When a friend first told me he’d just got back from a snowboarding trip in Iran, I initially thought he was having me on.
‘Yeah, and I just went surfing in Mongolia’ I retorted (rather wittily, I thought).
Marko sighed, put down his beer, and gave me his biggest ‘you are an idiot’ look. ‘Dude, there’s snow in Iran’ he replied. ‘Heaps of it. And it’s good, too.’ He sighed again. ‘Aren’t you supposed to work in travel?’
Up until researching the destination a little more – and subsequently booking onto Intrepid Travel’s Iran Adventure – my impressions of Iran were probably much like those held by many. It was dry, it was dusty, and it was desert-y. Mostly though, it was ruled by fanatical fun police who loved nothing more than outlawing anything remotely fun-like. And as snowboarding was something very fun-like, the equation simply didn’t reckon.
When I first relayed these speculations of mine onto my local trip leader, Nadia, she giggled. ‘Having fun isn’t banned’ she explained, ‘just alcohol, skimpy clothing and sex before marriage’. Before I was able to object that that all sounded like an awful lot of fun not to be had, Nadia was delving into history again. ‘Iran’s 20 something ski fields were set up in the 50s, 60s and 70s by the Shah’ she explained, referring to the period’s devoutly pro-Western leader, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. ‘Then when the Ayatollah Khomeini came in in 1979 he said it was ok, we could keep skiing because snow-wear is…not very skimpy. So yes, you can go snowboarding’.
Iran’s ski season generally kicks off towards the end of November and (at least in Tabriz and Dizin) can run into mid-May. I was there late November, so only Tochal, a ski field in the Alborz Mountain range that overlooks Tehran, was open. At CAD 30 for a full-day lift pass and CAD 25 for all the necessary equipment (boards/skis, boots, pants, jackets, gloves and goggles), it’d have to be the world’s cheapest place to hit the slopes – if far from the most efficient.
Hearing that Tochal’s ticket booth opened at 8am, I rose early with the aim of beating the queue. The hostel I was staying at was located in northern Tehran, as too is Tochal. In your regular city the distance would’ve made it a 20-minute cab ride, but a regular city Tehran most certainly is not: even before peak hour, the trip took a good 45 minutes. Even so, I did get there by 7.30 – which scored me an hour-long wait in a line 50 metres long (there was one guy selling lift passes). Pass got, I headed to the rental outlet to gear up (20 minutes, friendly service). Gear got, back to the line I then trudged for a further hour’s wait for the gondola that’d take me to Tochal’s summit. The ride from Station 1 (at an altitude of 1,900 m) to Station 7 (3,740 m), while very scenic, then takes a further hour (and includes getting out twice and swapping gondolas). To cut a long journey short, I ran my first run just before midday.
Once you get over the time it takes to get up Tochal, the set-up’s superb. Two lifts – one a Doppelmayr chairlift, the other a teleski – run the length of the slope (both about 1,200 metres), and I rarely had to wait in line for more than a minute (keeping in mind I was there on a Tuesday). There’s also a poma chairlift on the peak’s western foothill, just down from the Doppelmayr, though this isn’t always open. Heading off-piste at Tochal isn’t really the done thing, as many of the peak’s outer slopes practically free-fall all the way back to Tehran. Plus there are supposedly wolves about, so… y’know, wolves. It is however, with a certain amount of snow cover, possible to ski/board a trail down to the lower stations.
For eating, drinking, socializing, warming up/chilling out between runs, there’s the Tochal Hotel. Not a bad little venue, with friendly service, hearty food and reasonable prices, though most eschew it. Why? Because the lifts generally start closing from three.
Given all these factors – the late opening times, the early closing times, the queues and delays – one might wonder whether Tochal really warrants a visit. To my mind, it does. Absolutely. Though don’t go for the skiing alone. In terms of snow cover, run quality and ease of access, Tehran’s local ski run has little on Whistler, Aspen or Chamonix. In fact, the run isn’t even considered the country’s best (Dizin and Shemshack are). But as an opportunity to encounter a side of Iran rarely seen, a day trip up Tochal is CAD 55 very well spent.
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