The Prithvi Highway – the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara – offers many visitors to Nepal their first vision of the middle hills. It remains a fabulous vision, even if it is through a bus window clouded by the grit-laden exhaust smoke of the overloaded lorry in front. Once you’ve struggled out of the Kathmandu Valley through the notch in the rim at Thankot, the first shock is the epic scale and steepness of the hills beyond. The second is the evident danger of the road, which for its first half is also the main trunk route between Kathmandu and India. Despite being the best road in the country, it is littered with broken-down lorries and the evidence of crashes. Most cyclists wisely put their bikes on the bus roof.
From Thankot, the long, switchbacking descent to Naubise, where the Tribhuwan Rajpath breaks off, continues down to the Trisuli at Baireni, one of several put-in points along this popular rafting river. From here, the road mostly follows the valley bottoms: keep an eye out for spidery suspension bridges, precarious ropeways, and funeral pyres on the sandy banks. You can’t miss the scores of lorries parked in the riverbed; they’re used for collecting stones, which are broken up by hand by families of workers attracted by the chance of earning $2 a day. There are rice terraces and sugar cane plantations to gaze at, perhaps complete with local farmers ploughing or harvesting by hand. The scraps of forest are mostly heavily pruned for fodder or firewood, though you can spot the odd, stately simal, the symmetrically branching silk-cotton or kapok tree, which produces red flowers in early March and pods of cotton-like seeds in May.
Most tourist buses make a mid-morning pit stop for daal bhaat at fancy resorts. Green Lines halts at River Side Springs Resort, which is easily the most attractive accommodation along the road. Public buses break for lunch at Mugling, a ghastly crossroads at the junction of the Trisuli and Marsyangdi rivers that exists mainly to provide daal bhaat and prostitutes to long-distance drivers.
Traffic bound for the Terai turns south here for the gradual 34km descent to Narayangadh, while the Prithvi Highway crosses the Trisuli and heads upstream along the Marsyangdi, passing the massive Marsyangdi Hydroelectric Project powerhouse. The spur road to Gorkha leaves the highway at Abu Khaireni, 7km west of Mugling, while Dumre, 11km beyond, is the turning for two side roads: one north to Lamjung’s Besisahar, the starting point of the Annapurna Circuit, and one south to Bandipur. Damauli, 8km west of Dumre, is marked out by its position overlooking the confluence of the Madi and Seti rivers. In reverence of this union, there is a complex of shrines set back from the road, and to the left of them is Byas Gupha, a cave where Byas (or Vyasa), the sage of the Mahabharat, is supposed to have been born and lived.
After crossing the Madi, the Prithvi Highway rises and then descends gradually to rejoin the broad Seti Valley, finally reaching Pokhara’s ever-spreading conurbation. Lakes Begnas and Rupa are off to the right of the highway on the approach to Pokhara.