While not the first destination that comes to mind for powder hounds, skiing in Iran is a growing choice for those keen to ride somewhere different in a country rich in culture off the slopes. With sanctions easing, the country is expected to open up even further and attract even more skiers to its slopes in the Alborz Mountain Range near the capital Tehran. Moreover, the cheap prices mean that powder chasers can go easy on the hip pocket while enjoying famous Iranian hospitality.
Photo: Bowls at Dizin Ski Resort
As the mountains are quite high, the ski areas retain their snow quite well. The season usually starts from late November and can stretch all the way through to May, depending on the season.
To encourage tourism, Iran now offers 30 day visas on arrival for citizens of most countries. You are able to get a visa on arrival at the airports in Tehran, Mashad, Shiraz, Tabriz and Isfahan. Conditions include:
Upon arrival, they will also ask for a phone number and address of where you are staying. If you are staying with a friend, just put this number down and they will call that person to confirm you are staying with them.
If you are not staying with anyone, make sure to book your hotel or hostel for at least the first night and put down their phone number and address. Customs officials at the airport will call your hotel or hostel to confirm you are staying there. You only need to book the first night there as you are then, after that, able to travel around the country without notifying Iranian authorities.
The cost of the visa is USD 110. You are also required to buy travel insurance at the airport which costs another USD 20. Make sure you have either USD or Euros on you at the airport to pay for the visa.
Citizens of the following countries are not eligible for a visa on arrival and must apply for a tourist visa in their host country before arriving.
Iran also offers 30-day tourist visas to most countries before arrival. If you are from one of the countries listed above, you will need to apply for a visa before arriving if you want to come as a tourist. Be aware that you are not guaranteed to get a visa if you are from one of these countries. You may even need to come as part of a tour group.
To get a visa before arrival, you will need to get a sponsor to "invite" you to the country. This can be done through an online agency that will sponsor you for a small fee and allow you to get the reference number for the application. Place this number at the top of the visa application form that you can download from the Iranian embassy website (in your host country). Individual countries will differ but generally you then express post it to the embassy, along with your passport, reserved itinerary and travel insurance.
For Australians - visit the Iranian Embassy in Canberra website for the forms. See en.canberra.mfa.ir
As 30 days will not be anywhere near enough to see all that Iran has to give, extensions may be granted by going to the foreign aliens office that are located in all of the major cities in Iran. Tehran is the capital and is the easiest place to get this extension.
Unfortunately, getting a working visa is not so simple as there are no working holiday visas to Iran. You will need an Iranian passport or arrange a job directly with a mountain who can then sponsor you for a working visa. Fortunately, Iran is so cheap that it will probably be better to just save up some money and spend time shredding the powder as much as possible, rather than going through the bureaucratic process of obtaining a working visa.
Photo: Tochal Ski Area, just north of Tehran
Be aware that Iran still is not linked to the rest-of-the-world banking system. This means you can't pull money out of ATMs using your Visa or MasterCard for the moment. This will hopefully change soon with the lifting of sanctions.
This means you will need to bring in enough USD or Euros to change to last you for your time in Iran. Money can be easily changed at the airport and at banks and exchange centers around the major cities.
Iran is generally quite cheap. You can get a taxi around most places in Tehran for 200,000 Rial (around USD 6). You can get a burger or pizza (favored Iranian food) for around around 150,000 Rial (around USD 4). But you should always bring in extra cash just in case.
The main resorts are located just north of the capital Tehran, in the Alborz Mountain range. There are four ski resorts in the Alborz Mountain Range.
The biggest of the resorts is Dizin, considered to be the global resort of Iran with three gondolas and 12 chairlifts. It is 120km north of Tehran and takes around 2 hours to get there if the road is open, and around 2.5 hours to get there if the road is closed and you need to take the western route up.
Dizin reaches an altitude of 3,600 m and therefore boasts more than a one kilometre of vertical difference. Terrain at this resort is great for those intermediate skiers and boarders trying to move into that more advanced category. It also has smaller and easier hikes for skiers and boarders beginning to dabble in backcountry terrain. Overall, it is best for intermediates. It is by far the biggest resort in Iran.
Dizin is the liveliest of the resorts and is where the younger, progressive-thinking and upper-class north Tehranis go to unwind on their weekend. If you are going to stay overnight up on the mountain, this is the best place to do so.
A ticket here for the day costs around 1.2 million Rial (USD 35). You can hire gear at the mountain including skis, boots, gloves, pants, jackets etc. for around 1 million Rial for the day (USD 30).
Along the way to Dizin, you will find another ski area where two resorts are located next to each other - Darbandsar and Shemshak. They are around 90 minutes from Tehran. Dizin is another 35 minutes on from Shemshak when the road is open. Shemshak is around 5km from Darbandsar or 10 minutes. Runs here are between 2,550m to 3,050m.
Despite Shemshak and Darbandsar both being quite a bit smaller than Dizin, they boast much more interesting terrain on-piste and towering mountains behind the ski areas that will leave avid backcountry goers licking their lips.
Shemshak has two main lifts which are double chairs. While they are quite slow, they take you quite high up the mountain and open up some nice intermediate runs on-piste and some very nice off-piste runs. The run top-to-bottom is quite a leg-burner! It is usually not too busy either, especially if you go during the week (Iranian weekend is Thursday and Friday).
Darbandsar is a little smaller than Shemshak with just one main lift. It is sloped on one side which means you are skiing on the side of the mountain a little bit. However, there is probably a little more in the way of off-piste runs at Darbandsar than at Shemshak as the mountain is very open at the top.
Enduring some of the trickier hikes that getting to the summit of these peaks involves is well worth it as it will allow for runs that can last for 30 minutes and, best of all, will be untouched the whole way down. You do have to be very careful of avalanches so it is highly recommended that people who want this kind of experience should carry all of their avalanche gear and know how to use it.
A ticket for the day at Shemshak costs 600,000 Rial (USD 17). A ticket for the day at Darbandsar costs Rial 900,000 (USD 25). You can hire gear for the day for around 1 million Rial (USD 30).
The last of the 4 resorts, Tochal, is located much closer to Tehran. In fact, the bottom of the lift can be considered as the northernmost part of Tehran. To get up, you take two telecabins - one which takes around 30 minutes and one which takes around 15 minutes.
This is definitely the smallest of the four resorts as it has just two lifts servicing a small area which is mostly beginner terrain. While there is a bit of in-bound hiking you can do to access some steeper terrain, there is not that much back country to be done here. Tochal is good for convenience and price, but the better terrain is found at the other resorts.
A ticket for they day costs around 500,000 Rial (USD 14). You can hire gear for the day including pants, gloves etc. for around 1 million Rial (USD 30).
Photo: Shemshak ski area, near Darbandsar and Dizin
Flying into Iran
Despite the visible political issues, travelling to Iran is far simpler than it might otherwise seem. The best option is generally to fly into Dubai and then take a flight into Iran. Emirates does flights from Australia and New Zealand and then into Tehran. Flights usually go for around $2,000 return.
From major European airports, there are direct flights to Tehran. Flights will cost around 1300 euros return. From North America, the best option is again to go through Dubai.
Watch out if you are travelling with bulky skis or boards for which flight companies love to charge excess fees. Check the fee conditions or you may face extra fees at the airport.
Getting to the Ski Resorts
If there is one significant let down for Iran as a fantastic skiing destination, it is the transport to and from the mountains. There are no public buses up the mountains meaning you have to find and haggle with a taxi driver to get you up the mountain.
The airport is around 30kms south of Tehran and you can take a taxi into the city for around Rial 700,000 (USD 20).
You can also hail a taxi from anywhere in town and you will have to haggle a little bit to see if they will take you up to the ski resorts. If you are looking to save a bit of money, you can take the Tehran metro from anywhere in town to Tajrish Metro station, the northernmost metro station, rather than paying a taxi that extra distance, and then get a taxi at Tajrish to the resorts.
From Tajrish Metro Station, where you will find a large taxi rank, you should expect to pay around 700,000 Rial to get a taxi up to Shemshak and Darbandsar. You should expect to pay just a few hundred thousand Rial to get you to Tochal ski area.
You can sometimes find van taxis at Tajrish which is very handy if you have a group of four or more, or you have gear you want to take up. You should expect to pay around 1.2 million Rials (USD 35) for a van up to Shemshak or Darbandsar.
To get to Dizin depends on whether the road is open after Shemshak and Darbandsar. The shorter route up Fasham road to the mountains, which usually takes around two hours, closes after any sort of snowfall, forcing travellers to take the long way around on Chalus road, the western route. This can extends the length of the journey to over 2.5 hours. You will need to speak with the taxi driver about whether the road is open.
If you are just doing day-trips from Tehran, you might need to be flexible about where you ski given that the long route up to Dizin makes the travel time quite lengthy if the road is closed.
Beware also of Tehran traffic! It is among the most clogged in the world and can significantly extend your travel time if you travel in peak times. This is another reason to leave early for the ski resorts if doing a day trip.
Photo: Iranian culture
The prices are so good in Iran that in most cases it will not be worth the effort of working for a local wage in order to work a season. Instead of working, you can spend more time doing the fun stuff like shredding big mountains.
Also, as it is still not a large tourist destination, English is not yet widely spoken either and you will need a fairly good command of Farsi in order to find a job.
However, you may be able to find work as an instructor at one of the resorts. Dizin will certainly be the most likely option as it is the biggest operation and most global in attitude (it even has a website in English). See irandizinski.com/index-6 for contact information at Dizin.
Photo: Dizin at night
Both Dizin and Shemshak have large hotels that will almost always have space. Compared to other ski resorts, this on-mountain accommodation is quite cheap. You can find a room that contains a private bathroom and two singles or a double for about USD 50 a night.
There are also several privately-owned cottages around that can be rented out. Prices for these vary on the quality of the cottage.
If you have a large group, you might consider hiring a chalet for the night for a bit of extra luxury.
One of the biggest advantages of going to ski in Iran is the experience, not only at the ski resorts, but all across the country. People say that the Persians are the most hospitable people on Earth and, after experiencing it, you will probably be inclined to say this bold statement is actually not that far off the truth.
For example, people on the street may invite you over for tea and food after just meeting you. This kind of hospitality is not out of the norm at all. In fact, barely a day will go past when you will not be in some way touched by Iranian kindness and hospitality. It seems that everyone is very keen to help travellers, which makes travelling around Iran quite easy, even despite the lack of Facebook, Twitter and other blocked websites.
As far as a party goes, as you might expect, there is not that much to be done in Iran but if you are observant enough at the ski resorts, then there is a good chance to find something happening on a Thursday night (Thursday night is the Iranian equivalent to Friday night - the end of the working week). Dizin is the best bet for nightlife.
Photo: The village at Dizin Ski Resort
Despite their being so much to ski in the Alborz mountain range, Iran has so much to offer elsewhere that it is really worth seeing the rest of the country while you are there.
Iran has been inhabited by many different civilisations over the past centuries (even millennia) so it is a country rich in history. It is well worth going all the way south to Shiraz to immerse yourself in some the famous literature of Hafeez or Saadi. It is absolutely recommended to check out the Shah-e-Cheragh shrine or most importantly, to go to Persepolis, to see where the Persian Empire began.
Moving north into the desert (which is not that hot during the winter months, don’t even think about it during summer) you can see the mud houses and Badgirs (a kind of cooling tower) of the old town of Yazd. You could also check out some of the incredible handicrafts (maybe pick up a famous Persian rug for next to nothing) or the beautiful Persian architecture in Esfahan.
Making your way further north back to the bustling capital of Tehran, you will find a significant difference in class between the poorer south and the wealthier north. The most exhilarating experiences you will encounter in Tehran are crossing a road and getting absolutely lost in the Bazaar.
These are just a few of the many unique cities spread across Iran.
Fortunately travelling around Iran is much easier than travelling to and from the ski resorts with every major city having bus terminals that are easy to get to and with regular connecting buses that will go for around USD 7 (not bad for a 3 hour bus ride).
You can simply turn up at the terminal and buy a ticket to wherever you want to go. Hamsafar and Royal Safar are two of the bigger bus companies which are generally reliable. Your hotel or hostel will also generally offer to book tickets for you, for an extra fee of around USD 1.
A little tip for those really long journeys (Tehran to Shiraz is a 13 hour trip, for example), take a VIP bus. With extra-wide seats that incline to 160 degrees and the extra leg-room, you will will appreciate the tiny extra money you pay.
Flights around Iran are also quite cheap. You can fly from Shiraz to Iran for around USD 40. Airlines include Mahan Air (which has international flights also), Iran Air and Aseman Air.
If you don’t believe all this about Iran, check it out for yourself. In fact, check it all out for yourself next time you want to get away from the daily grind.