Do yourself a favor and visit China before it's taken over by Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds (it almost is, already). There was a time, not that many moons ago, when you needed to rub suitcases with strangers on guided tours, and pay a per diem rate. The tours are still available, but it makes more sense (and doesn't cost that much more) to arrange for a private guide to meet you at the airport, get you to your hotel, and get you around. I pride myself on being an independent traveler, ready for all eventualities, but in China it makes sense to let someone else handle the details, so you don't get bogged down in them. You can always give the guide a day off, and poke around on your own. These days you can also arrive in China with no reservations, and make up your trip as you go along. The problem is that many hotels are taken over by tour groups, and you could waste hours trying to track one down with an available room.
You can hire a local guide from any hotel desk in China, from the China International Travel Service office in any town, or in advance by contacting CITS via their Web site (www.cits.net). Grayline Tours will now meet you at the airport, provide guides and conduct tours (group or private) in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi'an. See the Grayline Web site (www.grayline.com) for contact info, prices and how to make advance reservations.
What should you do? The day-long boat trip down the Li River is of course a must-see. But instead of turning around and heading back, I would spend a day at Yangshuo, biking around (bikes are easy to rent) the region, and then returning by bus or car. Shanghai has amazing shopping--all those "finds" that don't seem to exist anywhere in the world anymore. I would also head west to the colorful villages of Dali and Lijiang, where historic wooden buildings still stand and the people stroll the streets in traditional dress.
The Yangtze river is still very much worth doing in 2003. This month ships are beginning to use a temporary lock to get around the Three Gorges Dam. Beginning in June 2003 and running until 2009, the reservoir behind the dam will gradually rise some 525 feet, eventually drowning the scenic Three Gorges as well as 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,352 villages. From June 1-15, 2003, cruises will be curtailed while a permanant lock is completed; then cruises will resume. You'll still be able to enjoy the Three Gorges throughout 2003. Of course, they will be diminished in following years, but cruising should continue as new towns and streams will open up for exploration. Victoria Cruises (www.victoriacruises.com, 800/348-8084), a recommended U.S.-based line on the Yangtze, is adding two new ships next year.