bye bye tianma!
天马  TianMa

All you ever wanted to know and more about TianMa - our home and ride across 2 continents

TianMa 天马 (1993 - 4ever)

means “heavenly steed” and refers to the mythical horse in Chinese lore that comes from exotic, foreign lands and can run 3000 miles in a day; it invokes connotations of being powerful, unrestrained and soaring freely...

Condition and Extras

Before we got TianMa, he hadn’t had major upgrades since leaving the VW factory and had only undergone replacement of parts that regularly wear out (brakes, tires, belts and in his case a transmission mount). His longevity was thanks to the two owners prior to us who took very good care of the mechanics.

The only "extras" to the original are keyless entry, CD/mp3 stereo, added insulation to the side panels and raising the clearance about 2 inches (doesn’t sound like much, but was essential on certain roads we tackled). For Africa, we added a custom-built roof rack for jerry cans (80 liters) and the second spare tire.

We managed to keep up the low-maintenance tradition despite knowing little about mechanics and putting TianMa through quite a bit at an advanced age. Although we had challenges (see below), TianMa was still in great shape and very much up for more adventures when we sold him in Uganda, February 2011.


Suitable for our needs; acceleration, power and noise aren't great but adequate for our South American and African cruising speeds of 45 to 60 mph. TianMa handles and brakes very responsively, the turning radius is quite good given his size and the engine pulls remarkably well uphill. Our average fuel efficiency was roughly 20 miles per gallon (11.5 liters per 100km) - yes, a diesel engine would have been better for this kind of journey.

TianMa is quite versatile considering his front-wheel drive and small wheels. We drove over and through anything we wanted to without difficulties: besides crazy big-city traffic, TianMa conquered numerous pot-hole ravaged "highways" and streets, roads under various stages of construction, curvy mountain passes, dirt roads of all kinds and steepness, mud, soft sand, ponds (once well over a meter deep), and even a landslide. Stability in high winds is not an issue, the suspension is rough but held up, and although we mostly drove in dusty conditions, the air and oil filters did surprisingly well. In Africa, we even conquered (sometime unintentionally) several routes that are normally reserved for experienced 4x4 cars and drivers (but this is to be avoided).

A big challenge was our own driving skills. Although we picked up many tricks through our "sink or swim" strategy, some lessons were harder to learn (e.g. are we stuck because TianMa is too heavy or because we don't properly drive on sand? should we pull over for that sound or can we ignore it? how fast to go through deep water?). We gave TianMa many challenges, but tried to stick to relatively good and well-traveled paths, taking the "hard way" only when there was no alternative (in Africa often the only way).

For our impressions of the roads and driving conditions, see our individual country summaries in the Travelog.


An absolute A+; once we gave up the idea of really "roughing it" by taking an old Landcruiser through extreme terrain, TianMa's comfort is what appealed to us the most. He is big and very spacious. The front has large, comfortable seats, and offers a high ride with good visibility. A strong air-conditioner and cruise control helped on those long days on the road. He handles like a car.

There is plenty of cargo-space and tons of storage compartments throughout, so we could safely hide our valuables. The best part was the comfortable bed (yes, long enough for Ognen), which is better than in most hotels and made camping a real joy. The pop-top has another bed (our “guest bedroom”), provides ventilation and allowed Ognen to stand completely upright inside.

Other nice features that made it feel like a real home are the built-in cooler box, the pop-up table, rotating front passenger seat, and the second battery that powers the extras. We also became good cooks with our 2 camping stoves and gourmet cookware (no “roughing it” when it comes to food).


During TianMa’s time in South America from November 4, 2009 to May 26, 2010, he encountered the following problems:

  1. steering rack damaged beyond repair in Patagonia (our own fault); had to ship in a new one from California (a costly delay of 14 days and $600)

  2. snapped exhaust pipe between the middle and rear mufflers that we now wish we hadn’t fixed cause it actually improved our mileage (easy $30 fix)

  3. busted 2nd gear synchronizer in transmission that we’re not fixing (no big deal)

  4. burnt-out starter coil had to be replaced (4-day delay and $200 related costs)

  5. broken brake shoe that was inconvenient & costly to repair only because it happened in a rather remote mountain setting (cost us 1 day and roughly $80)

  6. persistent and nagging stalling issue when in neutral in hot and humid environments - proving next to impossible to diagnose, so we can't really fix it

  7. 1 small screw under the driver's seat that fell of in the strangest and unluckiest way imaginable, making it impossible to sit down and drive, thereby delaying us 5 hours on the Colombia-Ecuador border and requiring military help :-)

Africa (July 13, 2010 - January 29, 2011) was all-but trouble free, with the following issues:

  1. tightened some bolts on the steering rack that loosened up on the awful Namibian roads ($35 which included a comprehensive inspection)

  2. readjusted springs on the emergency brake that rattled off on a bad stretch in Zimbabwe ($25 which also included an all-around inspection by a mechanic)

  3. fixing a seized A/C clutch that we ruined by driving in deep water (required a creative fix in 2 different cities over a whole week and cost us $250)

  4. replaced snapped serpentine belt and the 2 associated idler pulleys (4-day delay due to bad timing and lack of spare parts but only $100 to fix)

  5. re-greased axle and got a new CV joint boot (1 day and only $22)

  6. replaced horn (only $10 for a cheap new one but it never worked well)

Additional Equipment

Unlike most other overlanders we did not haul around a garage of spare parts and repair equipment - why bring a bunch of heavy space-filling stuff when we're mechanically inept and wouldn't know how to use it anyway?  And even those that are mechanically inclined often tell us they wish they hadn’t brought along so much junk. In over a year of driving, we never felt we missed anything and our equipment list below should be enough for the average long-term overland roadtripper:

  1. 2 spare tires and the usual jack (but we miraculously never had a puncture)

  2. 2 fire extinguishers (luckily never had to use them)

  3. 2 cans of “fix-a-flat” (probably unnecessary)

  4. a $20 toolkit (screwdrivers and wrenches) we bought in Colombia

  5. small emergency first-aid kit

  6. can of WD-40 (very useful)

  7. air compressor (so that we didn’t need a gas station to add air to the tires)

  8. spare oil filter, air filter, spark plugs and serpentine belt (only because these are hard to find on the road; spare fuel filter would have been useful too)

  9. the official VW Eurovan factory repair manual (2 thick volumes to be used by a mechanic in case of major trouble)

  10. duct tape, electric tape, scissors, knives, cable ties, work gloves, matches & lighter, rope, bun-jee cables, and a machete (you never know)

  11. 10 liters of general purpose water (for washing fruits, dishes, hands, feet,...)

  12. GPS unit - Garmin 60csx (comes in handy though we’ve done without it for long stretches; could be vital in an emergency)

  13. 4 jerry cans - 60 liters spare gasoline and 20 liters water (for Africa only but we used them rarely; still better to have them than not)

  14. mosquito net (great for Africa, not necessary for South America)

Tech Specs

1993 Volkswagen Eurovan MV (a.k.a “Transporter T4”)

163,000 miles by January 2011

2.5L, 5 cylinder, 110hp engine with a 5-speed manual transmission (factory originals)

dimensions: 115in (wheelbase) x  187in (length) x  72.5in (width) x 76in (height with pop-top down)

fuel cap:21.1 gallons of gasoline

seating capacity: 5 comfortably, 6 if necessary (originally 7 but we got rid of the middle row for added comfort)

as much as it broke our hearts, we had to sell TianMa when we finished our African adventure in early 2011; he will always remain our favorite car so we are proudly keeping this tribute page up - click on the two albums below to see him in action!

TianMa Blazes across South America
(186 photos)TIanMa_albums/Pages/TianMa_blazes_across_South_America.htmlTIanMa_albums/Pages/TianMa_blazes_across_South_America.htmlshapeimage_22_link_0
TianMa Roars in Africa
(228 photos)TIanMa_albums/Pages/TianMa_roars_in_Africa.htmlTIanMa_albums/Pages/TianMa_roars_in_Africa.htmlshapeimage_23_link_0