It’s hard to explain exactly how I ended up in Chiatura, Georgia.
I’m pretty sure it all started when I was scrolling through Atlas Obscura, one of my favorite travel websites, looking for off-the-beaten-track destinations in Georgia.
I stumbled across the entry for Chiatura and was instantly intrigued. According to Atlas Obscura, the town was home to seventeen aging Soviet-era cable car stations that were still in daily operation.
Being a huge lover of many things Soviet-related, including Brutalist architecture and weird modes of transportation, I decided to add Chiatura to my Georgia travel itinerary.
I knew that visiting Chiatura would not be as simple as visiting other destinations in Georgia, but little did I know exactly how strange the journey would become…
Getting to Chiatura
My journey to Chiatura started in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia.
I was staying at Envoy Hostel, where I called a a taxi to the Didube Bus Station (3 GEL), which is located on the north end of Tbilisi’s city center. As soon as I arrived I was swarmed by local men trying to entice me into their own taxis or onto their buses to more popular tourist destinations. I repeated my own destination a few times until someone took me to the bay where the Chiatura marshrutkas depart.
Marshrutka – A form of public transportation such as a share taxi, from the former Soviet Union countries.
Technically, the bus to Chiatura isn’t a bus, it’s a marshrutka. You’ll see these all over Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia – vans (large or small) that have been converted into public transportation. Although they sometimes follow a schedule, it’s more common for a marshrutka simply to depart when the driver thinks it’s sufficiently full.
When you’re traveling by marshrutka in Georgia it can be helpful to have a local write down the name of your destination in the Georgian alphabet. This way, you can look at the signs on the marshrutkas to confirm that the bus you’ve selected really is going to your destination. In the photo above, the word for Chiatura is written on the top line of the bus’ sign.
I’d read online that buses from Tbilisi to Chiatura depart every hour starting at 8:00 am, but I’m not entirely sure that’s correct. I waited almost two full hours for the bus to leave. It was a slow, four-hour ride to Chiatura. Along the way the landscape changed dramatically, from the scorching hot, dry area around Tbilisi to a cooler, mountainous climate with evergreen trees and fast-flowing rivers. The bus stopped twice so that we could use the (rustic) toilet, buy snacks and refresh with ice-cold spring water.
The bus dropped me off in the Chiatura town center. I had used my favorite offline maps app, maps.me, to plan out the route to my guesthouse. Unfortunately, the app didn’t have the most up-to-date information about the state of the roads in Chiatura, and it actually sent me and my forty-pound backpack straight up the mountain in the photo above.
After twenty minutes of trudging up the mountain I encountered a woman, who communicated in a combination of Georgian, Russian and hand gestures that although she had no idea where my guesthouse was, she was damn sure it wasn’t any further up the mountain. Back down to the town center I went, soaked in sweat.
A few very confusing conversations with locals later, I found my guesthouse.
Hotels in Chiatura, Georgia
When I visited in 2017, there were no hotels in Chiatura, Georgia.
And to be honest, I’m pretty sure there were no operational guesthouses either.
Somehow, I managed to check myself into a defunct guesthouse that apparently hadn’t seen a guest in a decade or so. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, and there were personal items (including used tissues and a half-eaten lollipop) spread around my room. The door to my room didn’t lock properly, and there were loud banging sounds on the roof above my head throughout the night.
Now, cleanliness, comfort and hospitality aside, the woman running this guesthouse was an amazing cook. I think I consumed three times my body weight in vegetables, bread and cheese during my short stay in her home. And to top it off, the entire family sat in a semi-circle and watched me eat every last bite of food. Yes, I was the afternoon, evening and morning entertainment for three generations of Georgians.
Although the ingredients were very similar in every meal, the preparation was unique every time. In one meal the potatoes were fried as a side dish, but later they appeared boiled in soup. The fresh bread soaked up bean stew for lunch, and became a tomato and cheese sandwich with dinner. That was some good eating, and it’s worth noting that there weren’t any real restaurants operating in town during my stay, so I was lucky that my guesthouse served such amazing food.
However, I really can’t recommend my guesthouse. It was uncomfortably dirty and I don’t believe the family running it is currently prepared to accept guests. Even though I had a native Georgian-speaker call to make the reservation several days in advance (after I found their contact information online), they didn’t seem ready to host visitors at the time of my visit.
So, where can you stay in Chiatura today?
Well, it appears that some new accommodation options have opened in Chiatura.
The most promising appears to be Hotel Newland, which is located directly in the city center, close to the cable car stations. If I was going back to Chiatura, I would definitely stay here.
If you have a private vehicle, you could also consider staying at Hotel Nikolai. It’s about two kilometers from the city center along the main road. During the day it’s s a safe and scenic walk, but it would be dangerous to be walking along this unlit stretch of road in the dark.
Chiatura Cable Cars
Chiatura’s main attraction is its network of rusty cable cars, originally built in the 1950s to transport workers to the manganese mines in the mountains.
Unfortunately, during my visit, and as of the time of this post (April, 2018), the main cable car station was completely closed. This is the most central station, from which four different cable car routes depart for the mountains above.
Fortunately, I was able to access the two cable cars departing from Station #1, including the rusty grey car shown at the top of this post and the blue car shown above.
Interestingly, the cable car system seemed to be a female-dominated organization. In addition to having a female operator at the station at the base, women worked on the cars themselves and at the stations at the top of the mountains. The women were very friendly and operated the cars whenever I wanted to go up – there was no formal schedule and, unlike the marshrutkas, they never waited for the cable cars to be full.
I rode the available cable cars a few times, and each ride somehow seemed more harrowing than the last.
The windows can be fully opened, so you can hang outside and take photos of the town below.
The floors of some cable cars were so worn that they had developed quarter-sized holes through which you could see the ground below.
And, in a truly terrifying moment, I learned that when the winds pick up, the cable cars stop halfway down and rock in the wind until the operator feels it is safe to resume motion. On one trip, we were hanging in the air for almost ten minutes. Fortunately, the cable car attendant has a calm and confident attitude, and never looks worried!
All of the people involved in operating the cable cars were very friendly and open to sharing their community’s transportation system. In fact, when I went to ride the cable cars in the morning, the men working at the station offered to share some of their beer with me. At 10:00 am.
As well, they never charged me any money for any of the trips that I took, and they even rolled their eyes when I tried to buy a ticket. I don’t know if the system is always free, or if they might charge again when more lines open, but it was a pleasant surprise to be able to ride the cars freely without ever having to pay.
The only time there was some friction was when I tried to take a photo of the internal workings of the “engine room”. Photos of everything else seemed to be acceptable, and there were no restrictions about standing away from the cable cars as they departed from or arrived at the stations, but the mechanical rooms at the base seemed to be no-photo zones (even when you could clearly see inside them through the wide-open doors).
What’s At the Top of Chiatura’s Cable Cars?
At the top of one cable car, there was an operational mine. The workers thought it was absolutely hilarious that an English-speaking girl arrived at their mine, all alone. They invited me to come into the working area and take a look, but I didn’t go in very far because I was wearing flip-flops (don’t tell OSHA).
I’m pretty sure that if I asked, they would have let me ride in the
roller-coaster actual mining carts.
At the top of the other cable car there was an area that looked a little bit residential, although it was hard to tell for sure whether or not the Soviet-style apartment blocks were occupied. I heard some sounds coming from inside, but the main doors appeared to be blocked off.
Some places had a fresh coat of paint, which made me think the area was more occupied than it appeared.
Both of the stations I visited had loosely-marked viewpoints with clear views of the city below. The viewpoints were not fenced or paved, so be careful in slippery weather and keep an eye on any children you take up with you.
I’ve heard there are other cable cars with bases outside of the city center. I believe there is one in the direction of Hotel Nikolai, and a few others in the more forested surroundings. You would need a private vehicle to access them, or you might be able to hire a taxi (or a guy with a car and nothing to do) in the center of Chiatura.
Some of the other cable cars appear to be tiered, in that you take one cable car from the base to an initial mountain station, and then you can continue higher up on a second cable car. However, it’s hard to know exactly which parts are operational at any time.
What’s in Chiatura?
I went to Chiatura expecting to be able to ride seventeen different cable cars, and found that only two were accessible and operational. So, I had a lot of free time on my hands.
I spent a few hours exploring the town itself. It’s one of the most poorly located towns I’ve ever visited, with mountains immediately on either side of the city center and a river splicing in the city in two. There aren’t very many river crossings (especially for vehicles).
Most of the city center was filled with more Soviet-style apartment blocks. Often, their entrances were unlit and the ground floor windows were boarded up, but people were still living on the upper floors. I got caught in a sudden downpour and ducked into an open entrance – I could hear families going about their lives in the units inside. Some sources estimate that the town’s population may have been over 50,000 people during the heyday of the mining industry, but today fewer than 20,000 people live in Chiatura.
The edges of the city center are full of remnants of construction projects and other machinery left over from the bustling mining era.
One thing that’s super-cool about Chiatura is its market. Every day a street market sprawls across the streets on the west side of the city center (near the police station and the water fountain). The market is literally carved into the space underneath an abandoned cable car station.
The fresh fruits and vegetables at the market are absolutely amazing, and huge quantities are sold for pennies. If you rent an apartment with a kitchen you’ll be able to feast off the local produce for every meal.
Behind the street vendors there is also a small, Soviet-style indoor market. This closes earlier than the sellers on the street, so visit in the morning if you’re wanting to pick up meats, grains, legumes or homemade packaged products (like the pickled vegetables shown above).
Chiatura actually has a real tourist attraction, which is the Mghvimevi Monastery, located in a mountain cave about half a kilometer east of the center of Chiatura. The cave is thirty-five meters deep and is noted for the decorative details on its doors. It closed for the day before I had a chance to enter, unfortunately.
Chiatura also isn’t too far from the Katskhi Pillar, a forty-meter pillar of rock with a tiny monastery on top. The monastery is so tiny that it is only home to one monk, and he prohibits women from climbing the pillar. The accessibility of the pillar for men seems to be flexible – sometimes men have been able to climb up (via ladder or personal rock-climbing gear) while other times the site has been totally closed to visitors. You’ll need a private car or a taxi to visit the Katshkhi Pillar.
Where to Go After Chiatura
Chiatura’s main bus station is a few doors up from the police station. From here, there are infrequent buses to the neighboring villages, and more frequent buses to Tbilisi and Kutaisi (the latter requires a change in Zestaphoni, which is worth it just for the cool name). From Kutaisi, you can also transfer to the daily train heading to Batumi, on the Black Sea coast.
My own next destination was Mestia, so I took the bus to Kutaisi, stayed overnight in town and then caught the 10:00 am marshrutka to Mestia. This particular route is one of the most popular bus routes in all of Georgia and the 10:00 am marshrutka is often full by 8:00 am, so arrive very early.
Visiting Chiatura was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. I definitely saw parts of Georgia that few foreign tourists will ever explore, and I saw an interesting way of living that was very different from what I’d experienced before. I don’t know what will happen when all of the cable car lines re-open again. Maybe Chiatura will become a popular tourist destination, or maybe locals will continue their relatively isolated lifestyle, just with better transportation. If you’re interested in visiting Chiatura, you might want to go now (while it’s still unknown) or wait a few years (until all the cable cars are working again).
Would you travel to Chiatura just to ride the crumbling cable cars? Let me know in the comments!
Have a bizarrely unhealthy love of cable cars? The Caucasus is also home to the world’s longest reversible cable car, in Tatev, Armenia.