My travel adventure to Chiatura began like most of my travel obsessions – with an internet-acquired obsession that set upon me like a flash flood.
I fall down rabbit holes easily, especially when I’m bored at work, thinking about where I’m traveling next. It may or may not be related to my OCD, but when I am fascinated by something, I will stop at nothing to learn everything I can about it. This extends to searching for hashtags on social media on a topic, looking at pictures tagged on flickr or google maps, to asking ridiculous amounts of questions on tripadvisor – I will go to any length to obtain every last bit of public information on an obscure place. This obsession became all consuming one day while I was planning David and my trip to the South Caucasus last year.
Chiatura, Imereti. A small town in Georgia, near the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Former Manganese mining capital of the world. I don’t know where I found the page, but it was likely through some serendipitous hub and spoke chain of hyperlinks. This town:
Here’s the Cliff’s Notes on Chiatura – settled in the late 19th century when Iron and Manganese was discovered by prospectors. It has been important at different times in modern history as one of the only Bolshevik strongholds in the region during the Russian Revolution. It maintained the lion’s share of the world’s Manganese production through most of the 20th century. The cable cars were built in the 1950s to help transport workers around the different mining sites in the canyon.
Clearly it was love at first sight. It has everything: eccentric public transportation, dramatic scenery, ridiculous history. Seriously, everything – even a drug dealer cum monk living on top of a rock pillar. I didn’t even know it existed, and I was going to be three hours from it within a matter of months.
Immediately, I tried to find any way I possibly could to spend a few hours in this magical mystery town. I pored through my Lonely Planet guide (no mention of Chiatura – shocking, I know), tried to find public transit routes (nothing convenient), and rallied the troops on Tripadvisor for crowdsourced information.
Now, it may sound sketchy, but I have met many reliable guides and drivers via Tripadvisor forums. They work especially well for trying to get to lesser known destinations. Probably because the larger tour operators can’t fill a bus with tourists interested in Stalin-era planned towns (this logic makes no sense to me, of course, as I would take that tour every day of the week) – so it is often the smaller independents that will take you to the more far flung places. This, and they’re usually cheaper than the big vendors as well.
I met Irene, of Wonders of Georgia, there, and she agreed to take me to Chiatura and the Katskhi Pillar on the day before we were set to return to Seattle – on January 2, the day that, in Georgian tradition, is meant to set the tone for how the rest of your year will shake out.
If our tour guide had had anything to say about it, the rest of the year would have been spent in a church, because that is all he wanted to show us when he picked us up that day. We stopped at a church here, and a church there –if you’ve ever traveled in Georgia or Armenia you know it’s churches EVERYWHERE – all the while dily-dallying on our way to Chiatura, where the real party for me was going to take place.
We started off the day in Mtskheta – where we played with a puppy at the Jvari Church. Mtskheta is pretty old news (literally), and has been written about a TON before, so I’ll just put these pictures here and move along.
There were many interesting points along our drive through the countryside to Imereti province, including seeing the government housing for refugees from the war with South Ossetia in 2008, and a brief drive through Gori, hometown of none other than Joey Stalin (we skipped that Stalin museum – next time, I promise). The road to Chiatura by way of Sakhchere turned shoddy and potholed very quickly after turning off the main Tbliisi-Kutaisi highway, and we trundled toward our destination rather haphazardly. Fortunately, our driver had a collection of Jesus and Mary icons that was so extensive, I wasn’t worried about a thing.
We stopped first at the Katskhi Pillar, which was as impressive as I had imagined. What was funny was that I was so excited about getting to see Chiatura, that I was less excited about visiting the pillar. There were some young monks around, sweeping the grounds with what looked to be seriously useless brooms made from fallen twigs (a form of self-flagellation, maybe?), and a seriously annoying Ukrainian family with too many selfie sticks for so few people. In fact, it was at the Katskhi Pillar, a middle of nowhere oddity type of destination, where we witnessed the first selfie sticks since leaving Istanbul (selfie-stick heaven).
However excited I was to get to Chiatura, it’s hard to not be captivated by a place that looks like this:
It was then we left for Chiatura: The Main Event. The first place we stopped was, surprise, a monastery! Mgivmevi Nunnery is strategically located high in the walls of the Kvirila River canyon, and is overseen by a group of salty nuns. Though David and I were in full religious monument fatigue by this point in our trip, the views offered by from the monastery were pretty epic.
We pulled into the center of the town at about lunchtime, and folks were out. The market was in full effect – the kind of market that caters to locals. Stalls sold snacks, car parts, eggs, etc., but certainly no postcards or souvenirs. No souvenirs in Soviet era Manganese town. We found an open café large enough to accommodate a couple of tables and sat down to eat. In the next room were a bunch of boisterous local men who smoked like chimneys and drank vodka with gusto despite it being half past eleven in the morning. We ate what was perhaps the simplest and most delicious lunch of our entire trip made up of Imereti khachapuri – and seriously, if you don’t know what khachapuri is, look it up and wipe the drool off your face – and David’s favorite, Georgian beans in a pot, for about $3 USD for the three of us, before our super Christian driver retired to our van for some prayer time.
David and I proceeded to walk around the city. And Chiatura was lovely. Small, kind of dirty, and immeasurably authentic. We stuck out like a sore thumb – probably via our choice to wear clothes with color as opposed to the Georgian national dress of jeans or dark jeans with a black leather jacket. I took pictures, we shopped at the 1 Lari store (like a post-Soviet dollar store), and walked along the river promenade – hoping to get a look at some of the cable cars that had captivated me so much in the months previous.
Then we stumbled upon it – the town’s main station, with four cable car lines terminating there. It was deserted, had standing water in places, and multiple stairwells jutting in every direction like an MC Escher painting. The rails were painted day glow aqua and red, and chipped for days. I snapped and snapped and snapped photos and giggled contentedly about fulfilling my ridiculous pipe dream of a trip. I looked down through some gaps in the stairwell and shared a private smile with David – we’d had an amazing trip, and our exploration of this crummy little backwater town was the perfect way to finish it off.
I found out later that it is possible to get to Chiatura via public transporation. You can catch a marshrutka there from Tbilisi’s Didube bus yard (right next to the subway station) – most of the marshrutkas going there will stop in Sakhchere first, then continue on to Chiatura. It may be easier to get there from Kutaisi, which is just down the road, but I don’t have information to validate this. Some Georgian or Russian language will definitely be necessary as there is NO tourist infrastructure to speak of in this part of the country.