Riding Stalin's Cable Cars. Chiatura


Manganese was in short supply in the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Important for steel making, and vital for the military, Stalin wanted to increase productivity in the largest Soviet mine in Chiatura. To get the miners to and from their homes, built across many hills with poor road access, required something a little unusual, cable cars. In 1954 the first of 17 lines opened with much pomp and ceremony, as it was the first cable-car in the whole of the Soviet Union. And it is still operating today.

The cable cars are the main reason to visit the rather unlovely town of Chiatura. There is the Mgvimevi monastery on the edge of the city, with its chapel cut into the rock and the bones of deceased monks displayed in glass cases, but that alone would not warrant a visit.

Chiatura has clearly seen better days, and it has a slightly depressed air about it, reminding me of the desolate Welsh mining villages I visited on a school trip whose coal mines were on the verge of being uneconomic and whose inhabitants did not like being pestered by teenagers asking them about their shopping habits. 

Like Merthyr Tydfil in the 1980s many buildings are boarded up, but there are also some in the main street that seem to have been blown apart by bombs they are so ruined. 


The Kwirila River runs through Chiatura. The water and banks are coloured black from the tailings from the many mines still operating, "You wouldn't want to fall in there", a local helpfully pointed out as I took a photograph from one of the many bridges. I was looking up though, not down at the river, as a rusty cable car slowly passed overhead. 

There has been no money until very recently to replace the 65-year-old transport system. The 'Metal Coffins' as the locals affectionately call them, keep running every day of the year, operating on a shoestring budget. 


Some are free, and for those that charge, the fare is only approximately US$0.10 a journey. Fatalities have been rare, and it is a subject no one likes to discuss, but one local did confide there had been a bad accident a few years back which cost a few lives, without going into any details.

European Union money is coming, which is good for Chiatura, if not for visiting thrill-seeking tourists, and new lines with modern cable cars are in the process of being built, which leaves only three of the Stalin-era lines in use, kept running by amateur engineers with little investment in replacement parts, or paint, in the last few decades.


A small station on the southern edge is where two of these lines operate. A mosaic of Lenin and Stalin stands proudly above the entrance. Inside a notice advises that hours of opening are from 07:30 to 01:00, with lunch and dinner breaks for the staff. Fairly impressive operating hours, particularly if you want to get home after an evening of vodka drinking. 

I was thinking a tot of vodka might be a good idea as I boarded my first cable car. A rusty blue cabin with three small porthole windows, one with glass and two with wire netting, and a number of small holes in the floor. 

Only two other people were inside, loaded down with shopping backs from a trip into Chiatura. There was no attendant inside as it was operated from the station above. A man stuck his head inside, smiled, and then withdrew and shut the door from the outside.

                               

The car started, moving very slowly upwards. Despite the windows it was uncomfortably dark inside and a little claustrophobic. With a little swaying from the wind and rain, we made our way in just a few minutes to the station on top of the hill.

Here there were apartments, some abandoned, some lived in, and I sought shelter pretty quickly back in the cable car as torrential rain hit, and returned to the base station. No rail prevents you from falling off the end of the boarding platform, so care is needed on the slippery metal.



The other line was a little more spectacular. It had originally been yellow, but there had been no attempts to re-paint, or even just re-touch it for years. Either inside or out. Rust now seemed to be the dominant colour.

A painting of a miner sitting in a wheelbarrow brightened up the station, while a long queue meant that I had to wait for several full cable cars before I could board. A sign clearly states that only seven people are allowed on each journey, and this is strictly followed.



When I did board I found it a much nicer experience. Large windows allow for great views over Chiatura down below, and there was an operator on-board who closed the doors and controlled the journey. For enhanced alertness, or for nerves, she sipped on a two-litre bottle of local beer.

The journey was much smoother in this large cable car, and it was good to see where we going. It was also very noisy as the contact between cable and car resulted in some quite high pitched squealing.

Despite the winds, there was no swaying, and it was just a normal everyday transit for the locals in the car with me, who stared wondering why I was taking so many photographs of their public transport.



Stalin's cable cars are a historical oddity. They really should not be still running in the twenty-first century, and it is a testament to the ingenuity and skills of the local inhabitants of Chiatura that they have managed to maintain and operate them until now.

Clearly, they will not be around for very much longer now that the EU is providing much-needed funding but they offer the intrepid Georgian traveller an unforgettable experience. Go while you can.


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