Friday, December 14, 2007

Travel: Ski tracks into Tehran

You could be in Banff, Aspen, St Mortiz or any other ski resort in the world where the skiing is prime and the lifestyle is pristine. Ski resorts are renowned places to frolic with the rich and famous, recline in the five star chalets and to experience first-class service and entertainment. It’s a chance to be pampered and to live extravagantly in a winter wonderland above sea level.

Now imagine that crisp snow-covered wonderland, but imagine it interspersed with gender-segregated queues. As you dash down the slopes, imagine your scenery of nature and woodland interrupted with signs stating rules and etiquettes you must adhere to.

These images belong to the newest alpine scene that is drawing huge success in Tehran. Although the city still resides under strict authoritarian rule, the ski resorts – all located a short commute away from the city – are drawing huge interest from locals and foreigners. The resorts, even with all their rules and regulations, are a place for the new, predominately younger generation of Iranians to unwind and relax, and to get away from the stifling city environment of Tehran.
Tehran’s main resorts – Dizin, Tochal and Shemshak, have been drawing huge crowds since the first resort at Dizin opened in 1979. The resorts have all gained global recognition for the having some of the best weather and snow conditioning for alpine pursuits.

Iran’s budding ski culture can be linked to the presence of the Alborz mountain range in Northern Iran. There is said to be something quite remarkable about the Alborz Mountains, a source of inspiration and worship for the Zoroastrians, the once dominant religion for most of Iran. The mountains are a source of peace and solitude, and most skiers find their very sheer presence as they trail down the mountain to be both humbling and engulfing.

The mountains also offers some of the last remaining unpolluted breathing spaces in Tehran, poking out like an oxygenated gemstone from the smog-encrusted skyline of the construction and traffic laden city.

The idea of skiing was initially introduced by foreigners – Germans who were working on the Iranian railroad around the 1930s decided to take advantage of the fine slopes. Returning Iranians who had been to western countries were thrilled to find such an activity available in their home country, and it eventually grew in popularity all over Tehran. In 1947, the Iranian Ski Foundation was brought into existence.

Although Tehran resort services may have a while to go before they start reflecting their Western counterparts, it is the basic ‘minimum fuss and maximum experience’ that is offered and manages to attract people year after year.
The resort of Dizin is one of the most well-known ski locations in Iran. Located just 60 km and over an hour away from Tehran, it’s also noted as being one of the more relaxed resorts in Tehran for Iranian youth to congregate together and socialise without any qualms.

Until recently, tales of the much feared Basiji, or religious police, struck deep fear into the skiers of the slopes. It was common to see these Basiji enforcing strict rules on the slopes, enforcing fines. Up until recently, the slope had been segregated into two sections – male and female.
This may not paint the best picture of prime skiing environment; however, you’ll be glad to hear that nowadays Dizin is regarded as one of the more ‘vibrant’ resorts out of the three, even with the religious police still dotted around the slopes. They still go on patrol of the resorts, however in recent times they have adopted a far less severe approach and the youth are beginning to rekindle their social freedom. If anything, the new generation of Iranian youth have gotten cheekier, and have even preyed upon the fact that not all members of the religious police are capable skiers. Young Iranians defying the guidelines of the authorities by not covering their hair, skiing with a member of the other gender, or even just wearing a t-shirt on the slopes are coming out of the woodwork and into the freedom of the 21st century.

Regardless of the religious police, the banners scattered around the resorts in Farsi pointing out the religious rules, the lack of flashy westernised amenities, Dizin is really just like any other ski-resort.

Music is now played loudly from speakers, people sit in cafés sipping tea taking in the atmosphere, laughter and chatter is heard from the ski lift gondolas – everything is a welcome veil that appears thrown over the backdrop of the stifling and grey Tehran city.
Dizin is a noisy, crowded hive of activity, especially on the weekends when the families from the city come out and play.

One of the main attractions about skiing is Tehran is the fact that it will not cause huge, immense holes in your budget. A full day ski pass at Dizin is around $4 – $5, and ski equipment and wear rental is around $10 – $30, although it is recommended that you bring your own equipment ad wardrobe, as a lot of rental equipment is believed to be actual relics from the 70s and 80s. Snowboarding equipment is also available – snowboarders are welcome on the slopes and their numbers are growing around Tehran as more locals begin to catch on.

Dizin, Shemshak and Tochal are all easily accessible via Tehran. The nearest airport to the resorts is the Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. Check your local travel agents for details of flights to Tehran. The resorts are accessible from the airport or Tehran city via coach.


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