Two young girls are munching bean-paste khachapuri by an array of old graffiti drawn with a pencil on the crumbling walls of a funicular station. The wooden benches look prehistoric, but a flat screen TV on the wall is on, broadcasting a Turkish TV soap. A handful of other people wait for the arrival of the next car on Chiatura's main cable car line.
And here it comes: A rusty, squeaking cable bearing an icecream ad is descending from the heights. The iron ropes tremble, the cogs and wheels and chains and counterweights at the operator's office on the top floor of the station are at full pelt. Impatient, like all people in a daily routine, the passengers alight and the people from the station take their place.
Yes, the main transportation system in this city in Georgia is not buses or trams, but a network of dystopian, some might say steampunk, cable cars which make Chiatura one of the most fascinating places in a country which is already one of the most fascinating destinations in Europe.
Chiatura appeared in the late 19th Century, when some of the biggest world deposits of manganese oxide, peroxide and carbonate were discovered (by a poet, of all people) in the area. The terrain was more hostile for human habitation than usual – the central part of Chiatura spreads along the banks of a river, squeezed between the high walls of a canyon, and the mines were up on top of the cliffs. By 1913, Chiatura was producing about 60 percent of the world's manganese, and the Krupp corporation was one of the biggest investors there. After the Great War production slowed down, as the global price of manganese fell, but Chiatura continued to grow and spread over every habitable surface. Small houses with gardens were built on the slopes, and menacing Socialist-era blocks of apartments rose on top of the cliffs.
Moving around this topographic nightmare of a city was difficult and time-consuming, especially for miners returning from their shifts. In the 1950s, Stalin gave his blessing for the building of a network of cable cars connecting the centre, the neighbourhoods and the mines of Chiatura. It has been operational ever since. Some lines have been shut down due to the usual post-Communist "economic difficulties," and now only 17 are operational.
In the 60 years that have passed since their construction, not a single cable car has been replaced and, amazingly, none has ever broken down.
This relic of the Soviet times at the height of "planned economy" is a sight one can never forget. The skies above Chiatura are crisscrossed with iron ropes, and cable cars slide to and fro. In the stations, the air is thick with the smell of old metal, machine oil and dust, a combination that sticks in the memory and, added to the fact that you can actually see how these ancient mechanisms move and operate, somehow makes them look more technological than the computers we use today. The abandoned stations, with their cables still in place, look as if at any moment a ghoulish car will arrive, carrying a bunch of ghosts.
The best kept of all the 17 lines are the two which start from the central cable car station. A woman travels perpetually with the cars (the two ropes are connected and only one car can be in motion at any given moment) and sells tickets. A ticket per person per ride costs about 0.3 leva.
The mechanic of the central cable car line in Chiatura
The situation is different with the cable car lines which link residential areas and mines. Riding these is completely free, but is also scarier. These cable cars are rustier and dustier, and are operated by one person on the lower and another on the upper point of the route, who exchange signals by bell to decide when the next cable car takes off. Generally, they wait for either the upper, or the lower car to fill with people, but when they see tourists, they often make an exception to that rule. These routes are also the place to encounter Georgian miners, going to or returning from work, chatting with friends, and asking you questions.
The cable car ride may be hair-raising for people preoccupied with safety, but it is nothing short of spectacular. When the operator bangs the doors of the cabin and the trembling car takes off, houses, streets, people and shiny railway tracks glide beneath you. The rising slopes of the canyon and a group of abandoned factories come closer, and you can almost touch the leaves of the trees around. After a minute or two, you are standing on the windswept heights, with enough time to look around, before taking the next cable car heading down.
Locals are proud of their vozdushki, a Russian term adopted into the Georgian language for the cable cars, and are curious to share them with foreigners. Like Georgians in general, they are eager to chat, to offer help, and to complain about the hardships, corruption and perpetual crises of the post-Soviet era. Many are nostalgic for the USSR, but the young ones want to travel abroad and are sincerely curious to know if life in the EU is any good. Eurosceptics they are not.
Stalin, a Georgian by origin and the man who gave Chiatura its cable cars, would hardly be happy with these views. He had a strong personal connection with the city when he was in his 20s, in the hectic days of the 1905 Russian Revolution. At that time, Chiatura was crucial for the Socialist revolt in the region – it was the home of 3,700 miners who worked 18-hour shifts in abominable conditions and were far from happy with their lives, or their bosses. The Mensheviks, the more moderate wing of the Socialist movement, and the radical Bolsheviks vied for the support of Chiatura's miners. The Bolshevik Stalin won them over, and turned the city into a centre of resistance, effectively forcing the mine owners to pay for the safety of themselves and of their property.
The cars are called vozdushka, a Russian word adopted into the Georgian
In the following decades, Stalin became the head of the USSR and one of the most feared dictators that history has ever seen. But he had a soft spot for Chiatura and approved the construction of the vozdushki after the people of the city complained that they lost too much time walking up and down hills.
Ironically, Stalin did not live to see the network of cable cars humming in the skies of Chiatura. He died in 1953, and the first lines were opened in 1954.
The machinery which operates the cable cars looks straight out of a steampunk dystopia. It has never been repaired, and so far has not broken
Miners using the vozdushka to go to work. Like many places in Georgia, heavy industry suffered after the collapse of Communism. The mines in Chiatura are now owned by a British company
A mosaic of Lenin and Stalin adorns one of the cable car stations
A ride costs about 0.3 leva
Chiatura is well off of the beaten track, but for tourists, taking the vozdushka is yet another chance to socialise with the Georgians, who as a general rule love talking with strangers
Some of the lines were closed in the 1990s, today only 17 are operational
Exciting for the tourists vozdushka might be, but for the citizens of Chiatura travelling each day above ground in a rusty cable car is business as usual