Words and photos by Vanessa Beucher
Iran… The mere name comes loaded with baggage. This ancient Persian country with a rich history has always had its towering mountains and great riding potential overshadowed by our other, more problematic, perceptions of the place.
But we, as an international group of women, united by our strong friendship and shared passion of riding and discovering new cultures, wanted to embark on an adventure there with open minds. And in March this year we did just that, leaving for two weeks in the mountains of northern Iran.
Our team was Oksana Chekulaeva, a snowboard charger and Russian mountain guide, Estelle Lecomte, a Swiss former Freeride World Tour snowboarder, Ilina Arsova, a Macedonian Alpinist who has summited some of the world’s most major mountains and the French filmmaker Marion Poizeau, who worked with the Irish surfer Easkey Britton on the epic Iran surf film Waves of Freedom. Our Iranian host and guide was Mona Seraji, who also features in Waves of Freedom.
Flying under a starry sky, the trip felt like it started as the plane began its descent over Tehran and we had to put our veils on. A simple thing but it felt very meaningful. The situation for women in Iran is of course very symbolic but the idea behind this project was not to have a political speech but to bring back an original and touching story with portraits, and to highlight the experiences of the Iranian women who no one talks about.
We wanted to create a link between women from four different countries and Iranian riders, to confront their life situations and maybe shatter some prejudices on both sides. Crammed into a small taxi, we sped along the winding roads in the middle of a stunning desert landscape to reach the resort of Dizin.
Mona Seraji, one of the pioneers of female snowboarding in Iran and a face of Burton in the country, welcomed us with her radiant smile and took us to her cosy home covered with Persian carpets. It had snowed the whole night and despite our exhaustion, we were impatient to explore the mountains and check out the local scene.
The lifts we found were quite old school, dating back to the days of the Shah regime in the 1970s, and it was quite a surprise and pleasure to see men and women mixed in them, riding together. It’s not always been that way. A few years ago, it was still a time of separate slopes, prohibiting both sexes from having fun as they wished.
But what we stumbled upon that very first day was a colourful crowd of youngsters, most of them snowboarders and a lot of women amongst them, with way more make-up on their delicate features than the four of us! I can still picture the angel face of Nona and the total awesomeness of Starma, two young Iranian women who are a great symbol of the future of snowboarding in the country.
The snow was an absolute delight to ride on our first few runs and there was a lot of untouched terrain near the slopes as freeriding is still in its infancy over there. Towards the end of the day, we met the rest of the crew in off-piste Dizin, the laid-back headquarters of all the locals held by the charismatic Amir Raieszadeh. We could feel from the very beginning that our relationship with our male counterparts would be filled with a lot of respect and kindness.
We were constantly overwhelmed by the deep generosity of all the people we met and we felt like a big family travelling all together. People were so surprised and delighted to see a group of foreign women coming to visit their home country, they insisted on riding and sharing a bit of time with us, making the experience even more touching.
During the last of the day’s sun-rays, we were blessed by the vision of Mont Damavand, Iran's highest mountain, which stands at 5,610m. The cold was bitter but we were the only ones standing on a breathtaking platform at around 4000 metres high, taking our time to contemplate the landscape before riding a long way down in this perfect cold smoke.
One of the best things about riding in the Alborz range is that the average altitudes are very high, we were mostly between 2500 and 4000 metres, which guarantees a good amount of snow, and even more excitingly the continental climate makes the snow quality very light and dry.
The rest of the trip was an ideal mix of what makes a lifetime memory in your mind, exploring wild places and riding with a great bunch of people. After Dizin, we came back to the bustling capital Tehran to ride what they call 'Backside Tochal'.
Taking a huge lift from the top of the city to reach 4200 metres, we switched to the other side of the mountain with Sina and Reza, two friends of Mona who were our guides that day. From there, more than 2000 vertical metres of pure freeride were awaiting us, endless virgin slopes…
The trip was an ideal mix of what makes a lifetime memory in your mind, exploring wild places and riding with a great bunch of people
We found ourselves at the bottom of a desert canyon; you could feel you were in a totally different world walking among terraced cultivation and old Persian stone houses.
Another highlight of our stay in Iran was exploring Shemshak. The terrain was definitely a lot steeper and the potential lines we found after some skinning were absolutely gorgeous. Still, we had a stressful moment when Estelle and Mona inadvertently started an avalanche, luckily with no major consequences. You have to be super-careful as there is no decent rescue system in Iran. It makes choosing the exposure of the slopes and riding with the right kit even more important than ever.
It was great to have Mona show us her home spots with her friends, and to have Oksana's experience as a guide, plus Estelle's knowledge of the best lines as a former competitor, Ilina's big mountain experience and my own skills as a photographer for the most photogenic spots!
There is so much to say about Iran that it will probably not fit into a single article but we quickly understood that the reality is not black and white, and that the image of Iran, which is often reflected in the media is over-simplistic. Of course, it can be regarded as the land of the Ayatollahs with strict rules and many things banned, such as openly criticising the government, drinking alcohol, dancing, surfing freely on the web, having contacts with men in public.
And this is why, here more than in many countries, the mountains represent a land of freedom so desired by many: here, men and women can now ride together, share a passion, women can be on a par with men, they will wear a beanie rather than a veil, people can talk about whatever they want in the lifts…
Here more than in many countries, the mountains represent a land of freedom so desired by many: here, men and women can now ride together
And this is what struck us the most that very day in Dizin when there was a snowboard competition, one of the first to be held in Iran for both for men and women. The excitement of the crowd, the beautiful mixing of men and women, the passion you could feel in the air…
This is why we chose to title our project 'Koh I Noor', meaning 'mountain of light' in Farsi, believing that positive social and environmental changes can be brought through the passion of riding. As Ilina perfectly summed it up, this kind of travel 'makes the snow family larger and the world smaller' and you end up growing so much richer from the inside.
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