350 km from Almaty and only 100 km from Gulja in China located the town Zharkent, know as the “gate to the east” with the main automobile entrance to China. Zharkent is the nearest big town located right next to the Khorgos border. The population of Zharkent is around 33 500 people with the primary Uygur ethnicity. Due to its location, you can feel Chinese influence around the town.
Zharkent lies on the northern border of the Ili Palin in an area rife with change. Southeast of the town lies the Karakum Desert, which is known as a little sister of its namesake in Turkmenistan. These two deserts have shared the almost black sand for which they are named. In the south, the Ili River forms a marshy landscape, while in the north rise the 4,000-metre plus heights of the Toksanbay mountain range. Perfect place to roam for adventures, there are valleys like Usek, Burchan, Tishkan and Chizin. Zharkent’s central street is called Zhibek Zholy means the Silk Road.
Zharkent was established in 1881 (or 1882) at the Russian Empire’s that time in the border with China, on an ancient trading route. Zharkent was primarily the refugee’s settlement from Gulja who founded it in 1881, mainly were Uighurs and Dungans, Muslim farmers of East Turkestan.
In 1943 the town was renamed Panfilov in honor of Major General Ivan Panfilov. Panfilov was the commander of the 316th Rifle Division and a hero of the defense of Moscow. The city lay in the main thoroughfare, Zhibek Zholy Street, dividing the town from west to east.
In the 1880s, 45,000 Uygurs and 5,000 Djungans moved from western China into Zhetysu. The emigration was operated by the Russo-Chinese St Petersburg Treaty of 1881. According to the treaty, the territory of Kuldzha (Kulja or Gulja) in the eastern Ili Valley. An area settled by Uygurs at that time was returned to China. Hence the resident Islam-oriented population was allowed to choose where to live. Russia took its troops from the upper Ili Valley and stationed them in Zharkent. That’s how the Zherysu was founded 30 kilometers from the new border. Within a year, Zharkent grew into the town status.
Although Zharkent doesn’t have any sights, Tsarist-era mosque here is remarkable with elements of Chinese and Central Asian architecture. The mosque is circled by a line of red pained wooden columns which support the protruding green roof, turned up at the corners.
The wooden interior, spacious enough to hold 1,000 worshippers with the wooden columns support a decorated, latticed balcony. The minbar at the far end of the room has a strongly Chinese feel, and is surrounded by Chinese-style lanterns. The mihrab behind it, a scalloped niche with a door in the back, in contrast draws more heavily from central Asiatic traditions. The walls surrounding it are decorated with beautiful geometrical and floral designs. Beams on the wooden ceiling above are striped, like the skin of a tiger. The building was constructed without the use of nails.
In 1887, the leaders of the Muslim community of the young town decided to raise the funds to construct a mosque. The mosque was completed in 1892. It survived a major earthquake, as well as neglect in the early Soviet period it was used as a store. The mosque was restored in the 1970s and turned the Zharkent Mosque than into Architectural and Historical Museum. Today it remains officially a museum.
The mosque is entered through a powerful arched gate in the central Asian style. It is painted white, and attractively decorated with engraved half-columns, Arabic- language inscriptions and floral designs. On your right as you pass through the gate is a portrait of Yuldashev, swathed in furs and sporting his medals. On reaching the courtyard beyond, look back at the gate through which you have just passed to get an excellent impression of the mix of architectural styles used in the construction of the complex. The gate is topped by a minaret in the form of a delightful two-storied pagoda. On either side are brick cupolas of a more central Asian inspiration. The windows below have a Russian feel.