Climbing in Iran – A Tale from Persia
We arrived late in the night at Imam Khomeini Airport and our short car ride to Tehran was deceiving. The streets were empty, the city asleep. We got lost a couple of times, some streets on my i-phone maps didn’t exist and sometimes our car simply wouldn’t fit through. Before we finally closed our eyes in a small shabby hotel room I got a message from Nasim, telling me we needed to leave Tehran before 8am. The pace for our journey had been set.
Our group consisted of Heiko, teamcoach of the Austrian Climbing Team and his girlfriend Babsi a renowned competition and rock climber. Markus, who works in a bank but likes travelling and bolting new lines and Eli, who came along to take photos. I was climber number 5, and we were about to meet Nasim Eshqi, a climber from Iran.
After abandoning the hotel early in the morning we immersed into traffic, pulsating through the city. We met Nasim and followed her to a breakfast place. It was the first time we personally met and actually got to know each other. Nasim brought her students and we got to catch a glimpse of what it’s like to be a female athlete in Iran. Hiking up the steep slope to the climbing area, the midday sun burning down on us, Markus, Heiko, Eli and me were glad to wear t-shirts while Babsi, Nasim and her two students were boiling under their veils. Eventually, the cliff near Pole Khab in the Elburs mountains offered relief. Away from the traffic and other people, the concealed figures transformed into women, showing their hair, climbing in shirts or tank tops. Climbing at Pole Khab was fun, mostly vertical and we’re happy for our first day on good quality rock.
Accepting Iranian hospitality, we spent the night at the house of one of Nasim’s students. We slept on the balcony and awoke over the rooftops in the middle of Tehran. Late in the morning we embarked on our journey to the West. The drive seemed to last forever, and again we arrived in the middle of the night, this time in the small town of Bisotoon. It was pitch dark but the stars shed just enough light to reveal the outlines of the giant walls looming above our little house.
Our room comprised of a 5 by 5 meter space and a huge Persian rug on which we slept, awoke, had little breakfasts and abundant dinner meals. At first overwhelmed by the tiny space and lack of privacy we learnt to appreciate our new home.
The next days we climbed in the valleys surrounding Bisotoon and teamed up for some multipitch routes on the main wall. When we topped out on a ledge, 6 pitches due, we got a feeling of the actual size of the mountain that would still lie ahead of us. Doing 6 pitches meant climbing the big toe of the more than 1.000meter giant. Sport climbing the following days was sufficient and one of the new areas offered great tufa lines that we wished to come back for. Unfortunately there was neither time for an attempt on the big wall nor for more sport climbing. Our schedule was tight and we needed to move on.
Our journey to Iran was a climbing trip foremost but we also ventured to go hoping to get to know a new place indulging into a different culture, making new friends. All of us were aware of the political situation which can be hard for women, harsh for political opponents or minorities. But reading in our Western media about it or seeing reality, or at least parts of it was, of course, different. One trivial thing was drinking. I never thought drinking beers can make one feel like a criminal. Drinking in Iran is forbidden but of course there is a black market for almost everything. However strict the laws of the Islamic Republic, people turn a blind eye to petty crimes. And while our thirst for climbing had been quenched, our crave for beers had not. On one of our journeys to Kermanshah, the main city of that region, we ordered beer to be delivered to a friend’s place. I parked our car in a shady street. As soon as I killed the engine another car approached us, a guy got out and handed me a black plastic bag which he told me to store under the passenger seat. Later we enjoyed every sip with relish, bearing in mind the possible risks of our indulgence.
Although Kermanshah and Bositoon are renowned for their rock inscriptions, arches and temples, considered UNESO World Heritage sites, we decided to move on to Isfahan. The road from Kermanshah to Isfahan runs along the beautiful Zagros mountain range and offered great scenic views and as such a relief from driving. Speeding is not recommended in Iran, since your car might easily be taken. We did not take chances but still at one point we got pulled over. Without Nasim this would have meant trouble, but she steered us clear. Her soft impression of Farsi, a talent to negotiate as well as putting some Rial bills in the policeman’s book meant that we were free to go.
While Tehran has established a rather liberal reputation among Iranians, Isfahan is known for its religious conservatism. Most women are fully covered, wearing the Chador instead of the common Hijab that covers only head and chest. A former Persian capital, Isfahan has plenty of cultural sites and historic heritage. We were overwhelmed by the bazaars, the squares, the beautifully tiled mosques and the gardens. Our sightseeing journey ended at the Khajoun Bridge. Crowded with people taking a rest from the busy city life, its arches were filled with parties having dinner on rugs or smoking water pipes. We chose to sit at one of the outlet channels, dangling our feet in the cool water before we returned to our house in the outskirts of the city.
The last days of our short trip passed by too quickly. We once again accepted Iranian hospitality and stayed at a ranch of one of Nasim’s friends. We climbed at Baraghoon, an unique area with limestone tufas that, contrary to normal tufas consisted of the remains of eroded rock. On our last day we played music at one of the pools at the ranch and danced deep into the night before driving to the airport and leaving the country as we found it.