The Silk Way, which became operational in the middle of II century AD as a regular trade and diplomatic artery, until the 5th century had two main directions from China: the "South Way" - bypassing the Takla-Makan desert, through the Ili river valley or the southern shore of Issyk-Kul lake, further to Bactria, India and the Mediterranean. The "Northern Way" was from Kashgar to Fergana, Samarkand and Hamadan to Syria.
For political and economic reasons (internecine strife in Fergana, rising of the Turkic kaganates - large consumers of overseas goods as well as trade route “controllers”), in the VI-VII centuries the path that passed from China to the west via Semirechie and South Kazakhstan became more popular.
The Way's branch through the Ili Valley (to the east and north from Almaty) began to function actively in the 10th century, so you may start your journey along the caravan routes of the Silk Road directly from Almaty:
- Start in Zharkent - the "eastern gate" of the Silk Road in Kazakhstan. The “must visit” place here is Zharkent mosque built in the form of a pagoda in 1895 by the Chinese architect Hon-Peak. The area of the mosque is 26 x 54 meters. 52 columns surround the minaret; the interior is decorated with Arabic script with national ornament. Meanwhile, there were three similar buildings built in the world: a temple in Shanghai, a mosque in Kuldja and a mosque in Zharkent, but only the Zharkent mosque still remains.
- Moving further west along the Kuldja tract, exactly repeating the old caravan route, inspect the ruins of the ancient Ilibalyk city - as shown by the research of 2016, this is one of the largest fortifications of the Ili valley in terms of the area it occupies. The ruins can be found near Koktal village.
- The southern branch of the Silk Road (Kuldzhynsky tract) that we follow passes through the cities of Chilik, Turgen, Issyk and Tal’hir (modern Talgar). Tal’hir is one of the most illustrative settlements of the Way heyday era in Kazakhstan: the ancient hill-fort with an area of 9 hectares (with 300m side) was surrounded by a wall (now looks a frayed shaft). The corners of the fortress were fortified with protruding towers; the entrances were in the middle of the walls - opposite each other. Perpendicular cobbled streets divided the city into a grid of blocks, with 12-14 manors in each. The walls of the estates were constructed of cobblestones and raw brick. Water was supplied to the city by clay pipes; sewage was dumped through irrigation ditches into wells. During the excavation of the houses of the settlement in Tal’hir, mirrors and porcelain dishes from China, ivory artefacts from India, pottery from Samarkand and a faience dish from Japan, as well as coins minted in the cities of Central Asia were found. They counted that in the period of 10-13 centuries, the population of the city was about 5-6 thousands.
- Following the old caravan route, we turn north and move along the huge river of Ili, in a direction of Balkhash Lake. Right behind the modern Kapchagai city, there is a famous Ili ferry point, mentioned in the diaries of Guillaume de Rubrouck. Now this place is called Tamgaly Tas. Here you will find not only the ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery (where travellers could honour Buddha in case of a successful river crossing), but also a reconstituted copy of the medieval town. The place is very popular among Almaty citizens who come here on the weekend for rock climbing, biking and camping.
- Near Ili ferry point, few branches of the Silk Road converged together – much of infrastructure evidences were found here. In particular, 30km east of the river, in the area of Shengeldy village, Kazak archaeologists excavated the ancient settlement - it looks like a caravan-sarai or local trade centre (in some sources it is identified as Equus, or Eki-Oguz ancient city, described by Mahmud Kashgar and Rubrouck).
- We continue moving north, along the arm of the Silk Road which leads through the Balkhash lake further to Central Kazakhstan: to the cities located in the valleys of Jazda, Kengir, Sarysu. An ancient caravan route along Ili-Ortabakanas riverbed (now dry) runs to the isthmus at Balkhash, where the distance between the northern and southern shore of the lake is only 8 km. Caravans crossed it by the water in summer, and by the ice in winter. The ruins of desert ghost towns Aktam, Karamergen and Agash-Ayak can be found at the mouth Ili River. Huge clay shafts on the place of high walls, towers and fortifications destroyed by a time are perfectly visible on the satellite images.
Over the centuries, the Silk Road changed dramatically: some parts have been acquiring significant, others, on the contrary, having died off so cities and nations have finally declined. In the Almaty region, the Silk Way can be traced at once in few directions, which were popular in different epochs - next time we will describe the north-eastern branch. It passed through Dzhungaria /Alakol Lake and left a trace in history in the form of forgotten cities, monasteries and oases.
Historical info sources:
National Digital History © e-history.kz
Online museum https://onlinemuseum.pro
Publications of K.Baipakov (Silk Road in Kazakhstan: ancient cities of Ili valley)