Iran provided a ski holiday like no other, featuring a high-speed police chase and a confiscated camera

Steve Madgwick
·7-min read
iran snowboarder - christian aslund/getty images
iran snowboarder - christian aslund/getty images

Reassuringly, 99.99 per cent of Iranian ski-holiday transfers do not end in high-speed police chases. Mine, however, fell into the remaining, rather more dramatic 0.01 per cent. Here’s how the story goes...

A police-checkpoint officer with Miami Vice sunglasses and a broom-head moustache theatrically directs my taxi to pull off the road. The khaki-clad cop strolls over to the loudly ticking car. The blood drains from my driver’s flushed, burdened face, straight down into his right foot. Inexplicably, he stomps on the accelerator, fishtails away from the furious officer. Battle-ready police trucks scramble in the rear-view mirror, much to my alarm.

We veer viciously off the main road onto the first goat track to freedom. I bellow “stop” in the International Language of Scared Stiff and threaten to yank on the handbrake, but the driver drifts around blind bends relentlessly, while the blues-and-twos nip at our tail. 

We skid to a standstill at a mountain-top dead-end. The driver boots open the door and half-heartedly runs before being stopped by our entourage. I’m frozen to the passenger seat, arms raised in textbook don’t-shoot-me capitulation...

How did I get to this point, when on my first ski trip to Iran? It’s a good question and the answer teaches a lot about skiing in the Middle East. 

A beneficent English-speaking passer-by had hailed my ride from outside a bus station in Tehran, after my Alborz-Mountains-bound bus, bafflingly, failed to show up. I thought my impromptu interpreter had helped me agree a fair price for the supposedly 90-minute drive from Iran’s capital to the country’s most well-rounded ski resort, Dizin. 

tehran - seyes photography/getty images
tehran - seyes photography/getty images

Three hours later, after numerous directions-seeking pit stops, three things were clear. My driver had never heard of or been close to Dizin. Even below the snowline, his treadless tyres were skating psychotically on the ever-slickening mountain road. And it turns out his Iranian-made IKCO Samand wasn’t even a taxi. 

Iran skiing lesson number one: engage the assistance of a specialist travel agent, instead of trying to save a quid by going solo. Preferably one familiar with the nuances of the Islamic republic’s 20 ski resorts and who can find accommodation not heated by hissing propane heaters and arrange ground-transport that won’t land you in a road-side police station, anxiously staring at a window-sized tribute to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. 

Two nerve-melting hours after my ‘arrest’, my innocence was established with an explanation-free, dismissive wave, while my driver was detained for unspecified crimes against transportation. Being only halfway to my destination in the Alborz’s, and after three passing bus drivers ignored my frantic hail and with darkness descending, I forlornly stuck out a timid thumb. 

Two minutes later, two brothers on unspecified business whisked me away and up the gorgeous, but precarious, Chalus Road. We shadowed a rampant alpine river that feeds Tehran’s principal water supply, the immense Amir Kabir Dam, which I had skirted earlier. Before 1979’s Islamic Revolution, it doubled as a playground for water-skiing playboys and their bikini-clad mistresses. 

In a typical display of Persian hospitality, my new-found friends insisted on detouring to deliver me all the way to Velayat Rud, a once unassuming mountain village which is sluggishly morphing into a ski town, one concrete-and-reflective-glass atrocity at a time and my final destination.

Iran skiing essentials
Iran skiing essentials

I arrived at sunset, when fierce-looking furry mongrels were battling for high-street dominance. Above Tehran’s smoggy filter, the Alborz’s snow-caps gleam snow-white, then smoulder burnt orange at dusk. Shadowy cornices atop the sheer valley sneered down at Velayat Rud like ravenous predators on my arrival. Ski-rental shop owner Ali told me an avalanche killed a young man on the town’s outskirts just last week. 

Ali rents a miscellany of well-maintained second-hand skis and snowboards, and a medley of late-noughties ski ensembles for about £15 (each). In the mornings, he tends to the shop and studies. In the afternoons, if the weather smiles, he heads six kilometres up the valley to ‘Dizin International Ski Complex’, which was where I headed the next morning.

In line for my pass, Dizin’s ‘Ski Police’ taught me Iran ski lesson number two: Don’t take a photo when officials are watching – especially with other people or important-looking structures in frame. They ever-so politely confiscated my DSLR camera, promising to return it unharmed when I leave, which (happy ending) they did. 

Dizin’s curvaceous gondolas could effortlessly back-drop a 1970s James Bond ski-chase scene. However, while they dangle stylishly like retro fibreglass fruit, getting on to them felt like entering a dodgy land-border crossing. The industrial-rainbow colour scheme failed to soften the enclosed, unwelcoming and over-engineered lift station. Unlike the slick operations I’m used to in the Alps, the unwieldy turnstiles resisted my entrance like vintage bear-traps. 

iran ski lift - kaveh kazemi/getty images
iran ski lift - kaveh kazemi/getty images

On board, my inaugural gondola buddies were a race-faced guy in full Olympic downhill garb and 26-year-old ski patroller Amir, who’s been shredding Dizin since he was six-years-old. With a waggly finger and knowing smile, he cautioned me about riding under or off two heavily pregnant cornices to our right, Ali’s tale of the recent fatal avalanche rang in my ears.

My lungs fluttered at the 3,410m top-station. While clouds kept the curtains closed on the much-talked-about brilliance of Mount Damavand (5,609m) above three fingers of fresh powder sat on top of the firm base, untouched by groomers for at least a day.

I immediately jumped on a calf-crushing chairlift with a young woman wearing her ‘high-altitude headscarf’: ski mask, iridium googles and parka-hood pulled up. We didn’t make small-talk, nor eye contact. Dizin’s stark ‘Ladies’ Ski School’ building set the tone: a strategically placed image of the ubiquitous Supreme Leader reminds all that hard-line segregation and dress codes apply equally at altitude. 

However, the Ski Police were comparatively lenient towards my fellow skiers and I. My wordless, unaccompanied interaction would have been a much bigger deal and raised eyebrows in one of Iran’s small towns, like Yazd and Isfahan. 

While at lunchtime Dizin’s mid-mountain restaurant served disappointing, generic pizza and burgers, the dishes were accompanied by an intriguing side-dish of people-watching; a rarefied glimpse at Iran’s elite in their seemingly natural environment – double-kisses fluttered about like cheek-seeking butterflies and business cards punctuated even brief conversation. 

iran skiing lunch - kaveh kazemi/getty images
iran skiing lunch - kaveh kazemi/getty images

The wide, open ski area in Dizin funnels around 900 vertical metres down to the three-storey pre-revolution Dizin Hotel, which is a 150-metre-traverse short of being ski-in/ski-out and was my base for my four-night trip. A cluster of carbon-copy stone-and-wood chalets scattered nearby round out the resort’s accommodation options.

After my day on the slopes, down in Dizin Hotel, I collapsed in a massage chair while awaiting my Fesenjān and rice (an absolutely scrumptious dish sauced with spice-laden pomegranate- and ground-walnut paste). Around me, wall-length historical reliefs document forgotten eras and far-away places in contrast with the modern stacked-stone fireplaces and bashed-iron chandeliers. The clomps of ski boots on the hotel’s black marble tiles transformed the traditional tunes being piped over too-loud speakers into an odd Persian dance mix. 

Outside, families fashioned snowmen like they do anywhere where snow falls. Downstairs, the young avoided the old, lying low on cushions, savouring their shisha and carrot-flavoured ice creams. I replaced my usual post-ski beer with bottomless tea and infinite dates, which strangers wouldn’t stop paying for – generosity in Iran is delivered unquestionably.

Shemshak - eric bergeri/getty images
Shemshak - eric bergeri/getty images

Two mornings later, a confident, capable local driver weaved me through 72 mountain villages en-route back to Tehran. There are only two schools and not a single hospital between them, said my young driver. Yet each village has at least one, sometimes two mosques.

I gingerly waved at the officer with Miami Vice sunglasses as we crawled through ‘that’ checkpoint. He nodded, then yawned. No action today, I guess. 

Steve skied in Iran before the Coronavirus pandemic. Check gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/iran for the latest travel advice.