to one, where three guys were sitting on the bench. Assuming they weren't the workers, I asked in Georgian, "Where is the operator?"

 

"I am the operator," one of the sitting guys said. 

"Oh," I said.

We stood silently. They sat silently.

"Can we take a ride?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. He still didn't move. 

"Good," I said, trying to figure out the trick to this exchange. "How much does it cost?"

"It's free."

 

We decided we should just get on, and maybe the guy would do whatever it was he had to do. And he did. He stood up, rang a bell and sat back down.

 

 View from the gondola

 

The gondola itself was a blue box, not unlike Doctor Who's TARDIS, but instead of flying through space and time, this thing flew up the cliffside, in about the same wibbly-wobbly manner. However, I was a bit disenchanted. The construction, though clearly old, looked solid, and nothing about the trip seemed dangerous or even that exhilarating, except the fact that you were hanging by a steel thread some 500 feet in the air. But fear of heights aside, it wasn't really that big of a deal to worry about, or to write an article on commending the bravery of the author.


Where Beergardens Should Have Been

At the top of the gondola was a big patch of dirt, a block of apartments, and a road block, behind which was some operation going on that was probably linked to the mines. There was also an amazing view of Chiatura, and a great place to at least put a beergarden, of which there was none. If since I've been there nobody has since put one, I'll bang my head against a wall! I mean, really, what a spot for beer drinking! In fact, the most terrifying thing in Chiatura is the locals' lack of vision when it came to the beauty of their landscape and the tourism potential.

 

 My friend clearly upset by the lack of a beergarden

 

The articles mentioned show a common tendency in media today, to show that the photographer or writer was in much more danger than they were in reality, whether it's showing the gondolas of Chiatura, the riots in Turkey, or the streets of Detroit. The friend I was with then called it, "Disaster Porn," when the writer wants to portray themself as some brave adventurer, spurred on by a crowd of armchair readers too lazy or ignorant or inexperienced to know that much of the world isn't actually that dangerous and most people in the world are simply people trying to get by, for the most part. Which then feeds a great paranoia of American travelers, and keeps them from exploring a fantastic new world of possibilities that is really spread across their fingertips, ready for them to seize, had they not been cheated by such a sensationalist mentality.

 

Disaster Porn

 

It's a secret that most travelers don't want to let out, because then all that mystery we create at a bar while trying to pick up women just drifts away like a puff of smoke from a nargile out the window of a seedy Arabic cafe filled with sheikhs and businessmen - you know, some really dangerous place where any minute a terrorist could run in and blow the thing.

 

 Okay, maybe they're not THAT safe

 

The truth makes some disaster seekers ever more disappointed and ever more willing to take real risks, until they end up backpacking on the borders of Iran and Iraq and sent to an Iranian prison, accused of spying, or with their heads chopped off in an IS propaganda video. What Iranian officer could ever believe that, "Well, we were just looking for adventure" could actually be the truth? People who live in the bonafide dangerous areas, or those who have had to deal with the real dangers of life, are probably hugely confused by disaster porn and its pornographers. And when reading disaster porn on the net, one should remember that it has about as much to do with real disaster as porn has to do with real sex, that is to say, about nothing.


Didn't I Mention Tourism Potential?

The gondolas and the black waters of the Qvirila River aren't the only things to see in Chiatura, which again expands my faith for Chiatura to have at least some tourist traffic in the future, with the right planning. The first stop was Mgvimevi Monastery, which lies a 15 minute walk north from the center of Chiatura.

 

 Looking up to Mgvimevi from the road

 

The stairs that lead up to this cliff-side monastery were hidden among a construction site, a candle and ikon shop, and a house. There's a small sign marking the ascent, but little more than realizing you'll have to go straight up to get to the monastery. A small cable car sits above the shop, used to carry supplies up the monks that live above.

 

 at Mgvimevi, look at the beautiful stone work

 

Despite being impossible to pronounce, Mgvimevi hosts a cave chapel and a large number of beautiful carvings chiseled into the stone walls of square chapels carved out of the side of the rock. The monks remain out of sight, leaving only old ladies to tend the candles and mop and to allow you for your own contemplation in a cave. There is continued construction behind closed doors (that further church in the picture), winding around the cliffside - but no worries, the main part of the monastery is from the 13th century, though the carvings and outer structures seem to be more recent, so if it's ancient dwellings you're after, this still certainly more than suffices.

 

 Looking the other way

 

Katskhi Monastery

 

When we finished our sightseeing in the main part of Chiatura, we had to get a taxi, since the last three sights weren't exactly convenient.

 

We reunited with our driver and went on to the Katskhi monastery, again, just on the roadside to Zestaponi. We stopped and had a look. The monastery church was interesting to me due to the shape. It was an hexagon, which was altogether unusual in Georgian religious architecture, the only churches I had seen or heard like it were in Armenia and Oni, though both of those had long since been in ruins, and another still functional one in Czech Republic.

 

 Katskhi monastery

 

Katskhi was built in the 10th century AD, and covered in ornate carvings, the like of which are barely seen anymore in Georgia, but probably covered most of the older churches prior to earthquakes and Mongol, Persian and Turkish invasions.

 

The Monastery on the Pillar

 

When we got back to the car, the driver started complaining about the price. "It should be more, gas is so expensive and it is hard to get to the pillar."

 

"The pillar is on the way and we already paid you and agreed!" I said back. I started getting a sick feeling in my gut, the feeling of utter disgust I get when people go back on their agreements, or when taxi drivers start complaining about their previously agreed fare. The man became less of a man to me, and seemed more of something resembling a weasel. But I stuck to my guns and refused to change price. Likewise, he refused to stop at the pillar, even for a view, despite it being on the road to Zestaponi.

 

So we missed that sight, though we did get a peak of the pillar from the windows of the speeding car. 

  

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