Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Ode To Tehran

Tehran is a huge, sprawling mess of a city. With an official population of 8.5 million, and an unofficial one pushing 14 million, it is a choking nexus of cars, buses and jostling humanity, all elbowing each other to get ahead. It takes forever to get anywhere; bureaucracy is rude and stifling; prices are prohibitive; people are perennially bad-tempered; and the air pollution is amongst the worst in the world (at least it used to be a few years back, though it’s getting better of late). Nobody could mistake it for a beautiful city.

From the northern suburbs of Tehran you can very quickly find yourself in wild, mountain landscapes (though you can still spy the city down the valley through the haze).

And yet I really quite like it. The posh northern suburbs with their glitzy apartment buildings that easily out-bling anything on Park Avenue or in Mayfair; the multitude of trees that line most streets, even smaller ones add a sense of serenity; the gritty bazaars where you can find (almost) anything can quench the thirst of even the most die-hard shopaholics; and the brash youth all make it a dynamic and exciting place. But, above them all (literally), there is one thing that makes life in Tehran more than just bearable: the mountains. Rising straight out of the northern suburbs and running from east to west, the Alborz mountains are a constant reference point through the smoggy haze. Their attraction lies especially in their proximity. From the hustle and bustle of Tajrish, the main shopping and transport hub in the north, it’s only 5 minutes to Darband where the houses stop and the mountains truly begin. The path initially follows the swift mountain stream past kebab restaurants where you can laze on carpet-decked platforms right above the water and puff away on shishas to your heart’s content. Or you can keep on going. Quickly you get above the haze and are rewarded with views across the whole, teeming metropolis, whilst being a world away in the calm bosom of the fresh, mountain air. The path keeps going as far as you want through beautiful Alpine scenery. If you carry on heading upwards a good day’s hike will get you to the summit of Tochal, lying just on the short side of 4000m, where, on a clear day, you can spy the mythic peak of Damavand to your east and the waters of the Caspian to the north. It’s no wonder then that there is a big mountaineering community in Iran.

But perhaps the best aspect of the mountains had been kept hidden from me until yesterday, when a friend of my mum’s invited me to go skiing. And as improbable as it may sound to go skiing in the Middle East, Tehran has at least 4 ski resorts within 30-60 mins drive, an enviable number for any city. OK, they may not compare with the resorts of the Alps or the Rockies, but the pistes were well-maintained, the waiting time minimal, and the weather perfect. What’s more, a day on the slopes transports you away from the straightjacket of the Islamic Republic. The zealous Basijis are not known for their skiing prowess and so the constraints of the regime fall away on the slopes. Not only were the women dolled up to the nines (which isn't unusual for northern Tehran), but there were no traces of headscarves to be seen; men and women mingled, chatted, laughed; boarders sat around (as they invariably do) sharing a quick fag (and, on at least one occasion, a surreptitious spliff) as they eyed up the next jump; and the general tension of life in Iran was lifted, if only for a moment. It was both elating to see what Iran could (should?) be like, with people free to live their lives as they want, enjoying themselves, having fun, being carefree and achieving their potential; yet also heart-wrenching because it is an ephemeral oasis, confined to the slopes for a short season and unlikely to spread. Yet another contradiction in a country that seems to be defined by them.

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