Friday, 15 June 2012

"The Canadian" - Part 2: Jasper to Toronto

Leaving Jasper by train was magnificent. Although we passed through increasing rain showers, the clouds were somewhat broken, so the majority of the mountains were visible, and  unbelievably dramatic.

This majestic scenery was over all too soon as we wound down through forest, out of the rain and the Rockies into Alberta's farmland. As the train pulled into the industrial outskirts of Hinton, I overheard one of the other passengers say, "Man doesn't make it very attractive, does he?" I found myself wondering whether Woman would make it any more attractive...

Travelling in the sleeper class was a whole lot different from the economy class I had experienced on the way from Vancouver to Jasper. I knew that the ticket included all meals, but was not quite expecting the quality that entailed: 3-course meals three times a day, with six pieces of cutlery for each; extra muffins and patisserie for anyone who had to wait for breakfast, and bowls of fruit scattered throughout the carriages.

The Dining Car laid out ready for a meal

After the first evening meal, I wandered along to the rear of the train, which is a carriage with windows all around the back. Here there were many bowls of fruit, hot drinks on tap, and a gaggle of retired Texan ladies fawning over pictures of the Queen's Jubilee celebrations. Arriving there just at the same time as me was a singer-songwriter guitarist. As she was tuning up, I imagined myself to have wandered into a private part of the train, but then realized that this was all included!

As I had found in Jasper and in Whistler, travelling with an accordion really opens doors. Karen the guitarist said I should go and fetch my accordion, and so I did. Although we didn't jam as such, I did play a few tunes for the gathered audience, many of whom thought I was also a hired musician on the train. The following afternoon, during my wanderings along the various sections of the train, I heard an chirpily enthusiastic English accent say, "Are you going to play for us?" so play I did, and I stayed at that end of the train until my call for supper.

I visited the economy end of the train a number of times over the next few days, and I began to feel almost like a kind of aid worker taking music to the starving refugees of some place from which culture had been banished.

Every now and then along the route, our train had to stop to allow freight trains heading the other direction to pass us. It seems that most of the railway across Canada is single-track, and freight transport, being the main income of the railway, has precedence over mere passenger trains. Being in no particular rush, I was quite happy for the train to go a little slower. I was very content to be on the train for a good long while, feeling that even three days was far too short a time.

The sleeping accommodation on this train was different to any other that I have experienced. It was probably most similar to the Russian train in which I crossed Europe in May 2010. In the daytime, the bunk was folded up into an impossibly small space, above forward and backward facing seats.

During the evening meal, the carriage attendant would come and fold out the beds in some impossibly complex series of key-turns and lever-pulls. The first time I returned to my berth to sleep, I walked straight past it as it was so completely different a space than the daytime configuration.

I realized soon after inhabiting my upper bunk why it was cheaper for this than the lower bunk: the lack of windows meant that there was no way to experience from one's bed that wonderful pleasure of overnight train travel: waking up in the early morning light to experience a strange landscape, different to that which has been left the previous evening. I was able to experience this joy by getting out of bed, however, as the bunks opposite, not being inhabited between Edmonton and Saskatchewan, were still in the daytime configuration.

After sitting for a while and looking out at the early morning strangeness from the other side of the carriage I went back to bed,as it was still a while before breakfast time. The second time I awoke on that first morning, we were already in the prairies. I had somehow been led to believe that these lands would be far flatter than they actually were. Only briefly did we ever pass through anything nearly as flat as the Fen country in the East of England. Also, I somehow had an image of the prairies being wild grasslands, so was a little disappointed to find that all the land that we could see from the train was cultivated for agriculture, or quarried for Potash.

Some time between breakfast and lunch, I realized that this train had showers on board, and decided to sample the delights. The shower room was surprisingly spacious, and the flow of water was properly strong. It was a pleasure to be warm and wet and to watch the water trickling down through a small hole onto the tracks below.

Life on a long train journey is really rather leisurely, and it is easy to lose track of time. If it were not for the regularly announced mealtimes, and the darkness of night-time, the time of day would cease to exist at all.

The train in Hornepayne, wildest Ontario
Waiting in Hornepayne to get back on the train

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