A desolate ancient path winding through the western Tianshan ranges: the Illustrated Recount of the Expedition along Nalin River from Ili to Kashgar

A desolate ancient path winding through the western Tianshan ranges: the Illustrated Recount of the Expedition along Nalin River from Ili to Kashgar

Xinjiang's topological characteristics can be summarized as "two basins squeezed between three mountain ranges". The three mountain ranges are Altay, to the north; Tianshan, in the center; and Kunlun, in the south. The two basins are the Dzungar Basin and the Tarim Basin (shown in Image 97). The Tianshan ranges sprawl across Xinjiang's latitudinal center, splitting it into two relatively independent geographical entities. To link together northern and southern Xinjiang, people had to find ways to traverse these mountain ranges, which have an average height of over 4000 m and span 250-300 km from north to south (depending on the chosen route). In the southeastern Tianshan ranges, people travelled north through the valleys, folds and waterways of Korla and Karashar. These days, these areas are connected to northern Xinjiang by a highway and a railroad.  Meanwhile, the western Tianshan ranges are higher and denser — and therefore more difficult to traverse.

Image 97: The "two basins wedged between three ranges"

Currently, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region's government seat is situated in Urumqi, a city on the northern face of the central Tianshan ranges. However, during the Qing Dynasty, the administrative center of Xinjiang was in Ili, further to the west.


Since its occupation under Emperor Qianlong until the end of the Qing Dynasty, Xinjiang was administered by a military government whose highest authority resided in Ili. This authority was historically known as the Ili General and presided over the entire territory of Xinjiang. The highest-ranking military official of southern Xinjiang was the Great Minister Consultant of Southern Xinjiang, who was either stationed in Kashgar or Uqturpan. For the purpose of important military affairs such as transferring soldiers from one garrison to another, the Xinjiang government needed to find routes from the southern garrisons to Ili through the western reaches of the Tianshan ranges.

Image 98: Longitudinal routes through the western Tianshan ranges

During the Qing Dynasty, there were three commonly used trails through the western Tianshan ranges. The first was an icy ridge linking Ili and Aksu; the second was a road from Ili to Uqturpan; and the third was the "Nalin Trail" from Ili to Kashgar. The first is known today by many as the Xiate Ancient Trail; meanwhile, very few people have heard of the other two trails, as they were situated on the very periphery of Xinjiang and are today considered foreign territory. In the following paragraphs, I will introduce the first and second trails (pictured in Image 98).

These days, we can develop a fairly accurate idea of the aforementioned two trails thanks to the Illustrated Recount of the Expedition along Nalin River from Ili to Kashgar (see Image 99), which dates from the reign of Emperor Guangxu. This map is currently stored in the National Palace Museum in Taipei and was most likely produced by a government official stationed in Xinjiang for the purposes of an official report to the central Qing administration during the reign of Emperor Guangxu. This map is painted in colored inks on paper. Its orientation is the opposite of what most readers are familiar with: south is up, north is down, left is east and right is west. Places along the trails have been attributed yellow labels, while the routes are indicated using broken red lines.

Image 99: The Illustrated Recount of the Expedition along Nalin River from Ili to Kashgar

I will begin by introducing the "Icy Ridge Trail": the only trail across the western Tianshan ranges that still forms part of the Chinese territory. This trail connects Ili and Aksu. In Qing documents, it is often referred to as "Mussur Daban" — mussur being an Uyghur word for "glacier" and daban meaning "ridge" — although this name was also translated into Chinese as "Binglingdao", or "Icy Ridge Trail". The trail from Ili to Aksu at the end of the Qing Dynasty is indicated on the left side of Image 99. We can see that those who took the route traversed these places in the following order: Huining City, Ili; Batuermengke Tai; Hainuke Tai; Suoguoer Tai; Boer Tai; Huonuohai Tai; Tekes Tai; Shatu Tai; Mussur Daban Tai; Zhamu Tai; Aksu. During the Qing Dynasty, tai was a term specific to transportation networks that referred to places where horses could rest — the equivalent of modern-day service areas along expressways.

On Image 99, to the north of Aksu, we can see the label "Mussur Daban" (highlighted in a red box). It is after this extremely precipitous ridge that the entire trail is named. The ridge is covered in snow year-round and is so narrow that not even horses can traverse it — to pass, soldiers had to turn to one side and slowly edge their way across. Despite the danger, the trail was nonetheless frequented used during the Qing Dynasty, as it was the quickest route from Ili to Aksu. Almost all of the rotating garrison soldiers would take this trail when transferring between northern and southern posts.

Image 100: The "Icy Ridge Trail" (today known as the Xiate Ancient Trail)

The "Icy Ridge Trail" is currently better known as the "Xiate Ancient Trail". As the ridge is so dangerous and difficult to traverse, a number of bypasses have been constructed. While this has discouraged most people from attempting to cross the ridge, there have nonetheless been a number of news reports in recent years about explorers falling to their deaths there. In Image 100, you can see just how dangerous it is.

The second route over the western Tianshan ranges is the path from Ili to Uqturpan, indicated on the right side of Image 99. Heading southwest from Ili, the route passes through the karun on Gegen River, as well as the upper reaches of the Harqila and Tekes rivers (highlighted in blue boxes), before arriving on the northern slope of the ranges. From there, soldiers traversed the Gongguluke Ridge (marked in blue text on Image 99) before arriving in Uqturpan.

Image 101: Map of the Qing offensive on the Dzungar people

The path over Gongguluke Ridge was not frequently used in the Qing Dynasty — it was sealed off following the reign of Emperor Daoguang. However, it is nonetheless related to an important historical figure and event.

In the 20th year of Emperor Qianlong's reign (1755), the Qing army travelled west to conquer the Dzungar people. As shown in Image 101, the Qing army entered Xinjiang along two different routes in two separate groups, before joining forces in Bortala and advancing to Ili. From there, they headed up Gedeng Mountain and completely annihilated the Dzungar troops in a single battle.


The last khan of the Dzungar Khanate, Dawachi, fled with over one hundred of his devotees to the south. After crossing the upper reaches of the Tekes River, they passed over the western Tianshan ranges via the Gongguluke Ridge and arrived in Uqturban. As their troops and horses were exhausted, the Qing army didn't follow them over the Gongguluke Ridge to southern Xinjiang. Not long after Dawachi's escape, a Uyghur nobleman of southern Xinjiang tricked him into attending a banquet where Qing soldiers lay in waiting. After dominating Central Asia for centuries and brawling with the Qing emperor for several decades, the khanate of Dzungar was finally destroyed in the battle on Gedeng Mountain. Their defeat marked the end of Mongol nobles and their descendants' five-century-long rule over the Tianshan ranges and their surrounds.

Image 102: The Gongguluke Ridge as depicted in the Illustrated Recount of the Expedition along Nalin River from Ili to Kashgar
After Dawachi was captured, he was escorted back to Ili via the Icy Ridge Trail. From there, he was sent to Beijing. At the Meridian Gate, a traditional ceremony was held whereby prisoners of war — in this case, Dawachi — are presented to the emperor after an important military victory. On the 27th day of the fourth lunar month in the 39th year of Qianlong's reign (1774), the Qing court granted Dawachi amnesty as well as the title Prince of Dzungaria. He was recruited into the Eight Banner army and given land in the capital. He later died of natural causes.

When Dawachi chose to pass over the Gongguluke Ridge, he had just lost tens of thousands of his best troops in battle. Only a few hundred people fled with him, with the enemy army hot on their heels. In such precarious circumstances, where proceeding was just as perilous as retreating, Dawachi probably never suspected that he would spend the rest of his as a prince in Beijing.

On the path from Ili to Uqturpan through the Tianshan mountains, the most critical mountain pass is Gongguluke. Image 102 is a map that the Qing official Shakedulinzhabu drew on the emperor's orders following an expedition to inspect and define the Russian border during the 8th year of Emperor Guangxu's reign (1882). This map depicts the topography to the south of Gongguluke. Shakedulinzhabu thus recalled this perilous expedition: "The stone ridge was extremely precipitous: we had no choice but to abandon our horses and climb it like monkeys. We made our way west with great difficulty, vaulting over five layers of increasingly high rock. Climbing the ridge felt like trying to climb to the heavens. Finally, we arrived at the peak of Gongguluke."

Image 103: Photo of the topography to the north of Uqturpan

In 2015, I visited Uqturpan County to carry out an on-site investigation. As the Gongguluke Ridge is currently situated outside Chinese borders, I was not allowed to visit. Nonetheless, I was able to explore the trail's surroundings. The path I followed twisted and turned down into deep ditches and up precipitous valleys. Mountains towered down on either side, and vegetation was scarce (see Image 103). As I walked, I thought to myself that my surrounds were surely similar to those that can be found at Gongguluke. Long-term city dwellers who brave these ranges will no doubt, like me, be struck by how unfamiliar they have become with the natural world. It is only in the flesh that one can truly understand how desolate it is here: the borderland winds that cut to the bone, the darkness of the clouds, as well as the profound isolation and lack of life. Like a river or a mountain, you can only know what desolation is once you've seen it with your own two eyes.

Who can say how Dawachi's cavalry, Uyghur shepherds and Qing garrison soldiers all felt as they passed through here?

Main references:

Wang Yao: Dawachi's escape southward and the Qing trail from Ili to Uqturpan as seen on ancient maps. Currently unpublished draft.