“But why would you want to go there?”
We were standing in the entryway of the Hotel California (the Georgian version, which is actually a modest guesthouse set on a suburban street in Kutaisi) talking with our hostess, Leila. Over the past 24 hours, Leila and I had grown particularly close. Whenever we met in the hallway she would pinch my cheeks, grab onto my hips and coo at me, calling me ‘a beautiful baby’ before proceeding to tell Ross how wonderful I was. She was a typical Georgian babushka, thickset with curly black hair and a firm grip. Her fondness for me was completely unjustified but very sweet and amusing. Tonight, however, her disposition was grisly as she handed down her verdict on our plan to visit Chiatura the next day.
An old mining town in Georgia’s lush Imereti region, about 70km east of Kutaisi and close to the border with South Ossetia, Chiatura is not exactly a popular tourist spot. I had been infatuated with the town’s history and obsessed with visiting ever since I got a tip off from a friend on social media. Chiatura hadn’t been part of our original itinerary, so we adjusted our plans to include one more full day in Kutaisi.
Earlier that day, the helpful staff at the Kutaisi tourist information office had armed us with a map, a marshrutka schedule scribbled down on one corner. We proudly showed this to Leila, trying to illustrate to her how organised and well thought-out our plan was – but she just couldn’t believe two Australian tourists who had come all the way to Georgia would want to spend a day in Chiatura.
We made grand sweeping gestures with our hands as we told her about the old cable cars we were going to ride on. We told her how fascinating it was that Stalin himself had ordered the 17 lines to be constructed in 1956, making the rope roads older than our parents. We excitedly described Katshki Pillar (or Katskhi Column), a stylite monastery just outside of Chiatura, and how we wanted to catch a glimpse of the famous hermit monk who lived on top of the impossibly high stone pillar.
But we couldn’t win Leila over. “Very old, very poor,” she kept repeating.
Unperturbed, we woke up early the next day and boarded a marshrutka bound for Chiatura. The day that unfolded was one of the most rewarding during our three months in the Caucasus, and probably one of the coolest travel experiences we’ll ever have in our lives.
After receiving such a positive response to the Chiatura photo essay I recently created for ROAM Magazine (view it here), I thought I would follow up with a more practical guide to visiting Chiatura. So that’s what this post is – or at least supposed to be. Depending on your needs, you might want to skip to one of the following sections:
You might have noticed that this post is a little light on visuals. That’s because I have another post dedicated to photos of Chiatura. Check out my Chiatura photo story – originally created for ROAM Magazine.
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WHY VISIT CHIATURA AND KATSKHI COLUMN?
I couldn’t convince Leila that Chiatura and Katskhi are worth visiting, but maybe I can convince you. First of all, you won’t find either on the pages of your Lonely Planet. Isn’t that reason enough?
It’s nice to get off the beaten track every now and then, to do something different and feel like the only tourist in town. Chiatura is the perfect place for that. If you’re interested in Soviet history and/or architecture, I would go as far as to say that Chiatura is a must-see. It’s one of the only places in Georgia (aside from Gori) where the country’s Soviet past was really palpable. It’s a bit of a time capsule – although of course, people do still live there.
It’s pretty obvious that Chiatura has seen better days. The urban poverty can be a bit confronting. As with everywhere else in Georgia, we were greeted with nothing but kindness and warmth from the locals, and at no point were we concerned about our safety.
There are other day trips from Kutaisi you can choose to do instead. The ‘canyon, cave and waterfall’ route is particularly popular. We were fortunate that we had enough time to do both. Because of the transport schedule, you do need a full day to see Chiatura and Katskhi – so if you’re pressed for time, you might have to make a choice between the conventional or unconventional day trip. Having seen both, if I had to choose, I would go with Chiatura. (That’s really hard to admit because we had such fun visiting the waterfalls and canyons with our homestay host, Georgi. That’s a story for another time.)
TRANSPORT TO AND FROM CHIATURA
We visited Chiatura and Katskhi Column as a day trip from Kutaisi. This is by far the best way to go if you want to maximise your time in Chiatura and avoid paying a premium for private transportation.
Having said that, if you’re basing your stay in Tbilisi, it is still possible to visit Chiatura in a day, travelling by private car. For more information, I’ll refer you to this post by Concrete and Kitsch, who did just that back in 2015.
Kutaisi to Chiatura by marshrutka
The easiest way to travel between Kutaisi and Chiatura is by marshrutka, the colourful public minibuses that ply the highways in this part of the world. You’ll need to get an early start if you want to see both Chiatura and Katskhi in a day. (But note that the Cloister at Katskhi doesn’t open until 10.30am.) Take one of the first marshrutky from Kutaisi, which were departing at 8am and 9.20am at the time of our visit. (Kutaisi’s main bus terminal is located near the McDonalds and can be reached by public bus #1.) Check with the tourist information office in Kutaisi for the latest inter-city timetable.
The most economical way to combine a visit to Katshki Column is by changing marshrutka on the road (more on that later). Basically, you’ll be taking two separate buses so you’ll need two separate tickets. We asked the first driver (departing Kutaisi) to drop us off at Katshki Column (all drivers should know it, but it’s a good idea to carry a picture of the iconic pillar with you as well). The 64km journey from Kutaisi to the Column took 1.5 hours (including a short rest stop in Zestafoni) and cost us 6 GEL per person.
After we had seen the Column, we hailed another Chiatura-bound marshrutka from the road. This leg of the journey was much shorter, around 10km or 30 minutes to the centre of Chiatura, and cost us an additional 5 GEL each.
Chiatura to Kutaisi by marshrutka
The last marshrutka back to Kutaisi leaves Chiatura at 5pm – but there may be later buses passing through Kutaisi on their way to Batumi and beyond. After much confusion and time wasted trying to find a public toilet, we got a bit disorientated and couldn’t find a bus to take us back to Kutaisi. Chiatura doesn’t have a bus station, but we spotted a marshrutka depot of sorts on the opposide side of the river to where we got dropped off. So we wound up catching a Batumi-bound marshrutka back to Kutaisi from there. The return trip was done with one driver and cost us 12 GEL per person.
We visited Chiatura on a Sunday and this didn’t seem to affect the bus timetable. Remember to check with the tourist information office for the latest.
STOPPING OFF AT KATSKHI COLUMN
Katskhi Column is closer to Chiatura than Kutaisi, so some people choose to hire a taxi in Chiatura to take them to the Column and back. But this can be expensive and it requires doubling back on yourself. As I already mentioned, we added a stop-off at the Column to our itinerary simply by changing marshrutka on the road. It was easy and affordable, and the buses are frequent enough that you shouldn’t get stuck waiting for the second bus for too long. It’s best to stop off at the Column on the way to Chiatura (as opposed to the way back). That way, you’re more likely to get a seat on the bus for the longer journey to Kutaisi.
If you don’t know what it is, Katskhi Column is a 45m-tall limestone pillar with a monastery perched on top. It’s possible to walk right up to the base of the column to visit the Church of Simeon Stylites and the old wall and belfry (and if you’re lucky, maybe even ascend the pillar), but you’re better off seeing it from afar to grasp the scale of it. You can access a marked vantage point from the main road by forest trail. I didn’t pinpoint the exact spot on the Gomi-Sachkhere-Chiatura-Zestaponi Road where we got dropped off, but the trail is approximately 1km off road from there, mostly uphill. It’s a nice walk and we didn’t see another soul on the path, only a bunch of grazing cows.
The start of the trail opens up on the left of the highway as you are heading out of Kutaisi, and is clearly marked and visible from the road, as you can see in the photo above. The trail finishes at a small car park, where you’ll find an information placard and a view of the Column in the near distance. The path continued off to the right of the car park, presumably to the base of the Column, but at the time of our visit it was closed (like the sign says, the Cloister is open between 10.30am and 6pm).
It was so extremely foggy that day, we almost missed seeing the pillar altogether. We stood at the placard waiting for the clouds to part and managed to get a very quick glimpse – literally only one or two minutes – before it was enveloped in mist once again. The view was ok, but if I went again, I would research other vantage points.
Walking to/from the Column and stopping for photos along the way took us about an hour. When we were satisfied, we returned to the road where we had been dropped off earlier just in time to jump in another marshrutka and continue on to Chiatura.
TIPS FOR VISITING CHIATURA
Given our experience at Katskhi Column, my first piece of advice is to visit this part of Georgia on a clear day. This might not be possible, but if you can manage to get good weather, it will give you a better view of the column (and indeed the cable car lines in Chiatura).
Chiatura is a relatively small town with one main street. The bus dropped us off in the heart of the action, close to a small open market. We didn’t really know where to go from here, so we walked West along the street until we found evidence of the cable car lines. We eventually came to a lemon-coloured station building, had a ride in the car, then walked across the bridge behind the station for a different view of the cables traversing over the river. Then we continued walking the opposite way. At the eastern end of the main street we found lots of pretty civic buildings.
Riding the cable cars
The cable cars in Chiatura are free to ride. There is no set schedule, they just go when there’s passengers waiting. There are attendants inside all stations (it’s their job to open the door for you and to pull the lever that sends the cars off), and there are also attendants inside the cars themselves. Most lines we saw have only two cars that interchange, bringing passengers up and down.
It goes without saying, but if you want to ride the cable cars, do so at your own risk. The machinery and equipment is ancient and not very well maintained. We made a judgement call and decided to ride up and down once. I don’t regret it at all – it was incredible – but I don’t endorse it either.
Even if you don’t ride the cars, it’s worth seeing the impressive concrete station buildings. The lemon-coloured building that I photographed has beautiful plaster cornices inside – you can just imagine what it would have looked like when it first opened. The Stalin/Lenin pebble mosaic is on the front of this same building. I haven’t had any luck turning up information about the contemporary artwork inside the station – if you have any leads, please let me know. We did see posters for a photography exhibit in Chiatura, so it’s possible the graf was painted as part of an arts festival. (UPDATE: The mural was created in 2015 by Georgian street artist, Dr. Love.)
For more photos of the cable cars, check out my Chiatura photo story.
Tourist infrastructure in Chiatura
There is minimal tourist infrastructure in Chiatura and in our experience, little English is spoken. Despite this, we had no trouble finding our way around and even met a few locals who were keen to pose for photos. The only thing we had trouble finding was a public toilet. I ended up going into a little cafe that overlooked the river, close to the bridge.
On that note, we didn’t see many restaurants in Chiatura, either. On the main street there are lots of bread shops and bakeries (we were surviving on puri by this stage), and there’s a small market where you can buy fresh fruit.
We struggled to find the exact spot where we could board the Kutaisi bus, so we improvised. After asking a few drivers at the depot, we eventually found a Batumi-bound bus, which dropped us back in Kutaisi on its way through. When all was said and done, we were back in Kutaisi in time for dinner.
Overnighting in Chiatura
If you want to spend longer in Chiatura, it may be possible to overnight in the town. We didn’t see any hotels and a quick online search doesn’t turn anything up – so my best advice is to consult the friendly staff at the tourist office in Kutaisi before you head off.
Other things to do in Chiatura
The cable cars and concrete station buildings are Chiatura’s main drawcard, but it’s worth having a stroll around the town as well. Chiatura is laid out over different elevations so just walking up the alleyways and pathways can turn up different, interesting vantage points. We popped our heads into the big undercover market, which was rather dim and dusty. On the main street there’s a very retro barbershop and as mentioned, a collection of pastel-coloured civic buildings and apartment blocks.
How much does a day trip to Chiatura cost?
As long as you stick to public transport, this is a very affordable day trip. We paid 23 GEL per person for inter-city transport, and an extra 1 GEL per person to get to and from Kutaisi’s bus station on the edge of town. Entrance to Katskhi Column and riding the cable cars in Chiatura was free.
Visiting Chiatura was one of the most unique day trips we’ve ever done and definitely a highlight of our three months in the Caucasus. I’m starting to grow very fond of Soviet architecture and I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, so seeing the cable car stations and lines in person (and knowing the story behind the infrastructure) was really, really wonderful.
If you don’t know the history of Chiatura, or if you want to see more photos, check out my Chiatura photo story.
Have you been to Chiatura and/or Katskhi Column? If you have any helpful tips or questions, please leave them in the comments below.
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