Go By Train: Toyama to Takayama and back

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Train travel in Japan is really wonderful. You can reach almost any place and the trains are fast and clean. We used bullet trains (shinkansen) and the regular local services to go from Toyama, near the coast, to a little city further south called Takayama. Hopefully these photos convey just some of how lush, green and lovely the scenery was, winding over rivers and past mountain villages with little gardens, all impossibly bright in the hot sun.

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Takayama itself is quaint and friendly with plenty of streets and buildings just as they were centuries ago. We stayed in a traditional hotel called a minshuku, with sliding doors and mats on the floor.

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On the way back, I got the view from the other side of the train. Lucky me.

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Condobolin, NSW, November 2014

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I took the train to Condobolin for a few days. It was a calming experience. The train leaves from Central Station in Sydney and goes all the way to Broken Hill. I ate a finger bun and drank some instant coffee. I felt in touch with the Australia of my childhood.

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When I got to Condobolin it was all regal buildings, wide streets, sun, silence and a big Australian sky.

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On Mount Tilga

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Gum Bend Lake

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Utes In The Paddock! It’s a big, evolving public art project.

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Go By Train: The Canadian

The Canadian, from Via Rail, is a train that traverses the entire Canadian expanse.

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It was to be the longest train trip I’d ever done, and I actually couldn’t wait. 35 hours, from downtown Vancouver to the outskirts of Saskatoon. 35 hours of gazing and lazing.

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I boarded in the evening but the days are getting longer, so I had a few hours of landscape-watching until I had to revert to downloaded entertainment. It was hours and hours before the first stop, in the town of Kamloops. I find the steady movement of a train so relaxing. I was even able to get a few hours of sleep, crumpled up on my two seats and covered by my coat. IMG_0766

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In the late morning we began our climb through the Canadian Rockies. There were occasional announcements from train staff of landmarks to look out for. There was the occasional flurry of excitement when a passenger thought they had seen a bear.

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I wasn’t tired at all, despite being sleep-deprived. In the viewing car passengers could see the mountains in all their postcard glory.

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It was one of the most calming experiences I’ve had. A slow plod through eternal natural wonders – the mountains high above us, oblivious to all the commotion.

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I think this is Mt Robson, the highest peak of all. (Head in the clouds.)

Our next stop was the little town of Jasper, a favourite base for skiers and climbers. I was able to get out and stretch my legs, and gulp some fresh mountain air.

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From there, it was straight on to the city of Edmonton, which we reached in the dead of night, when I was snoozing under my coat again. In the meantime the land flattened out slowly.

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And I enjoyed some on-board services.

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As the first full day on the train faded away, the passengers started getting chatty. There was a musical couple who performed country love songs live in the lounge, and received advice from an old blues singer on his way to Winnipeg. A baby-boomer couple on holiday told a story about a girl who, many years ago, fell off the train when she was having a cigarette between carriages – she had to be rescued from the wilderness in the middle of the night. Two young English women told me all about their travels, and a pair of Quebecois chaps helped me pay for my dinner (delicious, by the way), when I realised with horror that the staff would not accept debit cards. An elderly woman sitting across from me told me of her time living in Australia and New Zealand.

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This is my new country, at least for a short while, and its vastness, its stillness, the unblinking wonder of it – all of this was on display from the windows of the train.

We were all nowhere in particular, until I arrived at my destination – seemingly nothing more than a concrete slab in the middle of a huge yard.

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I had reached Saskatoon, in the prairies, having travelled for two nights and one day. I had drunk many litres of coffee and eaten a whole stack of bagels – and exhausted my supply of podcasts. Some of my new friends would stay on The Canadian for two more days, all the way east to Toronto. I wished them all the best.

Go By Train: The Amtrak Cascades

My second train ride of my trip was one that I nearly missed. By “nearly” I mean that Amtrak staff had locked up the train and were ready to go, and I practically had to beg to be allowed on.

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The Cascades goes from Seattle to Vancouver, so it brought me into Canada. It must have been a newer train than the Coast Starlight because the seats were even more comfortable and the wifi was functional. It was only a four-hour trip – my next one will be 30. More to write about then perhaps.

One I had calmed down I was able to enjoy the view.

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Go By Train: The Amtrak Coast Starlight

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Portland Union Station

I’m a lifelong fan of train travel. I love most things about it – the steady pace (ideal for relaxing and sleeping), passing through small towns that a freeway driver would miss, and looking out the windows for hours on end. I was especially excited to take the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Oakland all the way up to Portland.

The Amtrak stations, the visual merchandise (see these posters) and even the slogan “Go By Train” all have an old-worldy feel to them, as if travelling by train in America is a way to reconnect with some kind of Golden Age. I like the idea that long-distance train travel is genteel and kind of a novelty in an age of cheap flights.

The trip took 20 hours. It was meant to take 18 but I had heard rumours of the “Starlate” being delayed so I wasn’t too surprised. We hit a tree, apparently (“tree strike”) and some drunk and rowdy passengers also had to be removed from the train.

It did seem like there were a few intoxicated and shady characters riding with us but for the most part all my fellow passengers were very pleasant. I had breakfast and lunch in the dining car and had some great conversations with a Canadian couple, an elderly lady from Argentina, a grandmother from upstate New York and a Bostonian who was enjoying his new city of Portland.

The economy class seats are pretty comfortable and roomy.

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I was certainly able to do get a good snooze. I wish the wi-fi was actually functional though.

But my favourite thing about the Coast Starlight was the view. I woke up soon after sunrise to landscapes that quite literally took my breath away (well, for a few seconds).

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I have two more train trips left on this journey – a short one on the Cascades (also Amtrak) from Seattle to Vancouver, and then a much more substantial 24 hour+ trip from Vancouver to Saskatoon on The Canadian (from Via Rail). I am practically counting down the days!