Aug 21, 2014

The Diva in Down on Tunics in Teheran...

I've worked hard to establish my reputation as 'the diva in down'. A critical component in maintaining this title (as many have tried to steal my crown...) is an expedition wardrobe packing routine based on trial and error (and too many fashion faux-pas to mention)… I pack my ‘go-to’ favourite t-shirt, favourite matching knitted Sherpa hats, favourite Striders Edge base layer, favourite Sherpa down jacket, favourite hard-shell waterproof and, more recently have added a favourite soft shell to my ensemble. Everything can be ‘mixed and matched’, can be worn together or separately, is easily washable and can go weeks (maybe even months!) without compromising the Channel No.5 infusion.... Throw in a post-expedition dress (something floaty and feminine to wear to facilitate integration back into civilisation) and then that’s my kit-sorted. I call it shabby-chic a la diva-in-down

Ironically, there’s little by way of packing list that differentiates a 5 day expedition from a 50 day expedition.

Having this routine means that I only need to ‘top up’ with new pieces from time to time as fabric technologies are introduced and as colours and styles are upgraded from one season to the next. This saves money, time and makes packing a relatively straightforward and predictable task. 

Iran has thrown a spanner in the works.... 

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so worried about an expedition wardrobe... 

The cynics among you may say that I should be worried about more than my wardrobe, heading to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Fashion Sense...

The advice I’ve received on dress code for Iran is a long tunic that covers the body (especially the butt), with long sleeves (no bare arms), long trousers that cover the ankles and close-toed shoes… 

I also have to wear a ‘hijab’. Ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it has been illegal for a woman to leave the house without wearing a headscarf. The punishment ranges from a fine to imprisonment… Given how challenging it was to get a visa, I don't fancy pushing my luck in this department.

Over the past two weeks I’ve been into and out of nearly every high-street store on Oxford Street - Zara, New Look, H&M, Miss Selfridge, Monsoon, Primark, Hobbs, Reiss, Dorothy Perkins, Ted Baker… and then countless visits to Selfridges. Market research told me that Harrods would also be a strong contender. I have googled, ‘Iran Streetwear’ so often that my Facebook feed is now written arabic script. In the past two weeks I’ve tried on more tunics and kaftans and floaty coats than I’ve had warm dinners. 

I have stood in front of hundreds of mirrors speaking to hundreds of store changing-room attendants asking things like; 

Does this cover my butt?’, ‘Can you tell I have an um...errr.... shape?’  'Does this come with a matching scarf?’ ‘Is this too revealing?’ and my all time favourite, ‘Do you have this in black?’ 

I’m exceptionally lucky as most high street 2014 Autumn / Winter collections feature variations of the tunic - bright tunics, flowery tunics, bold tunics, short sleeve tunics, long sleeve tunics… you get my drift. The slight concern however is that it’s 40 degrees centigrade in Teheran and linen and cotton are preferable over heavy wool and cashmere. Normally when it’s 40 degrees I’m poolside, lathered in SPF 40 with a daiquiri in hand and not tunic-ed up in wool drinking a yogurt lassi on a street side cafe…

I doubt I'll ever embrace the look with the same passion as Dame Judy Dench, but can certainly see the versatility of the tunic… you can eat McDonalds burgers and Crispy-Creme donuts  to your hearts content, you can hide VPL, you could be 8 months pregnant and no one would be the wiser.

Because I’m shopping both for my Iran and post-Iran tunic look at the same time, investment has taken some extensive consideration. It’s been incredibly hard to discover and define what my ‘tunic’ style is… I like the shapeless, floaty-look but at the same time, I know how finicky fashion can be and I’m afraid that this ‘look’ will be ‘Sooo 2-0-1-4 by December… and then I”ll be stuck with a wardrobe that I’ll only ever be able to wear again if I’m either pregnant or going to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

This story does have a happy ending... 

I bought a lovely floaty black and white printed tunic (worryingly a little bit sheer) that can be worn with a floaty black cardigan (to hide the sheer element of the tunic) and a very baggy pair of drawstring jersey trousers… Not only is the outfit ‘Iran street-friendly’ but I can also eventually belt-it and wear it to London Fashion Week with jeans and a smart pair of heels in London. I also bought a versatile long black shirt that can be worn on the mountain over a t-shirt - perfect for travel along the dusty roads. Finally, I made a bit of an investment today on a long-sleeve plum-coloured tunic at COS that is very on-trend. It’s made of a cotton blend but the back is silk and buttoned from top to bottom. If the button-look is judged too risqué I can just layer the floaty jacket over top….

Now to find a hajib to match my down jacket….

Aug 18, 2014

The People You Meet: Destination Iran!

People often ask me why I climb mountains. I climb for the sheer magnificence of the vistas I see and experience at altitude - high above the cloud, looking out from a sheer precipice over the curvature of the earth far, far below. I’m but a tiny speck of sand in the panorama framed by the horizon. But also, I climb to find out who I am. This form of ‘vertical’ meditation helps me to connect with my thoughts and put into context my place in the world around me. I believe that in order to really connect with someone, you need to know yourself - and climbing has helped me to do this. It’s taught me about courage, commitment, creativity, discipline, teamwork… Climbing has helped me to realise that at the end of the day, at the end of my life, it’s not going to be where I placed in the race or the summits I’ve stood on, it’s going to be about the relationships with the people I’ve met along the way and the experiences shared.

These shared experiences are what drive me to the mountains– to experience new cultures, meet new people, to explore new landscapes, to challenge my perceptions. My expedition to Peru to climb Alpamayo last month reminded me of this. Attempting to engage with the locals in the mountain-town of Huaraz in my rudimental Spanish, trying new foods like the traditional Peruvian ‘pachamanca', experiencing the differences in the way that expeditions are organised and run, and the different mountaineering styles and techniques… despite feeling ‘lost’ in this new country and new environment, my senses were heightened and I felt truly alive.
"Why are you going to Iran...?"
So, to answer the question I’ve been asked on numerous occasions… “Why are you going to Iran?” From the reactions of most people that I’ve spoken to about my forthcoming expedition, it seems that I, the ‘Diva in Down’, can’t have picked a less credible, less comfortable, less diva-esque holiday destination than if I’d decided to go wind-surfing off of the coast of Somalia.
When the opportunity arose to combine my passion for the high mountain vistas and experiencing a new culture in the Islamic Republic of Iran, I didn’t hesitate.
If you listened blindly to the media your picture of Iran would be one where men with stones stalk the dusty streets in search of adulterous women, while the government spends its time rigging elections in between sessions of feeding pieces of glowing green metal into a centrifuge.
But in speaking to friends, colleagues and even complete strangers who have been to Iran and experienced first-hand the hospitality, the culture, the atmospheric teahouses, bustling bazaars, deserts punctuated by historic oases and rugged mountain ranges, I couldn’t have a more convincing argument of why I am so incredibly excited to go ‘off the beaten path’ and see it for myself.
I’ve been told that if you like people, you’ll like Iran. Iran is a nation made up of numerous ethnic groups and influenced over thousands of years by Greek, Arab, Turkic and Mongol occupiers. If what friends and locals say is true, it’s a country that is endlessly welcoming and a country that is desperate to been seen for what it is, rather than what it is depicted to be.
I experienced a great example of this ancient hospitality last Thursday evening when a group of friends and I went for dinner at the Persian restaurant, Kandoo, on Edgeware Road here in London. The waitress was Iranian and rather than ordering off of the menu we told her of our forthcoming trip and asked her to order for us based on her local knowledge and passion for Iranian cuisine. We were not disappointed – dish after dish of succulent lamb, chicken baked in rich, fragrant sauces and spiced to perfection were served with understated elegance until we were so full that finishing the aromatic saffron ice-cream dessert was even a challenge. She then shared with us an insight into what we could expect to experience in Iran – from tips on what to wear, what to eat, and what to see… and even gave us her family’s contact details in Teheran to visit for an opportunity to see and experience the city from a locals perspective.
As with many of my trips, this adventure, rather unsurprisingly, involves a mountain. Whilst in Iran I will be climbing Mount Damavand. At 5671 meters (18,605 feet) it is the highest summit of Iran and the western Asia. What Everest is to Nepal, Damavand is to Iran – the mountains silhouette is one of the most recognisable icons in Iran, appearing on the local currency and on bottles of spring water and numerous other commercial items. It is a perfect cone-shape volcano located in the central part of Alborz Mountain Range in north of Iran on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. ‘Damavand’ means ‘Breathing Mountain’ primarily because whilst it is a dormant volcano, it still belches out sulphuric fumes strong enough to kill unfortunate stray sheep.
Snow covers the entire mountain in winter and the upper parts in the other seasons. Damavand has a narrow summit crater usually covered with snow-cap and cloud. The snowy white peak with its regular lenticular cap cloud is one of the most beautiful sights of Iran. In a clear day it is visible far from 250 km.
Counting down the days...
With my visa in hand, I am now literally counting down the days… This week will be spent on an itinerary similar to the run up to other expeditions - packing, training, rounding-off some final work-related objectives and preparing to experience the culture and hospitality of this beautiful country and its people. I am very much looking forward to challenging my original perceptions of this country, arriving with an open mind, experiences to be shared, and eager to learn from the people who I meet along the way.