Jeju Olle Trail conquered by visually impaired
For the first time since the Jeju Olle Trail opened 15 years ago, a visually impaired person conquered the 422-kilometer (262 miles) course.
The Jeju Olle Trail is a long-distance footpath on Jeju Island founded by writer and journalist Suh Myung-sook. The trail follows the coastline and consists of 21 main routes and 5 sub-routes.
Ryu Chung-han, a 52-year old therapist for fellow disabled people, finished course 14-1, the last on the Olle Trail, on Wednesday afternoon around 2 p.m. “I received a lot of help while trekking the trail, and I want to establish a network of volunteers so that other disabled people can achieve what I've achieved,” he said.
Ryu first starting having problems with his eyesight in 2001. He studied physical medicine and rehabilitation in university, and was working as an occupational therapist at a hospital. “My sight kept deteriorating due to genetic causes,” Ryu explained. “It kept getting blurrier and blurrier, and by the time I turned 30, I could no longer see anything in the center of my sight frame and could only detect faint light at the edges.”
Ryu's visual impairment eventually reached Grade 1. But that did not stop him from getting his masters and Ph.D., in therapy and social welfare, respectively.
As for trekking the Jeju Olle Trail, that has a convoluted history. “I always dreamt of walking the Camino de Santiago,” Ryu said, referring to the Christian pilgrimage route in northwestern Spain. “And last month, someone told me about an advertisement for a month-long trek on the Jeju Olle Trail. I decided to give it a go, thinking I could take one step when others take ten.
“Course after course on the trail, it was hard, but worthwhile. I could go over my thoughts and address worries that I had.” In total, Ryu's trek took five months.
Ryu was composed in describing the trek, but admitted some pretty rough moments along the way. “I remember trekking courses two and three last December,” Ryu said. “There were times when I had to go through rocky paths and basalt fields. There were parasitic cones, and cliff-like terrain, too.
Ryu was accompanied by volunteers on the trail, and sometimes, a shortage of volunteers held him back. “At first, there was no system or anything in place to secure volunteers,” Ryu explained. “I had to ask friends of friends and acquaintances for help. It was hardest when I couldn’t find anyone to help me.”
Ryu also got assistance from the Gildongmu (meaning “friend on the road”) program of Jeju Olle Academy, a private organization of volunteers. A different volunteer helped on each of the 26 courses.
“The volunteers would walk in front, and Ryu would use a walking stick to get a sense of the terrain ahead and follow,” said Choi Eun-jung, a volunteer who accompanied Ryu on course 10. “There were no problems with Ryu’s fitness but the molten-rock terrain was a setback.”
“Because of the volunteers, I was able to feel Jeju with all my senses, the wind, the waves and the Gotjawal Forest,” Ryu reminisces. “The trail lets you ponder your own thoughts, but also opens up relationships with others and sets you on a path.”
The “path” that Ryu found on the trail is making it easier for other disabled people to experience the Olle Trail. “Because the Olle Trail aims to preserve nature, there are limits to making facilities that would help the disabled. Instead, I plan to expand a network of volunteers and the disabled so that it is easier for people to walk together on the trail.
“A disability is not just a matter of having a damaged part of your body,” Ryu said. “If you can't do something because of a disability, and you end up being able to do it through the help of someone else, it's almost like not being disabled anymore."
BY HEO JEONG-WON [email@example.com]