Paper boats and pyramids. Flowers and fire. Skyscrapers and spirituality. Three major rivers are explored in this BBC TV series. With a lot of enthusiasm and also his trusty shemagh scarf, presenter Simon Reeve travels from source to sea. The focus on beliefs and cultures around rivers is fascinating and thought-provoking.
Episode 1: The Nile
- We start in Ethiopia to find the source of the world’s longest river. While it’s an unimpressive muddy stream, Simon jumps from one bank to the other. There is a holy site which marks the source, where Christian pilgrims gather to worship and also to be cured of health problems. Many smartphones are filming him as he wanders through the crowd.
- At Lake Tana, where the fishermen still use traditional boats made of papyrus, Simon meets a young man called Girma who make these boats. Inevitably Simon ends up in one of Girma’s creations on the lake. ‘I’m on a paper boat!’ he shouts, as he wobbles in the shallow boat, low in the water. If he falls out, it’s not captured on camera.
- During a helicopter ride over the Nile Gorge, we see the work taking place to build a massive dam. The river has been an underused resource in Ethiopia but now there’s the promise of increased electricity generated by the dam. However, this is controversial because it could affect the other countries downstream.
- Now we’re in the arid land of Sudan. Except it’s looking very green, at least on the huge Al Waha (Oasis) farm, which uses a large quantity of water from the Nile. ‘We could be in Lincolnshire or Dorsetshire,’ says Simon, watching a herd of dairy cows being misted with cool water. It seems extravagant to be using so many gallons a day.
- In Khartoum, we see the famous whirling dervishes (sufis) and a lively crowd. On a Friday, naturally. The air is heavily scented with frankincense. Journalist Ismail calls this atmosphere ‘the essence of Sudan’. Simon admits that he’d previously thought of the country as very conservative and unfriendly, but that his view has changed.
- The major ancient civilisation – the kingdom of Kush in the region of Nubia – has left behind some amazing pyramids. In fact, there are more pyramids here than in Egypt. These ‘black Pharaohs’ seem to be lesser known and Simon discusses the racism which has downplayed the role of the Kush people.
- Finally we’re into Egypt. After marvelling at the ancient Temple of Isis (the goddess) in Philae, which was saved from being flooded by the Upper Aswan Dam by being moved and rebuilt, Simon gets the night train to Cairo. He finds the city ‘absolutely rammed’, with a predicted population of 40 million by the year 2050. He goes off the tourist trail to see the ‘Nilometer’, which was used to measure the height of the water.
- In the Nile Delta region, Simon helps to plant cotton. The farmer offers to sell him a dancing horse. ‘No, I do not want to buy a dancing horse,’ Simon replies, before asking who owns the Nile, a question he’s been repeating throughout the episode. Egyptians take it for granted that it belongs to them, but the source can be controlled by Ethiopia. We end the journey at the port of Alexandria, on the Mediterranean Sea.
Episode 2: The Ganges
- In the Indian town of Devprayag, we begin the journey. Simon is blessed by a holy man wearing a multi-coloured poncho, who has lived in a cave by the river for 12 years. The blessing consists of having river water splashed at Simon and the camera. It must have been effective, because the rest of the journey goes well.
- Staying at an ashram in Rishikesh, there’s an audience with the spiritual leader, Swami Gee. When Simon asks why the Ganges is so important, the Swami replies that people need ‘charging’ like mobile phones. At a meditation class, Simon meets an American woman who sold her law practice, gave away her possessions and said goodbye to her family to live here. It’s certainly true that many people from all kinds of backgrounds are drawn to the ashram. Everyone looks happy and calm.
- A giant statue of the god Shiva is where Simon meets up with his friend Abhra. So what’s the connection with the river? ‘The Ganges flows through his dreadlocks,’ says Abhra. And indeed the dreadlocks look very river-like.
- Flowers and fire are central to the evening ceremony at Haridwar, where the people thank the river for its life-giving quality. Squashed into the crowd, Simon draws curious looks. He has bought a floral offering with candles, which he adds to the others floating downriver. With Abhra, he bathes in the fast-flowing water (holding on to a chain), which signifies the cleansing of sins, even from previous lives.
- Kanpur is one of the most polluted cities in India, so it’s really a lowlight of the journey. The water is heavily contaminated with factory waste and sewage, but people are still bathing and even drinking it. A horrible contrast to the purer water upriver.
- The sacred and ancient city of Varanasi is where Hindus believe they can be liberated from reincarnation if they die or have their ashes scattered here. At the Kashi Liberation Hotel, Simon meets an elderly couple who have been living there for 18 years, waiting calmly for the end. When Simon admits a fear of death, the old man reassures him that he shouldn’t be afraid because ‘from the moment you are born, death is part of life’.
- We meet Dom Raja, who provides the flames for funerals on the banks of the Ganges. He’s from the lowest caste and that’s why his family have to do that job. Simon finds it incredible that the caste system is still going: ‘it’s 2014! India’s got a space programme!’
- Nearing the end of the river, Simon squeezes on to a ferry to Sanga Island. Apparently everyone should come here at least once. Sunlight sparkles on the waves as the pilgrims bathe. He muses upon the sacred river Ganges. ‘Like everything else about India, it’s complicated’.
Episode 3: The Yangtze
- Starting in the west of China, we learn from musician Mr He about the beliefs of the Nakhi (an ethnic minority). Many people believe in dragon gods, who if displeased have the power to cause drought and flooding. Mr He’s friends and family in the city of Lijiang demonstrate music and dance expressing reverence for the river and its creatures… including frogs. ‘Are you saying I have to channel my inner frog?’ Simon has a go at being a dancing frog but his friends are laughing so much he suspects it’s a wind-up.
- The Dazu Rock Carvings consist of hundreds of Buddha statues hewn from the rock face, having escaped the destruction of religious symbols in China’s hardcore communist past. Li Li, our guide for the rest of the journey, is a Buddhist and says that it’s a ‘path to the truth of the Universe’. Buddhism is making a comeback, along with Daoism and Confucianism.
- Chongqing is a city of skyscrapers and industry. The shopping district is full of luxury international brands and seemingly happy consumers. Crouching among the tall glassy buildings is a Buddhist temple, a refuge where you can light a candle and pray.
- Joining a luxury cruise ship along the Yangtze, Simon experiences a popular type of holiday for affluent Chinese people. An estimated one million of them are cruising on the river every year. The country’s isolation and famines of the recent past now seem far away. The nightlife on board is lively – everyone is given a glow stick to wave around and there’s a lot of alcohol involved.
- The Three Gorges Dam is a massive hydroelectric power station, patrolled by soldiers because it’s a sensitive strategic location. Building the dam, the government have shown their might. ‘They have blocked, tamed, controlled the Yangtze’. It’s an awesome feat of engineering although thousands of people were displaced to make way for it.
- A swimming club in Wuhan celebrates Chairman Mao’s 1956 publicity stunt of crossing the river. Mao swam across it seventeen times during his life, increasing the admiration of his supporters. In front of an expectant and phone-wielding crowd, Simon stands there in his trunks. He’s invited into the river first, followed by some club members. The water is apparently ‘refreshing’ with a strong current, but he reaches the other side after a near miss with a freight ship.
- Getting stuck in a traffic jam on Easter Sunday in Nanjing. People are flocking to a new church, Christianity being ascendant and now supported by the government, who even part-financed this large modern building.
- The superfast bullet train takes us to Shanghai, which has a population of 24 million. Li Li takes Simon to a vegetarian restaurant, and although she can’t convince him to become veggie, she does confirm that attitudes and culture in China are changing, which brings hope for the future. Finally we reach the end of the river and also the end of a ‘thrilling and surprising journey’.
If you have access to BBC iPlayer, this programme is available for a year. Whether you’ve watched it or not, I hope you enjoyed reading my highlights of the series. Maybe you learned something new… I certainly did.