“Rivers are as fundamental to our existence as air,” says traveller Simon Reeve. “They make the difference between life and death. They moved our ancestors around into the interiors of countries and through them. The waterway has always been crucial to sustaining new life. From flooding and irrigation, they provide the water that feeds literally billions of people on the planet.”
And in his new three-part BBC2 show, Sacred Rivers with Simon Reeve (Sundays at 9pm), he visits some of the planet’s most important waterways – the River Nile, the enormous Ganges and the Yangtze.
On the 3,964-mile Yangtze River that runs from west to east China, Reeve was surprised to witness the rediscovery of faith. Historically, China has three main religions are Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Today, the world’s most populous country has no national religion – yet it’s believed there are more Christians than there are members of the Communist Party living in China.
While the government is still sceptical of some religious groups, it allows citizens to practise certain religions under state control. The Communist Party has recently invested in Christianity, and constructed churches as big as stadiums, donating £3 million towards a £10 million mega-church in Nanjing – it’s thought that Christianity may dissuade people from leading selfish, capitalist lifestyles. “This rediscovery of purpose, meaning and identity as shown through the growth of faith in China is really fascinating,” explains Reeve. “It’s something that we’re only just starting to understand the ramifications of.
“India we’ve always painted as a country where people are so spiritual – it’s the world’s biggest democracy and yet I’ve seen terrible things there, and there are extraordinary stories that come out of there that if they happened in China, the west generally would be up in arms about.” Travelling to astonishing locations is one way to really challenge our views. “We have an affinity with a democracy that we don’t have with an authoritarian state like China,” says Reeve.
From the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean to the arid landscapes of north-east Africa, and the mountainous province of Yunnan to the skyscrapers of Shanghai, Reeve visits the staggering scenery surrounding these mighty bodies of water and explores the faith and beliefs of settlers around these varied terrains.
But rising populations are creating strains on the world’s water sources. In India and China, pollution, caused by booming manufacturing industries, is destroying parts of the Ganges and Yangtze. Meanwhile, Sudan and Egypt both have a stake in the hallowed Nile, but the construction of a mega-dam in Sudan is worrying Egypt – threatening its water supply and the stability of the region.
Despite overarching socio-economic problems, Reeve believes following the route of a river leads to magnificent discoveries. “The world is so surprising, it amazes me how safe and hospitable it is,” says the hardened traveller, known for his trips to such politically unstable and dangerous regions including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and Saudi Arabia. “The travel industry quite likes the idea of us going to resorts, where we can be milked for our money, but as a traveller, you often get a much more interesting memorable experience by going on a journey.”
Perhaps the most memorable this trip was China: “Chinese cities are like Blade Runner sets,” says Reeve. “They have achieved something there that is fundamentally extraordinary. They have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of the depths of poverty in an incredibly short space of time. That hasn’t been achieved anywhere else on the planet, and I can’t just ignore that. When I go to India, I still see extreme poverty there, everywhere, on every journey.”
Reeve’s last TV adventure, Pilgrimage, retrod Christian religious routes in Europe. “That idea of the quest, going on these epic journeys, has slightly been lost from modern travel,” he says, but following a river, a tropical line, or similar, results in some incredibly memorable experiences.”
Simon Reeve’s favourite rivers:
1. The Thames, London, UK
“The Thames has to be number one… I’m from London, born and bred, and the Thames is the essence of the city.”
2. The Yangtze, China
“The Yangtze was the biggest surprise for me; it’s stunningly beautiful along much of it, but particularly in the far west. I was really blown away by that. Near where the Naxi people live, it’s amazing.”
3. The Ganges, India
“There’s so much belief and love and faith invested in this river. Wherever you are, there’s so many of our brothers and sisters on this planet believing it – you can’t not be profoundly affected by it all.”
Pictures courtesy of BBC, Wiki Commons and Thomas Rosquin (http://www.rivercruises.net)