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  • Canada November 2019: Part 2

    Tue, 02 Jun 2020 17:57:35 GMT


    I spent eight nights in Canada in November, four of which were on a train: I rode The Canadian on a five-day trip across the country from Toronto to Vancouver!

    The Canadian, Day 1 (Sunday, 17 November)

    Toronto was bright and sunny again in the morning, as I walked to the station from my hotel, with the CN Tower (which is next to Toronto Union Station) guiding my way. It was chilly again, and snow still lined the streets. I'd done my reconnaissance the day before, and as a sleeper train passenger was able to use the VIA Rail business lounge while we waited to board. I was checked off the list and introduced to the train manager, and sat reading, slightly nervously, until we were summoned to the platform at the far end of the station.

    Having been here yesterday for my GO Transit train to Niagara Falls, I knew roughly what to expect; the platforms weren't raised, but the train had steps up into the carriages. I'd been assigned a berth at check-in and found my carriage reasonably easily. We had a carriage attendant too, and he showed me where everything was in my roomette, and how to lower and put away the bed, which was hinged to flop down onto the regular seat, with a shelf just above the footrest/toilet (!!) to let it sit horizontally.

    My room, with the bed up...


    ...and down


    It became clear over lunch that this really was designed to be a fairly luxury train trip, not only from the demographics of people around, but also from the quality of the food. The dining car really had the feel of an old fashioned train, and the food was generally a very high standard (in particular the non-vegetarian food, from what I could see; though the vegetarian option was generally good if a little repetitive.)

    The scenery was stunning and, having tried a few different locations, generally settled on the dome car to do the sightseeing from. I completely lucked out with the weather this trip too; for the end of November we barely had anything but clear skies.

    In the dome car.


    The first couple of days we were travelling through the Canadian Shield, a huge geographic feature full of frozen lakes, pine forests, and rocky outcroppings.





    I think the first day was my favourite in terms of scenery—and like most of the trip, this was a 25-hour day due to the time zones. The train operated on Train Time, which was essentially at the train manager's whim, chanding during the evening, for the most part, rather than observing the geographic boundaries.

    Dinner each day was a curious affair; the dining car was nominally enough for every passenger in two sittings, and you could choose your sitting, though it caught me by surprise that even in the off-season (and it was definitely a very quiet train!) that guests were sat together in arbitrary groups of four at each table. Having expected to turn up and spend dinner reading, conversation with the other passengers was quite a shock! Fortunately everyone was polite and actually by the last day it was quite nice to have a bit of social (especially when there had been something to talk about during the day!), and it meant you had been introduced to at least some people if you fancied a chat during the day.

    Once it got dark, the dome car wasn't as much of a draw, other than a quiet place to read, as even the low-level sodium lights caused a reflection in the window. However, my room was able to be nearly pitch black apart from a couple of luminescent safety cards, so I got a good view out of the left side of the train, illuminated by the train's side lights, when I woke up during the night.


    The Canadian, Day 2 (Monday)

    I might have had a toilet in my room—though I avoided using it in favour of the "public" toilets in the train—but I didn't have a shower, which opened at 0700 and, probably due to the 25-hour day, I was awake in time to get the first go at that. It was surprisingly good, with a single button to release well-pressured pleasantly-warmed water for a good amount of time, somewhat like a swimming pool shower. No mirror (I suspect this improves throughput!) but we have one in our rooms above the basin. Using the basin was a little bit of a crapshoot, given that it was fairly shallow and the train could jiggle at any moment, but I survived.

    Shortly after breakfast we stopped at Sioux Lookout, and we were able to alight onto the chilly platforms for a half-hour. I walked the whole length of the train, and discovered the Bullet Lounge car at the rear, with its directly rear-facing window and second dome section.

    The Bullet Lounge car at Sioux Lookout.


    A member of staff came out to greet me and it turned out that for this trip, there were not enough Prestige (first class) passengers to warrant closing it to the rest of the train like during the peak season. Just keep going through the dining car!

    Inside it was pretty swanky, and offered free hot chocolate.


    We were The Canadian's Route #1 (ie, East to West), and we passed a Canadian #2 at a passing point shortly before arriving at Sioux Lookout, containing probably the only people I'd seen except for the ones in my own train until that point. In terms of the weather, this was the only "bad" day, but still merely overcast with the scenery still visible. Rocky outcrops and cuttings started to mix in with the forests and lakes, which looked freshly bleak in the different weather





    We had a shorter than scheduled stop in Winnipeg, and it turns out the staff changed over here, so along with taking on quite a few new passengers, we had a totally different staff complement. (This new lot weren't as good as cooking, but otherwise fine—and they did seem slightly better at organising us at dinner, as I was sat with other solo travellers this time, which was easier for conversation.)

    With it dark before dinner, I spent most of the evenings reading. During the trip, I read a sci-fi anthology, a compilation of a web comic, To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, The Raven and the Reindeer by T. Kingfisher (wrong continent, but felt apt in the snow), Horse Destroys the Universe by Cyriak Harris, and I think I even started Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, at least before I returned home from Vancouver.


    The Canadian, Day 3 (Tuesday)

    We left Winnipeg still just about within the Canadian Shield (and I was asleep before we left anyway), so it was a surprise to wake up the next day with totally different scenery; farmland and prairie in all directions, and barely any snow, which had disappeared entirely by lunchtime.





    The last couple of days had passed very quickly, with me feeling conflicted between just staring out the window at the changing scenery and reading some of the books I had been enjoying, the choice was a bit easier on this leg. The landscape was beautiful, but wasn't changing at the same pace, which made it easier to get engrossed in a book.



    We'd been making extremely good time, and it turned out this was because the drivers of the freight trains, which usually get priority on the Canadian railways, had been striking. We had an extended stop in Saskatoon, waiting in some good yards for several hours, and then went on our way again.

    I started paying more attention to what the other passengers were up to to pass the time. I was one of only a few people reading books; others were doing newspaper crosswords, one was crocheting a cardigan. Outnumbered by the older generations, most of the younger people (by which I mean about my age), had headphones on, and one was playing on a Switch (Luigi's Mansion, my diary notes).

    One of the highlights of the trip came when the train had stopped, presumably at a light, though we were on a single-track section. I was in the Bullet Car, at the rear of the train, and a few other passengers spotted an elk, I think, out of the left side of the train. I got my camera out, as did they, and everyone got some nice photos:

    Elk. Not sure what was going on with the lighting in this one.


    The elk lost interest in the train and the train passengers lost interest in the elk, but I kept an eye on it, and tracked it as it went through some foliage and then sauntered onto the track behind us.

    I didn't have the best lens for it (a choice of my 24 mm prime lens or my 12-18mm zoom lens, of which I picked the former – I must get a longer lens for similar journeys!) but I managed to get a shot through the somewhat dirty back window that came out fairly well with a bit of cleanup:

    It wandered off after a few moments, and I lost sight of it.


    A couple of passengers realised what I was shooting and I showed them the photo I got after the elk had properly wandered off. Over dinner that evening everyone was asking me about it!

    About 90 minutes after the elk, and accompanied by an announcement by the staff, we crossed the Fabyan Trestle Bridge, which I think we were told was the longest railway bridge in Canada. Here's a photo of a bridge:



    Coming up to Edmonton we passed through many goods yards, and it started snowing! The sodium lights lit everything up prettily. We had to wait to enter the station for another Train 2 to leave, but still had some time to go out and dance in the snow a bit before bed.




    The Canadian, Day 4 (Wednesday)

    The excellent Seat 61 had mentioned that coming up to Jasper was worth trying to see, so I woke up very early (before 0400) and sat watching the stars from my room's window. My room had a left-facing window which gave me a beautiful view of Orion with four of the Pleiades visible. I saw three shooting stars, probably from the Orionids.

    Alas, the views of the Rockies on the approach to Jasper, described as "stunning" by Seat 61, were shrouded in darkness; I suspect this is a peak-season-only treat, unless the train is delayed, which the strike had (bizarrely) seen to it that we weren't. We make our own luck though, and laying in bed in a gently rocking train, watching the Orionids, was no small substitute.

    We arrived early in Jasper, and I took breakfast before sunrise (more elk talk; some even asked if the photos were online yet!), then I went out for a walk around this small town while the train was refuelling. This is quite a common stop-off point for hikers (I could see myself coming back here to do so), and a lot of people join the train here too for the trip through the Canadian Rockies.

    To my delight, there was a Tim Horton's, and it was open before 0800, so I got myself doughnut #2 of the trip. It was -6°C outside.

    Dome cars being cleaned before the most popular leg of the journey.


    Sunrise at Jasper.


    After some beautiful sunrise views of the mountains, I went up to the bubble in the Bullet Lounge, which was usually deserted, but this time I only just got one of the last window seats, which were entirely gone by 0918. Half an hour later, we pulled out of the station.

    For this section, we had a train crewmember come up to the dome to tell us what we might be seeing today. In short: lots of pretty. They also let us know that the reserved Prestige seats, the four front seats, were no longer reserved, so free to use by everyone. Nobody made a beeline for them, so I took one myself!



    I'll just leave the rest of the day to be a photo collection, I feel it captures the mountains well. They were picturesque, but didn't quite usurp the first day for beauty for me, though there was more variation. Meanwhile, day-trippers are quite a different type of person to the other passengers who had done the whole of the trip! It wasn't too annoying, and I got to meet a lady who had done almost the exact same Central America holiday I had, except in reverse. Going from Guatemala to Mexico across the same river crossing must have been as bizarre a step-up in quality as it was a step-down for us. But I digress.









    It was really sad realising that this was the last sunset I would have on board, and I watched the landscape slowly lose its colour as night fell. The last I saw of the countryside was of the train going over a curved bridge, lighting up the trees with shadows of girders.

    While the train was quiet I took a few minutes to walk through the whole length of the train, from my roomette in the frontmost sleeper carriage (though there were some coach class carriages further forward), back through the train to the bullet car and dome. (Link if the below embed doesn't work.) (Slightly loud.)




    The Canadian, Day 5 (Thursday)

    Vancouver! Sun rose during breakfast onto a cityscape surrounded by mountains as we trundled towards Grand Pacific Station. I moved to the Bullet Car when it turned out that we would be reversing into the station, and I was the only person there except for a guard who was hopping out of the train every so often to manually change the points, who guided the driver in over walkie-talkie, giving distances in car-lengths.

    We filed out of the train and platforms into the smallish concourse, and, failing to be able to connect to the station wifi, I left the station to continue the next part of my Canada holiday.





    I'd highly recommend the journey to anyone who might enjoy it; off-peak definitely worked out for me, though it would have been a different story in bad weather! I personally loved having the train feeling empty, and just having a few familiar faces by the end (I ran into one of them later in the day in Vancouver while I was exploring, and we had a brief chat, which was nice and also weird seeing someone outside of the train!). There was space for everyone to spread out and not trip over each other; if it had been as busy as on the Rockies day, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it as much. As it was, it was unforgettable!


    A full, curated, photo set is here.

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  • Canada November 2019: Part 1

    Thu, 28 May 2020 18:39:14 GMT


    I spent eight nights in Canada in November, four of which were on a train: I rode The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver! However, first I had a day to spend in Toronto, or at least nearby…

    Niagara Falls

    I had two nights in Toronto but arriving late in the evening on Day 1 and needing to be at the train station early on Day 3 meant I just had one full day, and I chose to visit Niagara Falls that day, with it being a short train journey there and a somewhat less short bus journey on the way back.

    Having arrived at Niagara Falls train station, the falls themselves were about half an hour's walk away, and while there was a bus service I decided to walk. I think this worked out because most of the route takes you on a road alongside the huge gorge carved by the falls when it was further downstream.

    The sound of the falls becomes audible and just before reaching the set-off point for the boat tours they come into view. It was a beautiful day too, I think I lucked out with the weather which was pretty cold but apparently unusually clear skied for this time of year.



    A friendly Canadian guy saw me trying to take a selfie and offered to take my photo, which is lovely to have!



    There are actually two main falls almost next to each other: American Falls, which was on the far side of the river in US territory, and Horseshoe Falls, the one everyone actually thinks of, which is on the Canadian side of the river. At the risk of sounding like Subpar Parks, it was a little less tall than I had imagined, though still very impressive.

    "Look, Niagra falls," points the signpost person.




    The spray was going in an unusual direction that day apparently, with the effect that the falls were more visible than usual, and secondly that the visitor's centre right next to the falls was being drenched in spray! I walked into the spray, despite there being snow on the ground elsewhere, and I can't say I regretted it. There were rainbows everywhere and I enjoyed watching the people coming out of the visitor centre being confused that it has apparently started to rain. You could also see the water going over the edge, which was somewhat unnerving to watch.





    It was around lunchtime by that point, and the tourist centre prices were a bit much for me, and I didn't fancy walking into Niagara town main to find lunch, so I had a quick snack (as with any trip, I had plenty of Clif bars with me, though mostly in case the train journey was serving nothing I could eat (which turned out to be unfounded; there was a good vegetarian option at each sitting) and walked downstream (which feels like going uphill due to the deepening ravine; confusing!) to the sales booth for Hornblower Cruises, the Canadian version of Maid of the Mist. I was in two-minds about it originally but in hindsight I'm really glad I did it; the falls were good to look at from water level, we got the oligatory pink plastic ponchos and subsequent soaking from the spray (though less than I did from the top!), and got to briefly cross the international border on the water without having to deal with US customs. Plus, being off-season, it wasn't unreasonably crowded on board.



    The journey back was a little less exciting than the train journey; the train runs only a couple of times a day and the rest of the timetable is covered by a longer bus journey back with a change onto the trains for the last leg, though at least the bus station by the train station was well-organised. While I waited for the bus I made a snow angel and drew an iguana in the snow.


    Toronto

    It was dark by the time I got back but I still had time to go and see the CN Tower (though not climb it, but the wide angle lens I bought in the airport on the way out turned out to be useful for more than just the Falls!). Then I had a good Thai curry in the main station forecourt, and my first (Canadian) Tim Horton's doughnut. I also bought a SIM card in an attempt to secure internet access on the train journey; didn't manage to but in retrospect I'm glad I didn't because there was one passenger who was constantly trying to get signal and being rather pre-occupied with it. Much better to just enjoy it knowing I wouldn't be online for five days.



    One more night in the hotel and then up the next morning to catch The Canadian!


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  • Daily update, Wednesday 2020-05-13

    Wed, 13 May 2020 19:24:01 GMT

    I woke up early enough to have an insomnia walk this morning, but was too groggy to get out of bed, so didn't. I had nightmares about going outside and all the restaurants were full and people were everywhere and I was there just trying to do some shopping and failing to avoid contact with anyone.

    I had originally planned to go to Sainsbury's this morning but decided against it. I have frozen veg in the freezer so fresh veg can wait.

    I was also supposed to have had my (already once-rescheduled) laser appointment today. It was only for my chest but I was going to get some face booked in at the time. I need to remember to do so when they phone me to reschedule.

    At work I had my final sprint retro/planning session. One colleague in particular, the same who was particularly supportive about me coming out, said some nice things to/about me at the end. She's probably just a very nice sort of person, but I'm wondering if she genuinely wants to keep in touch after I leave.

    I'm watching Race Across The World, the second series of a BBC competition/documentary about several couples trying to get from Mexico City to the very south of Argentina, at ground level, on a budget of the price of an air fare. Last series had them going from London to Singapore and I think that was a bit more varied, but I'm enjoying this one so far and the Peru stretch in particular has piqued my interest. It might be a while before I can plan another holiday, but it's nice to have some ideas seeded.

    I watched the second half of an episode while using the cross-trainer, which worked for me and I'm feeling more awake than I have all day. Having "exercise" (code for anything that gets me physically moving, really, so gardening counts) on my daily todo list seems to be working so far. For the rest of the evening I'm going to read and relax.


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