They lived underground all covered in soot, without the option of washing or resting… It’s enough to detour off the main highway between popular tourist destinations to uncover the forgotten wealth of Georgia – as well as a site for urban exploring which will excite all those tired and bored of staring at picturesque highland vistas.
On the road between Tbilisi and Kutaisi, the capital of the Imereti region, also known as the Caucasus Colchis, we find the town of Chiatura. It is rather ordinary, lacking any special sort of ancient heritage sites (it is home to the Mgwimewi Cathedral erected between the 10th and 11th centuries), though it is rich in very grey concrete post-Soviet housing blocks spread across a green valley. Tourists are not exactly clambering over themselves to get here – which is a pity.
Chiatura is a manganese Eldorado. The Georgian poet Akaki Cereteli looked for deposits of this precious substance in these regions as far back as the 19th century – finding them in time. Further tests conducted on these territories gave more cause for celebration: 160 million tons of manganese was found beneath Chiatura, along with iron and substantial deposits of manganese oxide, peroxide and carbonate – all of which could be used in commercial industries. Soon enough, mining was developed in the region in order to shift the ores to the steelworks in Zestafoni – in 1872, a railway was built between Tbilisi, Poti and Baku.
In 1905, the production of manganese in Chiatura rose to meet 60% of global demand. This became even more important following the October Revolution of 1917, but before the outbreak of WWI, when Georgia became the number one country for extracting and exporting manganese. The national industry, though funded by foreign capital, blossomed at the time.
Sergeant Koba and Canicadz’s Cats
The land above ground looked like heaven on earth, but beneath its surface reality was not so romantic. 3700 miners worked down below – slaving up to 18 hours a day, sleeping and eating underground, unable to rest properly, use toilets or wash anywhere.
Stalin managed to talk these soot-covered slaves into supporting the Bolshevik movement. Which was not hard. Sergeant Koba, as they called him, tricked the owners of the mines into believing he would protect them from thieves – while wrecking the mines belonging to those who did not pay his extortion fees. He set up “red armed units” and provided miners favourable to his cause with endless weapons. Thus this small mining town became a bastion of Bolshevik ideology in Georgia (between 1918-1921 Georgia was the only democratic state with the Menshevik government headed by the politician Noe Zhordania).
The miners of Chiatura were not fools, however. When in 1906, a unit of Canicadz’s Cats robbed a train carrying gold as payment for those mining manganese, there followed a two-hour long firefight, ending in the deaths of a gendarme and a soldier, the theft of 21 thousand roubles, and then a 55 day-long miners’ strike. They demanded a shift to an eight hour working day, the end of night shifts and higher wages.
Chiatura cable cars
For those keen to sneak around Georgia’s nooks and crannies, Chiatura is mostly associated with its cable car network. Built in 1954 in order to make it easier to send miners up to work, the system is still functioning. Even though it is in a state of total disrepair, and constantly breaking down, the locals still make use of it. Tourists can also ride in these rust-ridden buckets, which look like they came from Chernobyl.
This is a wonderful adventure for those looking for thrills and not bothered by fear of heights. Those looking to explore old buildings and sites will also be best pleased, finding here post-Soviet industrial buildings ripe for re-discovery.
Georgian urban exploring
Extreme adventuring destinations are very popular in Georgia. They allow us to touch the past and discover many abandoned places, some of which were mighty once upon a time. Knowing this, I went to Chiatura to ride the legendary cable car and see where miners used to slave away once upon a time. In order to understand their gone-by world, and better grasp the new technologies which rule our modern world – many of which are still missing in Georgia.
One would have to start from scratch around here – a massive undertaking: logistical, financial, organisational. All the time, I keep repeating that it is easy to set up new companies in Georgia. Perhaps one of these days someone will have the guts to erect a more modern cable car set up here, based on the one which ferried manganese from Chiatura to Zestaponi, a place best known for its soccer team.
It is enough to drive off the main highway through the Suram Pass, in order to reach this fascinating spot without the need to drive too far. It is interesting, and perhaps a valid business opportunity. It certainly will deliver unforgettable impressions for those looking to dig deeper in search of the wonders of the Pearl of the Caucasus. For this is what Georgia is really like – filled with surprises, all worthy of exploration.