Thursday, June 16, 2016

The steel roads of Chiatura

Sign reading "Chiatura" in Georgian and Russian
This season always makes me nostalgic for Georgia. May and June are the perfect times to be there, when the weather is not sweltering, but good for shorts and beer gardens and traveling, the flowers are out, and the air is always fresh after a rain. The best time, of course, is the fall, when the grapes are out and the scent is so strong in the air that it makes you hungry just standing around. But that's a distraction, this is spring folks. And in spring, it's a good time to visit one of my favorite towns: Chiatura.

Young Stalin

Chiatura first came into my radar when I was reading Simon Montefiore's half-adventure, half-history book, Young Stalin. If ever you want to read an Eastern European history book that somewhat resembles a Western flick about an evil version of Jesse James, check that one out. After many of Young Stalin's bank robbery schemes, he would take his bags of gold by donkey over the mountains to the small mining town of Chiatura, which was in 1910s Georgia a Bolshevik stronghold. The people of Chiatura were rewarded for their fidelity too: under Stalin, development soared, with electrification, a road link to Tbilisi, and new housing blocks piling up. It also soon became the Manganese mining capital of the world. The more than unique thing about this canyon community, besides the Manganese mining, is how many of the city outlets and work areas are connected by a network of seemingly ancient gondolas.

Steel roads of the man of steel 

One of the gondola stations in Chiatura
It was the gondolas that led me to really want to go to Chiatura. This article from the Atlantic and this one from the Daily Mail on the things went viral, talking about how rusted, old and dangerous they were and how they hadn't been updated since their construction 70 years ago. It also wrote that the town Chiatura itself was somewhat of a post-apocalyptic nightmare community, and that heading their might get you killed via pollution, frog plague or whatever have you.

The road to Chiatura was under renovation. For the most part, most of it has been fixed up and smoothed over - we'll see how long that lasts, due to the nature of Georgian road construction, but at least someone is trying. The road itself was riddled with scenic outdoor cafes, snuggled amidst the forests and brooks that litter the Shida Kartli and Imeretian countryside. When the forests end, rolling hills take over, with the vaguest outline of the towering Caucasus in the distance. Most of the hillside lies mysteriously unused, as it seems to be premium farming land, but for the proximity to the disputed territory of South Ossetia just nearby. Finally, after entering well into Imereti, the road descends back towards the main East-West highway, following a sharp and huge canyon, not so grand as America's Grand Canyon, but big enough to mystify any common viewer, and steep enough to send any cliff climber into spasms of ecstasy. If you go to Chiatura, forget going for a dilapitated town, go for the countryside, preferably with a car of your own so you can take as much advantage as you can.

The black river

In fact, contrary to what that aforementioned article hints at, Chiatura is quite a nice little town, once you get past the complete black waters of the lazy Kvirila River that it traverses. The river is black from some process of the Manganese mine, and littered with Coke and lemonati bottles and cigarette packs, but that latter part is to be expected in any Georgian town. Besides all that, the center of the town shows some beauty and perhaps even potential for tourism. When I was there 2 years ago this was true, and I'm hoping some hotels have popped up since then. The buildings are a mix between the grand Soviet styles and the more blocky housing units, but most are painted and fairly nice looking. We stopped at one hole-in-the-wall cafe that was on the park which served as a boardwalk along the inky river. They served a kebab that came in a soup - which ended up being quite amazing and spicy. We also had some Imeruli xatchapuri, which was again better than most places I had tried in Tbilisi.
Chiatura's bazaar district on the bank of the Kvirila

From the cafe, we went to find a gondola, which wasn't hard to do. All you have to do is look up and follow one of the lines that hang over the skies to its base and there you can find your Soviet-era pot of gold. Some of the lines have been retired from lack of use - more than half the town is a ghost town - but there are still many that continually function. They operate on a "jig back" system, where there is one car for each way and they run on the same line; as one car goes up, the other goes down. We walked up to one, where three guys were sitting on the bench. Assuming they weren't the workers, I asked in Georgian, "Where is the operator?"

View from the gondola
"I am the operator," one of the sitting guys said.

"Oh," I said.

We stood silently. They sat silently.

"Can we take a ride?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. He still didn't move.

"Good," I said, trying to figure out the trick to this exchange. "How much does it cost?"

"It's free."

We decided we should just get on, and maybe the guy would do whatever it was he had to do. And he did. He stood up, rang a bell and sat back down. The gondola itself was a blue box, not unlike Doctor Who's TARDIS, but instead of flying through space and time, this thing flew up the cliffside, in about the same wibbly wobbly manner. However, I was a bit disenchanted. The construction, though clearly old, looked solid, and nothing about the trip seemed dangerous or even that exhilarating, except the fact that you were hanging by a steel thread some 500 feet in the air. But fear of heights aside, it wasn't really that big of a deal to worry about, or to write an article commending the bravery of the author on.

Where beergardens should have been

At the top of the gondola was a big patch of dirt, a block of apartments, and a road block, behind which was some operation going on that was probably linked to the mines. There was also an amazing view of Chiatura, and a great place to at least put a beergarden, of which there was none. If in the two years since I've been there nobody has since put one, I'll bang my head against a wall! I mean, really, what a spot for beer drinking! In fact, the most terrifying thing in Chiatura is the locals lack of vision when it came to the beauty of their landscape and the tourism potential.

Cross marks the spot where there should be a cafe

View of the left bank from one of the gondolas, another gondola can be seen

The article showed a common tendency in media today, to show that the photographer or writer was in much more danger than they were in reality, whether it's showing the gondolas of Chiatura, the riots in Turkey, or the streets of Detroit. The friend I was with then called it, "Disaster Porn," when the writer wants to portray himself or herself as some brave adventurer, spurred on by a crowd of armchair readers too lazy or ignorant or inexperienced to know that much of the world isn't actually that dangerous and most people in the world are simply people trying to get by.* It's a secret that most travelers don't want to let out, because then all that mystery we create at a bar while trying to pick up women just drifts away like a puff of smoke from a nargile out the window of a seedy Arabic cafe filled with sheikhs and businessmen. The truth makes some disaster seekers ever more disappointed and ever more willing to take real risks, until they end up backpacking on the borders of Iran and Iraq and sent to an Iranian prison, accused of spying, or with their heads chopped off in an IS propaganda video. What Iranian officer could ever believe that, "Well, we were just looking for adventure" could actually be the truth? People who live in the bonafide dangerous areas, or those who have had to deal with the real dangers of life, are probably hugely confused by disaster porn and its pornographers. And when reading disaster porn on the net, one should remember that it has about as much to do with real disaster as porn has to do with real sex, that is to say, about nothing.

Spot the gondolas!

*With a great number of exceptions.

1 comment:

  1. You will have to take us there if we ever get back to Georgia.