Laguna Vere in Tbilisi, Georgia, was once the premier aquatic sports centre in the Caucasus.
For many people, Boxing Day traditionally involves long, pleasant hours spent in front of the television; leftover turkey assimilating itself into the form of salads, soup or curry, and new socks quickly collecting stray pine needles.
These things are all terrific, obviously – but another really exciting thing about the festive season, is that security guards also take holidays from time to time. With this in mind, I trekked out through the knee-deep snow towards an old, abandoned railway station on the edge of town.
Earlier this year I shared a report from my visit to an abandoned factory in the Balkan Mountains. This facility had produced vast shipments of glass items for the Soviet Union, with a train track that led right up to the furnace doors; allowing the efficient delivery of sand from Bulgaria’s Black Sea beaches.
In 1989 the tracks closed, a precursor to the full-scale collapse of Bulgarian Communism in 1990. The glass factory struggled on for a few years, importing its sand by road, before finally grinding to a halt.
Meanwhile, the train depot built to serve both town and factory was given up for dead. The rails fell into disrepair, and entire sections were removed for scrap metal.
It took me around an hour to get to the train station (a much faster walk without the snow), passing on the way a series of industrial units: including a milk factory, a car scrapyard and the entrance to the derelict factory I had visited previously.
Getting inside the station couldn’t have been easier. Several of the single-pane windows at the front of the building had been smashed at some point; I only needed to duck under the jagged shards still hanging from the frame, and I was in.
While I don’t know what security is usually like at the station, I do know that the neighbouring factory is regularly patrolled. One of the great things about this weather however, was that the crisp, unbroken snow surrounding the station gave clear indication that I was alone here.
By this time the sun was hanging low in the sky, its brightness magnified as it reflected obliquely off the endless white snow to cast long, sharp shadows into the train station foyer.
I kept to the corners once inside; the large, glass-panelled foyer felt a little like a fish tank, and whenever the occasional car went by I felt as though I had been put on display. Hopping over the strewn rubble I headed first to the left of the main entrance, into a series of corridors and kitchens.
Here the decay was thick, and peeling paint hung from the walls like shedding skin. In the kitchen itself I found a series of metal wash basins, the remains of an old, catering-size refrigerator and a tall, ceramic-tiled oven – the kind used for cooking pizzas.
A number of doors led off from the main corridor, opening onto washrooms, cupboards, a fire escape… and finally one door which swung slowly open on creaking hinges, to reveal a flight of steps descending to a basement floor.
This lower level was arranged around a long, darkened corridor. For a while I was exploring in the pitch-dark, until I began to open a few of the doors that led off from the main passage; these mostly opened onto storerooms whose small, barred windows looked up at the sky from gutters outside the station building. Some of these narrow slots had been completely buried in the fresh snow – and so what little light managed to bleed through, fell cold and blue across the dusty floors.
As I crept through the basement corridors by torchlight, I was careful to check every darkened corner, scan each shadow around me. The train station provided warmth and shelter from the harsh winter outside, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise to find gypsies or vagrants camping down here.
On this occasion, as it turned out though, I was alone in the building.
In the far corner of the basement I found one room dominated by a large water pipe, arching in from an exterior main and heavily lagged against the subzero temperatures. Another room housed chairs stripped from the waiting room above; their broken and twisted frames throwing elaborate shadows in the harsh winter sunlight.
The darkened rooms and corridors which formed this basement level spread the entire length of the station building, yet featured just one staircase. I left by the same way I came in.
I returned to the main waiting hall above, and this time picked my way towards the other end of the building. Beyond the barren foyer, past the rough marks where chairs once stood affixed to the floor of the waiting area, a single door opened into a ticket office; the square enclosure beyond was walled in with glass, its wooden floors scattered with paper and plaster.
I skimmed through a book of ticket stumps as I passed, but in truth I was more interested in getting behind the glass-panelled kiosk.
It appeared as though this transparent barrier between the waiting hall and back-of-house areas had once been painted black; save for a cluster of glass windows left clear, immediately surrounding the kiosks themselves. In one corner of the hall there were a few broken panes… here I was able to roll under the blacked-out windows, and into the restricted staff quarters beyond.
One central corridor here featured the doors to offices, staff lounges, and what appeared to be residential quarters on the first floor – the latter presumably serving as a home for the station master.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this area of the station was the rich and diverse selection of clutter and personal effects left behind by staff. A deep walnut-coloured cabinet in the hallway opened to reveal a bottom half tightly packed with books, folders, scrolls and blueprints; in another room books had been piled high behind the door, and were now spilling out chaotically towards the centre.
The last room I entered (cracked green paintwork complemented nicely by the rich, red hues of wooden panelling) was partially open to the elements. With a large portion of its windows missing, I only needed to step over the lintel to find myself back out on the platform. Gauging the edge of the platform itself was tricky however, given the heavy, drifting snow that obscured every detail beneath.
This rail station once featured a total of four platforms serving its tracks; while a little further down the rails one of these terminated in a service depot and loading bay. Here, two vast, rail-mounted gantry cranes looming orange and rusty out of the snow made for a truly surreal sight… and a feeling somehow reminiscent of the Battle of Hoth.
As soon as I had seen everything there was to see inside the station itself, I started making my way across tracks and platforms towards these distant wrecks.
Getting closer to the cranes, it soon became apparent just how much damage the machinery had suffered over the years… largely due to weather and neglect.
I had my heart set on climbing, but on inspection of the closest crane it seemed that some of the rungs leading up to the gantry had eroded away altogether. The site around this loading depot was strewn with obsolete mechanisms and the occasional barren carriage, while the rails on which the gantries rested was locked solid with rust.
Being careful to get a good grip on the poles of the ladder rather than its rungs, and spreading my weight as evenly as I could, I made the climb up one of the gantry cranes to the control cabin above. Frost had reduced the leather-padded chair to flakes; leaving only the steering columns, their wheels and a panel of irresistible red and green buttons.
From this first platform, the ladder ascended higher still.
The state of decay was more severe on the upper deck, and twice my foot went through thin, corroded plates of metal. I soon found myself crawling through the snow on all fours, weight spread over as many crossbeams and supporting joists as I was able to reach.
It proved entirely worthwhile… by climbing to the very top gantry I was offered spectacular views over the tracks, the railway station and the mountains beyond. I savoured this vantage point for as long as I could, before eventually climbing back down.
By the time I returned home I was cold, wet, bruised and tired, but satisfied at the same time; and glad to have had this opportunity to peer inside the workings of a long-since dead organ of the communist state.
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