The Other Side of Iran

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The Other Side of Iran

Last Valentine’s Day I got a text from our summer-cottage neighbours who live in Virginia. “Happy VD, Canada! What are you up to?”

“We just arrived in Tehran,” I texted back, grinning. “Skiing some big mountains tomorrow—staying at a plastics and chemical plant tonight.”

“Good grief! Sounds like suicide,” was the delayed reply. Followed by “Is the CIA monitoring our texts?”

Life experiences are about risk and reward, right?

For instance, we all know skiing isn’t risk-free but it’s statistically much safer than tobogganing or hockey—and the rewards are far greater.

Travelling, itself, has its inherent risks, too. Still those risks simply aren’t as big as some people believe, even after the Ukraine Airlines tragedy in Tehran that shook the world. I live in a city where there were 484 shootings last year, so whoever started the ominous and misappropriate send off of “Safe travels!” I think is misinformed—and missing out on some big experiences.

As I (re)write this in mid-January, the world waits to learn the final fallout of Trump’s assassination orders on Iran’s most powerful military commander, and now martyr, General Qasem Soleimani. Meanwhile, just beyond the mainstream media’s cameras seemingly reserved only for filming protests, a very normal, peaceful and safe life goes on for the vast majority of ordinary Iranians. Including those who just want to go play in the mountains.

The ski slopes of Iran may sound like an extreme choice of a Lonely Planet holiday destination, yet friends Bill and Karen from Calgary, neighbour Janer, most of our kids on university reading weeks and a couple of ski buddies, Holly and Trevor, were all-in when I suggested the idea. I had earlier found the most wonderful new friend online, mountain guide Hamed Havaleh Dar and his adventure tour operation Iran Plateau, and after a few hurdles obtaining my required journalist visa, we found ourselves ploughing through powder-choked mountain-access roads while learning Farsi from our always-smiling van driver whose name we’d quickly mangled into “Mr. Grand Marie.”

Skiing in Iran has a similar history and timeline to many alpine nations, with the notable exception being most infrastructure hasn’t changed since the Shah was deposed in 1979. The spectacular peaks of the Alborz Mountains just north of Tehran (as well as the Zagros Mountains that run more parallel to Iraq frontier to the south and west) are matched by enormous snowfalls and weeks of sunshine that fall in between. At 5,610m, Iran’s highest peak, the potentially active stratovolcano Damavand, would tower above the 4,810m Mont Blanc between Chamonix and Courmayeur. While Hamed is happy to take acclimatized clients ski-touring up Damavand, a more gentle start is just a few steps away from the posh high-rise apartments that creep up the slopes on the northern city limits of Tehran.

Tochal ski area is reached by a seven-km Poma gondola, where the upper lift tops out at 3,850m and offers commanding views down onto the 15-million inhabitants of Tehran. With snow only at the top, it was oddly reminiscent of skiing Vancouver’s Grouse, Cypress or Seymour. We put in a few morning warm-up laps on some groomers before donning the skins and heading up and away from the weekend throngs to start a nine-km memorable route in a glorious untouched and treeless landscape. As we dropped in elevation, set up photos, stopped for lunch, sunscreen and jokes with our four friendly mountain guides, traversed past mysterious caves, coaxed Janer down a few challenging steeps and crossed a river, the quiet ruins of Naseri Fortress at Shahrestanak valley came into view.

The midday sun had turned to afternoon as we slid up to Hamed’s pickup, waiting at around 2,200m, and miraculously piled everyone and all our gear into and onto it in our 4WD search for Mr. Grand Marie’s van. We looked like the Grinch headed for Mount Crumpet, but less than an hour away lay Iran’s biggest ski resorts of Dizin and, on the other side of a sometimes-open winter road, Shemshak. We spent several days ripping laps under and just beyond austere lifts in untouched knee-deep, and ski-touring even farther.

Calgary’s Bill “Buns of Steel” Macdonald drops a few lunges in Persina posder before heading to his favourite shisha lounge.

On chairlifts or gondolas, après-ski tea or gas station stops, on the street in the middle of the day or under the bridge singing songs with strangers late at night…we were invited into conversation, offered food and drink, and often had our photos taken. We lived with doors unlocked, left gear unattended, wandered everywhere and never once felt unsafe.

We quickly learnt that Persians are not Arabs, and unlike 90 per cent of the Muslim world, the Shias of Iran are not Sunnis. It seemed minarets were quieter than other Muslim countries we’ve been to. The women in our group found the mandatory headscarves (although not always mandatory) annoying, but more because of peripheral vision and hearing than anything else. A ski helmet or toque seemed to qualify, as well. Apart from our visas, 100 per cent of our trip was spent in cash as we traded directly with Iranians who are teetering on economic disaster brought on by Trump’s sanctions. Foreign diplomacy by grassroots tourism.

I can’t imagine there are many destinations more deeply full of misconceptions than Iran. For almost two weeks we were met with nothing but kindness, generosity, curiosity and a host of other superlatives that describe welcoming Persians whose hearts are bigger than their mountains. When things calm down, we’ll return to these mountains, deserts, history and people. And in the meantime, if you’re curious:

Unlike EU passport holders, an adventure to Iran for Canadians must go through a licenced tour operator. Start with IFMGA mountain guide, visa-facilitator and all-round fixer Hamed Havaleh Dar:

Passionate young powderhound Baptiste Baudier road trips in his RV from Grenoble to Iran every winter researching, photographing and promoting Persia’s many ski options.

from Winter 2020 issue

from the archives

Iain MacMillan
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