Deep in the mighty Alborz Mountains close to Iran’s highest peak, the Damavand, lies an Iran very few in the West have heard about.
The Islamic Republic has a wealth of skiing areas and other winter sports for those willing to travel into the mountains just north of the capital Tehran.
Our trip leads us up a windy and at times extremely narrow road, through green valleys and past steep stone walls where rock slides are a real danger.
Darbandsar ski resort
We finally reach the Darbandsar ski resort. At 3,400 meters (about 11,000 feet), Darbandsar is one of the highest elevated towns in all of Iran.
The adjacent ski resort is even higher, starting at 3,600 meters. It’s one of the biggest and most modern in the Islamic Republic, run by private investors.
On the slopes, we meet an Iranian who lives in Canada, but often vacations in Tehran and the ski resort.
“Before I came back to my country, I thought it was the same as before,” he says.
“But the moment I came to this place I was shocked and I was so surprised that they have this kind of improvement. And I’m thinking why they don’t advertise this more to the rest of the world.”
The lifts go up more than 4,000 meters, which allows the resort to stay open for skiing for about six months of the year.
Management rarely needs to use snow cannons to prepare the pistes. “The snow is powder, I love that. It’s amazing,” one female skier says.
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Aside from great skiing, Darbandsar also tries to offer facilities similar to those found in America or Europe.
A DJ plays the latest tunes in the resort restaurant while a bartender mixes cocktails – non-alcoholic, of course – cooled with snow.
The food on offer is pizza, fried chicken, burgers and fries – leaving visitors wondering whether they are in Aspen and not close to Tehran.
One reminder that it’s still the Islamic Republic is the signs reminding women to cover their hair – although the enforcement of this Iranian law is a lot more relaxed up in the mountains than in many other places in the country.
After the nuclear agreement and the lifting of many sanctions against Tehran, the Iran is looking for a massive increase in tourist numbers.
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In a recent interview, Masoud Soltanifar, Iran’s tourism chief, told me winter sport is an area they hope to expand.
“We have several kinds of tourists who come here,” he said. “Religious tourists, health and medical tourists, cultural tourists who visit the many ancient sites, and nature tourists.”
Those visiting the mountain areas sit in the final group, along with hikers and others looking to take in the mountains, forests, lakes and seas of this vast and diverse country. So far, the number of skiers visiting Iran from abroad is not very large.
While the management at the Darbandsar resort doesn’t have statistics, they say it’s pretty rare for foreigners to show up on the slopes.
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The same can be said of another winter sport gaining traction in Iran – ice climbing. The oldest ice-climbing school is very close to the Darbandsar ski resort, in a village called Meygoon.
“People are very surprised that we do this sport,” says Mehdi Panahi Pour, head of the Meygoon ice-climbing school, describing the reactions he gets from foreigners who make it to the ice wall they use for training. “When they come here [they’re] interested to see how we do it.”
On weekends, dozens of people can be seen scaling the frozen mountain walls here with pick axes and spiky shoes. It’s a difficult and challenging sport, but also one, at least at the Meygoon school, that’s practiced by men and women alike.
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Riskier than rock climbing
During our visit, Sepideh Javan, one of Iran’s best female ice climbers, was quickly making her way up the frozen wall.
“Ice climbing is much more risky than rock climbing,” she says. “The ice can come down anytime and fall on you, rocks are much more stable. But if you love the sport then it is really good.”
Ice climbing’s usually reserved for more wealthy people because the gear’s expensive. But it’s catching on.
“We started 14 years ago and now it is getting very popular,” says Mehdi Panahi Pour. “Every day we have between 60 and 70 people come here for training and competition.”
He adds that his dream would be for international competitions to be held in Meygoon.
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Parking space and traffic jams
But while Iran has the mountains, the snow and the ice to be a world-class winter sports destination, it still has a long way to go before it can compete with resorts in Europe and North America.
While the facilities in the Darbandsar ski resort are very good, a major lack of parking space means skiers sometimes have to walk more than a mile from their car to the entrance gate of the facility.
And the tiny and narrow road is the resort very often leads to major traffic jams, especially at the end of busy days.
Still, like in much of Iran, there’s also a lot of optimism among those running the winter sports destinations in the Alborz Mountains. They hope that tourists looking to discover this very diverse country will also make it to the skiing and ice-climbing areas and give this region an economic boost.