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Monday, 27 March, 2000, 21:58 GMT
New face for Iran's ski slopes
By BBC's Andrew North
There was an excited shout from behind me. Looking up the ski slope, I could see an Iranian man making fast, expert turns, enjoying the fresh powder snow that had fallen the night before.
Just behind him was a woman on a snowboard, his wife or girlfriend perhaps.
Both were wearing the latest figure-hugging ski gear, with wrap-around shades. I was at Dizin, widely regarded as being Iran's premier ski resort.
On the horizon, I could see Iran's highest peak, Mount Damavand, a giant dormant volcano 5600m high.
Dizin is one of the highest ski resorts in the world and gets around seven metres of snow a year. Where else in the world can you find such good snow, Iranians boast, so close to a capital city. Dizin is about 1 ½ hours drive from Tehran.
But as I looked down the slopes, I realised that I could have been skiing, or snowboarding, anywhere. Because there was nothing especially Iranian about the scene on the slopes - certainly no sign of the restrictions on contact between men and women that usually apply in Iran.
Every few minutes, groups of young men and women went past, shouting and laughing as they zigzagged downwards. They obviously weren't worried about being seen together.
In fact, Dizin ski resort is testimony to how much Iran has changed since its President Mohammed Khatami was elected in 1997. To see men and women skiing together, Iranians tell you, is still a fairly novel sight.
Just a few years ago, Iranian officials used to keep a close watch on the slopes at Dizin and other resorts, to make sure that men and women stayed apart. Literally. There were separate slopes for men and women. And women had to wear long coats over their ski gear.
Leyli, who's been coming to Dizin with her friends for more than five years, had frequent clashes with these officials. "You know they were always bothering us," says Leyli. "They didn't let us ski. They didn't even let us talk to the boys."
But people started to ignore the rules and gradually the restrictions broke down. "Everybody just went to different slopes," says Leyli. "You know, the men went to women's and the women went to men's."
Old habits die hard
Yet for some hardliners among Iran's ruling clerics, allowing skiing at all was a concession. After the 1979 revolution, they closed down the country's ski resorts, because they saw the sport as emblematic of decadent, Western ways. What's more, most of the resorts were built by the Shah, whom the clerics had just overthrown.
But widespread demands for the resorts to be re-opened persuaded the government to change its mind in the mid-1980s.
However, the old rules and attitudes haven't gone entirely. At the entrance to the Dizin slopes, there are signs warning men that they should not look at any woman who is not a relative. And at the lifts, men and women are supposed to queue in separate lines.
But for many people coming to ski is an escape from some of the restrictions in their day-to-day lives in Tehran. And at weekends, during the ski season, resorts like Dizin are packed.
Too packed for some. "There's too many people for the number of slopes," says Masoud, a 25-year-old ski instructor. "We need new money, to open more slopes and build new lifts".
Iran's resorts could do with new investment. Compared with European or US resorts, they're fairly rundown; most of them are still using the original lift machinery installed in the late-1970s. One answer, Masoud believes, would be to advertise Iran's ski resorts abroad, to bring in foreigners and their money.
Skiing remains a fairly exclusive sport, because only wealthier Iranians can afford the cost. Yet by Western standards, skiing in Iran is cheap. A one-day lift pass at Dizin costs 30,000 rials, less than US $4, and you can rent boots, poles and skis for around US $8 a day. But apart from the occasional diplomat, foreigners are still a rare sight at the resorts near Tehran.
Hiking and climbing
It's not just skiers who take advantage of the Alborz mountains around Tehran. Hiking has always been a popular activity among Tehran residents. Every weekend, you see hundreds of people wearing stout walking boots and carrying back-packs heading up into the peaks.
Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Religious Leader, is occasionally among these weekend hikers.
Another senior political figure is a serious mountaineer. Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, the conservative speaker in the outgoing parliament, has reached the summit of Mount Damavan - a climb that takes at least three days because of the altitude.
Mountaineering has a long history in Iran, and several Iranians have climbed Mount Everest.
In the past few years, rock climbing has experienced a surge in popularity in Iran, but especially in the Tehran area. There's an endless choice of good cliffs and crags, but many climbers go no further than Darband, just above the city. On spring and summer weekends, the rocks here are covered with Iranian climbers, inching their way up seemingly impassable routes.
A growing number of the climbers here are women, but it is the young "rock-jocks" who dominate the scene at Darband, loudly egging each other on to attempt ever harder routes. And most of them do so with very little of the equipment Western climbers use to protect themselves against falls. Specialist climbing gear is in short supply in Iran, and expensive. But many foreign climbers with better gear who have climbed with the rock-jocks of Darband have come away impressed by their skills and ruefully admitting that they couldn't climb the same routes.
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