x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Iran: neither Vail nor veils

Once the playground of the Shah, the ski slopes of Iran are like nowhere else in the world as Minty Clinch, an experienced off-piste skier, is thrilled to discover.

Once the playground of the Shah, the ski slopes of Iran are like nowhere else in the world as Minty Clinch, an experienced off-piste skier, is thrilled to discover.

On a perfect February morning, I snapped into my faithful Pocket Rockets (off-piste skis) and launched myself into the powder. Ahead of me, Jonathan and Carolyn, my fellow travellers, laid perfect figure 8s on virgin snow. Above me, chairlifts and gondolas swung gently in the still air. When we paused for breath, we could see base stations and a hotel in the valley below. Courchevel, Verbier, Jackson Hole? Not quite, but, in its way, Dizin, at 2,650m above sea level in the Alborz Mountains to the north of Tehran, is as intriguing as any of them. When you say you are going skiing in Iran, people look at you oddly. Many don't know it's possible, so they ask if there are any lifts. The answer is yes, lots, thanks to the Shah, an enthusiast who spent most of his winters in St Moritz. Fortunately for his compatriots, he realised the potential in the Alborz, a glittering range of peaks overlooking the capital city, and installed two-man chairs and those oval, brightly coloured gondolas the French call oeufs (eggs). In the 1950s and 1960s, they were state-of-the-art; nearly half a century later, they still do the job. Some of those who do know you can ski in Iran imagine that the slopes are gender segregated, with a rope down the middle of the piste, or that men and women have to go on designated days. Wrong. Some of the base stations have separate lift lines, an advantage for women because theirs are ­generally ­shorter, but otherwise everyone goes where they like. Head gear, always an issue in a country where women must cover hair and ears whenever they go out, is relaxed to the point of allowing hats instead of the scarves required elsewhere. We'd travelled to Iran by train from Istanbul, a three-day adventure that included a ferry across Lake Van, at a bargain basement rate of US$95 (Dh349) each. We shared the journey with a handful of continental adventurers and some alert Iranian traders returning from a shopping trip. In Turkey, we ate well, played Scrabble and Oh Hell (a card game) and enjoyed our last glasses of beer before we hit prohibition in Iran.

When you say you are going skiing in Iran, people look at you oddly. Many don't know it's possible, so they ask if there are any lifts. The answer is yes, lots, thanks to the Shah, an enthusiast who spent most of his winters in St Moritz. Fortunately for his compatriots, he realised the potential in the Alborz, a glittering range of peaks overlooking the capital city, and installed two-man chairs and those oval, brightly coloured gondolas the French call oeufs (eggs). In the 1950s and 1960s, they were state-of-the-art; nearly half a century later, they still do the job.

At the border, the Iranian traders and their mountains of goods for sale were marched off for a grilling and a substantial payment, while our bags sat open but uninspected in our compartment. They could have been full of vodka, though they weren't: we were far too nervous about being turned back to risk anything like that. For the rest of the journey, we lay on our bunks and panted, our first taste of Iran's passion for overheating. When we arrived in Tehran six hours late at midnight, we were glad we'd pre-ordered a taxi with a roof-rack to carry our ski bags. The small saloon had barely enough room for four people so loading everything onto the rack required half an hour of finely-tuned roping. A hotel in Tehran or straight up to Shemshak, Dizin's sister resort, where we planned to stay? Nazur was in favour of the longer journey. Yes, he knew the road to Shemshak - he didn't - and he would find us a hotel - after several hairy ascents on snowy roads to check out brightly lit buildings, he had to admit he couldn't. At least he didn't throw us out in the snow: for the three remaining hours till daylight, we slumped cosily and dozed fitfully, engine running, heating on full blast. The grey dawn revealed Shemshak's straggling main street and a lot of skeleton high-rise buildings, future uncertain, purpose unknown. There was also a chain across the road to the only hotel and 264 icy steps to reach it. Jonathan, as always in overdrive, bounded up them and discovered a primitive pulley lift to take our luggage. We checked into the Royal Suite - two bedrooms, two bathrooms, large living room, our own flight of stairs to admit clandestine visitors - for US$90 (Dh331) per night, divided by three. We ate breakfast and slept. At dusk, our search for a guide started in one of many rental shops on the main street. The owner flourished a two-litre mineral water bottle at Jonathan and asked if he wanted a drink. Essential rehydration? Shemshak village is at 2,550m. No way. "Not for ladies," he said firmly when I asked if I could have some too, though he later relented. This was our first taste of Iranian hospitality, which was spontaneous and immensely generous wherever we went. Within a couple of minutes, our host rang an English-speaking friend to ask for help. He invited us to his apartment to meet the ski instructors he lived with and it was game on. On a Saturday evening, he told his kid brother in Tehran to buy prime beef and drive up: by midnight, the kebabs were grilling on a barbecue on the terrace. You don't get that in Val d'Isère. We learnt that making moonshine is a cottage industry in Iran, but staying up late wasn't a problem because the following day was one of many compulsory national holidays. That's holidays for shops, markets, lift companies, museums and most other forms of entertainment, leaving everyone at a bit of a loose end. As the snow drifted gently down, Shemshak was revealed as a playground for Tehran's elite, with opulent villas behind high iron gates on the outskirts and gleaming Japanese 4x4s squeezing past each other in the downtown area. Our new friends drove us to Darbandsar, a tiny novice resort with a couple of lifts between Shemshak and Dizin, for a bit of tubing on the nursery slope. The next day the skies cleared and it was time to ski. We started as soon as the lifts opened at 8am, charging for the chair just below our chalet-style hotel to make first tracks on the corduroy before breakfast. Shemshak, inaugurated in 1958, is older, smaller and more hardcore than Dizin, with more advanced terrain and several decent mogul fields. A 45-minute ridge walk, skis on shoulders, accessed interesting off-piste options. The mid-mountain cafe is cheerful, with chairs set out in the snow. A Glühwein would make it perfect, but high flyers, male and female, find compensation in shisha pipes passed from mouth to mouth. For those in the know, there is also an après ski bar with a log fire, carpets to lie on and other delights run on a very impromptu basis by a veteran charmer who skied with the Shah. The road to Dizin, 5km away across the shoulder of the mountain, ends in a car park at the top of the lift system. Opened in 1969, Dizin has the same purpose-built concrete architecture as its Alpine contemporaries. So it's not pretty but it is very user-friendly for skiers of all levels. A dozen lifts serve a network of well-groomed pistes, many of them gentle descents suitable for advanced beginners and intermediates. A pass in either resort costs $15 (Dh55) per day. Iranian men dress like peacocks in the latest designer clothes and ski like demons, putting in awesome numbers of high energy short turns. The women, streaked hair escaping naughtily from under their hats, are less frenetic but equally keen. Seen close up in the lift line, they flaunt dazzling smiles, cheeks and eyelids flecked with gold, curly eyelashes thick with mascara. Fortunately for the very few foreigners who ski in the Alborz, the Iranians are powder-averse. So there we were, two Brits, a Canadian - Carolyn - and a couple of guys from the Norwegian embassy with most of the mountain to ourselves. The vertical drop is around 1,000m, plenty of snow to play with when you're free to go wherever you dare. At this height in a semi-desert climate, the snow is light and dry - aka ego-perfect - and we made fresh tracks for several glorious blue sky days. In the evenings, we visited Shemshak's coffee bars. Playland, the most popular, has a billiards room, regrettably closed down for a month in high season following "rowdy behaviour" the week before. The alternative was table football, watched by Hollywood icons - Eastwood, Pacino, Brando and Bogart- in life-size posters on the walls. By the time it closed at 11pm, we had more new friends to call on. Iran has 16 ski resorts, some around Tabriz near the Turkish border, others in the Zagros Mountains near Shiraz, but only Shemshak and Dizin match up to foreign expectations. For the adventurous, touring is an excellent option, with Mount Damavand, a volcanic peak 50km north-east of Tehran, as the regional honeypot for seriously fit experienced skiers. At 5,671m, it is the highest mountain in Iran, similar to Tanzania's Kilmanjaro (5,895m) as far as altitude and degree of difficulty are concerned. The hook is 3,000 vertical metres of downhill skiing, but you've got to reach it first. That means using climbing skins for a recommended three days as you travel uphill. The ascent is possible from January onwards, but conditions are best in March and April. Don't consider it without an experienced guide: dangers include crevasses and strong winds and there are no rescue services. As a first-time visitor on a must-see mission to classical Iran, I gratefully rejected the Damavand loop in favour of the overnight bus to Esfahan, the former capital with its magical domed mosque, exotic arched bridges and 3km covered medieval market. Next stop, Shiraz, the gateway to Persepolis, started by Darius I in 515BC and destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330BC. A tragedy, but Darius chose his site and his climate well. The ruins fill a sunny bowl with empty views to distant horizons and the many the bas reliefs of people and animals are as vivid as the day they were carved. All too soon it was time to return to Tehran and check out its ski fix, a four-stage gondola leaving from the northern suburbs to Tochal and climbing 3,850m. The network of runs on the upper section make up the fourth highest ski area in the world. Or so the Iranians claim. It certainly felt that way as we negotiated them in a blizzard that suggested there were weeks of powder still to come. Tehran itself is ugly and sprawling, but never threatening, even when wandering around at night. The museums and the Shah's former palaces are the focus for culturally-minded travellers. Shoppers will find whole streets of shops selling widescreen digital televisions and top-of-the- range music systems in addition to traditional markets. Factor in lavish parties in penthouse apartments and Tehran is as contemporary and varied as any of the world's capitals.

And it is sometimes, at least, as ­cunning. A stroll near the main bazaar brought a tap on the shoulder from a handsome youth. He was a student, he said, and he asked what were by now familiar questions to which we had ready answers: we're from Inglestan, very impressed with Iran and having a great time. Similar chats came up several times a day, usually no more than a chance to practice English and show good will. Not this time, however. Our new best friend took a while to arrive at his real agenda, but arrive there he did and soon we were in the heart of the bazaar drinking tea as his equally charming brother flipped open carpet after carpet for our inspection. Embarrassingly, I'd fallen for a fraternal double act so famous that it features in Lonely Planet's guide to Iran. Then again, I did want a carpet and Jonathan proved an inventive negotiator. Falling among thieves - unusual in Iran - is rarely as entertaining as this proved to be.

The logistics Citizens of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Singapore, Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina can stay in Iran for up to three months without a visa. An authorisation code is required for visitors from all other countries. To be granted one, most visitors obtain a letter of introduction, usually from a tour operator or a hotel. Americans must book a prepaid itinerary. For more information, visit www.iranvisa.co.uk. Iranian-owned Magic Carpet Travel (www.magiccarpettravel.co.uk; 0044 1344 622832) can help to make arrangements for citizens from countries not mentioned above for US$200 (Dh735). Foreign credit cards are not accepted in Iran; payments in the country must be made in cash - in US dollars or rials. The paperwork The Iranian embassy in Abu Dhabi (02 444 7678) is situated in the behind Abu Dhabi Exhibition Centre. The flight Return fares from Abu Dhabi to Tehran on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from $374 (Dh1,375).