Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Skiers paradise - in the Iranian desert

Some traditionally dressed Iranian women take the ski lifts all the way to the top to admire the view.
Then return the same way. At least they don't have to worry about putting on sun protection cream.  

It is quite rare to see Bedouins come to Northern Europe looking for patches of sand to explore. Just about as rare as seeing Norwegians travelling to the Middle East to go skiing. But amazing conditions in Iranian mountains ought to change that.

Wanja celebrating her completed skiing course. 
Skiing conditions in Norway are great and slopes are plentiful. And Norwegians are even born with skis on their feet, or at least that's how the saying goes. That is however clearly not the case with Wanja Buanes, a friend of mine from back home in Naustdal. She is 35 years old, yet has never skied.

- You should learn to ski in Iran, I told her.

Øystein dressed for the occasion. 
She thought I was crazy. A lot of people do, given my travels to “strange” or less known countries. But I meant it, and she actually decided to come along with Øystein Djupvik, another friend of ours from our home village. Øystein Djupvik. Yeah, the guy who has driven to more countries in the world in 24 hours than anyone else. I was lucky enough to be designated map reader.

But enough about Europe.

Dizin and Shemshak
Sit down and enjoy the view.
Iran does in fact has several amazing skiing slopes with incredible conditions and complete with lifts, hotel complexes and a fantastic scenery second to none. The skiing villages of Dizin and Shemshak are located in breathtaking and beautiful 3-4000 meter high mountains only two hours’ drive from Tehran, the capital. Rather surprising really, given that you will land at an airport in the desert.

Wanja did indeed learn how to ski, through her own local skiing instructor. The 18 year old seemed older than his actual age, and came with vast amounts of experience.

Mount Damāvand in the background. 
- I am a skiing instructor. My dad is a skiing instructor. And my mom is a skiing instructor, he told me at 3,150 meters above sea level behind big skiing glasses. I could see my own refelction in them. His bright coloured skiing gear was a lot more impressive than mine. I wore some knackered running trousers and a big black jacket over three layers of wool and cotton.

Dizin has 8-10 ski lifts of various kinds. 
The best part was that his eminent skiing services cost less than 80USD for a full day. Renting skis and a lift pass each cost half that. Such a moderate price level pretty much saved Wanja her entire ticket to Iran, as opposed to have learned how to ski at home.

Cheaper flying to Iran than within Norway
Three local snowboarders. 
Then again, flying from Oslo to Tehran only set us back 370 USD per person for a return flight. Not bad, given it's a 10 hour journey via Istanbul. To have flown the 50 minutes to the skiing slopes on the Norwegian West Coast - on a direct flight with a 50 seat propellor plane - would have cost each of us 495 USD. Not to mention much higher prices for renting equipment and a ski instructor - in much lower mountains and shorter slopes.

We had great days skiing in the mountains surrounding Dizin. And from the very top of the slope, we could even see Mount Damāvand, the highest in the country with its 5,610 meters.

Øystein 60 seconds before breaking a rib. 
The only downside was that Øystein broke a rib while snowboarding.

- The conditions were just too good, so I was tempted to jump higher than I should have. It’s been 10 years since last time, so I am out of practice, he explained.

Luckily the pain killers in Iran are much stronger than in Europe, and much cheaper. He ate a few of them the following days.

The after-ski doesn't quite deliver
Me, chilling on the top of a café on top of the world. 
Skiing in Iran might be world-class, but the afterski options - the parties at the bottom of the slopes - are certainly not. The muslim country does not allow the sale of alcohol, so the options are to bring your own from abroad, to buy it illegally on the black market or to locate somone who makes their own wine or liquor. We met some local Iranian snowboarders who had purchased imported vodka. They passed a bottle around to us, every time we took one of the seven ski lifts.
Too right!

- This is our way of protest the government, they said and explained that the government should be changed.

Young people are certainly not too happy with the current leadership and the rather strict rules on everything from drinking to dress code. Quite a few girls we met had ditched their mandatory hijabs, or head scarfs, while skiing.

What would you expect? It's Iran.
- Luckily, the religious police do not know how to ski, so I feel free like a bird up here in the mountains, one of them told me. And put on a big smile. That is certainly not unusual in Iran. But that she did so without covering her long flowing black hair certainly was. Her sense of dress didn't in any way indicate that she was Iranian. What she wore was probably picked up in London, New York or Tokyo. She could afford to travel a bit.

How about experienced snowboarder Øystein - would he prefer skiing in Norway or in Dizin?

- After-ski in Norway, the rest in Dizin, he quipped and laughed.

Traffic hell
On our way back to Tehran we got to experience the infamous traffic. Six lanes of cars challenged the three lane road to the limit, as the traffic very slowly moved towards town. No wonder perhaps, in a city that has 11 million people during the night, and 18 million people during the day. That is how many people commute, primarily by car and busses.

The capital has quite a young population, and we meet several students. They are protesting too, on Facebook and other social media. Most of them are blocked, but they have no problems getting access through the use of VPN. There the girls dress rather daringly, if at all, in their photos. Hijabs are certainly not at all used.

Maybe the country is in for a second revolution. The young population seems to want one.

The last one was in 1979, the year Wanja was born.

Too bad about the stubborn and conservative old religious and political leaders. Which pretty much amounts to the same in Islamic Republic of Iran. They ought to hit the slopes and have some fun.
They might realize what being young is about. And possible even smile again.

A little.

Always watching you, even in the café in the middle of the slopes. 

Not quite Norway, but the road tunnels and the
spectacular mountains  made us feel at home. 

The view between Tehran and Dizin is pretty OK. 
Øystein walking to one of the 8-10 ski lifts. 

Not the most crowded of slopes.

800 height meters or so to the bottom.

Dressed for the occasion.

Anti-American propaganda painted on the outside wall of the former US embassy.

In Grand Bazaar, Tehran. 

In Grand Bazaar, Tehran.

Outside Grand Bazaar.

My first time on skis in years.