"Awesome! I feel my horse is actually galloping!" says 55-year-old Zhou Ling, an eager participant in a summer road trip to Hulun Buir Grassland in Inner Mongolia. She enjoys every minute of her holiday, just as anyone else would; the only difference is, she can't see the places she visits.
Losing her sight
Zhou Ling used to work as a nurse at a hospital in Beijing. But one night in 1987, when she was on her way home after a shift, something terrifying happened. "I could hear the bikes passing," she says, "but my vision had become really blurred." An examination revealed she was suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that would progressively rob her of her vision. Her doctor told her she would become blind in five to six years. "I was 23 and felt devastated," she says. "How could I possibly be going blind?" Following the diagnosis, Zhou Ling suffered from deep depression for almost four years.
To live or to die
"I thought about jumping into the sea and ending it all," Zhou Ling says. She actually tried to kill herself, but got cold feet at the last moment. "Then I realized, since I didn't have the courage to end it all, I'd have to live."
She started to learn how to walk, eat, use a mobile phone, and perform many other everyday activities, as a blind person. She describes this "adjustment" process as "torture." But she had no choice but to accept the reality. "Once, I spent 40 minutes threading a needle, and I pricked my fingers several times," she says. "As frustrated as I was, I saw this as a challenge from Fate, leading me to develop a more calm personality."
Becoming more outgoing
Instead of locking herself away at home, Zhou Ling began to reconnect with society. During the "learning to be blind" process, she visited several non-profit organizations, seeking help through vocational training designed for the blind. In this way, she got to know more people. She attended blind massage and harmonica courses, and developed an interest in running marathons. Earlier this year, she completed the Nagoya Marathon, becoming something of a celebrity in the process, and receiving an invitation to feature in a campaign for a Chinese sports app.
Travelling for the memories
Zhou Ling describes herself as a travel-holic. She used to go on tours with her family. The Hulun Buir Grassland road trip is the second time she has traveled with a visually-impaired group. Although they cannot see the sights, they can use their senses – smell, sound, and touch – to create a picture in their minds. "As a blind person, I really cannot see a thing, but I can sense it," Zhou Ling says. "Eventually, all the experiences become precious memories."
Becoming more confident
According to the China Association for the Blind, there are 17.31 million visually-impaired people in China, more than in any other country in the world. Zhou Ling's trips have been organized by a specialist travel agency for the visually-impaired. In the past two years, it has provided services for more than 1,000 tourists. Compared with the total blind population, the number who travel is tiny. Either because of a limited income or a lack of self-confidence, the vast majority prefer to stay at home.
Zhou Ling admits that reconnecting with society is a long, extremely difficult process. However, what she has gained proves that all the effort has been worthwhile. "After travelling to so many places and encountering so many people, I think I'm more confident now," she says. Now, she hopes her personal experiences will encourage more visually-impaired people to rise to new challenges.
To hear more about Zhou Ling's story, please tune in to Rediscovering China this Sunday.