Stalin’s Rope Roads

"People who had never been there, and who possibly never could go there, spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and a great admiration. They spoke of Georgians as supermen, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven" - John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal

The tramway above the steep valley mining town of Chiatura, Georgia, is a public transport system not for the feint-hearted. Chiatura is criss-crossed by the “Kanatnaya Doroga” (“rope road”), a network of Soviet-era aerial tramways. It’s still in use. In the early 20th century, after the Soviet Union seized control of leader Joseph Stalin’s native Georgia, the authorities constructed a workers’ town to mine Chiatura’s vast manganese deposits. Tramway 25 was the first passenger tramway in the USSR and has run almost continuously since its first journey in 1954.

 

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

Manganese processing plant

 

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

A heavily greased pulley wheel turns on the Peace tramway. Most tramways in Chiatura use a ‘jig back’ system where two cabins are connected to the same haulage rope. An electric motor pulls one cabin down, using that cabin’s weight to help pull the other cabin up.

 

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

Two locals look out over Chiatura from the Peace tramway.

 

The cabins run without a braking system. If the haulage ropes snap, the cabins will roll straight back down the track cable. An event like this happened on a tramway in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi in 1990.

 

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

Tramway commuters waiting for a cabin in the central tramway station

 

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

An operator of Tramway 25 pits cherries in the downtime between passengers. Operators usually wait until there are 3-4 passengers waiting at both stations before ringing the bell and commencing a trip.

 

soviet tramways georgia

Photos of a tramway in 1960 (L) and today (Photo courtesy Georgian Manganese Holdings). In 2008 the hauling rope of this tramway snapped with 12 passengers inside. Ramaz Khipshidze, the director of the Aerial Tramway Network, says the automatic braking system worked, but Chiatura didn’t have the equipment needed to rescue the people inside. For 12 hours the passengers dangled above the town until a team from Tbilisi arrived with a rescue cabin. Although unwilling to specify amounts, Mr. Khipshidze says the passengers were paid compensation, and some accepted the company’s offer of counseling.

 

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

A man waits for a ride over a gorge on the eastern edge of Chiatura. This tramway runs 150 metres (492 feet) above the valley floor. Locals take this across to another tramway (just visible – upper right) which lowers them down to a bus stop on the main road below.

 

 

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

Mosaic of Lenin and Stalin at the entrance to Chiatura’s main aerial tramway station. The mosaic is made of river pebbles. Stalin’s relationship with Chiatura dates to his days as a revolutionary fugitive hiding out in the mines above the town. In the chaos that followed the 1905 Russian revolution a young Stalin formed a band of revolutionaries in Chiatura.

 

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

A local lost in thought as a cabin of tramway “25” docks

 

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

A photo of tramway 25 dating from the 1950s (L) alongside a current picture (Photo courtesy Georgian Manganese Holdings)

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

Manganese processing plant

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

Revaze Achvadze rides a tramway up to his home

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

A passenger greets a friend inside an aerial tramway station

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

A cabin from Tramway 25 travels over the Kvirila River

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

A tramway cabin exits of Chiatura’s central station

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

Two miners stop to smoke in a manganese mine above Chiatura

Soviet Tramway 25 Chiatura, Georgia Stalin

Side view of a tramway with a Soviet-era factory in background