Iran’s biggest secret: the skiing’s great
Sick of the braying hordes of Meribel and Val d’Isère? Looking for a more exotic ski holiday? Then head for Tehran. Comedian Dom Joly finds beautiful peaks and great powder in the heart of the Axis of Evil
It all started with a photograph in a magazine I picked up in a Parisian dentist’s waiting room. Anyway, I was flicking through the pages when I saw this great photo. It was of two women in full burkhas, the all-encompassing black robes favoured by women in strict Islamic countries. So far, so ethnic, but these women, so representative of everything that is alien and strange to us about Islam, were skiing. It was a striking image and I had to know more.
Middle Eastern skiing did not come as a complete surprise to me because I grew up and learnt to ski in Lebanon, which has some wonderful slopes. The picture in question, however, was taken in Iran, slap bang in the middle of the Axis of Evil. From the moment I found this out I knew that I had to go and see for myself. It took a while, but eventually, I found myself on a plane bound for Tehran.
I had been a little nervous about the journey, especially after a couple of recent sabre-rattling incidents involving the American navy. Fortunately, David Miliband, our hip young Foreign Secretary, is a Facebook friend of mine, so I sent him a message telling him that I was off to Iran for a ski holiday and would he mind postponing any aggressive actions until my return?
To my delight, he replied almost immediately, warning me not to go near one particular area. As it happened, I was not planning to go anywhere near this site, but that’s the kind of one-on-one service I want from my Foreign Secretary. I was suitably impressed.
I’d nearly not been allowed on the plane after a last-minute security check. The suspicious UK official asked me why I was going to Iran.
‘Skiing,’ I relied cheerfully.
He asked me to accompany him into a little room; I imagine there’s going to be a lot of that from now on whenever anyone spots my Iranian visa. Being born in Lebanon immediately guarantees me an anal frisk at US airports. Now that I’ve got an Iranian visa to accompany my ones from Vietnam, China and Syria, I’ll get an even more interesting reception.
Determined to not worry about the future, I tucked into British Midland’s free onboard champagne with gusto. I wasn’t going to see much more of this for a bit in the totally dry Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, just before we landed in Tehran, we hit some turbulence and I spilt a whole glass over my trousers. This made me very paranoid that I would stink of booze and be arrested and flogged the moment I set foot in the airport. All was well, however, and I managed to slip through unflogged and met up with my charming Iranian guide.
He took me on a little whistle-stop tour of the capital before we set off for my final destination, the village of Shemshak, high in the Alborz mountains.
It would not be unfair to say Tehran is a fairly unattractive city, but it’s full of things to look at and has great museums. I paid a quick visit to the Persian Carpet museum, which was amazing; the doorman said I was the first foreigner visitor for three months and he was unbelievably nice to me. This quickly became a running thread as I met one wonderfully friendly and hospitable Iranian after another.
I checked out the Central Bazaar, where I had lunch in a tiny hole-in-the-wall type place, eating delicious Fesenjan chicken in walnut and pomegranate sauce washed down with sweet tea. Being a bit of a cultural heathen, I must admit that my favourite sights in Tehran were the anti-American slogans daubed on the walls of the old US Embassy. There was great revolutionary stuff such as ‘The United States is too weak to do anything’ and ‘We will make America face a great defeat’. A huge sign above the old entrance to the embassy proclaimed a ‘Great Satan Exhibition’, though when I tried to go and see it I was refused entry and told that it was a prohibited military site. I’m sure I’ll catch it when it transfers to the V&A.
The pièce de résistance was painted down the whole side of a block of flats – a huge ‘Down with the USA’ over an American flag with skulls for stars and bombs raining down. My guide was very embarrassed by the whole thing, but I couldn’t get enough of it. Eventually we left the city and headed off in his car towards the impressive mountains that serve as a mighty, snowy backdrop to the Iranian capital.
As is not uncommon in these sorts of destinations, my guide was a big fan of British heavy metal music. I was treated to a track from the new solo album by the former lead singer of Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson, famous for such songs as ‘Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter’. This particular composition was something about swords and warriors and beasts – the usual, awful, heavy metal lyrical content.
My guide was in ecstasy: ‘This Bruce Dickinson, he is great poet yes? He is like English Sufi philosopher.’
I was speechless. There are many things I could call Bruce Dickinson – but Sufi philosopher?
‘You like Judas Priest?’ asked my guide as another godawful song kicked in. This was not the soundtrack I wanted to accompany the staggering scenery we were driving through.
The farther we drove into the mountains, the less I felt the grip of the Islamic state. Here we saw almost none of the endless photos of Ayatollah Khomeini that adorn every wall in Tehran. There were also far fewer women in the all-concealing black burkhas that I’d seen in the photo. When I did spot the occasional one, they looked like fragile black ghosts, only half there and dwarfed by the huge mountains surrounding them.
There were also fewer beards – the obvious sign of devout followers of the Islamic revolution. I’ve always wondered about the relationship between facial hair and revolution. Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Lenin, Marx, the mullahs in Iran, Frank Dobson – all beardy weirdies. Someone should make an in-depth study … But I digress.
As we neared the ski resorts I began to see more and more western-looking Iranians, some in shiny new cars with visible signs of wealth – something I didn’t see too much in Tehran.
‘Mullahs don’t snowboard,’ said my guide, smiling at me, as though reading my thoughts.
After an hour or so we arrived in Shemshak, at an altitude of 2,550m. The weather was perfect: blue skies and fresh powder on the slopes. I checked into Hotel Shemshak, which was right on the slopes. It looked like an old Austrian ski lodge and had a restaurant and a bar (coffee and soft drinks only, of course) as well as some very smiley staff who seemed thrilled to see me.
A huge poster in the hall proclaimed that it was the duty of a Muslim to look after a traveller and to reimburse him should any of his belongings go missing; all excellent stuff. My room had a balcony that allowed me to look straight on to a piste and you could ski straight out of the front door down to the nearest lift.
The chairlifts were installed by the French in the pre-revolutionary 1970s, but seemed to be in very good working order. As it was the middle of the week, the place was not at all busy, though I was told it gets quite packed at weekends when skiers from Tehran swarm into the valley. I quickly changed and got in a couple of runs before sunset.
The snow was perfect, the views spectacular and I had to pinch myself to remember that I was in Iran. The only hint was the gleam of sunlight off the golden roof of a Shia shrine far down in the valley. Around me everyone was in expensive ski gear, complete with designer shades. The only thing lacking was a couple of glühweins at the two mountain cafes on the piste. I had to satisfy myself with a double espresso.
The following day I drove up to Dizin, the next, and largest, of the ski resorts. It was higher up (2,650m) and a little bit more regulated than the more cosmopolitan Shemshak. Until very recently the slopes were segregated, with women skiing on one side and men the other and a big fence plonked down in the middle of the mountain. This turned out to be pretty unenforceable as none of the religious police who monitor this sort of thing could ski.
The lifts, however, were still segregated, with two lines, one for women and one for men. It was also illegal for men and women to share a gondola. That said, the place was still very carefree, and at a cafe halfway down one of the pistes everybody mingled happily, knocking back coffees and smoking like it was going out of style. House music was playing on the outdoor PA, with a female singer, another thing that is technically illegal: apparently a lady singing could arouse me too much. As with lots of things in Iran, everybody just turns a blind eye.
Most people on the slopes were skiers, though there was a small community of snowboarders. The whole place is incredibly cheap by western standards too, though locals complained that
a day’s skiing was now the equivalent of £8 rather than the £2 it cost until recently.
Overall, the skiing was superb everywhere I went. I was incredibly lucky with the weather and had sun and blue skies every day. The pistes are varied and interesting enough to keep an average skier happy for a week or so, and the off-piste skiing is amazing and very challenging. I didn’t see a single westerner during my whole stay. Personally I loved this, but it might freak out some people. A journalist for a Norwegian ski magazine wrote about some of the fabulous off-piste skiing in this area of Iran and for a couple of years it became quite the hip spot for young Norwegians, but they have all now moved on to Kashmir so you’ll have the place to yourselves.
I even solved the no drinking problem with extreme ease – but can’t go into this too much as I would get some of the Iranian home-brewers I met into trouble. Suffice to say that there was no shortage of refreshments should they be needed.
On my last night, after a meal of lamb and aubergine stew served with mountains of rice and sweet tea, I retired to my room. I was just stretching my weary body when I heard something outside. I opened the door and stepped on to my balcony.
About 100m away on the empty, floodlit piste sat two huge grey wolves, howling at the bright moon. The Sufi poet Bruce Dickinson would have loved it. The wolves must have heard me because they stopped their howling and, for a second, our eyes met. Then the sound of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer filled the steep valley, echoing around the still, moonlit mountains. The wolves bolted into the darkness; I shivered and stepped back inside.
There are tiny moments in life that you know will stay with you forever.
·l Dom Joly travelled with Persian Voyages (01306 885894; persianvoyages.com). It can organise an eight-day tailor-made itinerary including visits to Dizin and Shemshak, flights, accommodation, transfers and breakfasts, from £1,050. Eight-day non-skiing trips visiting Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz cost from £1,150.
Dom flew with British Midland (0870 6070 555; flybmi.com) which recently launched daily flights from Heathrow to Tehran (from £481 return) as part of an expansion to 17 new destinations across the Middle East, Africa and Russia.
Sixty-second guide to Iran
Is it safe?
Yes, despite the embarrassing incident with the Royal Navy, and violent protests outside the British Embassy, in general Iran is very safe for tourists. Street crime is low. The Foreign Office says the main incident British nationals required consular assistance with in the country in 2006 was lost or stolen passports. It warns against going within 100km of the border with Afghanistan and 10km of the border with Iraq, and of the general possibility of terrorist attack. It also notes that there are lots of accidents in Iran caused by reckless driving.
Do I need a visa?
Yes. They can be obtained in person from the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran at 16 Prince’s Gate, London SW7, open Monday to Friday 12.30 to 4pm. Tourist visas are valid for 30 days and cost £73 for British citizens. Alternatively, several agencies can apply for a visa for you: call the embassy on 020 7225 3000 for details. The process takes about three weeks.
Is the skiing any good?
There are two main ski resorts in Iran, Dizin and Shemshak, both less than two hours’ drive from Tehran. While lifts are older than in Europe and the ski areas aren’t as extensive as the Alpine mega-resorts, the resorts are high and snow conditions can be excellent. Iranian’s don’t tend to venture far off-piste, so experts will find little competition for fresh powder.
Which resort should I pick?
Shemshak in the Alborz mountain range is more suitable for expert skiers and snowboarders. At 2,550 metres it is the lower of the two, but the lifts take you to over 3,000 metres and the slopes are steeper. Dizin is the largest ski area and is more developed, with good terrain for beginners and intermediate skiers too. The resort is at 2,650 metres (a full 350 metres higher than Europe’s highest resort) and the lifts reach 3,600 metres. There are great views to Mount Damavand too.
What else is there to do?
Tehran has some great museums and palaces, but most Western visitors rush off to see the beautiful old Persian capital of Esfahan, south of Tehran, which is famed for its magnificent mosques covered in exquisite blue mosaic tiles, decorative bridges and sprawling bazaar. If you have time, you should also visit the ancient towns of Shiraz, Persepolis and Yazd.
How long is the flight?
About five hours; Tehran is three-and-a-half hours ahead of the UK.