I'm back from four fabulous days' skiing in Iran. As usual, travelling in the "axis of evil" is full of surprises. I was a little nervous about the journey, especially after the little naval skirmish 10 days before. Fortunately, David Miliband, our hip Foreign Secretary, is a Facebook friend, so I sent him a message telling him I was off to Iran for a skiing holiday and would he mind postponing any aggressive actions until my return? To my delight, he replied almost immediately, warning me not to go near one particular area. It so happened that I was not planning to go anywhere near there, but that's the kind of one-on-one service I want from my Foreign Secretary.
My flight was delayed by four hours; then I nearly didn't get on the plane after a last-minute security check. The suspicious official asked why I was going to Iran. "Skiing," I replied cheerfully. He then asked me to go with him into a little room. I imagine there's going to be a lot of that from now on when anyone spots my Iranian visa.
Once on board, I tucked into the free champagne with gusto. I wasn't going to see much more of this for a bit in the dry Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, just before we landed in Tehran, we hit some turbulence and I spilt a glassful over my trousers. This made me paranoid that I would stink of booze and be arrested and flogged the moment I set foot in the airport. All was well, however, and I managed to slip through unflogged and met up with my charming Iranian guide. Together we set off in his car on the two-hour drive to the Alborz Mountains north of Tehran.
As is not uncommon when these sorts of destinations are involved, my guide was a big fan of British heavy metal. As we started the climb up and out of the capital I was treated to a track from the new solo album of the former lead singer of Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson. This particular composition was something about swords and warriors and beasts. My guide was in ecstasy.
"This Bruce Dickinson, he is great poet, yes? He is like English Sufi philosopher."
I was speechless. There are many things I could call Bruce Dickinson, but Sufi philosopher?
"You like Judas Priest?" asked my guide, as another godawful song kicked in. This was not the right soundtrack for the staggering scenery we were driving through.
The further we drove into the mountains, the less I felt the grip of the Islamic state. There were almost none of the endless photos of Ayatollah Khomeini that adorn every wall in Tehran. There were also fewer women in the all-concealing chadors. And fewer beards as well – the sign of devout followers of the Islamic revolution. I've always wondered about the relationship between facial hair and revolution. Castro, Lenin, Che Guevara, Marx, all the mullahs in Iran, Frank Dobson – all beardy weirdies. Someone should make an in-depth study.
"Mullahs don't snowboard," said my guide, smiling at me, as if reading my thoughts.
We arrived in Shemshak, where the weather was perfect: blue skies and fresh powder. I skied the empty slopes all day – heaven in the "axis of evil".
That night, after a meal of lamb and aubergine stew, served with mountains of rice and sweet tea, I retired to my room. I was taking my shoes off when I heard an extraordinary sound outside. I opened the door and stepped on to my balcony. About a hundred yards away, on the empty piste, sat two grey wolves howling at the bright, clear moon – the Sufi poet Bruce Dickinson would have loved it. The wolves must have heard me because they stopped their howling and, for a second, our eyes met.
Then, suddenly, the sound of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer filled the steep valley, echoing around the still, moonlit mountains. The wolves bolted into the darkness; I shivered and stepped back inside. These are the tiny moments in our lives that you know will stay with you for ever. For photos, Facebook me.Reuse content