Nuclear Neighbour: Ski Iran
Words by Matt Ryan
Pictures by Katharine Leney
Published August 2008
We head to the Middle East to ski and snowboard in the Iranian ski resorts of Dizin and Shemshak and encounter the sweetness of the locals shining through the looming shadow of nuclear concern.
Nearly a year has passed since we sat beside Lake Geneva debating the location of our New Year snow trip. The usual suspects came up; Val Thorens, Courchevel, somewhere in Italy, but there was little real enthusiasm for the Alps this year. They're in our backyards after all and besides, are hideously expensive and the local culture has been heavily eroded by the advance of Irish bars and Mexican grills! So, when somebody threw Iran into the mix, we more or less instantly agreed.
There were some concerns, naturally: two physicists and an engineer both working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, planning on travelling to what was George’s 'axis of evil', at a time when he was mulling over a few bombing raids on the Eye-ranian folks’ nuclear activities! Images were conjured up of being chained to a clandestine centrifuge for a few years, but balls to the politicians - we wanted to see the country, meet the people, experience the ancient culture and ride those massive Iranian mountains.
Even Tehranian traffic won't stop us!
Six months later, clutching our (easily obtained) visas, we effortlessly sailed through immigration to collect our gear in the arrivals hall of Tehran's Imam Khomeinei Airport. The following day, navigating Tehran's diabolical traffic by employing several death-defying, street crossing maneouvres, with a brief stop to admire the murals on the walls of the former US embassy, we made it to the Iranian Ski Federation to enquire about getting to and staying at two of the largest resorts in Iran; Dizin and Shemshak. It turned out that our options were limited; only one hotel to stay at and one way to get there. The extremely helpful people at the Ski Federation arranged a triple room at Hotel Dizin and booked our taxi.
"We have a lot of gear so we really need someone with a roof rack", we explained. "Yes yes, he has roof rack! Don't worry!”
Next day our taxi arrived at the hotel, sans roof rack. Heads were scratched, brows furrowed, but no one could figure out a way to get three large people, three large backpacks, a 168cm snowboard and a pair of 195cm skis into the shiny Peugeot 406 that waited patiently for us on the side of the road. Mohammed, our main contact in Tehran, negotiated us out of a cancellation fee and arranged for another taxi. Morteza, our driver hereon, arrived a few hours later; we strapped our gear to his roof rack and began the (now) night time journey north to the Alborz Mountains.
New Year's Eve in the Iranian Hills
New Year's Eve dawned bright and sunny through the windows into our modest hotel room and having parted with just $12 each for our lift passes, we headed for the main gondola. Problem; the panniers of the vintage, 1950’s gondolas were not designed for today's wide powder skis, and there was absolutely nowhere to put a snowboard.
With no alternative, we all piled into the cabin with skis and snowboard and began the painfully slow ascent to 3400m, the doors perilously ajar. We now had ample time to study the terrain. One thing that struck us is that the pistes are not really marked, leaving the whole mountain wide open; we looked with relish at the seemingly endless untracked fresh snow. One word of caution, there is no ski patrol and no avalanche control. Certainly bring your transceivers, though you’ll be the only ones wearing them. We spent the whole day riding the powder just off the so-called pistes and riding the runs down to the village, the dry powdery snow noticeably different to what I’d been used to in the Alps, a joy to ride!
New Year's Eve was not the most rock 'n' roll night we’ve ever had; alcohol is banned in the Islamic Republic and the only place to go to in Dizin is, well, the Hotel Dizin! If aprés ski is an essential aspect of your snow holiday, Iran may not be for you! The weather that night closed in and, with no gladed runs to assist our bearings, scuppered our plans for riding on New Year's Day. With the forecast predicting a continuation of this weather front for the rest of the week, we decided to go off on a tour of the country and then finish off our trip with a few more days riding the Alborz.
A home away from home?
Morteza, our previous taxi driver, came to take us back to Tehran and we got our first real taste of the legendary hospitality of the Iranian people. That evening he invited us back to his house for dinner with his family and following a magnificent meal, with much good feeling, we were allowed to depart, but only after promising to visit again before we returned to Switzerland.
And so began our tour of Iran, that took us first to Esfahan, to see the incredibly ornate mosques in Imam Square and the architecturally delightful bridges spanning the river Zayandeh, then on to Shiraz, the home of roses, nightingales and winemaking, where we were given a glass of shiraz in the home of yet another generous and hospitable soul. We stopped at Perseopolis and Parsagadae to see the remains of the capital cities of Darius and Xerxes, Kings of the ancient Persians before journeying on to Yazd, between the Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut deserts. We experienced the first snowfall here in a generation, giving us a unique perspective on the air-cooling badgirs and the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence.
Iranian peasant food fit for a British King!
For the most part, the local food consisted of rice and kebabs, which fast became monotonous, but we sampled much finer examples of Iranian cuisine: the aubergine khoresht (a stew) was fantastic, the fessunjun (roast chicken with walnuts and pomegranates) certainly very interesting, the dolmeh (stuffed vegetables) amazing, with the dizi (mutton and chickpea stew) being the archetype of tasty and satisfying peasant food, that the middle-classes eulogise and celebrity chefs will dress up, and charge a fortune for. On average, we paid a paltry US$5 or US$6 for a starter (of yoghurt and bunches of fresh herbs), main course, tea and sweets.
And the people…the people!
Everywhere we went we could barely walk 100m without people stopping to greet us: “Where are you from?”, “Welcome to Iran!”, “This is my mobile number, you need anything call me!”. It was overwhelming. A country full of religious fundamentalists intent on the destruction of the West it is most definitely not! Many times we were invited to dinner in people’s homes, and it was only our train or bus timetables that prevented us from accepting.
Vodka tipple on the hills & goodbye Morteza
At the end of our travels we journeyed north again to round off our trip with a few more days on that beautiful powder. We returned to Dizin for a couple of days and found a group of hardcore Swedish skiers checking the place out and extolled the incredible lines that they had found in a nearby valley. We spent some more time riding (just) off-piste again and then stuffed our gear (and me!) into a taxi, with my fellow travellers instead hitching a ride in a 4x4, on our way to spend a few days in the neighbouring resort of Shemshak.
Shemshak is much smaller, as far as infrastructure is concerned, than Dizin, but Shemshak is considered to be the resort of choice for the advanced rider. Yep, I fell a lot, including out of the chair lift a few times! Iranians seem to regard the safety bar in much the same way as they regard seatbelts; an enigmatic decoration but of no conceivable purpose. There are very few runs at Shemshak and again, off-piste is the order of the day. The terrain is certainly much steeper and more challenging than Dizin and you have to be careful to avoid the abandoned and snow-covered quarries.
We bumped into Kaveh and Kami at lunchtime, two guys from Tehran fortunate enough, by Iranian standards, to be studying abroad. They took us a little way off from the main chair with splendid views of the mountains and produced a bottle of vodka made from grapes by the Armenian Christian population in Iran. It’s illegal for the Armenians to give it to anyone outside their communities, but when was prohibition ever effective? Anyway, it was delicious but does nothing for your ability to cope with the terrain. After a couple more runs it was time to call it a day, to finish off the vodka that Kaveh gave us and play poker. Two things I never thought I’d do in Iran.
Our unfailing Morteza returned and, after another meal with his family, dropped us off at the airport, leaving us with warm, life-long memories and a little puzzled at how Iran can be so vilified in the West.
Maybe international politics, on both sides of the Bosphorus, is just schoolyard bullying on a global playground - and it certainly shouldn’t deter us from visiting!
So, take your boards, take your skis and go to Iran, but be sure to set aside the time to see as much of this amazing country as you can.