An update and a warning!

The group is camped by a delightful river about 30km past Zaindainxo (this town may also be called Sog Xian) having found our second fuel supply on the N317 (we were told it was -20° diesel at only 4.40 Yuan a litre) just before Zaindainxo (N31.89628 E93.79120).

We only traveled 30km today (2002-10-13) because yesterday evening Kon-Tiki's steering became so stiff that it was assumed that the power steering had failed. Luckily this happened just as Les was getting fuel in a town with a mechanic. The problem was quickly diagnosed as faulty bearings in the steering pump. Most of today was spent waiting for the bearings to be replaced and the steering pump re-fitted. Unfortunately this did not cure the problem and a "discussion" followed about the bill (500 Yuan $62USA). Les left Zaindainxo without paying but was unable to continue more than a few kilometres before Kon-Tiki became un-drivable.

Luckily the group correctly diagnosed the real problem and fixed it with a squirt of WD40!

The Warning!

Although it now looks probable that we will eventually make it to Lhasa it is only fair to point out to anyone contemplating this trip next year that the route we are taking in Tibet (i.e. the N214 and then either the N318 or N317) is not really suitable for most standard campervans! Since entering Tibet three of the four front-wheel-drive vans have slipped off the road, one over the edge of a bridge. One van has broken one of its constant velocity joints and has had to be carried a 1000km on the back of a truck. Two vans have suffered sump damage due to hitting rocks and one now leaks 1.5 liters of oil a day.

As a result, the drive through Tibet, whilst providing the most spectacular scenery of the trip, has been very hard work (we have been out with picks and shovels for up to four hours a day) and for many people very stressful.

The problems encountered on this road include:

  • Rivers to ford.
  • Rock avalanches (some still falling as we crossed them).
  • Deep trenches across the road.
  • Deep mud.
  • Deep ruts produced by trucks.
  • Sharp rocks causing multiple punctures.
  • Very steep inclines on slippery surfaces (mud, shale, snow and wet rocks).
  • Very narrow tracks with jagged rocks on one side and a precipice on the other.
  • Suicidal Chinese truck drivers.

Whilst it is tempting to say this road is only suitable for 4x4s or trucks this may be too restrictive. The trouble with a big 4x4 campervan (like Mog) is that for 25,000km of this trip it has been gross overkill (as well as noisy, slow, relatively cramped, hard too drive and expensive to run). Only for the last 1500km has Mog been supreme.

I think that with planning it is possible to travel this road in a modified standard campervan in relative safety.

Four wheel drive?

The first difference between Mog and a standard campervan that most people note is that Mog has four wheel drive. In my view (for this trip) four wheel drive is not worthwhile for most of the vehicles involved. Whilst I think it is desirable to have at least one big 4x4 in the group, but for most of the vehicles the added cost and complexity of four wheel drive is not justified.

Having said that I think rear wheel drive is preferable to front wheel drive and that a limited slip diff or better still a lockable diff would give many of the advantages of four wheel drive at a fraction of the cost.

Ground Clearance.

When driving on roads like the N317 (as opposed to real off-road driving) the important thing is to have the same (or better) ground clearance as the most common vehicle (MCV) on the road (in this case the Dong Feng 7 Tonne truck). This is because any road hazard involving obstructions too big for the MCV will quickly get cleared by the MCV drivers.

One of the most common hazards on this road is a central ridge of rocks or mud created by the MCV digging wheel ruts on either side. Each passing truck scrapes the central ridge to a fixed height. If you can drive over this all is well, if not it means hours of work with pick and shovel removing the central ridge and filling in the ruts.

A typical standard campervan has around 210 to 250mm of ground clearance. Raising this to say 280mm would make a great deal of difference on this road. The only practical way of doing this is by fitting larger tyres and possibly larger rims and springs.

However more important than ground clearance is departure angle.

Departure Angle.

A typical long wheel base panel van conversion.Probably the single greatest weakness of a standard campervan for this road is too low a departure angle.

The departure angle measures the ability of the vehicle not to scrape its rear body on the ground when meeting a sudden upward ramp, or when levelling out after a downward ramp.

In order to obtain a good departure angle you want a good ground clearance and as little rear wheel overhang as possible.

It is also important to consider what part of the campervan will hit the ground if you misjudge a gully and the damage that may be done. Avoid mounting gas (LPG) or fuel tanks behind the rear wheels.

An off-road vehicle (Mog).Many campervans, particularly long panel van conversions may have departure angles as low as 10°. A good off-road vehicle may have a departure angle as high as 45°. I estimate the departure angle of MCV on this road to be about 25-30°.

Also worth considering are the approach angle (the same as the departure angle but at the front) and ramp angle.


Tyres for a trip like this are a compromise. So far 90% of this trip has been on tarmac. The type of tyre suitable for high speed driving on tarmac is far from ideal on mud, stones and snow. Tyre manufactures usually have a range of tyres from 100% on-road to mostly off-road.

One compromise worth considering is to fit four "slightly off-road" tyres to the vehicle and take two "mostly off-road" spare wheels. The spare wheels can then be fitted to the driving wheels for the Tibet part of the trip.

Our experience on this trip is that snow chains have been more trouble than they are worth. We have also found that the vehicles fitted with double rear wheels have had some problems with stones wedged between the wheels and seem to have had more punctures than those with single wheels.


At some time or other all the two wheel drive campervans on this this trip have been towed.

Unfortunately most campervans are not fitted with towing attachment points strong enough for towing them out of deep mud. Having four (two front and two rear) strong towing points fitted is a good investment.

There have been a number of occasions when "preventive" towing was the best solution. If for example a narrow, steep, slippery, section of road with hairpin bends is encountered (and it will be!) then rather than wait for a van to get stuck and then try to back a 4x4 tow vehicle down to it, it is better to assume the worst and tow each van through, with the towing vehicle returning to collect each van in turn.


As well as identifiable individual hazards, campervans on this road will be subject to 100s of hours of severe vibration. Starter motors, alternators and batteries will shake loose. Fridges and cookers will fall out. Cupboards will fall off the wall. Water pipes will disconnect. Dust will get everywhere.


Our experience of Tibetan road (re-)building suggests that two types of tools are desirable. The first is a folding trenching tool (sold in the UK in "Government Surplus" stores for about $10USA). They take up very little space and two or even three per vehicle are recommended. The second tool is a full sized pick axe. These are best bought cheap in Tibet and discarded when no longer needed. One per vehicle is all that can be inconveniently carried.

It is also recommended that everyone has wellington boots and rubber work gloves.


Do not assume that you will cover more than 100km per day in Tibet in anything other than a small 4x4 or truck driven very hard. The schedule (as published by China Comfort and accepted by China Swan) for 2002 was sheer fiction!

Stephen Stewart.

Home - This page last changed on 2002-10-14