I spent some time recently on a travel-writing assignment in the Altai Republic, Siberia’s stunning underbelly. It’s full of mountains, forests, lakes and – as you approach the border with Mongolia – desert steppe. It’s a beautiful place, but at this time of year it’s also crawling with disease-infested ticks.
Among the illnesses these small arachnids can pass on as they burrow down into your skin are encephalitis and Lyme disease, both extremely nasty and certainly not the kind of thing you want swimming around your bloodstream.
Everywhere you go in the remote republic there are huge signs warning you to watch out for the bloodsuckers. You can get so obsessed with watching out for them that you don’t even notice the incredible scenery. A case of not noticing the trees for the ticks, as it were.
Their very existence among all the beauty is enough to make you believe – or at least consider - the Gnostic theory of a blind, ignorant, imperfect Creator. They really do spoil things. This is, after all, the area believed by New Age types to be the gateway to the mythical Tibetan Buddhist kingdom of Shambhala. There really shouldn’t be anything as foul as ticks here.
I spent more than a week in the region, and just as I thought I’d completed my mission without falling victim to a tick attack, my arm started hurting. A lot. The index finger on my right hand also went numb and I had developed a slight fever. By this time I was back from the republic’s real wilds and had access to the Internet. So I started reading.
Muscle fatigue, tiredness, headaches, fever.
I had at least three of those.
Only thing was, I couldn’t locate where a tick had got me, if indeed one had. After they’ve sated themselves and dropped off, ticks often leave behind a distinctive red “bullseye” rash. But I couldn’t find anything. Granted, I was travelling alone and it is kind of hard to ask strangers to check your head and other not-so-accessible areas for ticks, so I couldn’t be entirely sure that I hadn’t been bitten.
So I went to the clinic in Barnaul, capital of the Alai Territory. Where the doctor took one look at me and said “There’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t have encephalitis. Go home.”
But what, I wanted to know, about Lymes disease?
“Lymes disease, Lymes disease…that comes later,” the doctor said, smiling. She refused to say anymore and hustled me out of her office.
“That comes later?”
So I continued reading. It turned out that Lymes disease is a controversial subject, in the United States and Europe at least. Mainstream doctors insist that a two-week course of antibiotics is usually sufficient to wipe out the illness. But many U.S. sufferers claim that there is a cover-up between medical insurance companies and doctors to keep them away from the two or even three-year courses of IV antibiotic treatment they say they need. The majority of doctors insist, with some logic, that such prolonged use of powerful antibiotics is likely to prove an even greater harm to a patient’s health than Lymes disease, and that what ails is these people is not “chronic Lymes disease”, but something else. Arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, restless leg syndrome, mental problems - anything but Lymes.
The more I read, the less I understood. There were organizations with official sounding names that on a deeper examination read like the rantings of a single person. At most two. “This site is dedicated to all Lyme disease sufferers, true warriors who never give up the fight,” one sufferer wrote. I didn’t mean to be unsympathetic, but that seemed, well, a little absurd. Reading further, it struck me that for a lot of people ticks seemed to be some kind of symbol, something that represented all that was bad and unfair about the world.
Still, it’s easy to get paranoid about and obsessed with Lymes and ticks in general. After all, these are tiny creatures - in some cases no bigger than a pinhead - that can potentially floor you. Evil incarnate indeed.
As for me, if any of you are worried, the doctor reckons I may just have muscle strain brought on by 17 days of travel in Siberia and sleeping in a different place almost every night. As he said, I’m not getting any younger (I’m 78 today, in fact). Still, he said to take antibiotics just in case. So I am.
Despite all this unpleasantness, the Altai really is a wonderful place. Just watch out for the ticks. Or visit in the depths of winter.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.