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6/29/2015 A little early

So you may have noticed that today's updated posted rather early. Well, Connie and I are going on an overnight trip today but, since I have my hotel room in Shanghai for the whole week, I decided to only take the basics with me to avoid lugging around a suitcase and/or very heavy backpack, and that means no laptop. So my options were either posting this update now right before I leave, or skipping it entirely. Anyway, let's get the travelogue up to date...

Day 7 (Sat June 27): Back to Shanghai
Not much to write about today. Connie's mom made a very nice lunch and then Connie and I took the bus and train back to Shanghai through some pretty heavy rain. Fortunately, the rain had let up by the time we returned. We had a quick dinner after sunset, and that's about it.

Random China Comment: Apartments
Despite everyone calling them apartments, Chinese apartments are more like condos, in that they're typically bought rather than rented (though sometimes that buyer will then rent it out). Newer "apartments" tend to come in groups of really tall towers (you can see some photos in my previous China travelogue, check the Day 5 entry). From what I've seen, they're often gated and have nice landscaping inside, almost to the point of having a small park. From what I've heard, the apartments themselves are often sold unfinished, leaving it up to the buyer to finish and customize them. Both of the apartments I've been in here in China has been really nice on the inside. The outside of the buildings are often pretty fancy as well. The weird thing is the rest of the building interiors. Once again, I'm only going off of the two buildings I've been in and what I've heard from some others. Anyway, while the apartments themselves may be nice, the shared interior of the buildings (halls, stairs, elevators, etc.) tend to be dirty and unfinished. Honestly, the ones I've seen look like they belong in a slum or maybe a condemned building, making for a really weird contrast with the nice looking apartments themselves and the exteriors. From what I've seen, I'm also guessing (I haven't looked into it) that, unlike US apartment or condo complexes, there isn't a managing company that's required to fix things that go wrong with the building. So yeah, definitely a bit different from what I'm used to in the US and Japan.

Day 8 (Sun June 28): Shanghai Natural History Museum
It was another very rainy day, so Connie suggested a visit to the new Shanghai Natural History Museum, which just opened a couple of months back. Apparently, the initial rush of popularity hasn't faded yet. This was the first time I've ever had to wait in line (and a 90 minute line at that) to get into a museum. Maybe a weekend wasn't the best day to visit... Something else I've never seen at any other museum? Ticket scalpers. Yes, seriously. And here there's apparently no law against significantly upping the ticket prices. Buying tickets from them doesn't get you out of waiting in line though. The line is because they only let in so many people at once to avoid overcrowding. Anyway, that was a bit annoying, especially with the rain, but I'm used to waiting in long lines thanks to all my amusement park visits and Connie and I were able to chat while we waited, so it wasn't too bad.
We eventually made it inside the museum and started making our way through. Being a natural history museum, it starts back at the creation of the universe and walks through some of the major time periods. There's a ton of animal models and skeletons, and one of the biggest collections of real stuffed animals I've come across. There were even a few live animals as well. And, of course, plenty of dinosaur skeletons, which were always my favorite thing as a kid. The fossil collection was also a standout. Assuming they were real, it was hands down the most impressive one I've ever seen. There was a lot about modern animals too, including a collection of African animals (stuffed) and this giant wall of antlers and horns, a fairly nice rock exhibit, and the part comparing different types of birds' eggs, nests, and feet. Not quite sure what's up with that last one...
All in all, it's a very nice natural history museum, and all the signs have English (always a plus). Probably not a must see if you're visiting Shanghai (since you can see similar museums in various parts of the US), but it makes for a interesting 2 - 3 hours (probably longer if you get the audio tour) and I enjoyed my visit. Though I'd recommend avoiding weekends so as not to end up waiting in line like Connie and I did.
After the museum, we headed to the mall we'd gone to back on Tuesday night and ate at a Taiwanese restaurant that was on my list. The food was good and it reminded me of some places I ate at last year in Nanjing. There was even a similar fish dish. Gotta say though, I'm impressed by just how many high end malls and shopping areas there are over here...

Random China Comment: Cars and Drivers
I've already mentioned how dangerous it feels to cross the streets in China. Cars will turn on red lights without bothering to slow down more than the absolute minimum, regardless of whether or not any pedestrians are in the cross walk, and all the people on electric bikes seem to ignore street signs and traffic lights entirely. Then there's my experience riding in taxis and other cars. First off, seat belts are entirely option. In fact, a lot of cars I've ridden in have pads put on the seats that block the belts entirely. As for their driving... I'm not entirely sure if Chinese people are extremely good drivers (the fact that they take so many risky turns and squeeze through such tiny gaps without a near constant stream of accidents is impressive), or extremely bad ones (with the disregard for traffic rules and always cutting things way too close). And then there's the honking... Lots and lots of honking... Connie, who had a driver's license in the US said she never wanted to drive here in China and I really can't blame her.


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6/26/2015 Visiting Maanshan

Remember, as always you can vote with the TWC button to see the new bonus comic!

Day 5 (Thu June 25th): Traveling to Maanshan
On a side note, thanks to the rain, there was actually some bits of blue sky today. Anyway, one reason for my trip to China was to meet Connie's parents. So she and I set out to Maanshan. It's a small city about an hour outside of Nanjing by bus (there's no train station there, though it's supposed to get a subway line to Nanjing at some point). Between the train and bus, it took around three hours from Shanghai.
Maanshan itself is a nice little city. It's a rather new and Connie says it's often rated at one of the most livable cities in the country. From what I've seen so far, there are lots of trees and many shopping streets lined with stores and restaurants. And tons of those tall apartment buildings you see all over the place in China. It actually reminds me a bit of Wuxi, where I stayed for a few days last year. It's definitely not a place that really gets any tourism though (domestic or international), so there's a bit of a different vibe than some of the places I've been.
My hotel is fairly nice and cheap (about $16.50 a night), though the room is a little weird... After checking in, Connie and I walked around a bit and had a good late lunch at a Hong Kong style restaurant.
Eventually, we made our way to her parents' place for dinner. It was nice to meet them, though a little awkward since they speak about as much English as I do Chinese (which is to say, almost none). Her mom is a great cook though.
After dinner, we walked around a nice park near my hotel. It had a statue of three horses and a large lake with colored fountains. It made for a pleasant way to wrap up the day.
On a rather odd side note, I have fastest data connection that I've gotten anywhere in the country. Maybe since it's a smaller city there isn't an old slow network they can force me on...

Random China Comment: Busses
Like many countries, China has both local busses (for within a single town/city) and long distance ones (for travel between cities). Local busses are pretty casual while long distance ones have assigned seats. So far my experience with both is pretty limited but, as some general notes... Fares are really cheap, at least by US standards. But, much like the busses in Japan, with the exception of tourist busses, there's usually little to no English, making them much harder for non-Chinese speakers to navigate than the trains and subways. One interesting thing about long distance busses though is that, unlike trains, you're not required to show your passport to buy tickets or board, which makes them a little more convenient in one respect.

Day 6 (Fri June 26th): Hanging Out in Maanshan
Connie's parents were originally going to take us to a hike of some sort today, but we had a change of plans due to rain. Instead, Connie and I spent the morning walking around a large fancy mall. Aside from a lot of clothing stores, an IMAX, and a number of elaborately decorated restaurants, there was also a couple of cool obstacle course type play areas for kids. Wish US malls had something like that when I was growing up... On a side note, I tried a durian flavored cream puff. Not bad, though probably not a flavor I'd choose again.
We later met back up with Connie's parents' for a great lunch at a Chinese restaurant then split up again for a bit. I used a break in the rain to walk around that lake from last night and hung out in my room, then went out with Connie and her parents to get train tickets for a our return back to Shanghai tomorrow. After that we walked around a different park with a lake (there are a few of them here), then split up again.
We eventually met up with her parents again at Porridge Paradise, a restaurant near my hotel. Can you guess what they serve? This was my first time trying Chinese rice porridge. It's fairly mild; well the base is anyway, from there it depends what gets added to it. Ours had peanuts, jujube, and a couple things I couldn't identify. Not something I'd normally get for dinner (though it's commonly eaten then in China), but pretty good.
So yeah, not an especially exciting day, but pleasant, and it was nice to "talk" with Connie's parents a bit more.

Random China Comment: Size is Relative
Connie has always been very clear that Maanshan, her home town, is only a small city. A claim that seemed to be supported by the lack of a high speed train route. Well, it really didn't look very small to me up arrival. In fact, it looked pretty large. I checked online and apparently it's got a population of over two million, with tall buildings and a bunch of shopping areas and malls to match. I suppose it depends who you ask but for me (or Americans in general, I assume), a city with over two million just can't be considered "small". I'd say a small city is more like one or two hundred thousand and a million is fairly big. But apparently China has a lot of these "small" cities and their idea of a big city is a place like Shanghai or Beijing (equivalent to New York City, Chicago, or LA in the US). Seems that size really is relative.


6/24/2015 China!

I'm making this update from my hotel in Shanghai, China. I'll be here (China, not Shanghai specifically) for the next few weeks, and that means travelogues! It also means that updates will be posted a few hours later in the day than normal, due to the time difference.

Day 1 - 3 (Sun - Tue June 21 - 23): Flying to China
If you're wondering, no it didn't take me three days to fly to China. It was two plus crossing the international date line. Anyway, I caught a red eye from Honolulu Sunday night and flew straight to...Vancouver, Canada. Which is in the completely opposite direction. So why did I fly there? I used frequent flier miles to book my flight and only had enough miles if I chose the cheapest options (well, almost enough, I had to buy a few miles and don't get me started on the ridiculous amount United charges for miles), and that means you don't have a lot of say in your route. So that mean Vancouver and a long layover in their (very nice) airport. Approaching the city from the air was pretty cool though. It looked like an ocean made of clouds with the mountain peaks taking the place of islands. Nice view of the nearby bay too.
Despite the United booking, both flights were Air Canada and, as far as long plane flights go, they were fairly nice. Not on the level of Korean Air (which I flew to China last time), but nice. Anyway, I got to China around 2 PM on Tuesday. Since I did ok getting around on my own last time, Connie and I agreed to meet at my hotel rather than the airport. Like last time, I opted to take the mag lev train from the airport which is faster (at up to 430 kmph) but a bit more expensive. I didn't have any problems making it to the hotel, though I did spot this rather interesting display in one of the metro stations. I knew they had Plants vs. Zombies in China (I actually got Connie into it a while back), but wouldn't have expected to see a display like that for a game anywhere outside of Japan.
After catching up for a bit, Connie took me to a Thai restaurant she likes in a fancy mall. We got duck pineapple curry, chicken cooked in some kind of leaf, and a very Chinese style plate of mixed vegetables (not in the picture), all of which were very good. Out of curiosity, I also got a ginger lemongrass drink, which was excellent (a sort of ginger lemonade).
I hadn't been able to sleep on the planes so I didn't want to stay out too late so that marked the end of the day.

Day 4 (Wed June 24): Shanghai Museum and Xiantandi
The weather report was showing a high chance of rain (though, in the end, there was just a tiny bit in the evening) so Connie and I decided to play it safe and check out one of the indoor things on my touring list, the Shanghai Museum, which is situated in the People's Park. I'd originally meant to go there last year, but didn't have the time. The museum is free and has four floors with a number of permanent galleries and a few temporary ones. We started out in the ancient Chinese bronze gallery. And it was ancient, some of the pieces were over 2,000 years old. There were lots of pots, cups, and weapons. There were also a number of bronze bells. The most unusual thing was this item, decorated with yak. Any idea what it is? It's actually an ancient pillow. Yes, seriously. There were some other pillows of that style in the pottery gallery we visited later on. I can't imagine there's any way pillows like that could be comfortable, and you'd think they'd be horrible for your neck... Next was the ancient Chinese sculpture gallery, which was mostly Buddhas. Then ceramics, including lots of pots, vases, and plates (from simple to elaborate), some of which had pretty strange designs. There were also a number of ceramic statues like this man blowing a conch while sitting on a beast, this warrior, and even a camel. The Chinese seal gallery featured seals kind of like Japan's hanko (though, unlike in Japan, they're not used much anymore here), though many seemed more elaborate than practical. There was also a painting and calligraphy gallery, a collection of traditional clothing for various Chinese minority groups, some creepy Tibetan masks, and a jade gallery. Finally, there was there was a collection of extremely elaborate old furniture and one of ancient Chinese currency. Speaking of currency, one minority group apparently used special kinds of knives as currency at one point. Not sure why. Maybe it make them hard to rob...
Connie and I spent a total of two of three hours in the museum and I'd recommend it if you come to Shanghai. It provides a very nice overview of many types of traditional Chinese art and all the signs have English. Plus it's free, so you can't beat that.
After we left the museum, we decided to walk to Xiantandi, a nearby area which has a lot of restaurants. We actually ended up getting sidetracked by a mall we passed on the way. To our surprise, said mall had a branch of Nanjing Da Pai Dang, which Connie and I had eaten at back in Nanjing last year. It was one of my favorite restaurants from that trip, and the Shanghai location is just as good. Highlights included duck dumplings, salted duck, pickled vegetables, and a very interesting chicken steamed over a bed of tangy greens of some kind. It was an awesome meal and very reasonably priced (everything I mentioned and more (probably a $70+ meal in the US, for around $20). I'm hoping to go back again before I return to the US.
We did eventually make it to Xiantandi, which is a shopping and dining plaza which utilizes a bunch of old brick buildings. It was fun to walk around and contains a number of nice restaurants and shops. Looks like a big nightlife area too. We had already eaten, but it was hot and humid so I got a scoop of black sesame gelato to cool down.
After we finished exploring Xiantandi, Connie and I went to get train tickets for tomorrow then hung out at my hotel for a bit before splitting up for the night. Since we had such a big lunch, we just got some cheap food at a convenience store. I decided to try seaweed flavored potato chips. Not sure I'd buy them again, but they were better than a lot of flavored chips I've had.

Random China Comment: Back in China
So, what're my early thoughts on returning to China? Well, there's still a lot of smog and you have to be careful about the tap water (conveniently, my hotel in Shanghai has a filter in the room). Like before, the overall cleanliness level isn't bad, though it isn't quite up to US standards either, there's a lot of smoking, and crossing the street stills feels moderately dangerous. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't seem like much has changed in the year since my first trip. Regardless, it's a very interesting country and this should be a fun trip.


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