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Canada is the second biggest country in the world, after Russia, and at nearly 10 million sqkm, perfect for exploration by rail.

I boarded the Canadian at Vancouver's Pacific Central Station one evening, bound for the Rocky Mountain town of Jasper 18 hours away. Operated by VIA Rail, the Canadian is a 50s-era train but is still comfortable.

I'll admit it. I like trains but this was my first proper train trip. If I had my way, the whole journey would be conducted during daylight hours so I wouldn't miss any of the scenery. That's the point, isn't it? The track through The Rockies is one of the great routes and meant to be savoured for its unspoilt vistas. Otherwise you'd just fly to Calgary and then drive up to Jasper.

A few hours after boarding, I fell asleep to the clickety-clack of train on tracks planning to be up early as the sun broke over the Canadian Rockies.

I woke at seven to an icy scene. Leafless birches, lifeless tumbleweed and rocks sheltering rattlesnakes and scorpions were scattered on the snowy banks of the eerily still Fraser River. Semi-frozen in a winter slumber, the river drains a quarter of British Columbia but today it's like a frosted mirror.

The banks widened and flattened and the Canadian passed a ramshackle farm with broken splintered corrals and an old silo frozen in time and place.

Then signs of life dripped into place. An eagle sat hunched in a tree. A working farm with ice-covered SUVs and a yellow glow in a kitchen window.

The train stopped to refuel at Kamloops, an old fur trading post and now BC's biggest inland settlement. It was breathtakingly cold and the ring of carriage on metal track only quickened the chilling of bones.

In the summer the semi-arid steppes just to the north are green with ginseng and grapevines. The nearby Okanagan Valley is dotted with golf resorts as far south as the US. But in the late winter whiteout, modernity, fertility and activity seem impossible.

Soon we are off again, whistling through the ice in a warm silver cocoon. Gradually the forest returned, pulling in close to the track as we followed the North Thompson River Valley. Then the Caribou Mountains reared up, soft white rounded peaks ushering us north. The massive Mt Robson loomed ahead, angular, banded blue and white and glistening in the sun. A time change, Alberta, and Jasper National Park all arrived at once at Yellowhead Pass, the great continental divide where water flows either east or west.

But my mind drifted back 500km to Kamloops, and I realised by the end that the scenery tells only half the story of inland Canada. Along that section of track, life appeared briefly. It was surrounded by snow and, to me, unbearable cold, and then it was gone again. And it has been this way for millennia: the unforgiving cold has been outlasted by the Shuswap and other First Nations peoples. I mentioned this to Greg my sleeping car attendant.

"It's not that hard out here," he said. "You've got people that live in the Outback. Now that's tough."

And he's right.

No matter where it happens, survival is an impressive act. But there, in the frozen flatlands, I felt alien. And under a weak winter sun, saw survival glint a stoic sheen.

NIALL MCILROY