The cable car ride is free. On the other hand, you could die.
Welcome to Chiatura, a mining town in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus mountains that is home to a rusty network of cable cars, nicknamed the “flying coffins.”
Chiatura’s Manganese Mines
The gritty town you see today is only the ghost of a once-thriving mining center on the banks of the Kvirila River in the Eastern European country of Georgia, current local population about 12,000. Manganese, an essential ingredient in the production of heavy weapons, was discovered here in the 19th century. By some estimates, Chiatura produced more than 50% of the entire world’s supply of manganese and accounted for about 75% of Georgia’s economy. Abandoned mining or barely working facilities now dot the landscape like iron dinosaurs.
The Stalin Connection to Chiatura
Josef Stalin, under the code name “Koba,” recruited local Bolsheviks and hid out here before the Russian revolution. During the decades when Georgia was an outpost of the Soviet Union, it was said that Chiatura always held a soft spot in the ruthless dictator’s heart. He knew from personal experience that weary miners had to scramble up and down the steep cliffs to to reach their work and their homes. The cable cars were planned prior to his death in 1953 and began operating in 1954 — the first public transportation system of its kind in the Soviet Union.
Riding the Flying Coffins in Chiatura
Judging from their appearance today, there hasn’t been much in the way of maintenance since then. Only a few of the 17 lines are still operating. The main station in town, where three different cable car lines come together, has been closed for a $15 million renovation project with a French company that was announced in 2017.
We ventured into a battered blue cable car at the bottom of a still-operating line that once ferried workers up a steep cliff that separated their jobs and homes. No need to buy a ticket for this free ride; you simply wait until there are enough people to fill the car.
I noticed the rotating wheels that pull down a second car from the top, using its weight as a counterbalance to haul the lower car upwards. There is no safety mechanism in the event of a cable break; the only option is a fatal plunge to the bottom. Still, I couldn’t find any record of an accident, except for one on a much newer cable car system in the capital city of Tbilisi in 1990 that killed 20 people.
As the rusty bucket climbed almost straight up, the view of the river valley below would have been breathtaking — if it were not covered by iron mesh. At the top, we were greeted by a woman conductor and one of the many tagged street dogs standing guard. After admiring the view, we took the clanking ride to the bottom.
Our second ride on a different line took us up to a partly abandoned school and housing complex on the other side of the river. We shared the car with giggling students and their moms. The once-grand architecture of the crumbling cable car stations evoked a bygone time of prosperity.
At the top, scruffy dogs barked out a warning to stay away from apartment blocks that looked vacant, except for bits of fresh laundry fluttering out of some of the windows. Chickens pecked in the dark gray mud. As we made our way back to the bottom, a grimy window again blocked the stunning view until one of the schoolgirls opened it so she could snap a selfie with her smartphone.
Rusty as they are, these so-called flying coffins have outlasted the Soviet Union itself. Visit while you still can, before modern gondolas their place. Enjoy this video of our experience and read on to find out about some other interesting sights nearby.
The unique cable cars aren’t the only reason to visit Chiatura. A short drive out of town took us to a tiny monastery atop a tall pillar of stone.
With ruins dating back to the 6th century, the monastery complex includes a church, cells for 3 hermits and a wine cellar. Locals venerated it as the Pillar of Life and symbol of the True Cross. A local monk known as Father Maxim is the current resident. The only way up the 130-foot (40 meter) pillar is by climbing a ladder, but there is a rope and pulley system for hauling up supplies. At one time, men could obtain permission to visit the monastery but women were not allowed. At the time of my visit it was closed to the public.
We probably needed a four-wheel drive to navigate the steep, muddy road to the pillar in the winter, instead of a Toyota Prius. At one point, we all got out of the car so our fearless driver could build up enough speed to get over a particularly slippery hill.
On the outskirts of Chiatura we parked the car and scrambled up a stairway to a monastery and convent carved into the sheer rock. As with most Orthodox holy places, there is a strict dress code. No shorts for the men. Women must wear a skirt and cover their heads. Fortunately for me, scarves were provided. I instantly transformed from hip American baby boomer to Eastern European babushka.
We made our way through intricately carved stone chapels, admiring the icons and the views of the river valley below us. Our guide, Levan, was a fountain of information on the saints depicted in the icons.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Getting there: My son learned about Chiatura from an article in Wizz Air’s inflight magazine. Wizz Air flies to Kutaisi, and many visitors come to Chiatura on a day trip. We were on a day trip from Tbilisi with an excellent private guide, Levan Leiashvili, a college student who grew up on a farm and hopes to use his degree in environmental science to develop eco-tourism in Georgia. He arranged for the car and driver. You can find him as Discover Georgia with Levan on Facebook. We paid for our tour in US dollars and added a well-earned tip.
Getting to Georgia by air from our home base in Ljubljana, Slovenia was challenging. The only connections — through either Warsaw on LOT or Istanbul on Turkish Airlines — required arrivals in the wee hours of the morning and paying another $25 US for an additional partial night in our hotel.
Eating in Chiatura: Our guide chose a restaurant in the middle of town called Paris, despite the cuisine being proudly Georgian and not French. Even a vegetarian can enjoy the lobiani, a flaky quesadilla-like bean and cheese khachapuri with fresh tomato-cucumber salad on the side.
Film and Literature: The 2015 movie Partisan was filmed here. Chiatura also plays a role in the fantasy adventure novels by my son, Slovene-American author Andrew Anzur Clement. A doomed Russian princess hides out in a Chiatura cave to conceal a powerful jewel that could determine the future of the world. Could Stalin’s power have come from this mystical object? Find out here.
If you’re planning a trip to Georgia, check back on this blog to read my top tips for the capital city of Tbilisi, and a day trip to the birthplace of Stalin in the town of Gori. Read more on the Stalin Museum in this post.
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