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18 essentials to pack up for your trip to China

travel packing for China, packing list, travel in China

You already know how to make a trip to China easier and you've got a list of essentials for your travel health kit. There are additional items, though, that will prove particularly useful in China. Here are 18 Thank-God-I-packed items from my last three trips to China:

Hand sanitizer

You'll be shaking a lot of people's hands, and there are many times when water and soap can be hard to find. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is essential, especially before meals.

Antiseptic towelettes

Antibacterial Wash 'n' Dris in individually wrapped packets are handy too.

Pocket Kleenex

Rest rooms often have no toilet paper.


Otherwise building construction and noisy traffic can prevent you from sleeping or wake you up too early.

Lubricating eye drops

Artificial tears protect eyes from polluted air.

Saline nasal spray

A non-medicated saline nasal spray protects nasal passages from polluted air.

Cold medicine

If you're going to get sick in China, what's most likely to strike is a respiratory ailment, thanks to the air pollution and germs that circulate. In China you'll see some people wearing surgical face masks (or dust masks) over their mouths and noses, to filter out particulate matter and/or to prevent germs from spreading. You may not need to pack disposable face masks, but it's wise to carry Vitamin C, an antibiotic for ear-nose-throat infections, a decongestant, an antihistamine, and whatever makes you feel better when you get a cold. (Rather than packing sore-throat spray, I just get salt from the hotel and gargle with warm saltwater.)

Your doctor's email address and phone number

The reason for packing antibiotics (I usually bring one for waist-up ailments and one for waist-down) is that you may end up needing to be your own doctor. Carry with you the medicines you are most likely to need, and, if you get sick, communicate your symptoms to the doctor and have him instruct you as to which medicines to take. 

Lightweight windbreaker

The clothing you pack depends on the time of year you're traveling, obviously, but your trip will most likely include an excursion to the Great Wall, and at most times of the year it can be windy there. A parka with a hood means you needn't carry an umbrella. 

Sturdy, comfortable walking/hiking shoes

In many spots there's uneven, sometimes rocky, ground underfoot. (Remember, there's a lot of construction going on.)

Moisturizer and lip balm

The air in much of China is dusty and dry. 

Not too much clothing

Hotel laundry service is quick and affordable, which means you can pack lightly. If you're in a hotel for two nights, you can usually get socks, underwear, shirts, and pants washed and returned in time. (Of course, you can also pack detergent for doing laundry in the sink; I recommend individual Woolite or Tide packets.) You'll also want to leave room in your suitcase to buy some local clothing. 

Guidebook that provides maps with place names in Chinese characters

Most guidebooks show place names in pinyin only (pinyin is the Romanization of Chinese characters—e.g., "Tiananmen"). To give directions to a taxi driver or ask directions from a pedestrian on the street, you'll need written Chinese characters to point to. 

Bike helmet

Many Chinese cities and villages are flat as a pancake, and you may be tempted to do as the locals do and get around by bike. Bikes are easy to rent, but bike helmets are not. Locals tend not to wear them. So bring your own. Also bring a tag or ribbon to identify your bike from the zillions of others parked nearby. Some bike-rental places want you to leave either a cash deposit (get a receipt!) or your passport. I've used an expired passport for this purpose (never leave the real thing with a bike-rental shop).

A few clean straws

The grittier your trip, the more you need to be concerned about dirty cups and bottle tops. On a 26-hour overnight train ride once, I was very glad to have three or four individually wrapped straws in my bag. 

Business cards

A lot of people you meet may ask you for one—or present theirs, expecting one in return. (When exchanging business cards, hold out your card with two hands; it's a sign of respect.) 

A mini-flashlight

Electrical blackouts can happen, or you may simply wake up in a dark room with an inscrutable lighting system. 

Energy bars

If you're in rural or iffy restaurants where you're not sure about the food—say, if you're served fruit that you didn't peel yourself, or meat that did not arrive from the kitchen steaming hot—you can resort to a protein bar. Boiling water is almost always available everywhere, so packets of instant oatmeal or powdered soup may come in handy too. 

Little gifts from home

In small towns little gifts such as stickers or postcards from the U.S. can delight children and act as conversation starters with their parents.

Polaroid camera

In rural areas, a small instant-print camera immediately makes you friends: Taking a photo of someone, and presenting it to him/her, is a much-appreciated gift.


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