Bring chocolate, the travel guide advised me as I packed for my first extended trip to China in 2014. It went on to explain that chocolate was a rare good in lactose-intolerant, Western-import-deprived China, and that it would make an excellent gift.
Whoever wrote that guide obviously hadn't stepped into a Chinese grocery store recently. Ferrero Rocher and Cadbury are standard fare. Even convenience stores (including the ubiquitous 7-11) stock Dove chocolate bars.
Truthfully, these days China's first-tier cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen) have just about everything you need, import-wise. Plus, from Guangzhou a Hong Kong shopping spree is a mere two-hour train ride away, and what's left you can pretty much find on retail site Taobao.
That said, there are some essentials you'll want to bring with you when visiting Guangzhou, whether it's for convenience or lack of availability.
1. Hand sanitizer
By now you've probably heard or read it a hundred times already: always, always bring toilet paper with you wherever you go.
But while tissue is available literally everywhere, either individually packaged or in bulk, hand sanitizer isn't. Consider yourself warned.
2. Favorite skincare/makeup products
If you don't want to take any chances with your daily primping routine, bring your favorites. Some of them, especially medium to high-end Western brands, may be available locally (usually for a higher price than you'd pay back home), but others won't be.
Also, Guangzhou is hella humid, so leave your winter lotions at home.
3. Solid deodorant
This is important enough to deserve its own entry. Grocery stores in China usually stock liquid roll-on or spray deodorants that may not contain antiperspirants. (We know.)
Sure, you can buy deodorant in Hong Kong, but if you're arriving during the summer months (i.e. March-October), you'll want proper protection as soon as you step off the plane.
Unfortunately, tampons haven't caught on in mainland China yet, so bring your own stash if you're biologically female and staying for longer than, say, a month.
Also bring other medication (prescriptions, allergies, diarrhea, etc.) if you're not comfortable speaking Chinese to drugstore staff, or won't have a fluent friend handy.
If you run out, Chinese brand Fenbid (芬必得) is a viable option for painkillers.
6. Unlocked cell phone
An unlocked cell phone (call your carrier to check if it's unlocked) is ideal, as you can simply buy a prepaid SIM card in China. The second best option is a wifi 'egg' (rentable on Taobao), followed by international roaming.
If you're staying short-term, you may be able to get by with the free wifi in stores and restaurants (pro-tip: try Starbucks).
7. Photocopies of your passport and visa
It's handy to always have a photocopy of your documents to carry around in place of the real thing, just in case. Also, unless you're staying in a hotel, take an hour or two to get your temporary residence registration done at a local police station within 24 hours of arrival, as is legally required.
If you want to stay in touch with people back home via Facebook and Gmail (or even Whatsapp, potentially), make sure to install a VPN on your phone and computer. But be careful about which apps you choose, as some may leave you open to privacy breaches.
Not sure if your favorite sites are censored or not? Check the monitoring website The Great Firewall of China.
9. Extra clothes and shoes (optional)
For those who plan on staying longer, it's not impossible to find shoes larger than size 8 (or clothes larger than L) in South China. But it might take you a while, and you probably won't have a lot of choices.
On a clothing-related note, while no one will censure you for it, spaghetti straps and backless dresses may raise a few eyebrows. Short shorts, miniskirts and belly-baring tops (see below), for some reason, are more acceptable.
10. Smattering of Chinese
Memorize or note down essential phrases so that, for instance, you'll always be able to find the bathroom when you need it.
Guangzhou is in Guangdong province, home of the Cantonese dialect, but Mandarin is more commonly heard, as it's a lingua franca among all the out-of-towners who live here.
To amuse your hosts or impress random folks on the street, try the following phrases (after checking out this guide to pinyin, aka the funny markings below):
rè sǐ rén le - 'It's so hot I could die.'
OK lā - 'OK.' (Stretch the 'a' in 'la' for maximum authenticity.)
Any of our many, many Chinese Urban Dictionary entries
11. Baby powder
If chafing is a problem for you at hot, sweat-inducing temps, you'll need this one.
While available in China, if you have a preferred brand (here’s looking at you, pepto bismol) we recommend bringing it with you, as you never know when a watery poop may strike – especially with all the food scandals hitting South China of late.
13. Portable fan
You'll be the envy of everyone on the street with a portable electric (or even manual) fan. For bonus points, get a sunbrella too.
14. Adapters and/or converters
Chinese power outlets have three main configurations (see above), with voltages of 220V, or 50Hz. Hong Kong and Macau have different specifications. Double-check your electronics to make sure they're compatible before leaving.
15. 'Specialty' products
Pretty much every town in China has its own 'specialties' that make popular presents, from spicy dried tofu to Russian-style sausage. Bring your own homeland's 'specialties' for gifts, but if you really want to impress, don't be too cheap or banal – no one wants your travel-sized bottles of maple syrup.
16. Extra space in your luggage
You'll want to bring stuff back for the fam, friends or just yourself. You could do the usual thing and buy tea in bulk, or you could go with our 11 badass picks.
17. An open mind
Jay-Z is all about that ‘Empire State of Mind’ and expats in Guangzhou are believers in the ‘South China state of mind.’ Jay-Z wears designer threads, gold chains and tosses ‘100 dolla billz’ in the club like confetti at an 8-year-old’s birthday party, while we drink deer penis alcohol outside dodgy convenience stores. Is it real deer penis? Unlikely, but that's not the point. You're going to put things in your mouth here best reserved for RAID commercials – and you're going to learn to like it.
In short: it’s important that newcomers come prepared to experience the unexpected, eat the previously unheard of and be torn violently from their comfort zone.
18. Explore China travel guide
Vast and varied, China is a unique and beautiful country. It is also one of mystery. Home to 50 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, beyond the largest cities and major tourist destinations, little information is available to the traveler in English.
Explore China changes all that, offering detailed information on historical sites, scenic nature spots, local delicacies to savor, activities to partake in as well as information on transportation links and recommendations on places to stay. Click here to purchase Explore China.
Skip the air-filter masks
Unless you're planning on heading north, you probably won't need any masks, especially considering that Guangdong province just experienced its best air quality in 28 years. If you are planning on traveling around, here are our top 8 picks for masks.
Did we miss something? Tell us your favorite travel essentials in the comments section!
With files from Sky Gidge, Matthew Bossons.