By Susan Hanson

Traveling across China is exhilarating – the country is so vast, so ancient, so varied in its experiences, that a trip there can overwhelm even the most seasoned traveler. The key, says Virtuoso travel advisor Suzanne Bouldoukian, is to “focus on personal interests – history, art, gastronomy, adventure – rather than trying to do it all.”

Bouldoukian, who’s based in Menlo Park, California, recently traveled from Beijing to Shanghai with tour provider Abercrombie & Kent, visiting Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors, meeting pandas in Chengdu, and taking in Guilin’s gorgeous landscapes. She emphasizes that the pace of a China trip is extremely important, and recommends at least a full two weeks on the ground: “You want to spend enough time in each place to absorb the sights and sounds.” Here she shares a few other tips for making the most of your time in the country.

A baby panda in Chengdu. [Photo: Alatom/Getty Images] / Featured image: Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. [Photo: _HK_/Getty Images]

Vis-á-Visa
China has a detailed visa process, with a fairly extensive application and strict photograph requirements. Secure your visa well in advance – or, better still, use CIBTvisas. “Their specialists make it smooth from the get-go,” Bouldoukian notes. The good news: Visas are valid for ten years.

Balancing Act
China’s size means that there may be long distances between attractions, so “it’s important to balance transfer time with relaxing moments,” says Bouldoukian. She advises utilizing China’s excellent rail system and taking advantage of spa opportunities whenever possible. After arriving at The Peninsula Beijing, for example, she indulged in a Vital Qi treatment that “fuses traditional Chinese therapies to balance one’s energy flow, or chi, thereby restoring vitality and vigor to the body, mind, and spirit.” Bouldoukian also visited a local spot in Shanghai that specializes in foot and leg massages: “Boy, did my group need it after all the walking we did!”

Great Workout
Getting enough exercise is vital to renewing your energy during your travels. Bouldoukian suggests skipping the hotel elliptical for outdoor activities such as hiking a section of the Great Wall in Beijing, then taking a toboggan ride down the mountain. She also enjoyed a tai chi lesson in a park near the city’s Temple of Heaven (“you definitely feel a sense of place”).

State of the Arts
China’s millennia-old culture has produced countless traditions that still live today. Bouldoukian was fascinated by a Beijing woman who painted detailed images inside small glass snuff bottles: “She’s one of just a few artists left who do this.” She also attended a Sichuan opera in Chengdu, with its famous bian lian (“face-changing”) performance, in which the artist makes a series of split-second mask changes, all done with one quick motion. “It had the feel of a magic show,” she says. “You keep asking yourself, ‘How’d they do that?’ ”

A traditional bian lian performance. [Photo: PLEJ92/Getty Images]