An urban exploration fail.
Chiatura is an old, dying mining town in central Georgia, the small country in the Caucasus region. As a former Soviet republic, Georgia is full of Soviet industrial souvenirs, which tend to attract explorers of the abandoned. While I am primarily a nature lover, I am also an engineer, so naturally I jumped at the opportunity to explore Chiatura.
The town was founded in the 1800s around a manganese mine high in the mountains. Since getting workers to the mine proved difficult, the Soviet government installed a haphazard network of cable cars crisscrossing the mountains in 1954, which remained operational for quite a while. After the mine closed, the cable cars were often used by the more adventurous travellers and Chiatura became an urban exploration hotspot, but for me it was just not meant to be.
When I visited in 2018, the cable cars were unfortunately no longer operational and the main cable car station had been torn down, as they were building a new one. We still got to see some of the old cable car stations and the concrete mine infrastructure up on the mountainside looked amazing, but we were unable to visit it. However, Chiatura offered us a glimpse into the actual reality in Georgia, as it is one of the many dying towns left behind after the collapse of the hungry Soviet empire.
Impressions of Chiatura
Life in the town appeared to move extremely slowly and tourists were still somewhat of a novelty, despite the nearby Katshki pillar and the Mgvimevi monastery, which are relatively popular tourist attractions. There were very few cafes (although the one we visited did have an English menu) or restaurants and I believe accommodation was practically non-existent at the time, at least according to the Internet.
We got to experience two different local markets: the first one was more like a flea market and was held in a dusty yard by the road into the town centre – they sold everything from clothes to live chickens in cages, while the second one was a more conventional fruit and vegetable market. We also tried some local pastries and people watching was extremely rewarding, but also somewhat sombre. There were lots of oddly content old people just sitting by the side of the road and watching the slow town life pass them by, which I guess was not particularly shocking since I’m from the Balkans and they do it there too, but their hats and trousers were a bit more worn than what I’m used to. Same goes for the children playing behind the fence of the nearby schoolyard, but their little faces had big smiles on them, which made everything better.
We ended up spending quite a few hours in Chiatura, as we had to wait for the local minibus. While sitting by the river we made friends with a stray dog, though he was probably just interested in our pastries (there are lots of stray dogs in Georgia and most of them appear to have chips in their ears). Since one rarely sees the authentic local way of life as a tourist, visiting Chiatura was definitely not a waste of time for me, despite the urban exploration fail. It was however, a stark reminder of just how large the wealth gap between Western and other countries really is.
Getting there: Since Chiatura is a rather unimportant town now that the mine is closed, the local minibuses are very rare. If you do wish to reach Chiatura by public transport, be prepared to spend most of the day there and in transit, as there are maybe 3 departures per day. The schedule changes quite a lot depending on the number of people wanting to travel there, so I’d recommend arriving to the minibus station early and checking with the driver. A more convenient option would be to hire a taxi driver, which is quite common in Georgia and they can also take you to the other tourist attractions nearby, but that would be a bit more expensive (still affordable though) and also takes some of the charm away from the experience. The best option is, as always, to rent a car, but to be honest, the Georgian traffic and driving culture are so chaotic that I would not even try, because I’m not a very confident driver.