Travel/Experiences  •  Dispatch

Dispatch: Skiing in Iran

The lifts are old, the mountains cold, but the hospitality and IG-worthy moments are off the charts.

April 25, 2017
Seattle-based John Fiddler and Kathleen Egan have been on a quest to sightsee, volunteer, and mountaineer in all the corners of the world. While traveling in Patagonia in 2016, John and Kathleen met an Iranian who told them all about his country and its mountains, including Damavand, which John had heard about from a friend years earlier. From that point on they were obsessed with seeing it—and skiing it.
View of the Alborz Mountains from Damavand base camp, Abyaneh donkey taxi, 3 ladies from Abyaneh

Red Tape: Arranging the trip with our certified guide and going through the visa process took almost two months and we managed to get our visas 48 hours before all the travel ban hoopla began [as tensions between Trump and Iran flared].

Nevermind your minder: As an American you must have a certified guide with you at all times. That said, while hiring a guide is not the usual way we travel, this rule actually made our trip even better. Having a local to drive (the roads are the most dangerous part of Iran), find the ‘authentic’ places to eat, and help us talk to the locals as a translator deepened the experience immensely.

First Impressions: Getting through customs in Tehran turned out to be more of an issue for the [Iranian] officers than it was for us. They had extra handwritten forms that needed filling out but they were confused about what info was needed. Ameriki? Then we were supposed to be fingerprinted but basically the border officials just wanted to practice English and ask about our families. They ended up skipping all their extra steps and waved us through with a big "Welcome To Iran!" It was a nice start.

Enjoying fresh snow at Dizin
Resorts: Dizin is the largest of Iran’s 20 ski areas. Iran has been unable to get a new ski lift since the 1979 Revolution so it was interesting to see the antiques that are still running. Back then, fat skis did not exist and ours would not fit in the gondola racks. There was fresh snow and we spent two days there getting acclimated to the altitude since the base was at 9,000 feet (2700m) and the top of the lifts over 11,000ft (3350m).

Mountaineering: We had an incredible four days hanging out on Mount Damavand. The Bargah Shelter is located at 13,800 feet (4200m) and provides the upper camp for attempts higher on the mountain. It was 20F (-7C) inside the shelter so take a warm sleeping bag. Tea, instant coffee, and a limited amount of food is available at the hut. High winds and ice stopped us at 15,000ft (4572m), well short of the summit, but we still got some good turns in [skiing], made new friends, and took in some nice views despite the stormy conditions.

Iranian Hospitality: The trip started out as a ski trip and ended up being more about the people, who showed us friendliness, warmth, and genuine curiosity throughout Iran. We've never been treated so kindly in any other country. For this, we are grateful to all Iranians who we had the opportunity to speak with during our visit—for sharing their lives and thoughts and encouraging us to learn more.

Ameriki: At one point we noticed that people didn't care where we were from. They just appreciate visitors to their country. We had a couple of conversations in which people said about Trump, "Now you have your own Ahmadinejad!" which, if you know anything about Iranian politics, is an interesting analogy. We were told repeatedly that we are viewed separately from our government just as they feel separate from theirs. They like Americans very much. At a bazaar in Kashan, a flute salesman attempted the Star Spangled Banner for us. When the flight crew to Shiraz found out they had Americans on board, we were offered a better seat, and told that we were most welcome and that they hoped that we would find that the news and reality are not the same in Iran.
Skiing past Saheb al Zaman Mosque on slopes of Damavand
Morning light at Nasir al-Molk Mosque
As an American though you want to follow the rules.  Along the way to the village of Abyaneh, we passed one of their nuclear facilities near Natanz, where some of the centrifuges are/were. The facility is deep underground so you can't see anything but there are anti-aircraft guns all over. It was the one spot where we were warned not to take photos since “they” were watching the road and we would be detained if they saw a camera!

What to eat: Throughout Iran we ate at small local restaurants. Different towns often had different specialty dishes for that area. Overall, the food seemed like a cross between Turkish and Indian (which makes sense geographically). There are a variety of fresh breads everyday and there are always vegetables, feta-like cheeses, yogurt, and olives at meals. Some of our favorite dishes were dizzi stew (wonderful combination of spices, meat, and vegetables), fesenjan (lamb with apricots), aloo (beef/lamb with prunes), and of course kababs. We also enjoyed falludeh (a noodle-like sorbet with lime juice) on a warm day.

Where to stay: A benefit of a hiring a guide is having hotel bookings pre-arranged which meant we stayed in nicer hotels (3-star) instead of our usual hostels. The Aramis in Tehran gave us an upgrade because we were American. The Karimkhan Hotel was a very ornate hotel in Shiraz that was our favorite. The Setareh Hotel in Isfahan is ½ a block away from the main square so has the best location. The tours are typically booked in 3- or 4-star hotels but everything can be modified depending on what type of trip you are looking for.

When to go: We had been warned not to come to Iran during Nowruz (Persian New Years) because it would be so busy. The traffic was horrible but the holiday meant there was a lot of extra stuff going on. While we were touring between sites we came across a variety of shows. We watched a puppet show, a comedy act, and then a traditional Iranian band. Nowruz actually ended up being a great time to visit.
The Gate of all Lands, Persepolis (above), Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz (below)

After Damavand we flew to Shiraz to start the cultural part of our tour. Shiraz is one of the top tourist cities in Iran and we saw zero Westerners. Some of the people that live outside the big cities had never seen a Westerner and we were constantly being asked to be photographed. The people watching went both ways. Much of Iran was in Shiraz for the Persian New Year so there were different types of dress and ethnicities from every corner of the country. It is a very diverse country that is bordered by seven other nations. There is a lot to see in Shiraz including the Nasir al-Molk (Pink) Mosque. See this in the morning when the sunshine is coming through the stained glass. Other highlights were the Citadel, the Ali Ibn Hamzeh shrine, Eram Gardens, and the Vakil Bazaar.

The ancient ruins of Persepolis are on the way from Shiraz to Isfahan. This ancient capital of the Persian Empire fought against the Greeks. This area gets 350 days of sunshine a year so of course the day we were there it poured rain for most of the day.  The entire desert will be green this spring after those rains.

Esfahan is one of the main tourist cities. You could spend a week exploring this city alone. The mosques and palaces in the Maydan square, the Armenian district, and the 400 year old bridges are all famous spots to visit. The is also one of the best places to find souvenirs and handicrafts in the bazaar.

Overall, we were struck by the level of modernity in the big cities as well as the varied landscapes and the layers upon layers of history. There's a lot of change going on right now. It's a complex society, but to anyone curious about seeing Iran, we highly encourage you to do so and to experience it through your own eyes.  Go now before it gets discovered!

Editor’s Note: Thai citizens can travel to Iran and obtain a 30-day tourist visa on arrival in Tehran, which is served by both Thai Airways and Air Asia. It’s likely that hiring a guide is also not required for Thai citizens, but best to find out in advance! You can read more about John and Kathleen’s trip to Iran on Kathleen’s blog: KnuckleheadAdventureTours