Chiatura’s dystopian Disneyland: Georgia’s ‘flying coffins’ are a creepy freak show for dark tourism
At first unsettling glance, the “flying coffins” are an uneasy, uncanny manifestation of every single thing your mother warned you about.
The precarious-looking cable cars of Chiatura radiate an aura of malevolence, transforming this arcane town in the Republic of Georgia into a dystopian Disneyland. The barely touched Soviet-era infrastructure is a mechanical freak-show; a putrefying worm on a rusty hook for dark tourists travelling through the Caucasus region.
But as with many things your mother warned you about, all is not what it first appears. Not a single grisly death has been attributed to these aerial relics, which have been soaring above town sans upgrade since the 1950s. Well, that’s the party-line anyway.
While the “flying coffin” moniker is statistically an unfair yoke, the alternate nickname, linked to one of history’s cruellest dictators, is factually on-point. In the early 20th Century, this mining town was Soviet Georgia’s soot-filled Bolshevik heart, home to 30,000 comrades and most infamously a fledgling rabble-rouser by the name of Joseph Vissarionovich (Stalin).
Well before going on to become a heinous despot, Georgia-born Stalin conceived Chiatura’s zig-zagging cable-car system. The “Stalin Cars” were exalted as an exemplar of Soviet engineering back when the first line began operation in 1953 (coincidentally, the year Joe kicked the bucket).
The last of 25 criss-crossing lines was completed in 1966, saving workers from their hundreds-of-vertical-metres commute between home and work, and also fast-forwarding production of Chiatura’s USSR-powering raison d’être: manganese ore.
Stuffed deep into a sheer-sided river gorge in the west of Georgia, Chiatura’s geography isn’t exactly commuter-friendly. Today locals use the handful of still-working lines for their everyday commutes, turning what can be 30-minute marshrutka (bus) rides into five-minute flights. For travellers, boarding six-decade-old infrastructure with a questionable maintenance commitment is undeniably a flight of blind-faith.
My inaugural Commie Tardis ride swoops abruptly down from the wild grey yonder with the temerity of a double-headed eagle. Its industrial-blue paint is an ominous aposematism, barking at me to abort my mission; to avoid it like I would a funky coloured mushroom.
Rust haemorrhages through decades of paint-overs, now part of the structural integrity. On the “keep me up side”, at least the connecting bracket, wheels and well-greased (un-frayed) cables are relatively rust-free.
The attendant squawks at me, first in Georgian, then Russian, then reverts to mime to coax me inside. The door snaps shut, locks mechanically from the outside, effectively entombing me. The engine-room yaps to life, the coffin lurches upwards in bursts, incrementally, as if tug-o’-war-ed from above by muscly miners.
Sparing shafts of light and fresh air leak into my solitary confinement through kitchen-sieve-esque portholes and a banana-sized hole rusted through the floor; its edges sharp enough to julienne carrots. I plant my feet decisively on the cross-members as my Stalin Car out-staunches a cross-wind that would close the average ski-resort chairlift for the morning.
From above, Chiatura’s lucent green-scape overwhelms humanity’s brutalist palette of oxidisation and crying concrete. Aggressively industrial processing plants thwack out of past-vertical cliffs over the steel-blue Kvirila River. Their commanding windows scrutinise like supervising eyes.
On the valley floor, Russian-made trucks belch soot into already tainted air. Overhead, a small ropeway trapezes manganese to and fro. Its safety nets have just managed to catch one of the falling buckets before it ruined a passing family’s decade.
I queue at the oldest station – home base for “Pease” and “25” lines – with a grocery-grappling grandma who utters a poker-faced gamarjoba [hello]. The attendant says something important into a phone that looks rescued from a KGB lunch-room. The bell tolls twice, up we go again, hopefully.
Inside, paint peals away from the spacious, used-to-be-yellow car like industrial psoriasis. Scratches and mining-town grime opaque the windows. The cable car parts cliff-top overgrowth silently, eerily; docking with a jolt that sends a cat-sized rodent scurrying along the cables, through a scorched grand arch to sanctuary.
Upper Chiatura feels abandoned, left behind, expired. Colossal late-communist-era flats only hint at habitation: a dark car here; a communal garden there; laundry strung across a random unpainted balcony. Feral dogs patrol the rubble, treading prudently around shattered glass and the occasional discarded needle.
The once-grand terminal remains a community focal point. Its splintery benches worn by a million derrieres; its staircases concaved from generations of hurrying home; its 10-foot ornate doors patchworked with plywood. “Nia loves Gizo,” is scratched into the plaster, enclosed by a trinity of love hearts. Was it requited, I wonder?
With shifts that can stretch on until midnight, station attendants embrace side-hustles. Cobbled shoes are displayed in a ticket-booth nook. A woman sorts her market vegetables on the walkway. Her prized guard-pig snoozes comfortably nearby.
While post-USSR Georgia beelines for Europe-aligned modernity, a coat of pastel paint over Stalinist architecture is not fooling the plummeting population of a town frozen in concrete and steel. While youngsters in the country’s quicksilver capital, Tbilisi, polish their second-hand Mercedes, Chiaturans perpetually lash together their 1970s Ladas.
“After the Soviet Union broke up, it was a very difficult period for Georgia,” says my three-star hotelier, Shorena. “It was difficult to live, especially in winter, with no gas, no electricity. Every government since tries to make [Chiatura] new, but I think we still need time. There are no factories or places to work. The young people are going abroad or to Tbilisi.”
For a decade, rumours have flown around that the old cable cars will soon surrender to their own decrepitude, a symptom of a struggling mining-led economy whose ongoing disputes still spill over into the streets.
While many lines are permanently closed, with some stations earmarked for demolition, others on the town’s fringes still enigmatically, anonymously chug on (I was assured a line close to my hotel was no longer working but it rattled back into operation the next morning).
Four new lines are under construction, destined to carry “modern” rust-resistant cars. What will be a godsend for Chiatura’s commuters could be, inadvertently, the beginning of the end for the town’s dark-tourism credentials. Any local will tell you that the cable-car stations – complete with fascinating communist-era reliefs and mosaics – are by far the most interesting thing to see.
Given that Georgia is endowed with so many postcard highlights – from the world’s oldest wine region to multiple mountain-hiking Xanadus – it’s difficult to explain why you should seek out this obscure mining town and brave its travel-insurance-testing ‘flying coffins”. But if I have to explain it, you probably won’t appreciate this black-and-white snapshot anyway.
One thing is for certain in this uncertain town: progress, as sluggish as it is, has Chiatura’s dystopian Disneyland in its sites. Best to hop aboard sooner rather than later, if you dare.