Dangling over steep slopes and gorges or suspended over apartment blocks and churches, cableways are a common view in Georgia. The rope roads were developed in the 1950s as Soviet civil engineers struggled to navigate the sometimes challenging geography of mountainous towns, like the mining hub of Chiatura, or hilly cities, like Georgia’s second biggest city of Kutaisi. In some cases, the transport solution was aerial.
Kutaisi’s cable car was built in 1961 on one of the hills of the Gora district - and it has hardly changed since then.
Alexander Jaiani has been the technical director of Kutaisi’s Besik Gabashvili Park since 1987, he has been in charge of the cable way’s daily maintenance for 29 years.
“For over 40 years, this suspended car has been the city’s key touristic trump card. Films and TV reports from the city often include shoots from here because it provides beautiful views throughout the wagons’ route,” he says.
The cableway has two stations. The lower one is also the smallest as it simply lets passengers on and off the cars. The upper station sits 50 meters high up - it pulls the wagons into motion and moves them for 300 metres long distance crossing the Rioni river which crosses the city.
“These red and yellow wagons were manufactured by the aviation factory in Tbilisi and started operating in 1975. It took two years updating the system from the one installed in 1961,” explains Jaiani.
While looking obsolete at first glance, the cars are solid and made of non-corrosive materials, that’s why they are still well-preserved and we can still use them.”
The standard Soviet cableway consists of two stations, wagons and two sets of metal cable, a think and a thin one. The thick ones are firmly attached into the walls of the stations while the thinner ones are used to pull the wagons along them. The thinner cables move separately from each other and have a counterbalance weight at one end, fixed in the lower station that holds the stretch balance of both cables.
The thick core cable has been operating since the mid-1970s, the pulling ones need to be changed regularly, every five to eight years. The next switch, which requires about two days, is due to take place in spring 2017.
“After a few years in service, the pulling cables become loose, they need to be shortened. Specialized technicians from Tbilisi perform this activity,” notes Jaiani.
The 52-year-old recalls that a few years after the construction of the cable system, one of the main cables was found faulty and had to be removed. Workers had to stretch the metal roll from one point to the end, on the other side of the river, across the gorge, by their own hands and the process stopped the movement of all transports nearby. Three fully-loaded robust Kraz trucks pulled the thick wire from behind the upper station to put into place.
Under communism, the cable car was managed by the Exploitation On Cable, the state organization in charge of all Soviet Georgia’s aerial tramways. Currently the park area still belongs to the state but it is leased, operated, and maintained by the private investor Badri Kakabadze who covers all the technical costs.
The 1990s were bleak times for everyone and everything and Kutaisi’s ropeway was no exception. Yet, it managed to operate throughout the difficult decade, providing much needed transport to those who lived nearby the park. Criminals on the loose were also regular passengers, a detail which proved to be a blessing for the line as it saved it from widespread robbery.
“As machines of any kind grew obsolete and there was no money to purchase replacements, people were after all sort of metal scrap. At times we took turns to guard it at night.”
And, despite the regular blackouts, Jaiani takes pride in the fact that passengers were never left hanging over the gorge.
“The worst that could happen was the sudden turn off of the electricity, which used to occur quite often in those times. A special generator supported the system in those instances and provided enough energy for the wagon s to keep operating.”
The rampant violence left its signs on the cars.
“In the early days of independence almost everyone had a gun. To protect the wagons we used to leave the wagons suspended half-way. One day we found that the wagons had bullet holes, obviously someone thought it was an appealing target to shoot at.”