A Walk along the Semmering Railway

At first glance, the landscape in the Vienna Alps looks idyllic.

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But the expert’s eye realizes immediately that something is missing here: a railroad!

Because how are the people supposed to enjoy the picturesque landscape if they can’t get there from Vienna main train station? This discontent about the lack of public transport boiled over into the revolution of 1848. Emperor Ferdinand I, himself a railway fanatic, was happy to heed the calls and initiated an engineering competition. The lucky ticket was drawn by Carl von Ghega, of Albanian descent, born in Venice, graduated with a doctorate degree at age 17 and thus a typically multicultural Austrian with the required academic title in front of the name. The only problem was, he had never built a railway. But more on that later.

As an avid train traveler, I could of course enjoy the way from the luxury and comfort of the train, but for people who are fit and have time all day long, there is a better option: a hiking trail along the railway line. If you are thinking,”what a stupid idea, walking along the railroad embankment all day and getting run over in the end”, I hope that this report will convince you of the opposite.

I start the hike in Semmering, the village that lent its name to the project and which is surprisingly small for its importance. But I guess there used to be more activity, as the overdimensioned hotels in Magic Mountain style suggest. Now, they are being used as retirement homes or not at all.

Semmering.JPGKurhaus Semmering.JPGak-ansichtskarte-semmering-niederoesterreich-hotel-panhans-kat-semmering

At Semmering railway station, trains are leaving to Mürzzuschlag, Payerbach, Graz, Vienna, Ljubljana and Prague. For a village with just over 500 people, train connections to three European capital cities are quite good.

But the heyday of tourism seems to have left Semmering with a one-way ticket, because as I approach Kurhaus Semmering, I notice that it is deserted and uninhabited.

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In the lounge, neither hot chocolate nor Almdudler is served. Only a few mice scurry away.

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The railway, on the other hand, is shaped by progress. The old trains have long been replaced by modern ones and are only left by the side of the tracks for their museum value.

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As if to confirm that the ambitious timetable is no chimera, the first hyper-modern train whizzes past just as I am leaving Semmering, having taken a last gulp from the water fountain.

Zug in Semmering.JPG

Soon, I learn that the hiking trail does not simply run parallel to the railway tracks. In quick succession, I find myself walking below the tracks, on the other side of the valley, and then I look down on the railway from a mountain or a panoramic lookout, just like Peter Rosegger in his story Als ich das erste Mal auf dem Dampfwagen saß:

We walked across the Stuhleck Mountains to make sure to avoid the valley, in which, as people said, the devil’s carriage was going up and down. But when we were high up on the mountain and looked down to Spitalerboden, we saw a worm creeping along a sharp line, smoking tobacco.

Blick vom Holzturm.JPGÜberblick1Überblick2Überblick3Überblick4

I have already lost any sense of orientation, because the Semmering Railway runs like a knotted ball of wool. The reason lies in the chief planner’s aforementioned lack of railway experience. Ghega didn’t know that railway lines are best built in a straight line or at least in wide curves that allow the engine to maintain a high speed. He was fascinated by the landscape and wanted to integrate the tracks into it, creating an artwork on a grand scale. His declared goal was to build the first railway to be recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

Thus, the Semmering Railway extends over 42 km, although the linear distance between start and end point is only 21 km. The line covers 14 tunnels, 16 viaducts and more than 100 bridges. Some curves are as narrow as hairpin bends on an Alpine pass. The combination of slopes and narrow arc radii was deemed to be insurmountable by most engineers at the time.

But it looks beautiful.

Viadukt1Viadukt2Viadukt3Kurve bei Gegha-Museum mit Zug.JPG

Construction work began in 1848 and finished in 1854. That’s only six years, which is an impressive speed for such a grand project. It’s an even more impressive feat once you consider that sleepy Alfred Nobel only invented dynamite in 1866 and thus far too late for the Semmering Railway. (Because of the lost bet with Ghega, he had to donate the Nobel Prize.) The tunnels were still blown into the rock with gunpowder. The resulting rock debris was then used to build bridges, viaducts, train stations and tobacconist shops. That way, Ghega not only invented recycling, but by constructing the buildings along the railway with material won from the immediate surroundings, he reinforced the interaction between nature and design. (This would have been worthy of a Nobel Prize for architecture, but Nobel was mean enough not to set up a prize for that discipline.)

One of these residences for signalmen now houses the Ghega Museum, but sadly, I have planned such a long hike that I don’t have enough time for a visit.

Museum.JPG

The hike is very beautiful and varied, but also quite a challenge. Without any steam engine, I go up the mountains, down the mountains, up the mountains, down the mountains. Each stop is a temptation, because I could simply take the next train back to Vienna. On the other hand, I am worried about missing spectacular views. Through the trees or on the other side of the valley, I keep spotting cute little houses.

Haus1Haus2Haus3Haus4Haus5Haus6

Ok, maybe more than cute little houses in most cases. The location on the trade route between Venice and Vienna seems to have paid off for the robber knights residing in the valley. Just like the people collecting the highway toll nowadays.

Speaking of traffic, I would have expected to see only a few local trains all day, but every 15 minutes, a train is passing by. Passenger and freight trains non-stop. We all know that we need to move more traffic onto rails, here it is already fully in progress.

At the 20-schilling lookout, I meet a gentleman from Nippon who bought every photographic equipment that Nikon produces. He came here all the way from Salzburg, just to take this shot. To say something different from what I am really thinking, which is that I find his long journey for a photo a bit over the top, I mention: “There are quite a lot of trains passing by, aren’t there?” Unimpressed, he retorts: “You  think so?” Well, when you are from Tokyo, you probably have different expectations.

20-Schilling ohne Zug.JPG

The place is called the 20-schilling lookout because the view from here was proudly displayed on the banknote of that denomination. When Austria adopted the euro, it was so sad to lose this banknote, it insisted that henceforth all euro banknotes need to show images of bridges.

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20 Alpine dollars also happens to be the price for a return ticket to Vienna, which I would of course like to save. And topography is my friend. Because the hiking trail runs above the railway tracks from time to time and because the trains have to slow down in the narrow bends, I should be able to jump onto a freight train, just like Jack London.

Hopping a train would be easiest during a stop, but the freight trains all rush through from the Austrian Adriatic port in Trieste to Vienna. If I jump down onto the moving train from a bridge, I have to time it really well because I don’t want to land right between two wagons and get crushed to death. I need to hit the roof or the bed of the carriage.

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I have no experience doing this, but I did have physics in high school. Education really makes life so much easier. From Galilei, Brecht and Newton, I remember that objects fall at the same speed irrespective of their weight, given the same aerodynamic drag. So I collect a few stones and let them drop from a bridge onto the moving train. That way, I am trying to ascertain where exactly the carriage needs to be when I jump off, making sure that the stone or I safely land in the center of the wagon.

Because I am even smarter than a physicist, I also calculate that I have a similar air resistance to a stone, but a higher mental resistance. So there will be a longer delay in my jump, increasing the danger that I won’t land exactly in a wagon full of cozy mattresses or Slovenian Christmas trees.

And then the train is gone.

I guess I am more of a theoretical person, after all. So I walk the last kilometers to Gloggnitz quite conventionally, where I law-abidingly purchase a ticket to Vienna, having waved goodbye to my audacious plan. “But one day, I am going to jump onto a freight train and ride across Mexico, I swear,” I am still thinking, as I fall into my bed at home, exhausted from real and imaginary adventures.

Practical advice:

  • The railway trail from Semmering to Gloggnitz is signposted quite well, and there are plenty of interesting boards with information along the way (both in German and in English).
  • There is an alternative route from Semmering to Payerbach or in the other direction from Semmering to Mürzzuschlag. Naturally, all places can be reached by train. Even between these places, you could cut the hike short and catch a train at the closest village.
  • Here you find the essential information (in German only) and a map. If you read German, there is also a guidebook.
  • The walk from Semmering to Gloggnitz (23 km) took me 9 hours, but with plenty and long breaks. If you want a shorter hike, I recommend to walk only to Klamm, which is 15 km from Semmering. That way, you would cover the most beautiful part of the hike, because after Klamm, there is really not much more spectacular scenery.
  • There are only a few places offering food and drinks, so you better take enough with you. If you come by the Blunzenwirt in Breitenstein, only get something to drink. The food there was the worst I have ever tasted in Austria. (And I have cooked myself here.)

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Posted in Austria, History, Photography, Technology, Travel, Video Blog | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

My secular Shabbat

Readers of this blog will have noticed that I am a radical Atheist. But there is one religious idea that I have incorporated in my life, although in a secular version.

It’s the idea of the shabbat, the 7th day of the week, on which one is supposed to rest. I use the Jewish term for this day, because I think it’s the best known, but many other religions have similar recommendations/rules, following a 7-day rhythm, from the Buddhist uposatha to the appropriately named 7th Day Adventists.

The Bible says you are not to shear sheep or to plow the field, but as this wouldn’t really make any difference in the lives of most contemporary believers, there is room for interpretation. Have you ever noticed that theology is a lot like law, just without the democratic legitimacy? Contemporary disputes seem to focus on whether it’s OK to drive on shabbat or to use electricity.

But I am not bound by the Bible or others’ interpretations of it. I don’t have any gods to appease. I have adopted the idea for the sake of my own sanity alone.

So what do I do on my shabbat?

The first point is: no work. Now, most people will say “oh, I already do that. I have Saturday and Sunday off.” But that’s not what I mean. After all, I personally don’t work regularly anyway. I mean: not even thinking about work! And that’s a big difference.

In practice, this means that on my shabbat, I will not read any e-mails, I will turn off my phone, I will not go through any documents that are work-related, I will not try to improve any skills that can be put to use, and I won’t even think or talk about work.

The second point, and it aids the first one tremendously, is to spend the day in nature. It doesn’t need to be anything far or fancy. I usually just go out of the door and walk through the forests and across the fields, until it gets dark. If I felt that I can’t walk that much, I would go to a lake and read a book there (but nothing work-related).

I currently live in the countryside in Germany, which makes this easier than for someone living in Mexico City, I concede that. But when I have lived in cities, I just took the bus to the last stop and started walking from there. Or sometimes I take the train to a town 30 km away and walk back home. It doesn’t really matter, it’s not a sports day, it’s not a competition. The idea is to clear the mind from all the clutter. And you’ll be surprised how soothing nature is.

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The third point might be the most important one: no internet. I wake up in the morning, I pack my backpack and I leave the house without having checked e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. If this is a problem for you, then you are addicted. And most of us are. But once you are outside, enjoying all the shades of green, the fresh flowers, the chirping of the birds, or maybe talking to the farmer in the field or another hiker that you bump into, you will begin to feel the freedom that comes from lack of connectivity. And remember, until about twenty years ago, that’s how we all lived all the time. And we were fine.

Even if you are not into nature, you can follow the third point. You can go to a museum. Or to the library. Or fishing. Or race your bike around the island. Theoretically, you could also do it at home and read Russian literature or play the guitar all day. But at home, I find the temptations too many. There is the TV, there is the computer, there is the phone. And swoosh, you’ll have lost another day to mindless waste of time.

There are three main lessons of the internet-free day: (1) I don’t really need Twitter or Facebook or even the news. When I come home from such days, I realize how much you can get out of a day if you aren’t constantly online. (2) Nobody needs me or my opinion, either. The world continues very well, or just as badly, without my contribution. I am really not important. (3) Without the constant distractions and interruptions, I can have deeper thoughts, think about bigger issues, think differently. I feel that this has an effect on the quality of my thinking, as I am not torn out of any train of thought by a new tweet or a beeping cell phone every few minutes.

Hut von hinten Sierra Maria

You may have noticed that I prefer to do such activities alone, but that’s not necessary. Actually, when I look at many couples and how little they communicate with each other and their children, compared with the time they spend on gadgets, then maybe it would be healthy to spend a day outside, just the two of you, without worrying about likes on Instagraph, being happy to spot a squirrel instead. If that thought scares you more than it fascinates you, then it’s time to end the relationship anyway.

Even with all my skepticism towards technology, I make one exception when I walk around an area that I know and where the novelty effect is low: an MP3 player with one earplug, because one ear should always be open to the sounds of nature. The important difference to a phone or the internet is that I choose ahead of time what I download and what I listen to. I am not lead from clickbait to clickbait. I listen to podcasts about the history of the Incas or about Kant’s categorical imperative (I try to avoid current politics because a lot of it won’t matter in six months), rather than waste my time looking at the 112th photo of cute cats or girls in bikinis. (By the way, guys, you would be surprised how often you come across a secret lake or a secluded bay, with a naked woman walking out of the water, lasciviously asking you if she can use your shirt as a towel. True story.)

I personally don’t even have a regular day of the week for this. Sometimes it’s on the weekend, sometimes during the week, depending on where I am, what I have to do, and on the weather, of course. But it’s the one day of the week that I am always looking forward to. There is delight in being unproductive. After all, we are humans, not machines.

Actually, now that I am thinking of it, maybe I should extend this routine to one week per month.

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Posted in Life, Philosophy, Religion, Technology | Tagged , , , , | 40 Comments

Canmore, the better Banff

In every country, there is a place that everyone, literally everyone, recommends you to visit. Actually, recommend is too weak of a word for the obtrusiveness: “You have to go there!” Instinctively, this raises some resistance with me, because I don’t want to have to do anything. And many of such places are wildly overrated. It leads to tourists driving across the country for hours, only to visit Neuschwanstein or Bran Castle, although there are hundreds of other castles scattered across Germany or Romania that are equally interesting. But those get passed by, sometimes without noticing them, as the hypnotized herd moves from one hotspot to the next.

In Canada, this dubious role falls to the small town of Banff in Alberta. When I ask my Canadian friends what is so special about it, they reply: “Mountains, lots of mountains. And a lake!” Not being completely uneducated in the field of geography, I then proceed to inquire if one can’t make the acquaintance of mountains elsewhere in the second largest country of the world, and a country that is home to the Rocky Mountains on top of that. Bewildered, they reply: “But everybody goes to Banff.” And that’s exactly the reason why I won’t go there.

Granted, I am not very creative either. I simply go to Canmore. Coming from Calgary, that’s about 25 km before Banff. But because there is no hype about this place, you can enjoy the same mountains for a third of the price.

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first view in CanmoreBerge Wald Licht.JPG

I have just arrived, breathe the fresh air and soak up the mountain view (both all the more relaxing after three months in a large city), when a passerby addresses me: “Canmore, it’s a heap of problems.” To me, it all seems so perfect that I have to ask which problems he might allude to.

“Don’t you see the terrible traffic?”

Ehm, no.

traffic in Canmore 2.JPG

He explains that sometimes, the railway crossing is closed for five minutes and that the cars will then back up, even around the corner. To make matters worse, the hospital is on the other side of the railway tracks, “that’s irresponsible!” Small-town problems.

“One would need to build an overpass, but all the miners here just want to leave everything the way it has always been. I’ve got nothing against the miners, please don’t get me  wrong! After all, they built the town.” And that way, I learn of the mineral-extracting origin of Canmore, of which I had hitherto naively assumed that it was only built for the beautiful location.

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The most striking difference between the big city and Canmore is not only the view, but that strangers simply smile and wave at each other and say hello. Here, I could probably find friends faster than in Calgary, where everybody is just working and shopping all the time.

The most seductive smile is directed at my by a bookstore in the main street, Café Books, but I am already carrying more than enough books with me. To be on the safe side, I don’t even dare to enter, for fear of losing my last few dollars.

Cafe Books front Canmore

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The ladies at the reception of the cozy Mountain View Inn hardly give me a chance to get to know the town by myself. Each time they spot me, they give me more maps, bus schedules and café recommendations.

And every morning, they want to know where I will be hiking that day. “Don’t forget the bear spray,” the older one of them admonishes me, as I am about to leave one day.

“Oh. Where can I get this bear spray?”, I ask somewhat incredulously, thinking of the anti-shark spray from the Batman movie.

“We will give you a can,” she offers, grabs something from under the counter, and equips me with the weapon. Good that I am not a pacifist.

bear spray.JPG

Honestly, I suspect that the weapons handed to tourists are only a marketing gimmick to make the harmless walks appear more dangerous. Like the life vests on rubber dinghies.

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On the other hand, maybe the bears are real and come all the way into town. Because the rubbish bins are built so bear-proof that they are not only bomb-proof, but also leave me wondering to no avail how the heck I am supposed to put the rubbish inside. I give up.

bear protection rubbish.JPG

Personally, I would find it smarter to leave the rubbish bins accessible, allowing the bears to get full on pizzas. Then, they wouldn’t need to devour humans. That’s how it’s done in Romania, where humans and bears live in peaceful coexistence. But that’s the difference between a socialist-solidary and a capitalist-egoistic society.

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It’s only the end of March, but spring is already raging. The snow on the south-facing hills is melting. The bears are just waking up. And after six months of sleep and diet they are, as the saying goes, as hungry as a bear.

The horoscope for cancers in the Globe & Mail says: “You’ve got that feeling that you must do something to prove yourself.” I understand that as an encouragement to go bear hunting.

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On the bus to Canmore, I spoke with a girl who only went to Banff for one day. She would have a couple of hours to walk around there, before heading back to Calgary. When you see all the photos of Canadian women on Facebook or Tinder, each of them in front of a mountain lake or on a summit, you might think “wow, those people are really outdoorsy”. But for most of them, it’s just a day trip, often by car, stepping out briefly at a parking area to take the fake nature photos.

“I heard that the most beautiful hike in Canada is in Banff,” she explains. Just for that, she flew to Alberta. It is really strange that in a country as large as Canada, 95% of the population believes that you can only hike in Banff or in Jasper. A mere 10 km to the south or the east, they already think it’s a terribly stupid idea. Outdoor spirit this is not.

A friend from Calgary also once wanted to seduce me to Banff, but she only had time for a day trip. “For lunch, there are three options,” my guide began to plan, “there is a burger restaurant, where everybody goes when they are in Banff. Then there is …” I dared to interrupt her and point out that I would go to Banff for the mountains and lakes, the bears and the forests. Especially if I only had one day, I definitely wouldn’t waste two hours of the still scarce daylight in a restaurant. “I’d rather get a Snickers bar from the gas station and spend more time in the mountains,” I explained, but she didn’t understand.

Thus, I went alone. To Canmore instead of Banff. And for a whole week, not just a measly day.

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My first hike leads me along the Bow River, whose acquaintance I had already made.

Bow River (2)Bow River (3)Bow River (4)Bow River (5)Bow River duck

In this kind of nature, I almost want to get lost. Some of the river’s tributaries are still frozen over, granting access to islands or to the opposite shore, although sometimes, it crackles alarmingly as I run across the ice. Alternatively, I cross the river on toppled trees.

Bow River EisBow River Baumstamm

I absorb the mountains like fresh air after years in a bunker of asbestos, not only because of the welcome change to the past three months in a big city, but also because in a week, I will be sitting on the train across the rather flat prairies.

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And thus I walk and walk, always following the river. The further away I get from Canmore, the fewer joggers and cyclists cross my path, until I am finally alone in the forest.

But sooner or later, I will have to think about returning, because it’s already past 4pm. And exactly in that moment, I reach a road with a bus stop. An exemplary bus stop even! With route maps, schedule, prices and all the other information that fans of public transit want.

bus stop Canmore

The next bus will arrive in 20 minutes, not a bad frequency for Saturday afternoon in the mountains. Until then, I will try to get back into town by hitchhiking. After 25 failed attempts, a red BMW stops. The driver welcomes me with the words “usually, I never stop for hitchhikers”, and I thank him profoundly for making an exception. Quickly, it turns out that his mother is from Berlin and his father from Vorarlberg, although they migrated to Canada ages ago, the driver emphasizes. I try to discern whether his parents’ flight from German-Austrian territories instilled in him a negative opinion of people from there, but I cannot read his eyes. Like everybody in Canmore, the driver wears sunglasses at all times. Maybe this town is a nest of spies?

He recommends a certain hike and the Legion, a home for veterans, as the place with the cheapest beer. And then the ride is already over. It’s sad that hitchhiking has been made illegal on some roads in Canada, while not on others. That confuses drivers and they never stop at all. And it would be such a wonderful way to get to know the country and the people.

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From my spacious corner suite at the aptly named Mountain View Inn, I look at the most alluring group of mountains in the valley, the Three Sisters, each time I wake up and each time I fall asleep.

Three Sisters dayThree Sisters night

But these little Matterhorns are all too inaccessible, too steep and too dangerous for a hobby hiker like me, especially now that there is still snow. So, the rule for the Three Sisters is: I can look, but not touch.

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The next morning, on the bus to the Nordic Center, I meet a guy from Whitehorse, a small but capital town in the Yukon. “We are only 30,000 people, but”, he adds with pride, “we have a direct flight to Frankfurt.” He has been to Germany himself for a conference about wood-based construction and to look at a few factories. Industrial espionage, in other words. But now, he works as a wood-construction engineer and is in Canmore for a few months.

He uses his free Sunday to go cross-country skiing where the Olympic Nordic skiing events were held in 1988. In order to still have snow well into spring (it’s early April by now), huge heaps of snow are piled up on mountainsides that are not reached by the sun. Those are covered with sawdust to slow the melting process. The inventory is so enormous that there will still be snow from the previous year left in fall, allowing the skiing season to being in September.

ski cross-country Canmore

To prepare for the next winter, tons of sawdust need to be produced. Building the wooden houses is really only a byproduct.

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From the ski trail, I want to hike to the two Grassi Lakes, but the path leads through a conservation area, where deer is being reforested. I like to break rules, but in this case, Bambi rules, so I have to find a different way.

Luckily, there is a map at the skiing center. With its help and taking a close look at the surrounding mountainscape, I try to memorize in which direction the lakes are. I spot a gap between Ha Ling Peak and Mount Rundle. That’s where I need to go.

Lücke.JPG

The straight line to where I suspect the lakes is a bit steep, but it’s even steeper to the left and the right of it. Also, the map shows a creek, so it can’t be terribly steep.

Yesterday was that premature summer day, so the ice on a lower-lying lake is no longer strong enough for me to walk across. Or is it? No, with increasing age and weight, I am becoming more cautious.

See Eis

Hence, I have to circumnavigate the little Arctic Ocean, without losing sight of the destination. At that time, the question why I insist on climbing to the higher-lying Grassi Lakes when I have another lake right in front of my eyes, as legitimate as it may sound, doesn’t even cross my mind.

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The hillside about to be crested is facing north and thus still full of snow. Even more dangerous than snow, especially at an angle far steeper than 45 degrees, it’s covered in ice. I am pulling myself from tree to tree, rather than my boots finding a grip.

The little stream doesn’t run at ground level, after all, nor as peacefully as I had thought. In reality, it throws itself down a wall of rock with thunderous roars. The same wall that I am trying to ascend, so the water and me are competing for space.

Wasserfall1Wasserfall2

At the mountaintop, the heat of the sun is melting the snow, resulting in tons of water rattling down. As the sun will rise and become warmer in the course of the day, that should get even worse. I just hope that the waterfall won’t widen, because I can’t move to the right either, where there is a wall of ice, as hard as stone and as smooth as the Olympic toboggan track.

Eiswand mit Aussicht

Now I understand why Louise from the Tourist Information had said something about crampons and ice axes. Naturally, I was too stingy for either.

I am battling forward, upward, meter by meter. My hands are scraped by rocks. My breath is panting, probably more for fear than exhaustion. Remember, snow-melt time is bear-wake-up time. And in this terrain, I couldn’t run anywhere.

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Suddenly, the sun disappears. Everything is covered with clouds. First, it becomes foggy, then outright bleak and spooky. Is that already nightfall? I don’t think so, because it was still before noon when I began the climb. Following adventure rule no. 19, I didn’t take a watch.

Nebel1Nebel2Nebel Gipfel.JPG

So, now the waterfall on the left will soon freeze over, and I will be trapped like in the eternal ice of Antarctica, just vertically.

The wind is howling, the trees are creaking, the sky looks as grim as if it regards my little hiking plan as a great affront. The hillside is becoming ever steeper, gravity ever more of a lethal enemy.

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And that’s the end. Sadly.

From my position, I can’t tell how close I am to the lakes, or whether I am even moving in the right direction. But I do see that I can’t continue. The wall above me is now really too steep and too icy. Disappointed, I realize that turning back is the only way to save my life.

Ende Gelände 1Ende Gelände 2

Back to Earth, I slide with little elegance. Good that nobody sees me, except for a squirrel. But if I will receive any donations for this article, I will have to use them for a new pair of pants. At least the descent is pretty rapid, and the injuries limited to a few further scrapes and some bruises.

Without the bloody ice, I would have made it. I believe. Therefore, in summer, I can wholeheartedly recommend the path. Just follow the waterfall!

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The further hike does lead me to a lake, eventually, namely to Quarry Lake, the remnant of an exhausted surface mine.

Quarry lake 1Quarry lake 2

I am just as exhausted as the mine, fall down in the grass and celebrate having survived another folly by smoking a few life-shortening Marlboro cigarettes, which aren’t allowed to be called Marlboro in Canada.

But that’s a story for another time. Now, you want to hear more about the mines. In 1887, the extraction of coal began in Canmore. The main customers were the steam engines, which is why the transcontinental railway was built through this beautiful scenery and why even today, impressively long freight trains thunder past at least once per hour.

Eisenbahn1Eisenbahn2

Unfortunately, steam trains went out of fashion (probably the fault of Greenpeace or other tree-huggers), and on Friday, 13 July 1979, the mine closed. That established the superstition that Fridays which coincide with the thirteenth day of the month bring bad luck. But that’s an erroneous belief. In reality, superstition itself brings bad luck.

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The mine’s head engineer, Gerry Stephenson, was an enthusiastic angler and had a better idea than simply filling up the ugly hole. Finally, he would be able to fly-fish at home in Canmore. And thus, the lake was born.

In town, the building of the miners’ union reminds us of that not-very-old history, but to my disappointment, I don’t meet any miners there who could tell me about forgotten gold mines.

Miners Union Canmore.JPG

They are probably all taking advantage of the cheap beer at the Legion.

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Sitting by Quarry Lake, I finally ask myself why I didn’t walk here comfortably in the first place, taking a book to read by the lake, instead of hunting for lakes in alpine and arctic conditions. I don’t understand why I do things like this again and again. After all, I am really not an ambitious person. Higher, faster, farther was never my motivation.

Bigger, more, costlier, however, is the motivation of a couple, to whose argument I have to listen because they carry it out so loudly. They debate how big the new house should be, how close it should be to the lake and how wide the driveway has to be. Some materialists cannot even pause in nature.

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Speaking of houses: This blue lagoon looks beautiful, but it smells horribly. Through a pipeline, the sewage from the built-up areas, devouring ever more nature, is pumped into the ecosystem.

blaue Lagune.JPG

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In the evening, there is snow, even down in the valley. If I had stayed in the mountains longer, there would not have been a happy ending. Tomorrow, I’ll go for a relaxing day.

Schnee1Schnee2

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As I return to the motel, there is a power outage. “Because of some explosion,” as the ladies from the reception explain, inviting me to join them in the tea room around some candles, because “there isn’t any light or internet in your room anyway.” (Many people believe that internet would be necessary to survive.)

When they ask me about my plans for the next day, I have to think of something on the spot: “I guess I am going to walk to Banff.” That’s about 25 km.

They tell me that they once had a guest who ran all the way to Banff and back. Well, by comparison, my plan is rather relaxing then.

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From the motel window, I not only see the temptation of the unassailable Three Sisters, but plenty of rabbits hopping around. I will encounter them every day, everywhere in town.

KaninchenKaninchen (2)

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So, the next morning, I set off early to walk all the way to Banff, to visit a place that everyone expect me desperately wants to see (oh, the things I do for you, the curious reader) and to save the 6 $ for the bus.

On the map, I saw that the Trans Canada Trail leads from Canmore to Banff. Irritatingly though, this trail also leads the hikers astray. Because this long-distance trail, crossing Canada from coast to coast, mostly follows highways or paths right next to highways. I don’t want to be too harsh, but this long-distance trail is the worst and most redundant hiking trail in the world. It is a big deceit, an annoyance, an utter failure.

This is how the Trans Canada Trail looks like in Banff National Park:

Autobahn1Autobahn2Autobahn3Autobahn4

And once on that path, there is no escape. On the right is the highway, on the left there is a high fence for many miles. It felt like running in a corral, except that animals in a zoo are granted more distance from the road. At the few points where there is an opening in the fence, you reach a railway track or would soon need to walk through a river.

Skelett BahnlinieFluss zw Canmore und Banff.JPG

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So, if you are planning to go to Canada for hiking, you better turn around right away and go to Britain or Austria, where hiking trails are really made for hikers.

If you do insist on crossing Canada on foot, look for an electricity route. They are wide enough for a whole army to march through. And you will always have juice for your cell phone.

Stromschneise2Stromtrasse.JPG

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Just once, there is a lookout point, where you are allowed to run around in the grass a bit, after entering through a grille with a bear warning.

The view is great from here, I readily admit that, but the only reason for the rest area is because it’s a parking by the highway. Canada seems to be a country for cars, not for people.

Still, I cherish the break, urgently needed after marching on concrete for hours. Before unpacking the lunch, just to be on the safe side, I take the bear spray from my backpack and read the instructions on the confusingly detailed bear-warning board.

bear warning Banff.JPG

First, it explains the difference between black and grizzly bears. I am advised to pay attention to the shape of the shoulder and the face, as well as the claws. Those measure up to 4 cm in the case of the black bear, whereas those of the grizzly bear measure at least 5 cm. Truly a very helpful piece of advice in the case of an attack! But what about a baby grizzly? In the end, it all doesn’t matter, because the zoological crash course also explains: “Both species are able to climb trees and to swim.”

Then, I am instructed what to do if I wanted to avoid encountering bears: walk in a group, be loud and not unpack any food. I happen to do the opposite of everything, which is just as good, as I really do want to meet a bear.

But what when the bear will show up? Then, I am supposed to differentiate between different moods that the bear might be in. If it makes noise, growls, snaps its jaws and charges at me, then – to my great bewilderment – it is a defensive bear. All of those are allegedly signs of a bluff charge, although the board fails to mention any good reason why the bear should do such a silly thing. In that case, I am supposed to retreat slowly and, if necessary, spray the bear spray into the bear’s face (if the wind is coming from the right direction, which I will still have to determine then, because otherwise the poison knocks me out instead of the predator). If the bear does touch me, I should fall on the ground and pretend to be dead. This position has to be maintained until the bear has left. If the contact has however made the bear aggressive (yes, that could happen too), then the advice is: “Fight the bear with any means!”

If, on the other hand, the bear is calm, watches me and follows me around, then it is an aggressive bear or, as it is called in diplomatic Canadian, a non-defensive bear (political correctness gone mad). In that case, I have to make myself as big as possible (how? by jumping up and down?), cause noise, proceed to a secure location (great idea!) and then fight the bear with anything I can find: bear spray, sticks, rocks. But: “Only use the bear spray if the bear is about 5 meters away from you.” The guidelines make no mention of panic.

I have studied law, but there are far too many ifs and buts, worse than in an IRS regulation. And how stupid do you have to be to lie down on the ground when a bear is coming closer? Especially when you are, as advised, hiking in a group. I would run as fast as I can. A new hiking buddy or a new girlfriend can always be found, particularly when you are a world-famous blogger.

Rucksack Rastplatz.JPG

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The rest area would also be the only place from where I could hitch a ride, but only in the direction which is not in line with the plan for the day. Because you can’t get to the other side of the road, and anyway, there is no shoulder for hitchhikers, nor for hitchhiker-friendly drivers.

This trail is such a dread, I am already beginning to dream of a bear eating me. But only a cute squirrel lies in wait for me.

squirrel

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Looking at all the nature around me, you are surely wondering “Is there really no other way?” But it really isn’t that easy. In winter, I could walk on the frozen river, but too much of the ice has already melted.

The other alternative from Canmore to Banff leads across the massive Mount Rundle massif with its six summits. To the left of it is Canmore, to the right Banff, meaning that you have to cross all summits on the way. That really would be a bit of a stretch for one day.

Mount Rundle sunny.JPG

And today, it’s also rather foggy up there.

Mt Rundle fog.JPG

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Judging by the pain in my legs, I should already be in Banff. But first, I reach a small cemetery in the forest. Or actually a large cemetery with a small occupancy. Just a handful of dead people are enjoying the sight of the mountains.

cemetry with mountain view Banff.JPGcemetery2

A wolf or a coyote is roaming around, hoping to increase the population of the institution. It seems to see a candidate for an imminent demise in me, because it keeps following me closely and curiously.

Kojote1Kojote2Kojote3

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A few more kilometers further, this time on a bike path, again directly next to the road, finally there is Banff, this most eulogized town in Canada. Tourism seems to be booming, because I see hotels to the left and the right, some of them as huge as if they wanted to compete with the mountains in the background.

After marching 25 km, I have earned a can of coke, I would think. But the shops sell only Fjällräven, North Face and Harley Davidson (offering 50% discount on motorbikes). Canmore also lives from tourism, but there, you have at least normal pizza and kebab places – and the bookstore. In Banff, that spot is taken up by jewelers. It is a show-off town, quite fitting for all the people coming here for a day, eating an overpriced burger, taking a snapshot in front of mountain background from the side of the road, feeling like big adventurers.

I never thought that I would one day have to explain this: If you can buy diamond diadems from Cartier in a place, then you are not in the wilderness!

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And there is another difference that I notice. In Canmore, people smile at me, the stranger, and some even say hello. In Banff, nobody does that. Here, people only look at me dismissively because there is a hole in my pants and because I take off my shoes while resting next to the lake.

Banff1Banff2

But because my articles only become interesting through interactions with other people, I chat up a lady walking around the lake. She has just arrived in Banff and therefore hasn’t internalized yet that hobos must be ignored.

Emma has left the cycle of stress and work, in her case at the BBC, because she “didn’t want to do what the masses do”. Thus, she ended up in Banff, Canada’s no. 1 tourism destination with more than 4 million annual visitors, and is now training to be a ski instructor. This is what all the “downshifters” from New Zealand, Ireland and Australia are doing here. Surprising, no shocking, how many of those super individualists are doing exactly the same as their colleagues.

Undiplomatically, I cannot fail to withhold my opinion, whereupon Emma accuses me of emitting “negative vibes” and walks on, probably to yoga or something else that is mighty spiritual or mindful.

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My advice to visitors to the Rocky Mountains: Canmore is the better Banff. The mountains are the same anyway. The weather is also equally unstable in both places. And there is a bus connecting both towns, for only 6 $, so save yourself that trail.

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The next day, I prefer to go hiking in the area around Canmore again. In Cougar Creek, there is, unsurprisingly, a warning of cougars. Damn it, I don’t have the right spray with me. But I am not even reading all the rules and instructions today. Probably, cougars are even more complicated than the already over-regulated bears.

warning cougars.JPG

I follow the path to Mount Lady MacDonald, because that sounds as if there will be a snack stall at the summit. The trail is quite steep, but not tough. A beautiful forest path with great views.

view from Mount Lady MacDonald 1view from Mount Lady MacDonald 2

There are more hikers here than on the other trails. Repeatedly, I pass young people sitting by the wayside, taking a rest. Others are already jogging down from the summit, those are the early risers. Two elderly men stand in the middle of the path, directing my attention to a chubby bird that doesn’t seem to be overly shy. On their phone, they have calls of the female wood grouse to attract the male grouse. But the bird is too smart to be fooled into boinking a smartphone.

Auerhahn.JPG

As we introduce each other, it turns out once again that everybody around here speaks German. László’s parents were Hungarians from territories that are now part of Romania and Serbia, respectively, and he himself was born in Bavaria at the end of World War II. But as Hungarians, his parents “of course” spoke German (Antal Szerb and his remarks about German as a Weltsprache come to mind), which they used to communicate when young László was not supposed to understand. So, he taught himself German with adventure novels by Karl May. Even now, 60 years later, he can recount some of the titles in German: Im Land der SkipetarenDurchs Wilde KurdistanDer Schut. The other gentleman, Chris from England, who also has been living in Canada for decades, is learning German because he loves to listen to Richard Wagner’s operas.

We notice that we could get along, and the two gentlemen are hiking together every week anyway, so they are happy to include me in their little hiking group. Both of them are older than 70, but they are noticeably faster than me. When I reach that age, I also want to be that fit.

Laszlo and Chris.JPG

But the conversation is so interesting that I don’t even notice the effort and the scarcity of oxygen. Both of them have traveled far and are well-informed. László has lived in Iranin Brazil and in Peru, and we talk about the world, about the European Union, about Romania, about right-wing parties in Germany, about universities, the elections in Alberta, about the Baltics, about Cuenca in Ecuador, and before I noticed it, we have reached the old tea house, of which only a wooden platform is left. Instead of McDonald’s, we have some apples, cereal bars and the view.

view from Mount Lady MacDonald 3.JPG

The actual summit is another few hundred meters higher, almost at 3,000 m, but it looks pretty steep and there is a very thin ridge up there. In consideration of the two elderly gentlemen, I unfortunately have to deprive myself – and thus you – of that adventure.

Ok, honestly, that kind of ridge wouldn’t have been for me anyway.

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The path down is of course easier than the ascent, but time also flies because of the animated debates we are having. This time, the subjects are cars, ecological taxes, the Treaty of Trianon, dual education and training, Canadian federalism, British industrial policy, traffic in Tehran, landmines in Bosnia and high-speed trains.

Only as I get back to town, I realize that we had been talking so much that I hardly took any photos of the hike. Well, it shouldn’t matter, you have already seen enough mountains and trees by now.

This encounter once again confirms my theory that traveling is best done alone. If I had been hiking as a couple or a group, I hardly would have spoken with strangers for hours, and I wouldn’t have learned anything new.

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These bicycle repair and air-pump stations are an idea that should be copied worldwide.

Fahrradreparaturset.JPG

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Finally, one of the receptionists at the motel tells me the reason for the number of cute bunnies in Canmore: “Someone had a rabbit farm and went bankrupt. He didn’t have the heart to sell the bunnies,” (I wonder if therein lies the reason for the bankruptcy) “and released them all”.

Kaninchen (3).JPG

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After I have already explored as much as I could on foot, I finally need a car to get into the higher mountains. Renting is too expensive. Stealing could pose legal problems, and to be honest, I don’t even know how to open a car door without a key, let alone start the engine.

So I have to resort to a trick. I invite a friend to visit me in Canmore, allowing him to escape his children for a day. It works. The photographer Edward Allen, already an old friend to regular readers of this blog, comes to Canmore for a day and we go into the mountains south of the town, past the Grassi lakes, which had caused me so much suffering some days ago.

But today, we don’t care about these little puddles. We want to go higher, to bigger lakes, to farther views and into thinner air.

Photo by Edward John AllenPhoto by Edward John AllenHochgebirge1Hochgebirge2Hochgebirge3

In the ice-cold wind and the absolute silence, we both feel reminded of the Himalaya, where none of us has ever been.

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A snow groomer has drawn a trail around one of the lakes, which we follow appreciatively. In this remoteness, I would normally be afraid of bears, but Edward talks non-stop and so loud, that even Bigfoot would take to its heels.

And that way, I finally get some new outdoor photos of myself.

Photo by Edward John AllenPhoto by Edward John Allen

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For food, we finally go to Café Books to support the local literary scene. The whole week, I had been avoiding it, to not get tempted, and now I see that it is indeed a treasure trove. Luckily, I am broke.

The café is in a separate annex for used books, probably to prevent the new books from taking on the flavor of the curry.

Cafe BooksCafe Books survival books

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On the day of departure, I can still afford a taxi for the few kilometers to the Tourist Information, whence the bus to Calgary leaves. The taxi driver is still waiting with me for the bus, “because I don’t have any business that early in the morning anyway”, and we talk for about 15 minutes, during which he invites me to a cup of coffee, which takes up a considerable part of the fare I paid.

I really like small towns.

Andreas in Alberta April 2019 19.jpg

Practical advice:

  • I stayed at the Mountain View Inn, which was cozy, spacious and affordable. If you use Booking through this link, you receive a discount of 15 €, also for all other hotels worldwide.
  • In summer, the cheapest ride from Calgary to Canmore/Banff is the On-It bus (10 $), in winter Banff Express (30 $).
  • In Canmore and in Banff, the local Roam Transit is quite good. Some of the routes go a bit into the mountains, from where you can start your hikes. You don’t really need a car.
  • One bus line regularly commutes between Canmore and Banff (for 6 $) and runs until around 10pm. Because accommodation is much more expensive in Banff, it even pays to stay in Canmore if you want to spend more time in Banff.
  • If, like me, you forget/lose your adapter for European appliances and need a new one, you will be helped professionally at “The Source”, opposite from the “Canadian Tire” in Canmore.
  • If you run out of books during your trip, your heart will jump with joy as soon sa you enter Café Book.

Links:

Posted in Canada, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Easily Confused (66) Influencer

People who call themselves “influencers”, but don’t influence me at all:

instagram-influencers-slammed-for-taking-sick-sexy-hazmat-selfies-in

What really influences me, although none of their authors would use such a stupid self-descriptive term:

Rare Books 77.JPG

Influenza:

influenza-virion3

The last one can be pretty influential, actually. It definitely impresses me more than girls with selfie sticks.

I myself am more of a thinkfluencer than an influencer.

Links:

Posted in Books, Language | 2 Comments

Ceaușescu in North Korea

When I lived in Romania, some people said about the long-term dictator, who was overthrown in 1989: “You know, in the beginning, Ceaușescu was not even that bad. After he came to power in 1965, he distanced Romania from the Soviet Union. And many things relaxed. Not dramatically, but it was a thaw of sorts.”

Internationally too, Nicolae Ceaușescu took Romania on a different course than most Eastern European countries, maybe comparable to Yugoslavia under Tito. Still a Warsaw Pact country, Romania did not participate in the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, and Ceaușescu openly condemned the intervention. He maintained political and economic relations with the West, receiving for example Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon in Romania.

“But then, everything changed in 1971.”

“Why?”, I ask, not being able to remember anything dramatic in world history from that year.

“Ceaușescu got invited to North Korea. And there he saw the personality cult for Kim Il-Sung, the total control of all aspects of society, the combination of nationalist and communist ideology, the idea of self-sufficiency of a country. When he came back, he wanted to turn Romania into a European version of North Korea.”

I am always skeptical of simple or monocausal explanations for historical developments. But when you watch a video of the reception in North Korea, you have to admit, one can see how that could go to Mr Ceaușescu’s head.

And indeed, just a few weeks after the visit to North Korea, Ceaușescu  published the so-called July Theses, rolling back previously granted freedoms for the press, for writers and other intellectuals, for universities. The thaw had ended abruptly.

If you have friends who are planning to travel to North Korea, better be careful! You don’t know how it will mess them up. (You should also be suspicious if your own president seems to be rather keen on getting invited to North Korea.)

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While the effect of the state visit by Ceaușescu in 1971 on Romania has been widely known or claimed, the effect on North Korea has been overlooked. Trying to impress the Romanian leader, the North Korean state spent almost one year preparing for the festivities. The expense in money and human resources (all the people in the parade could not work in the fields or in factories while rehearsing for the performance) was a huge drain on the North Korean economy, from which the country never recovered.

Nowadays, people don’t remember, but until 1971, North Korea was economically on par with South Korea.

For about 20 years after the momentous visit, you notice that the North Korean reported GDP is a flat line. Obviously that doesn’t reflect reality. It went downhill the year after everything was blown on costumes and balloons, but nobody wanted to admit it, so the North Korean chief economist simply kept using the numbers from the previous year. So, Ceaușescu not only ruined one country, but two. Good that he was executed.

But at least we got a catchy tune from the summit.

Links:

Posted in Cold War, Economics, History, Music, North Korea, Politics, Romania, Travel | 13 Comments

When Train Travel means Time Travel: on the Mennonite Express from Winnipeg to Toronto

This is the third part of the crossing-Canada-by-train trilogy, hence my recommendation to read part 1 and part 2 first. Otherwise, the whole story will go haywire and derail like a freight train, setting an innocent town ablaze. And you don’t want that, do you?


As much as Winnipeg had become my favorite city in Canada, one day it was time to leave. The train was scheduled to arrive at 7pm, in reality it steams into the station at 11:45pm and it takes another hour for us to leave. But all passengers are aware of that and have stayed at home for a few more hours, enjoying a long dinner and watching a hockey match, because they use the handy online tool which provides live updates of the position, speed and delay of all trains.

live map.JPG

All passengers? No! One indomitable traveler has no smartphone and deems all this technology to be a silly gimmick. Thus, I show up a few hours early and have the mighty train station with its dome all to myself.

Winnipeg train station.JPG

Maybe I should finally get one of those internet gizmos? But no, a delay of five hours isn’t really that bad. Once, the train had accumulated a delay of more than 30 hours while crossing Canada. Well, even that wouldn’t worry me, as I brought enough books to read.

Soon, more smartphone- and app-resisters show up: about 12 men in black garments and black hats, women in long, uni-colored dresses, bonnets pulled deep over their heads, as well as boys in black pants, dark blue shirts and straw hats. They are carrying large plastic buckets and wooden crates, tied together with rope. They speak in a mix of English, German and something similar to German. They are Mennonites, namely those of the old order.

I can’t believe my luck! Not only am I about to travel in my favorite means of transport from the 19th century, but I am going to share the ride with people from the same. I am too shy and decent to take head-on photos of other people, but I know you are bursting with curiosity. So I pretend to take a selfie, hoping that you can catch a glimpse of the ladies behind me.

Winnipeg Bahnhof Mennoniten-001.jpg

Now I just have to get to know them somehow. I understand snippets of their conversation in German, but when they speak English, I understand more. They like to mix both languages: “Das ist interesting” or “der Zug is a hundred twenty-six kilometers weit weg.” That information is also being shown on a monitor inside the station.

Some of the men are studying a fold-out flyer with the map of the whole route, arousing my unchristian envy. I get up to get one from the information desk, and as I return to the waiting hall, I wave with the map, saying “That was a good idea, gentlemen, thank you very much!” They laugh, and the ice has been broken. Egon Erwin Kisch or Ryszard Kapuściński couldn’t have done this more elegantly or more quickly. Now I just have to stay on the ball!

“How far are you going?”, I ask, still in English. Some to Sudbury Junction, others to Washago, both  in Ontario. “From there, we still have to go by bus for several hours. We live close to Lake Superior.”

The gentlemen want to hear about my journey, too, of course, and thus I tell them, making sure to mention that I am from Germany. No reaction. I have to be more direct, it seems: “I overheard you speaking German too, am I right?”

“Yes, a German dialect,” they say, still in English.

Cheekily, I switch to German: “Dann lassen Sie uns doch Deutsch sprechen.”

“Ja, kenn mer scho mache. Wir sprechen Pennsilwania-Deitsch. Ich hab mal ghert, in Deitschland gibt’s ne Region, die wo heisst Schwoben. Dort spreche die Leit anscheinend so wie wir.” (For the benefit of the English-speaking readers, I will translate the conversation from now on. But it was a very interesting experience to speak German in a dialect, of which I am not sure if it still exists in Europe. I felt that it was easier for me to understand them because I am from southern Germany. In the German version of this article, there are a few more examples of the dialect.)

“But our books are in High German.” By “books”, they mean the New Testament, which each of them has in the pocket. “Our books are not printed in English letters, though, but in German script. I have heard that you don’t use that anymore since World War II.” He refers to the Gothic script, and I shamelessly attempt to ingratiate myself with the  gentlemen from antiquity: “Oh, I can read that. When I was a child, I read Karl May’s books in that script.” One of the young men smiles, whether for knowledge of the author or out of pity because I read something else than the Bible, I don’t know. Now I have to read a few lines from the Gospel of John, a test that I master effortlessly and with distinction.

alte-drucke-gesangsbuch-aus-1906-fraktur-27

Would you have passed the test?

Hopefully they won’t ask for my religion, because as an Atheist, I would probably be an outcast in this group. Due to indoctrination received in early childhood, I can sometimes pass as a Catholic, but it seems the Mennonites aren’t too fond of Catholics either. Because when I ask for their family histories, each of them stresses that their ancestors fled from Switzerland in the 18th century. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the persecutors had been Catholics, because that’s what Catholics do, persecuting anything and anyone (except sexual predators within their own church).

One of the Mennonites, the funniest of the lot, whose hands look as if he had just finished planting a thousand turnips, really speaks like a Swiss. With him, I can speak in German fluently. One of the older gentlemen speaks more Swabian, and the others I can only understand partially. When they speak among themselves, it’s all a riddle to me. We’ll be switching back and forth between languages in the coming days.

“Days?” you are wondering. Well, Canada is large, and the train from Winnipeg to Toronto takes 38 hours, inconveniently including two nights, which, as always, I have to spend in the cheapest class without a bed. I don’t even need to ask the Mennonites in which class they travel, because I can already tell that they are penny pinchers.

When the train finally arrives just short of midnight, a noisy group of around 50 hyperactive teenagers leaves the train. They have reached their destination, and both the Mennonites and I thank God that we don’t have to share a train with them. That would have been a horror.

During the whole time, I can’t get my notebook out, let alone take any photos. That would destroy the trust that I am trying to build up. As we enter the train, I therefore walk on to the next carriage, so I can finally write everything down. My seat is the only one where the light will be on for a few more hours. (And you always thought I have an easy life!)

Andreas Moser writing on the train.JPG

In the coming days, we will bump into each other again and again. That’s the nice thing about train travel. If you want to change your conversation partner, you walk through the train, sit down elsewhere, go to the restaurant car or to the car with a glass ceiling, where one is almost never alone. This story will therefore be jumping back and forth between different conversations, but I also want to convey what it’s like to walk through the train, from interesting to boring, from amusing to annoying conversations. Don’t worry if you will get lost in between! In the end, we will safely arrive in Toronto, guaranteed.

At some point after 3am, I must have fallen asleep, because at 5:30am, I wake up as the train stops in the middle of nowhere. The headlights of a pick-up truck have brought the train to a stop. Two men get out of the car and onto the train. A robbery? No, just an extra stop.

Speaking of pick-up trucks, now I remember a story that the Mennonites told me: a bear came into one of their settlements. Tommy, who was just working on the Fendt tractor, wanted to catch it with the forklift, but the bear was of course quicker and more agile. Gary joined the scene with his pick-up truck, ramming the bear again and again. The bear wasn’t bothered by this either, so Tommy shouted to his wife: “Bring the rifle, but the 308!” The wife was ice-cold and killed the bear. They took it to school the next day, so the children could see a bear.

The Wild West, it still exists.

After the short night, I walk up to the panorama deck. It’s rather cold there, but at least that will help me wake up more quickly, even before consuming the first breakfast coke.

bewölkter Morgen.JPG

The other early risers are my Mennonite friends. The children are already busy reading books, and at 8:30am, one of the Mennonite ladies shows up to distribute school material. The work begins.

Kinder bei Hausafgaben.JPGhomework on the train.JPG

But the education seems to be limited to Bible study and simple arithmetic. Because again and again, someone asks me questions like “How did you come to Canada from Europe?”

“By plane,” I answer carelessly.

“Is that as fast as the railway?”

I don’t think so, but how am I supposed to explain this to someone for whom the (relatively slow) train is the maximum of diabolical modernity? “It’s a bit faster. But it’s not that much fun, you don’t have that much space and you are tied to your seat. Taking the train is really much better,” I try to reassure him.

From his eyes, I notice that he can’t imagine any of that. And I realize that I am not only dealing with people who refuse technology, but who also refuse information about technology. People who don’t have a TV and never leaf through a magazine, how are they supposed to know what the interior of a plane looks like?

A completely different problem with technology has befallen two middle-aged Canadian women, who arrive in the dome car: “I am freaking out, there is no signal up here either!” “And no internet since yesterday, I don’t even know how my dogs are doing.” “When is the next stop where we can use the phone?” “This was the most stupid idea ever. I will never get on a train again!”

Once more, we are dealing with the kind of people who criticize the railway for everything that has nothing to do with the railway. If you take the car to uninhabited parts of Canada, you won’t have a phone signal either. A friend from Winnipeg told me that she could never take the train because she was claustrophobic. I asked her how big her car was or whether she would have a freight jumbo to herself when flying, but she didn’t get it. And then there are of course those complaining about delays of the train, as if cars never get stuck in traffic.

Of similar absurdity are the arguments of those who want to justify why the train is less popular in Canada than elsewhere in the world. “Canada is huge,” is the standard explanation/excuse for anything. Russia is huge too, and not only the famous Trans-Siberian Railway is a common means of transport. In Canada, the population is even more concentrated in a few metropolitan areas, all of them within a corridor along the border with the USA, which should make train travel more efficient and economically viable. Just because a country is big doesn’t mean that every passenger wants to go to the North Pole.

zugefrorerner See.JPG

“Canada doesn’t have enough people,” is the next weak argument. Well, there are 37 million and thus no fewer than in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Romania or Montenegro, where the train comes more often than twice a week.

No, it must be the ideology of individualism that disallows collaborative solutions. The First Nations with their communitarian view of society, on the other hand, would most certainly have built railroads.

Two guys, traveling in the same carriage as me, introduce themselves: Chance and Curtis. They only met on the train, but both of them are going the whole way from Vancouver to Toronto without a break. “Hats off,” I want to say in light of such a long trip, but none of them will take off his baseball cap during the whole journey, not even for a second.

Curtis is a nuclear physicist and works in a research center, doing things that I don’t understand. The rather bulky metal boxes above his seat are worrying me slightly. Maybe he is a plutonium courier?

Chance is an actor (he played Phil in the series The Switch), social worker and script writer. “Oh no, not another script writer,” comes to mind after the experience with Beniamin from part 2 of this train journey. Does the whole train only exist for authors to talk to passengers for the purpose of writing stories and screenplays, without noticing that the other person took the train for exactly the same purpose? It seems we are not really as creative as we all believe.

Climbing back up to the panorama deck, I notice that the one of the two Canadian ladies who is slightly less obsessed with mobile phones has a different obsession, no less worrying. She asked the staff for cleaning spray and paper towels and is cleaning the windows. “Those teenagers on their school trip pressed their unwashed hair against the windows,” she explains her activity.

And the cleaning does indeed seem to improve the view, because one of the Mennonites calls over: “Do you see the bald eagle up there?” I have to admit, I wouldn’t have recognized the eagle, but I do spot a dot at the far end of the firmament. So it’s true, the eyes remain in better condition if you are not staring at screens all the time. “It has to be a young one, because once they turn three years old, they change the color,” he adds, zoologically versed.

It’s generally impressive how much the Mennonites know about nature. But tree huggers they are not. Their relation to the environment is more one of utilization, following the instructions in Genesis 1:28 to subdue the earth. The following story will illustrate this quite well:

“The beaver is a clever animal. We once had a beaver on the farm. He needed a large tree for the construction of his dam, at which he had gnawed just enough for the tree not to fall. ‘Why doesn’t he gnaw more to topple it?’ we asked, until we noticed that he needed wind from the north, so the tree would fall in the right direction. Where we live, the wind doesn’t blow from the north very often. So the beaver waited for six weeks until the wind was right. And on that day, he felled the tree.”

“Wow!”, I exclaim, both in admiration for the beaver and for the gift to observe something like that. We people who grew up in modern civilization wouldn’t even understand the beaver’s plans.

“The dam is built so well, all the trees and twigs are so intertwined, you cannot destroy it by hand,” the farmer continues, “so we had to use dynamite to blow it up.”

“All the fish got killed, too,” his colleague remembers.

I wouldn’t entrust the Mennonites with our national parks, let’s put it that way. In the end, they too are disciples of growth, following the aforementioned section of Genesis that calls for fertility and reproduction. One of the Mennonites tells me that he now lives in a village with 40 people, but that he came from a village with 100 people. When the community becomes too big, they have to split up because the land doesn’t support them anymore.

In my view, that’s the wrong response to economic and environmental problems of growth, but today I want to listen, not lecture. I am curious how the decision is made who gets to stay and who has to leave. “It’s a bit of coincidence,” he replies vaguely, “but the new settlement has to include old and young people.” The Mennonites benefit from the trend to urbanization. That way, many farms and sometimes whole villages are left behind, and they buy them. When Canadians want to move to the city and give up their village, the Mennonites ride into town with 8 million dollars in cash in the saddle bags. They could easily save that much money because they never bought an Apple product in their lives. (Which is, coincidentally, also how I finance my life.)

On this trip, there is a clash of extremes and I am right in the middle. “Where on earth are we?”, one of the ladies screams, as if the train was trying to kidnap her. The Mennonite men leaf through a very torn street atlas and inform her that we will soon reach Sioux Lookout. Long-term readers know that I am quite the super-scout, but even I don’t understand how they figured this out in the flat prairies, where everything looks the same. Maybe they recognized the abandoned sawmill that we just passed. “Let’s hope that the phone will work there,” is the only thought of the cell-phone lady.

After Sioux Lookout, the landscape is becoming more interesting than in the prairies. It is still relatively flat, but now with forest and lakes. The train no longer follows a boring straight line, but meanders through birch, spruce and fir forest.

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“It looks like there were forest fires,” one of the Mennonites points to the burnt ground, from which cute little green trees are sprouting, beginning nature’s cycle yet again.

It is no coincidence that the forest right next to the railway line had burnt down. Flying sparks from the steam engine and the brake discs, cigar butts thrown out of the window, small cause, big effect. Smoking is prohibited, by the way. The conductor seems to have a fine nose, because every few hours, she calls through the bathroom door and reminds people of the tobacco ban. Those caught only leave the washroom after 15 minutes because they need to clean the cubbyhole of ash and smell, only to steadfastly deny that they have ever smoked. Sometimes, she has kicked people off the train for that, the conductor tells me. From my reaction, it seems to be obvious that I find that quite tough, because she continues to explain: “Hey, the smoking ban is not some railway company rule, it’s federal law.” Ok, but in most of the places where we stop, there is not even a hotel. If you get kicked out there, you’ll be beaten by a bear.

Later, when we are so close to a town that the phone fetishist has a signal, she proudly shows her cell phone to one of the Mennonites: “Look, the dot shows where the train is. That way, the I-phone always knows where we are,” although “always” is a wild claim, as we have seen. And when the fellow luddite asks: “So can you let me know when we pass the Wiebe farm?”, she is as gobsmacked as a goblin who got smacked in the gob.

“I just had two bars, now I got only one,” the telephone lady, let’s call her Tiffany, screams out aghast. It is her first long trip. She can ride the train for free because her late husband was employed by the railway. She could have done so for 30 years already, but she never had time before because she was working her entire life (a typical Canadian syndrome, and insofar, the Mennonites fit right in). Her husband actually never took the train himself, she adds, because he was afraid that it would derail. “I know in what a bad state the tracks are, I won’t risk that,” he kept saying until he died, probably in a car accident.

The cleaning lady, let’s call her Pamela, is very keen on telling the story of her life. She only got married when she was 45, two days after the wedding the husband moved from Ontario to Alberta, she quit her job as a microbiologist, only found work at the golf course, had to take out a mortgage. After five years of marriage, it turned out that her husband is gay. Oddly enough, she is less angry about the lost five years than about the jointly accumulated debts which she believes she has to pay off. “I could be on the Jerry Springer Show,” she says of herself, relieving me of having to come up with a fitting description.

During that sermon, she shows me endless photos of dogs and cats on her mobile phone (that also works without a connection, sadly). As she wants to show me a photo of the amputated leg of her diabetic father, I get up and can only rescue myself by cheekily asking the Mennonites what they have in the large plastic container that is wandering around between their seats. They have home-made potato chips, showing that these immigrants from Germanic countries have North-Americanized a bit, after all.

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One of the elder Mennonites now addresses the lady with the dramatic life: “You are from Alberta and you have dogs? Do you know Miss Victoria Bond, then?“

“Ehm, no.”

“She also lives in Alberta.”

“Where in Alberta?”

“I don’t know. But she has two dogs, and I thought that you might have met her.”

At this point, I should explain that the Province of Alberta measures more than 660,000 km2. That’s the size of Germany and Italy combined.

It is still early morning, but I already have to jot down some secret notes, otherwise I will forget many of the oddities occurring on this train. So I withdraw to the restaurant car, where the Mennonites most definitely won’t venture. They are self-sufficient. Maybe the chicken in the wooden box has even laid fresh eggs.

Over breakfast, I get to know Richard, who brought his bicycle onto the train, so he can ride around the rain in Toronto in an environmentally friendly manner. The transport of the bike only costs another 20 $, that’s not bad for a distance of almost 2,000 km.

Richard himself also rides for free, because he used to work as a conductor, having acquired a lifelong right to use the train. He tells me that the route used to run by the shore of Lake Superior and was much more scenic. But now it’s apparently more important to bring all the plastic stuff from China to Toronto as quickly as possible, hence the priority for the freight trains.

Richard has another interesting piece of information. He knows why the train was delayed by five hours when it reached Winnipeg. “Last night, I had a conversation with an elderly gentleman. Well, maybe conversation is the wrong word, it was very one-sided. He might have suffered from dementia, in any case, he hardly spoke. The next morning, he was dead. The coroner and the sheriff came aboard in Saskatoon, hence the delay.” I just hope they took the body with them, instead of storing it in the freezer, whence my breakfast bacon came.

An elderly couple sits down at our table, maybe attracted by the morbid topic. They are from Winnipeg too. When I tell them that I have just spent ten days there, they can hardly believe it. “Ten days in Winnipeg, is there even that much to see?” I keep observing this phenomenon on my trips: the most interesting and likable cities are completely underrated, even by the people living in them. I could have spent months in Winnipeg without getting bored. But this shall be the subject of a separate article, in case anyone is interested.

Before Hornepayne we have to wait in the wilderness for 90 minutes, because “there are too many trains in the station”. Those are the long freight trains, which are carrying crude oil through the country, which is first exported, then refined abroad, and then re-imported as fuel to run all the vehicles of the people who don’t want to travel by train. Very efficient indeed, such a market economy.

The conductors are nice enough to open the doors, so we can stretch and walk around a bit. We can’t get very far though, because a creek runs parallel to the tracks and the ice isn’t thick enough to walk on it.

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Ultimately, we do reach Hornepayne. A place with a population of 1,000, but those who urgently need to make trivial phone calls are on cloud nine. During the stop, which is just long enough for people to run to the supermarket and back, there seems to be an incident in which somebody tries to climb onto the engine. But the conductor spots him and chases him away. I don’t see anything myself, but the news spreads as quickly through the train as wildfire through the prairie.

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By now, Chance, Curtis, Tiffany and Pamela have become acquainted and are mired in a vehement discussion, quagmired even. Unfortunately, they have chosen the panorama car as their debating venue. The ladies are complaining that nobody is working anymore (which is not true) because everyone is receiving welfare and free housing (which is not true), that native Americans/Canadians have to be treated better although they personally did not kill any of them (of which I hope that at least the latter statement is true, but it overlooks the continuing effects of discrimination and mistreatment), that nobody thinks of the oil industry and farming (which is really not true in Canada), and that they want better public services and lower taxes (which is illogical). In one sentence, they are typical Albertans.

The young guys dispute each point, quite substantiated, but somewhat overzealously, becoming personal far too easily. They believe that protecting the environment is more important than oil, that taxes aren’t a bad thing, that in particular companies could pay a bit more (for which they are denounced as socialists), and that postcolonial societies have an obligation towards the formerly colonized people (I find their argument puts too much emphasis on the ethnic-cultural side and not enough on the socio-economic side). In once sentence, they are typical Canadians who are not from Alberta.

It is as if exaggerated stereotypes are reenacting a political dispute on Twitter. It doesn’t make any sense, but this is compensated by an ever increasing volume and ferocity, while the Mennonites and I want nothing more from life than adoring the beautiful landscape of Ontario. “White people can say what they want, they are always branded as racists,” Tiffany rants. That is really bollocks and a sure sign that racist remarks are about to ensue.

I prefer to get up and go to lunch, where I meet Richard once again. He seems to be living in the restaurant car. (Maybe he has a lifelong free ticket for food and drinks, too). “Did you hear about the guy who climbed onto the engine?” he welcomes me back.

“Yeah, what happened there?” I ask, hoping for details.

“I have no idea what he wanted. The conductor tore him down, and then he ran off. Good that she discovered him before the train got moving. That could have become really dangerous!”

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Even the oldest among the Mennonites has never been further west than Winnipeg. In his whole life. And now he is worried if he can still work, because he got some metal in his knee and is walking around the train with two sticks. “I probably won’t be able to work with the horses anymore, because I couldn’t jump out of the way fast enough. Maybe I can still build beehives.” So, this is where Max Weber got the theory of the protestant work ethic from.

Someone like me, with the career aspiration of being a vagabond, would be ostracized in such a community. When they inevitably ask me about my profession, I therefore don’t tell them the truth, which is that I am studying history and traveling around the world, caring for cats, but I refer to the profession that I last exercised ten years ago, that of a lawyer.

“With what specialization?” the Swiss-speaking Mennonite asks.

“Family law, divorces and disputes about children.”

“That is simple,” he replies, “it’s always the fault of the other person!“ He really is the funniest guy of the group. On the issue of divorce, he just says: “We don’t do that. That is a strong point about the Mennonites.” I would see that differently, but I have the impression that he himself notices that this approach only ignores problems, instead of solving them.

Probably, Mennonites don’t need lawyers for anything. Because they are such die-hard pacifists that they wouldn’t even file a lawsuit, instead hoping for the Day of Judgment. Tragically, the combination of German descent and pacifism meant that the Mennonites in Canada were seen as traitors during World Wars I and II. Of the men, many were put in internment camps or condemned to forced labor. (More about this in my article about German immigrants in North America.)

Even late in the evening, the young leftists and the old rightists are still arguing bitterly. Now they are deep into the discussion of racism. While four white people are vehemently arguing about racism, two rows further on, there sits a young black man, probably thinking “What the heck do you know?” or praying fervently not to be drawn into this muddled debate.

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During the night, the train is racing as if it believes it can catch up the enormous delay. I am dreaming that I am visiting friends in their house by the sea, which is shaking and squeaking like the train. “That’s the wind,” they say, and in the dream I am so scared that I can’t sleep.

The next morning, I wake up too late for the sunrise. The landscape has changed. Now, there are little lakes and bogs everywhere, somehow connected to Georgian Bay.

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In disbelief, I ask the Mennonite gentlemen if they could even sleep on the rumbling train. “Yes, of course,” they reply, as if that is a silly question.

Chance and Curtis are now talking about the mysterious stowaway: “The guy wanted to catch the train for free and hide between the wagons.” “How crazy is that? It’s freezing cold out there, especially at night.” “Maybe he just needed to get to the next town.” “Well, the next train is in three days, he can try it again then.”

That sounds as if another hobo career, probably inspired by this blog, was stopped in its tracks. Sad.

Now, the enigma of Curtis’ nuclear suitcase is revealed: he is simply as old-fashioned as me and is carrying a huge stack of books still printed on paper. We people riding the train are really stuck in a different century.

I should have known that the question is pointless, but I do ask the Mennonites if they ever want to come to Europe. All of them answer in the negative, and I have the impression they never thought about it, because it simply isn’t an option. In this context, they yet again mention that they were persecuted in Switzerland and had to flee. Don’t they know how much has changed since? Maybe they really don’t have any idea of contemporary Europe, because as one of them hears that I am from Germany, he asks: “Do you know Erwin from Braunschweig?”

But I can pose stupid questions too: “Do you have your own radio station in German?”

“We have no radio or television in our houses.” Oh, then I don’t even need to ask about internet or telephone.

But I do inquire about cars.

“No, we don’t have cars.”

“But yesterday, your colleague mentioned a tractor,” I interject.

“Yes, in their community they do things differently,” he says sadly. “We only have horses and buggies.” The word of God is so ambiguous that every village interprets it differently.

In my hand, I am holding one of the books that I brought for the journey: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Harari. It deals with biotechnology, algorithms, control over data. And suddenly, I envy the bearded man with his dirty fingers sitting next to me, because for many issues, he has already found the solution. And he doesn’t seem to be stressed. Now I understand how he can sleep so well at night.

In the unheated glasshouse, where people are now throwing stones at each other’s heads, it is as cold as in a fridge, but the discussion is too heated and too fruitless for me. Most people only take this train once in a lifetime, damn it, do other passengers really have to poison the experience with the same old discussions that one has already heard elsewhere a hundred times?

What I like about the Mennonites is that they can have a conversation without entertaining the whole train; a talent which they should pass on to their fellow Canadian passengers, who seem to believe that everyone is interested in their crap.

I am sorry that I have no more photos from Ontario, but I really can’t stand it upstairs any longer and withdraw to my seat. I need to catch up on sleep anyway.

But less than an hour later, I can’t believe my bad luck, the two guys come downstairs and take a seat opposite from me, continuing the discussion which seems to have escalated upstairs. I am not surprised, because particularly Chance is far too aggressive to get anywhere. And both of them over-emphasize the generational divide. They regard the two ladies as representatives of a parental generation, with which they had bad experiences. And the women think they understand more about life because they are divorced or widowed.

They come from completely different schools of thought and if they attack each other full throttle, nothing useful can come out of it. Yesterday, Chance told me about his upbringing in a foster family, about drugs, homelessness and his sex change. He would actually have a lot in common with the lady from the Jerry Springer Show; enough to build some understanding and empathy.

It’s true, the ladies have some weird views, and they have never thought about structural racism. But one can explain that in a calmer and more gentle way. Or pose questions to make people reflect. After all, I can also have a respectful conversation with the Mennonites, although I am an Atheist and against work. But on a train ride, I prefer listening over lecturing.

Those people who scream at and insult each other, they return home from a journey of several days and thousands of kilometers with exactly the same opinion. With me, each time something changes. After each journey, I am different than before.

When I bump into the conductor again, I ask her about the guy who tried to jump onto the train. “Oh, he only wanted to take a selfie next to the engine. But when these stories wander through the train, they always change.” Good that you dispatched me on this trip, the one who verifies everything, who asks three times, and who researches diligently.

But this work is tiresome, and so I fall asleep and miss the departure of our Mennonite friends. Too bad. But then, the hope that they would invite me to join them in their village and to live an internet-free life probably wasn’t realistic. If someone can spot an eagle three kilometers in the air, he can also spot in a second that I have no useful skills for agriculture or carpentry.

Mennonitenjunge

And, despite the personal friendliness, they are probably not really that much interested in contact. You will have noticed that I did not learn the name of any of the Mennonites (except those of Tommy and Gary of the bear chase; maybe because they assumed that I would know these gentlemen). This is particularly astounding in North America, where usually every stranger gives you his hand right away and introduces himself within 30 seconds: “Hi, my name is Tim. Let me tell you about my life and invite you over for barbecue.” The Mennonites are rather shy and reserved, another point in which I am closer to their mentality.

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And something else is striking: in the whole two days, I did not speak with any of the Mennonite women. Sometimes, I greeted them, and they smiled back shyly. The women did not always sit separately from the men, but none of them ever said anything in my presence, although it was apparent that the young ladies were curious about the mysterious stranger, who looks like an actor whom they have never seen on the TV which they don’t have, but who speaks their language. The First Epistle to the Corinthians 14:34-35 seems to be strictly adhered to. If I were to get to know the men more closely, I might find out that they are not likable oddballs, but religious fundamentalists. Fundamentalists, whom we, if their holy book had a different name, would regard as a danger for society and in particular for the children thus raised. In that case, there would also be more of an outcry when adult women can’t read or write.

In the end, we even get to Toronto two hours earlier than planned. Arriving two hours earlier despite departing with a delay of five hours, that’s a net gain of seven hours added to my life expectancy.

I had chosen the train because I wanted to see mountains and lakes, rivers and towns, snow and rocks, because I wanted to gain a geographical overview of this unwieldy country. But in the end, it was the people and their stories that remain in my memory, who have brightened up the journey, and who would make me choose the train any time again.

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After 4,466 km, I feel remarkably fresh and relaxed. Now I am ready for a trip around the world by train!

Practical advice:

  • Via Rail has all the information, schedules and booking options.
  • In summer, the train runs three times a week, in winter twice per week.
  • If you are flexible, try out different dates because the prices vary greatly. In summer, the train is quite booked out, and a conductor has told me that from 1 June, the prices will double. In the off-season, the complete ride from Vancouver to Toronto is available from 466 Canadian dollars (= 300 €).
  • I couldn’t book the ticket online with my European credit card and thus had to go to a travel agency. In the off-season, it is however possible to simply buy the tickets at the train station before you depart. I saw some of my fellow passengers do that.
  • What you should take with you: a book, a blanket for the night, slippers.
  • Internet is only available at the train stations. (The lack of internet was one of the factors I liked the most. It made people much more communicative.) But every seat has a power outlet.
  • A tip for cost-conscious travelers: The tap in the washroom is high enough to allow bottles to be filled up with water. That way, you don’t need to spend anything for drinks on the train. And if you want to be a supersaver, you will most likely find an empty plastic bottle in the rubbish bin of the train station where you embark. – As I always say, traveling doesn’t need to be expensive.
  • The food on the train is actually not expensive (take a look at the menu), but if you really want to save, you can bring everything with you. There is boiling water next to the kitchen, so you can prepare tea and soup.
  • Calculate a few hours of delay. In no case should you book a flight directly after the planned arrival.

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Change of plans: Mariánské Lázně / Marienbad

Not quite last minute, but two days before my departure, the house-sitting gig in the Cotswolds in England fell through. That’s sad, because I had been looking forward to it.

So, I sat here in Bavaria with a packed backpack, ready to go, and had to think of an alternative. Of course I could stay at home and study, but I was in travel mood. Looking for a beautiful place that I could easily reach by train, the choice was obvious: Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad is the more easily pronounceable German name) in neighboring Czech Republic.

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Sometimes, I wonder why we often want to travel afar, overlooking the beautiful and interesting places in our proximity.

Posted in Czech Republic, Travel | Tagged | 8 Comments