Katskhi Pillar, the holy hermitage
Maybe just for it, I would have come to Georgia. Lost in the middle of Imereti hills, built – who knows how! – on a 40-meters monolith, the hermitage on the top of the Katski Pillar has been dwelled since 10th/11th century. Its people were monks, ancient stylites, following the footsteps of Saint Simeon, who is said to have lived on top of a column for 37 years, in Aleppo. From a distance the Pillar has a magnetic charm, reminds of the Meteors in Greece, but with a wilder, solitary and fragile soul, that has attracted worship even in pre-Christian times. Unknwn until the 40s, when it was first ascended by a climber and a writer, he came back to life in 1990, when Maxime Qavtaradze took the monastic vows after a reckless life of excesses (certainly the he was not afraid of height, having been a crane operator in Soviet times!). After his conversion, he devoted himself body and soul to rebuild the church and the monks’ cells, being a “confessor” for young people who came to visit him, keeping on climbing the metal ladder perched on the rock, till death.
I reach Katskhi Pillar after endless talks and questions at marshrutkas’ station in Kutaisi, until I find the one heading to Chiatura (see the timetables here: what is difficult is to find the right marshrutka, since none of the drivers speak English). I get off 10 kilometers before the city, stressing the driver I manage to locate the exact place, where my seat neighbour, clearly living there, offers to give me a lift to the hermitage (I try to give him a tip and he gets offended… his blue Mercedes, in fact, should have actually made me understand something).
I enjoy the sunshine under my wonder – until a few years ago men could climb it, like Mount Athos, today it is forbidden to everyone – I get to know two nice Spanish girls from Barcelona, then finally run away on the road, where I stop another marshrutka going to Chiatura, just 10 km away.
The “flying tin coffins” of Chiatura
As in the first part of the route, I am the only foreign tourist: what reason should you have – this is the remark read in several blogs – to go and visit the horrible, poor mining Stalin’s town? That Chiatura that in the golden years provided 60% of worldwide manganese production, and is now almost a ghost town? Obviously there’s a reason, and it is the канатная дорога, the “road with the rope” with still several cabins working, that attract vintage lovers but also carries on the top of the hill the locals who incredibly still live in the old unfit Soviet blocks. During Chiatura’s golden age, there were 4.000 workers who climbed the hills surrounding the city every day to go to the mines. To speed up their daily routine, Stalin in 1954 had ordered the construction of the 17 cable cars.
I immediately find one of the stations and join a group of tourists (mostly from Eastern Europe) who get on a rusty and unsafe-looking cabin (they call them “the flying tin coffins of Chiatura”), while a kind lady after a few screams and some loud ringing puts it into operation. The climb is a thrilling adventure: you can try to see something only opening the front-window, and slowly the whole town appears, while you still wonder about the solidity of the metal cables. Joking about our safety I get to know Lubova, a Ukrainian girl visiting her sister who has married a Georgian man. We start to wander and take pictures on the top of the hill, crowned by a big cross. During our trip we meet ladies who disappear with dignity inside these so shabby buildings, mostly deserted, apart from a few apartments still lived in the midst of rust.
Lubova speaks with a local lady – fluent Russian helps a lot – and persuades me to visit the nearby Mgvimevi monastery, that turns out to be a real gem, carved out of the rock in the 8th century, with frescoes dating back to that time and a very precious engraved wooden door. In the darkness of the nave we also see a huge rock, a stalagmite that keeps on growing because of the fall of thin rain, until we are chased away by the nuns, who close the monastery to the public.
I am looking for a marshrutka to come back to Kutaisi, but unluckily on the web I have found misleading information, therefore I just have to “get screwed” by the first taxi driver at the station, who brings me back to Kutaisi for an “astronomical” 18 euros’ tariff.
Even tonight I end up not being alone. The restaurant I have chosen, on the main square as well, is very full, therefore I share my table with Erik, concerts organizer in Eastern Berlin, who between one beer and another tells me about the underground scene of the city…