In order to escape smog-filled Almaty, you need only to ascend to 6,000 feet above sea level. And it’s almost as easily done as said: a quick 20 minute drive has you in the picturesque Tien Shan mountain range that skirts Almaty’s southern and eastern edges. “The Lungs of Almaty” indeed. The air is cool and dry; the lack of car exhaust is noticeable immediately. And the hiking, oh my goodness, the hiking.
This is not a leisurely afternoon stroll. These foothills are for real. A two-and-a-half hour hike has you ascending an additional 3,000 feet through scrubby grasses, gurgling mountain streams, and proud pines. Even the sunlight plays along. The light always seems to have that lovely late-afternoon quality—polarized just so, for perfect photographs with bold, colorful statements.
And then you find a tick.
Oh my god! Get it off, get it off!
May and June are tick months in the Almaty foothills. Regular tick checks are advised; the CDC recommends looking in the following places:
– Under the arms
– In and around the ears
– Inside belly button
– Back of the knees
– In and around the hair
– Between the legs
– Around the waist
If you couldn’t tell already, this is a good time to for me to share: I am particularly sensitive about ticks. This is because my brother contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever from a tick when he was very young. Yes, this is a real disease. Did the tick who gave it to him travel all the way to Illinois from the Rocky Mountains to do so? One might think. But this incident (which had him hospitalized for more than a week), has left me with the indelible sense that ticks are sinister, blood-sucking villains.
So you can imagine my horror when I found one happily sucking blood just under my right boob. What I did next is NOT what the CDC tells you to do: “If you find a tick attached to your skin, there’s no need to panic.” Ha, yeah, right. “Remove the attached tick as soon as you notice it by grasping with tweezers, as close to the skin as possible, and pulling it straight out.” Instead, I grasped the little bugger between my fingers, and in one smooth motion, yanked the tick from my skin and threw it out the open car window. Shudder.
In Central Asia there is a disease called Tick Borne Encephalitis (TBE) that, if contracted and left to its own devices, can lead to meningitis, permanent nervous system damage, and sometimes (though rarely) death. This little bit of info, combined with the fact that Sam and I had only done the first of a three-course TBE vaccination, had us mildly concerned. It wasn’t until one week PTB (post-tick-bite)—when I fell asleep for an entire afternoon, then abruptly awoke at 1:00 a.m. to puke my guts out—that Sam and I decided I was on the fast track to TBE-induced paralysis.
But really I wasn’t. Luckily, as diplomats, we have access to a pretty great medical facility. A 15 minute chat with the doctor revealed that I had exactly the same stomach bug that the other American expats had suffered in the past few weeks. “It’ll pass in 2 or 3 days,” he said, as he handed me something called Vomiz which—you can guess from the name—is meant to help with nausea and, well, vomiting. And for those of you concerned about future tick episodes [ahem, parents], we also got the second shot in the TBE series.
Welcome to Central Asia.
As I write today, I am still slightly suffering the after-effects of the stomach bug. I haven’t eaten much except bananas and peanut butter for the last three days. I have vowed to drink an entire two-liter bottle of water this afternoon, and I would probably murder someone for a bowl of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup right now.
But despite all of this, the mountains beckon. I truly can’t wait to get out there on those majestic, sunlight-filled, tick-covered hillsides once again.