For experienced skiers who have ticked off many of the resorts in the Alps, exotic skiing destinations renowned for their powder hold a special allure. Kashmir, Japan, Russia and Chile are among dream destinations but the ultimate edgy ski trip has to be to Iran. Tourism is growing at a stupendous rate, especially since FCO advice was relaxed for the country last summer.
Overnight snowfalls in excess of 50cm are not uncommon at its two main resorts, in the Alborz mountains north of Tehran. Shemshak is 2,550 metres high, and Dizin 2,650 metres, with slopes up to 3,500 metres, making it the highest resort in the country, with views of Iran’s tallest mountain: 5,610-metre Damavand.
I picked Dizin for a day trip from Tehran in early December: a taxi takes about 90 minutes. Ali, a guide from new operator helped sort out equipment hire (just £8 a day) and a lift pass for £6. I yo-yoed up and down the French-built chairlifts and gondolas a few times and covered a good chunk of the ski area’s nine wide, long, rolling runs and powdery bowls, full of fantastic dry snow.
Men and women are segregated on the lifts but unite at the top and can share food and tiny tumblers of tea in the few cafes and restaurants.
Up here the Islamic dress code strictly enforced in Tehran is casually relaxed. I saw peroxide-blonde hair pouring from under woolly hats and forearms scandalously uncovered.
“Sometimes the gaste-ershad [morality police] come up here, but most are bad skiers so we can escape them,” said Soriah, from Tehran. At the foot of the slopes, she and her friends were drinking cans of non-alcoholic beer and smoking stubby Iranian-made Bahman cigarettes.
“You must have the ghormeh sabzi!” said Soriah, referring to Iran’s national dish of green herb and lamb stew, with sides of radishes, onions, gherkins, limes and mint. “In Tehran, I feel trapped,” she added. “I come to Dizin as much as I can in winter. I feel freer up here.”
After a couple of rounds of Iranian tea, served with lolly-like dipping sticks of crystalline yellow sugar, we stepped back into our skis.
Dizin’s pistes may be splendid, but it has no après ski at all – the Islamic Republic is not big on public nightlife anywhere. Most skiers avoid the cluster of sad-looking concrete hotels and head back to the capital after the slopes close.
On the way back, I stopped on the edge of the mountains an hour from Dizin in Darband. Once a village but now part of the fringes of northern Tehran, it has dozens of Persian-carpeted, open-air cafes, some on wooden platforms over the rivers that flow from the Alborz mountains on to the Tehran plateau below.
I ate garlic and lentil soup and beautifully cooked koobideh (minced lamb) kebabs, washed down with doogh, a popular salted and minted yogurt drink. A boy was preparing tobacco in an alyān, a variant of the Arabic hookah with a straight wooden pipe and an almost hysterically sorrowful old-time Persian tune played though the cafe’s crackling speakers. OK, I wasn’t doing vodka jelly shots with British seasonaires in Tignes but, for me, Darband’s après ski was a fine thing.