VERNON, B.C. — Two months ago, James Leigh drove a Royal Enfield 500 classic motorcycle up the eastern coast of Vietnam and into China — a trip most would have deemed a death ride.
Ultimately, Leigh said it’s not death he’s afraid of, it’s mediocrity.
Having led a successful career as a U.S. security consultant, he was part of the U.S. Justice Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service unit who executed a successful undercover operation in China. He’s also worked in several war zones including Afghanistan, partook in a house-to-house clearing in Bagdad, jumped from a plane in Kuwait but missed his landing zone and was stranded alone in the desert for two days.
Oh, and he was also sent to Mount Everest four times looking for North Korean Scud missiles being shipped over the Himalayas. As if that weren’t enough, he was even imprisoned in North Korea last year. Adventure is his way of life.
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Though his home base is Vernon, there aren’t too many countries he hasn’t visited, not much he hasn’t seen. But, he said, this most recent ride through China and Tibet may have been the most jarring; almost ironic.
Starting where he finished his last trip, he began his newest adventure in Kunming — the capital and largest city of Yunnan province in southwest China — and made his way north towards Tibet.
“The route was very different than my first one because there were lots of winding roads and there were lots of times that in two hours I’d only make it about 50 km. I could have used a more powerful bike this time.”
Because the road was so desolate, he had to bring tools so he could fix his tires and brakes when necessary. The further away from the city he got, the fewer people were on the roads, but that didn’t make it any safer — or less intense.
“They all drive just as crazy. There are times when you’re on the road where there’s sheep and goats and cows and buses crowded with people and you’re trying to drive through all of that on the side of a mountain. So it was often pretty dangerous and it was really slow at times but really tough on the bike.”
He said that the closer he got to Tibet, the more the Buddhist culture presented. The more rugged and nomadic the people were, the less stressed they seemed. He said that while driving through the Himalayas, he was often inspired to stop and hike. Though there was no road, he said that when he climbed far enough, he’d often come across a remote village.
“They have no road to their villages because they live in really remote areas of the Tibetan part of the Himalayas. Although they’re pretty stone-age, the people are pretty nice,” Leigh said. “It’s like you’re Indiana Jones and you’re riding a motorcycle and the further you get into the trip, the further back in time you go.”
He said what made this trip so interesting was the contradiction between China and Tibet. China is caught up in the rat race, each generation wanting more for their children — more money, more success. There’s a strong focus on advancement. He said that the closer he travelled toward Tibet, the more content people seem to be. He wondered if it is the lack of technology that allows them a better sense of inner peace.
“I’m not a religious guy, but you can honestly feel how peaceful the Tibetan people are. One thing I’ve learned is that there are two types of people: those who are at peace with themselves and those who aren’t. You go into that region and you can see that they are happy to have their tent and their fire. They’re content with their life. So it’s interesting because you’re not just moving environmentally or geographically, you’re also moving culturally — from the hustle and bustle of China and these huge cities and you’re slowly going towards this peaceful Tibetan, Buddhist environment. It’s very weird because the distance compared to the change is insane.”
The second stretch of his motorcycle adventure took about three weeks and ended in Lhasa, Tibet. But, he said he’s far from calling it quits.
“At first I thought it’d just be fun and the bike was cheap and I thought I’d just ride around Saigon but then everyone was so impressed and I thought, are you kidding me? I’ve jumped out of planes and been to countless war zones and done all this crazy stuff and this you’re impressed by? So I just kept riding and now, it’s sort of cool because I’m not planning it out. “
Leigh said that he thinks it will end up being a six-part around the world tour. He plans to return in about a month and, weather and politics depending, continue his ride to Kazakhstan, then Europe, then back to America for a tour a little closer to home.
“As I was riding, I was realizing that I probably won’t be jumping out of airplanes or going into wars or finding myself detained in North Korea, so I just kept riding because it just can’t be over. This will be how I’ll stay alive and it’ll be what keeps me going.”
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