Not many tourists make it to Chiatura, a mining town nestled in Western Georgia’s Imereti region 70km from Kutaisi, the country’s third-biggest city. Those who do come to see one thing: the fabled aerial car network that was built in 1954 on orders from Joseph Stalin.
In Soviet times, 60% of the world’s manganese ore was drawn from Chiatura’s soil. Some 4,000 workers tolled for up to 18 hours a day in mines set on top of the steep cliffs – but it wasn’t enough. The kanatnaya doroga (rope road) was erected to shorten the miners’ daily commute, thus boosting productivity.
In its heyday, 17 individual ropeways plied Chiatura’s skyline, ferrying workers up and down the valley. Only a handful remain operational today, with rumours that all of Chiatura’s cable cars will be retired by the end of 2017. We knew this might be our only chance to ride on Stalin’s rope road before it was relegated to the history books.
On a misty Sunday morning in May, we squeeze into a Chiatura-bound marshrutka bus just as it’s pulling out of Kutaisi station. The fog thickens during the one-and-a-half-hour journey through densely forested Imereti. When we finally pull into Chiatura, the haze clears to reveal a little town alive with activity.
Along the main road, women sell neatly arranged bundles of herbs and bunches of roses. Bakers scramble to keep up with weekend trade, Ladas cruise up and down the streets, and people come and go from brightly coloured apartment buildings.
It’s not long before we catch our first glimpse of Chiatura’s cable car infrastructure: a hulking station building, remnants of rusted rope hanging limply from its cantilevered concrete arms. The smashed windows and boarded-up doors reveal this is one of the lines that has ceased to operate.
We search the grey skies for more cable car lines, eventually following a group of women inside a lemon-coloured building where some cables appear to be converging.
Just as we approach the station, a blue car arcs down the hill and docks in its station. A few people disembark and the women take their place. After observing a few rotations, the station attendant gestures nonchalantly for us to board the next empty car. Without a moment’s hesitation we climb inside.
Another attendant is there waiting. It’s her job to ride with passengers and ensure no one accidentally pops the loosely fitted door. A bell sounds; the first attendant pulls a lever and we’re off, sailing in our metal cage. This particular line hugs the contour of the hill, so we are never very far off the valley floor. Still, peering through the tiny wire-covered windows is thrilling. We can’t communicate with words, but the attendant chuckles knowingly as we look to her for reassurance. The most striking thing about the ride – which only lasts for a minute or so – is how silently and smoothly the carriage moves. Sixty-plus years later and these weather-worn ropes still do their job with efficiency and ease.
Back inside the main station, we admire the plasterwork that decorates this once-grand building. A freshly painted mural pays homage to Chiatura’s miners. Outside, we notice a mosaic cast above the entryway – forever immortalised in river stones, Stalin and Lenin gaze out towards the ropeways.