The Torghut tribe's return to the east: a Mongolian cavalry's migration from the Volta River to the Kaidu River

The Torghut tribe's return to the east: a Mongolian cavalry's migration from the Volta River to the Kaidu River

The Bayanbulak grasslands (shown in Image 79) is a basin at the center of the Tianshan mountain ranges, in the northwest of what is today known as the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, in Xinjiang. Bayanbulak in Mongolian means "ever-flowing source". True to their name, the grasslands are luxuriant and fertile; the Kaidu River runs through the prefecture, providing them with ample irrigation and making them ideal for raising livestock.

In Qing Dynasty historical records, this region is referred to as "Zhuledusi". At the end of the Ming Dynasty and beginning of the Qing Dynasty, the Khoids (an Oirat tribe) led a nomadic life here. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the leader of the Khoids, Amursana, led a rebellion against the Qing Empire. When he was defeated, the tribe was forced to migrate eastward, leaving the grasslands vacant.

Image 79: The Bayanbulak grasslands

On the 9th day of the 8th lunar month, 1773 (the 38th year of Emperor Qianlong's reign), the picturesque grasslands became home to a new set of occupants: the Torghuts, a Mongolian tribe, who had just returned east from the Volga River. The Torghuts reproduced prolifically upon their return; the vast majority of Mongols in Bayingolin are their descendants. Bayingolin (indicated in Image 80) has the greatest population of Mongols out of all prefectures in Xinjiang — it is mostly for this reason that it was made an autonomous prefecture of the Mongol people.

The Torghut tribe had previously spent generations raising cattle in the region of Tarbagatai (today called Tacheng) in Xinjiang, also shown in Image 80. At the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Dzungar people began to make repeated attacks on the Torghuts.

Image 80: The Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture

In 1628, under orders from their leader, Kho Orluk, the Torghut tribe fled from their native land in Tarbagatai through the grasslands of Central Asia, settling in the lower reaches of the Volga River. Their westward journey is represented by a faint red line on Image 81. At that time, the region had not yet been occupied by Tsarist Russia. On these vast plains adjacent to the Caspian Sea, the Torghut people laid the foundation for the Kalmyk Khanate.

In the first half of the 18th Century, the Russian Empire's influence crept into the lower reaches of the Volga River. They encouraged Cossacks to continually expand their territory eastward, gradually encroaching upon the Torghuts' pastures. When Catherine the Great became Empress of Russia in the mid-18th Century, the Torghut tribe became subject to even greater forms of oppression —political, military and religious — while their economy languished. In 1770, they finally decided to return to their native land.

Image 81: Western migration and eastern return of the Torghuts

As shown in Image 81, the Torghut tribe had settlements on both sides of the Volga River. The faint red outlines on the eastern and western shores represent the Torghuts' nomadic territory.

In 1770, the Torghuts decided that, when the Volga River would freeze that winter, the settlement on the western bank would cross over and merge with its eastern counterpart before making the journey back to the Bayanbulak grasslands together.

Image 82: Portrait of Ubashi Khan

Their plans, however, were foiled by nature. Winter that year was too mild and the Volga River didn't freeze over. As a result, the 90,000 Torghuts on the western bank missed their opportunity to join the eastern settlement and were forced to stay behind.

 Europeans referred to Oirat Mongols as "Kalmyks". Most of the Mongols in the the Republic of Kalmykia, a federal subject of Russia, descended from the Turghuts who were left on the western bank of the Volga River. To this day, they still write using Clear Script, the alphabet developed by the Oirats. Most of the population in Kalmykia believe in Buddhism.

Image 83: Tarbagatai (Ya'er region) as shown on the Map of the Western Territories

In the first lunar month of 1771, the 170,000 members of the eastern settlement were led by Ubashi Khan, the last Khan of the Kalmyk Khanate (pictured in Image 82), back east to their native land. Along their journey, they were continually blocked by the Kazakh Khanate and ambushed by the Russian army. Many of those who didn't die at the hands of these troops ended up succumbing to other factors, such as illness, hunger and hypothermia. The settlement lost over half of its population; only 66,073 people made it to the Ili River bank on the western frontier. Most of those who survived the journey had nothing but the rags on their backs and the camels and horses on which they had traveled.

At the end of the fifth lunar month of 1771 (the 36th year of Emperor Qianlong's reign) the leading group of the eastern settlement arrived in the vicinity of Chalin River, a tributary of Ili River, and met with a squadron of Qing soldiers heading in the opposite direction. On the 25th day of the sixth lunar month, Ubashi Khan was accompanied by Qing officials on a journey to meet the emperor in the imperial court. They passed through Urumqi, Barkol, Suzhou (in Gansu Province), Datong, Xuanhua and Zhangjiakou, before finally arriving in Chengde.

Image 84: Drawing of the Torghuts from the Illustrations of the Western Territories (produced during the reign of Emperor Qianlong)Prior to their meeting, a senior minister had advised Emperor Qianlong to take Ubashi Khan hostage in the imperial capital. This suggestion greatly displeased the emperor, who retorted that he had summoned Ubashi Khan so that he could teach him face-to-face how to educate his tribe members — not so that he could take him hostage. Upon meeting Ubashi Khan, Emperor Qianlong expressed his deep sympathy for the Torghuts' adverse situation. He issued the following edict: "Those who switch defect to the Qing Empire and meet with poverty as a result shall be compensated in silver ingots, as well as horses and livestock." Immediately after, the Qing court allocated a vast amount of resources from the northwestern provinces and the Mongol regions south of the Gobi to the Torghut tribe. According to a document written by the emperor himself, entitled Record of Financial Aid Given to the Torghut Tribe, the Qing court donated resources from Xinjiang, Gansu, Sha'anxi, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. These resources included: "More than 200,000 horses, cows and sheep; more than 40,000 dan of rice and wheat; more than 20,000 bricks of tea; more than 50,000 wool coats; more than 60,000 bolts of cloth; close to 60,000 jin of cotton; and more than 400 tents."

The Qing court nonetheless harbored suspicions towards the Torghuts, who had only just returned after fleeing to the west for over a century. This wariness was most evident in the choice of the region where the Torghuts were to be resettled. Emperor Qianlong rejected his frontier ministers' suggestion to re-settle them in Ili on the basis that, as the military's administrative headquarters in Xinjiang, Ili had already accommodated Manchu, Xibe and Ewenki soldiers, who had cultivated most of the surrounding arable land, leaving little room for new settlers. The emperor also cited Ili's proximity to Kazakh and Kyrgyz territories, which would make it easy for the Torghuts to suddenly defect. Furthermore, he refused to accommodate the Torghut tribe in Urumqi, as he feared they would become a threat to Urumqi and Barkol — two major cities along the main road connecting Xinjiang with the rest of China.

Image 85: The region of Karasahr (including the Kaidu river basin) shown on the Map of the Western Territories

After careful consideration, the Qing court decided to allow the Torghuts to graze on part of their former land. Beginning with the Tarbagatai mountains to the west and ending with the Mongol town of Hovd to the east, this territory included parts of the Irtych, Bortala, Emil and Ya'er rivers.

Image 83 is an ancient map depicting the state of Xinjiang during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing. The map has an "south-up, north-down, east-left, west-right" orientation. As we can see, this region borders with Kazakhstan and was administered by the Grand Minister Consultant of Tarbagatai. Highlighted in a red box on the map is a label reading "Old City of Ya'er". This city was constructed in the 29th year of Emperor Qianlong's reign (1764). The region's heavy snowfall made it difficult to defend, and it was abandoned not long after its construction. A new city was built two year later and called Suijing. In 1771, the Torghut tribe settled there and lived under the Grand Minister Consultant's supervision. The "Old City of Ya'er" was located in proximity to the Ya'er river and was one of the Torghut tribe's main herding territories.

However, not long after they settled, the Torghut tribe encountered a crisis that would threaten their survival. Having recently returned from the west, the tribe was completely exhausted. The Qing court decided to temporarily accommodate over 15,000 elderly and infirm Torghuts in Ili before sending the rest to regions such as Ya'er. That winter, snow fell copiously and temperatures were glacial. The members of the Torghut tribe who migrated to the territory designated by the Qing court had to contend with unforgiving weather and insufficient rations.

Most unexpectedly, they were fatally struck by an outbreak of smallpox. At the time, Ubashi Khan was visiting the emperor in Chengde. His wife and daughter, who were responsible for looking after the tribe while he was away, fell ill. On the 22nd day of the 10th lunar month, 1771 — not long after the tribe returned to Tarbagatai — they both died. On the 3rd day of the 11th lunar month, Ubashi Khan's mother also died of smallpox — as did his son, only three weeks later. Over 3390 people died as a result of this epidemic. Emperor Qianlong expressed his deepest sympathies; in an attempt to console Ubashi Khan, he ordered a lama to read Buddhist scripture and expiate the sins of the Khan's deceased family.

On the 12th day of the first month of 1772, Ubashi Khan returned from his trip to see the emperor, but was never again seen at the heart of life in the grasslands. Instead, he lived as a recluse on the periphery. Clan members who wished to visit him were not allowed to enter his yurt; rather, they had to talk to an intermediary, who would relay their and the Khan's messages back and forth. Ubashi Khan had successfully avoided this smallpox epidemic, but at the end of that year, his tribe was struck by illness once more. The survivors, including Ubashi Khan himself, were terrified and refused to stay in that area of Tarbagatai any longer. Therefore, Ubashi Khan sent the Qing court a formal request to be transferred to a safer environment.

At this time, it just so happened that a fecund and vast portion of the Bayanbulak grasslands near the southern city of Karasahr (today known as Yanqi) was unoccupied. The Qing court finally accepted their request to be relocated and set about preparing army provisions and organizing a squadron to accompany the Torghuts along the way. Image 83 is a map from the reign of Emperor Qianlong that is currently stored in the National Museum of China. It vividly depicts the landscape that the Torghuts would have traversed as they shifted from one settlement to another.

From June to July 1773, Ubashi Khan led the Torghuts to the region of Karasahr in the basin of the Kaidu River (shown in Image 85). Finally, the Torghut tribe whose horses once drank from the Volga River were able to find respite in their ancestral land, where they continued to live from one generation to the next.

Main references

Guo Meilan: The Ubashi Khan clan of the Kalmyk Khanate and their displacement following their return to Xinjiang. History and Geography of the Chinese Borderlands. No. 2, 2007.

Wei Na: Resettlement of the Torghuts by the Qing government following their return to Xinjiang. Inner Mongolia Radio & TV University Journal. No. 1, 2013.