“I had to take the plane on Sunday evening. We should be on the road right now. The weather is perfect, the snow has fallen, the passes are open. We should be going up the frozen river right now,” says Jeff Willner. “Were not.”
The frozen river he is talking about is the Kolyma in the northeast corner of Russia. If all had gone according to plan, Willner and a group of adventurers under the DefenderX banner were supposed to be on the second leg of a record-breaking expedition, which included driving two Land Rovers around the world from London to New York. , including amphibious crossings of the English Channel and the Bering Strait. But three days before the 53-year-old was supposed to leave for Chita, an eastern Russian town across the border from Mongolia where the first stage ended, Vladimir Putin began to move the troops he had amassed for months in Ukraine.
Needless to say, the postponement of this “absurd expedition,” as Willner described the feat to InsideHook in December, pales in comparison to the horrors that unfolded during the war in Ukraine, including a million people fleeing country, a million more fleeing their homes, and thousands of soldiers and citizens dead. Yet, traveling thousands of miles from Russia – a country that has now been cut off from much of the world by pathways from the financial systems to air travel – just weeks before their invasion, Willner and his comrades were in the unique position to experience a country about to start a war. Not that they knew it at the time.
When asked if he was worried about Russia going to war and if the team was worried about leaving their vehicles in the country (not to mention a few of their mates) at the end of the first part of their trip on February 2, Willner responds this way: “We left some stuff at the hotel check-in. That’s what we felt.
It’s not that the tensions rising between Russia and Ukraine at the time weren’t obvious. When the team – which includes distinguished explorers Steve Brooks and Mikael Strandberg and documentarian Sofie Rørdam – crossed the border on January 21, after a seven-hour process (“We just ran into a guy who was very meticulous in his work”), they crossed the continent with two Russian speakers. There was Edward Adrian-Vallance, who is originally from the UK but moved to Russia in 2007, who set up the logistics for this part of the trip and helped them cross the border, as well as Misha Vikhrov, a Native Russian who works in the entertainment industry and came to shoot drone footage.
“His grandparents helped invent the first atomic bomb and build the first nuclear reactor in Russia,” Willner, who himself is CEO of tourism company Travel Edge, said of Vikhrov. “His grandfather was one of the guys who flew over Chernobyl when it melted and later died of cancer. His mother is still a nuclear scientist. So talented, a very cool guy. He stayed up all night receiving drones while we slept, then he would nap in the truck while we drove.
Looking back on that two-week period, Willner admits it was less about sightseeing and more about dealing with vehicle accidents and then driving long hours from one destination to another. (Part of the problem is that these Defenders were specifically designed to cross water, and these changes had unintended consequences; another part of the problem was simply the brutal cold.) But as he says, they stayed in the best hotels in town. and ate at the finest restaurants, and during this downtime they discussed the prospect of war.
“We had long discussions,” Willner says. “And Misha’s family is well connected, so we had some pretty intense discussions.”
From the Russian corner, there were hand twists on Boris Yeltsin “[giving] away from big chunks of the country and big chunks of its resources. Of course, that was three decades ago. Trying to put things into perspective, Willner compared Russia to Canada, where he lives, a country that has a higher GDP, and the ridicule of Canada theoretically attacking neighboring countries.
He also tried another tactic with Vikhrov: comparing the situation to football.
“If you think of the Premier League in football, Russia was relegated some time ago,” he recalled saying. “They are number two. They arrive around 13 or 14, and they always act as if they want to face Liverpool or Chelsea in the Premier League. So that’s the bitter reconciliation… If you think about what the UK has done in terms of Brexit and clinging to the Empire, if you will, and they still think to themselves of this way, there’s a lot of that in Russia too.
“It’s like they had a bit of this hangover from delusions of grandeur when they were one-on-one with the United States, and they were the first or second biggest game on the block, depending on who you ask,” he adds. “It’s not that anymore.”
However, what the DefenderX team saw while driving from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod, with its Kremlin Fortress, to Kazan, with its Kremlin Citadel, to Lake Baikal was not a country in decline. What Willner saw, as a leader in the tourism industry, was a country on the verge of opening up to the rest of the world beyond the obvious cities known to Westerners, and a rising middle class.
“It’s this middle class that was really coming in and buying their little Honda, Toyota, Nissan cars, running around, and the kids going to school and working. That’s who we talked to and that’s what impressed me,” he says.
“When we were talking to people, because the buildup was happening in Ukraine, there wasn’t a single person we were talking to – senior, junior, man on the street, guy at the gas station – who was thinking for a second there were ‘d be tanks crossing the border into Ukraine,” he adds. “So it just took everyone by surprise.
Even as the war appears to be heating up, Willner and his team are still hopeful that Russia might retreat, the conflict might end, and DefenderX might continue to traverse Siberia. If that sounds naive, the prospect comes from meeting normal Russians on their own turf just a few weeks ago and knowing that war was not on their minds at the time. But the team will have to make a final call between March 15 and 20 because the ice they have to ride on will be gone by mid-April.
For now, the team waits, occasionally texting each other in a WhatsApp group. Willner is back in Toronto and runs Travel Edge, Edward Adrian-Vallance is in Russia and still running guided trips that he organizes, and Sofie Rørdam, who is filming the DefenderX Expedition for a TV series, is in Poland working on filming with a kitchen that feeds Ukrainian refugees.
If they wanted to, they would all rather be pushed in two Land Rovers up an icy river.
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