Couple follow their hearts in epic journey of love

There are many ways to express love, but Ding Yizhou chose one that few would adopt: following a heart-shaped itinerary around China with his girlfriend, who uses a wheelchair.

Ding, 27, embarked on his trek from his hometown of Liuzhou, in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, on Jan 3. He estimated the trip would take three years to complete.

The journey resulted from a wish by Ding's girlfriend, Lai Ming. She was diagnosed with hereditary spinocerebellar ataxia when she was 21. The progressive, degenerative disease has left 28-year-old Lai unable to walk.

Ding, a primary school classmate of Lai's, found out last year that her condition had deteriorated. He contacted her after noticing that she had signed off on a QQ instant-messaging post by saying, "How will my friends be if I die someday?"

Out of compassion, Ding came to take care of Lai. The two gradually fell in love.

To help with the treatment of Lai's disease, Ding spent all of his savings. He even bought lottery tickets in the hope of winning a fortune to cover the expenses. Despite his efforts, Lia's situation didn't improve.

Lai once told Ding that she would rather go out and use a camera to record her visits to places across China, rather than simply stay put and wait to die. That inspired Ding to come up with the idea for his adventure.

He began to prepare for the trip in November and spent about 16 days modifying his girlfriend's wheelchair to make it more suitable for a long-distance journey. He installed a shelf on the wheelchair for such necessities as food, water and an umbrella.

Ding decided to use an Old English sheepdog to pull the wheelchair, while he rode a mountain bike.

As they hit the road, Ding had just 200 yuan (S$42.96), which he thought would last them for a couple of weeks.

"I don't have enough money on me, but money is not an issue," Ding said, adding that he does hairdressing for villagers along the way when he is short of money.

He also earns money by doing farm work. In Wuxuan county in the city of Laibin, Ding earned more than 30 yuan by picking sugar cane.

The wheelchair has posed the biggest problem so far. It broke three times in the first five days of the trip. Ding welded the wheelchair to reinforce it when he arrived in Wuxuan.

When he first mentioned his adventure to friends, nobody paid attention because they all believed he was joking.

After Ding posted a picture online showing that the adventure was already underway, a couple of friends caught up with him to give support.

The tour also made headlines and many people, touched by Ding's story, offered donations. He has received more than 12,000 yuan and an electric bicycle. As more people tried to contact him to offer donations, Ding said he decided not to take any more.

"I should not have accepted donations in the first place," Ding said. "After all, it was a personal dream that we wished to accomplish by ourselves."

However, he added, "Since I've already accepted some donations, I will make every penny count."

Ding and Lai only travel a few miles every day on their route, which will form the shape of a heart.

According to their plan, they will reach Nanning, capital of Guangxi, before heading to Yunnan province. The ultimate destination is Tibet, but that will depend on Lai's physical condition.

"The purpose of the trip is to enjoy the scenery and to experience different customs and cultures along the way," Ding said. "So we are not in a hurry and I don't worry whether we can make it. The pursuit of a dream is just as enjoyable as fulfilling it."