essay

57366 chiatura

We arrive in Chiatura following a sinuous road along a rich topographic contour that dances through the gorged and mounded land of Imereti, in western Georgia. On the outskirts of the city, we come to a ring of concrete panel buildings high above the settlement below, at the bottom of the steep walled valley of the river Qvirila. The local economy, since the 19th century, has been based on the mining of manganese, a substance essential to steel production. In 1905, some 60% of the world’s output of manganese came from the rich deposits that lie in these cliffs. Evidence of the scale of mining operations can be seen everywhere in the form of the rusting, clanking hulks of Chiatura’s industrial infrastructure, much of which is still in daily operation.

At the brink of the cliff, the city unfolds below us as a map, lying in a flat area that bends around the graceful parenthesis by which the Qvirila cleaves the landscape. A central rail yard acts as Chiatura’s beating heart, and long chains of ore cars lethargically rumble in and out, empty to be filled and full to be later emptied. A haze of directionless sound hangs over the cityscape, a resonant din, an acoustic fog of displaced energies. It is like a steely curtain, forged by wheels, rails, gears, struts, pistons, metal parts in a copious variety of forms rolling, grinding, scraping, singing, and shrieking, one against its other, and these against those further down the line.

Here and there, cables leap the gorge, joining the top of one cliff with the other one facing it, and from time to time, a great ore bucket the size of a truck floats into our peripheral vision as it crawls across the dazzling sky along a sagging dark line. The tremendous weight of these conveyances hangs on this rusty thread, high above the valley, a sword of Damocles at the edge of disaster. To deal with an accidental rain of falling rocks, a wire net also crosses the valley just beneath the cable for ore buckets, so that these lowly meteors do not randomly dent cars, shatter roof tiles, or kill the residents below.

When transport is in progress, the distant rattle and screech of the moving cables can be heard from all corners, the thrum of a great guitar. Over the hours of a day, it infests the mind, and days after we left Chiatura behind, I could summon the sound in memory with convincing precision. (I hear it even now, faintly, as I write this.)

In the morning, we go for a walk. We see a group of men in the center who have gathered at what might be an employment office. They are figures in dark clothing, and stand together in the way that packs of men arrange themselves all over the world, conversing, smoking, spitting, laughing half-sincerely at each other’s time-worn jokes. We visit a shop to buy bread and kefir for breakfast. As we come out, some of the men are eyeing us, not with hostility, but with an understandable curiosity in the face of strangers.

We wander south along the street named after Ilia Chavchavadze and come to a theatre named after the poet Akaki Tsereteli. The Georgian names have the pleasant ring of foreignness, and they spill from the lips with a rightness of form that gives them a kind of friendliness and dignity that is, at the same time, august, human, and intimate. In the conversations we overhear, dense clusters of consonants are frequently broken by ringing vowels, and a dramatic rolling intonation is typically used to frame emphatic phrasings.

But of course, we use Russian to communicate here since, as a mere visitor, I had not taken on the daunting task of really learning Georgian, beyond a few dozen key words and phrases. A street sweeper starts a conversation with us. We ask about the theatre, which boasts a brazen Stalinist-era slogan on its portico, and we ask a few questions about life in the town. Like all the conversations we have with locals, he swiftly turns to his own dissatisfaction at having to live in a place like this, summing it up succinctly: They pull millions worth of ore out of the mountains, but where does it all go? This town never sees anything for it.

We wander a little north of the town, and the built-up area gradually dwindles. We come to a monastery called Mgvimevi, from the 13th century, that sits high up above the valley floor. A steep stairway which, like many things here, is made of rusting welded metal, takes us up the escarpment. Looking back down, we can see an old woman in black carrying a shopping bag as she slowly trudges up after us. We make the ascent and find at the top a series of chapels of carved stone arranged around the entrance to a natural cave.

From the top of the steps, the metal walkway hangs like a balcony, giving us a view of the valley. We look to the southwest, and see the industrial end of town, with its mining machinery and concrete buildings, laid out before us. It appears as a vale of dystopia, an unsightly gash in the otherwise fecund and verdant countryside. Ugly, forbidding, yet fascinating in its complexity.

In the caves behind us, there is a basilica of stone, richly carved with traditional Georgian ornamentation, and inside of it, the smell of burning incense and beeswax candles. A few visitors to the church, mostly old women in black clothing, light candles, kneel and bow, and murmur quiet prayers before one of the church’s icons.

We admire the frescoes, defaced by invaders or the simple passing of time, but still colorful, with evocative faces appearing as if through a dark veil. We come across a pane of glass in the rock, low on the wall near our feet, covering a rectangular receptacle cut from the limestone. Looking inside, I descry pairs of hollow eyes glaring back at me in the dim light. It is the church reliquary, and here are deposited the bones of its former denizens.

The cables with which this valley is festooned carry not only ore, but also passengers, for a public transportation system was developed for the town that makes use of cable cars to get people out of and into the valley. The system was established in the 1950s, an effort to improve worker productivity by saving the miners time in getting from home to work and back. There are 17 passenger cable cars in Chiatura, and the ones still in service continue to run using the original equipment.

We step onto one of the frankly decrepit-looking cars that regularly takes people from below up to the residential areas up above. Seated inside the small hanging chamber are two old ladies with bags of shopping, and a small schoolgirl happily scribbling on a sheet of paper. The welded metal car sways and lightly bounces as the car adjusts to the addition of our weight. We wait a few minutes, smiling nervously at the other passengers, and the little girl beams at us once or twice, but carries on making her pictures. Finally, the cable car operator comes in and, lifting a retro-chic telephone receiver that looks like something from an old submarine, she presses one of its two black buttons. We can hear a jarring electrical buzz as she connects to the station above. There is a brief conversation, presumably to see why the wait is so long. Ah, she says after hanging up. They are having their lunch.

Because we are just joy-riding, which cable car we take is not important, and there are others to choose from. So we go around the station and get into a cable car going the opposite direction, a blue booth with nautical portholes. Inside the car, a few seconds of stillness, and then we are off to the clouds. The ascent is abrupt and swift enough to cause in the stomach little leaps of excitement. The cable makes ticking sounds in an irregular, accelerating cadence and, at length, it emits a plangent moan as we rise up like balloonists to the top of the cliff face. The booth, hanging from a single point of its roof, oscillates gently from right to left, like the rocking of a boat.

I make no recordings in Chiatura, only photographs. I am dumbstruck by the scale and spectacle of the place, its perverse scenery, its cable cars, nearly every view given over to the lethal logic of industrial exploitation. The pervasive grim clockwork of metallic sounds seems always somehow distant and ghostly, but persistent and inescapable, as if it is forever around the next corner, and unreachable.


A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 15th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“

Two years later, I returned to Chiatura, a visit during which I captured this recording.