Stalin's Rope Roads

The mining town of Chiatura, Georgia, surrounded by steep cliffs, is criss-crossed by a network of aging Soviet-era aerial tramways that are still in use today. In the early 20th century, after the U.S.S.R. annexed Georgia, Soviet authorities were intent on extracting the vast manganese deposits beneath Chiatura. In the 1950s, planners began work on what locals call the "Kanatnaya Doroga," or "rope road," that still connects almost every corner of the town. Today, while some of the cars have rusted away, 17 of the aging tramways remain in service. Photographer Amos Chapple (who previously took us inside Iran and Turkmenistan) recently visited Chiatura, where he became fascinated with the cable cars and the locals who operate and ride them daily. [20 photos total]

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At the eastern edge of Chiatura, Georgia, this manganese processing plant, sited next to a mine shaft, operates 24 hours a day. Workers access the mine by taking two tramways up and over steep bluffs. The second tramway is visible at top left. The cable cars are part of a network of aerial tramways built in Chiatura during the Soviet era, used to this day as public transportation through the challenging terrain. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
Revaze Achvadze rides a tramway up to his home, in Chiatura, Georgia. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
Overview of Chiatura. The Soviets invested heavily in constructing a "worker's paradise" in the gorge which, in its heyday, claimed 60 percent of the world's manganese production. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
A woman passenger greets a friend inside an aerial tramway station in Chiatura. Infrastructure in many of Georgia's smaller towns dates back to the Soviet period. After communism collapsed, Georgia's long-awaited freedom from Russia was marred by a civil war which devastated the fledgling economy. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
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. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
A mosaic of Lenin and Stalin, made of river stones, at the entrance to Chiatura's main aerial tramway station. Stalin's relationship with Chiatura dates to his days as a revolutionary fugitive hiding out in the mines above the town. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
A cabin from Tramway 25 slides over the Kvirila River. The heavily polluted river runs almost black when the manganese factories are in full use. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
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 cable. An electric motor pulls one cabin down, using that cabin's weight to help pull the other cabin up. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
Left: Two locals look out over Chiatura from the Peace tramway. The cabins run without a braking system; if the haulage cable snaps, the cabins will roll straight back down the track cable. This happened to a tramway in Georgia's capital Tbilisi in 1990, killing twenty people. Right: A discarded piece of track cable. The cables weigh around 26lb (12kg) per meter. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
A photo of Tramway 25 dating from the 1950s (left), alongside a current picture. (Photo courtesy Georgian Manganese Holdings) #
A tramway cabin slides out of Chiatura's central station. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
A socialist realist painting depicting manganese miners of Chiatura during the Soviet period. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
Tramway commuters wait for a cabin in the central tramway station. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
Left: A telephone inside a cabin of Tramway 25. Right: A miner smokes a cigarette, leaning through the cabin portholes of the "Peace" tramway which runs from the center of Chiatura up to the entrance of one of the manganese mines. Although owned by the mining company, anyone is free to use the tramway. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
Two miners stop to smoke in a manganese mine above Chiatura. Through the near-anarchy across Georgia following the collapse of the USSR the mines lay idle and have only reopened in the past few years. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
Then and now pictures of one of the tramways built in the 1960s. 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 "thanks to God." 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. (Photo courtesy Georgian Manganese Holdings) #
A tramway operator eases down the brake as a cabin docks. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
Side view of a tramway above Chiatura, with a Soviet-era factory in background. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
A man waits for a ride over a gorge on the eastern edge of Chiatura. This tramway runs 150 meters (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. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #
A local lost in thought as a cabin of Tramway 25 docks. Tramway 25 was the first passenger tramway in the USSR and has run almost continuously since its first run in 1954. If funding comes through it will be replaced in 2014. (Amos Chapple/Rex Features) #

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