My taxi driver — a 20-something young man of Uyghur descent — swiveled his head and looked at me, confused. “Where did you say?”
“To Tughluq Timur’s mazar,” I repeated. “The mausoleum of the old Mongol ruler.” The driver continued to look at me in bewilderment.
Huocheng, a county located in the northwestern part of northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is known for a number of mausoleums commemorating the descendants of Islamic saints and religious leaders. Most mazar were built during the Yuan Dynasty — a time when China was under the rule of Mongol khans. Although many khans were not Muslims, a number of them did convert to the religion later in the dynasty.
The mazar I was planning to visit belonged to Tughlugh Timur Khan, the 14th-century ruler of the state of Eastern Chagatai, whose lands stretched from modern-day Xinjiang in the east to the Aral Sea in the west. After becoming khan in around 1346, Tughlugh converted to Islam in 1354, and later spearheaded the conversion of his people to the religion.
I showed the driver a map on my phone. “There?” he said. “There’s nothing up there other than an apple orchard.”
“Maybe that’s it!” I said. I knew that an ancient city called Almaliq, located where the mazar is supposed to be on the outskirts of today’s Huocheng, was once known for its apples. In 1220, the Taoist monk Qiu Chuji wrote about Almaliq on his way to meet Genghis Khan in the Central Asian city of Samarkand. Qiu claimed that Almaliq was named after the local Turkic word for “apple,” alma, and that the feted fruit grew well in the local area.
We turned off the highway into an inconspicuous road through an apple orchard. At the end of the track sat a squat-looking mazar; its front gate was locked, and only when I called the phone number written on a nearby notice did a local woman show up, hand me a jumble of keys, and leave me to explore the mausoleum by myself.
Tughluq’s mazar is relatively well preserved, although the pounded-earth structure now peeks through a few cracks in its whitewashed walls. The mazar is typical of much Central Asian architecture, with an arched door decorated with green, white, and brown mosaics, as well as glazed tiles bearing inscriptions in classical Arabic. Inside, the room tapers into an arched ceiling. In the center stands Tughlugh’s tomb, on top of which unknown visitors had placed lengths of new silk and cotton, as well as crushed stones and beads. A few long-extinguished sticks of incense had also been placed to one side.
After visiting Tughluq’s mazar, I traveled on to Huiyuan, an ancient city that lies no more than 20 minutes by car from the mazar, but spans several centuries in time. Huiyuan was home not to the Mongols, but to the Manchus, an ethnic group originating in northeastern China who overthrew the Ming Dynasty in the mid-17th century and established the Qing Dynasty thereafter.
Although the Ming had deposed the Yuan rulers of China in the mid-1300s, the empire never ousted East Chagatai. The latter state finally collapsed in the late 17th century, after which the Qing expanded into present-day Xinjiang, ordering the construction of new cities and garrisons and assigning trusted generals to maintain order in Ili, the county that continues to administer Huiyuan.
Today, Huiyuan is a seldom-visited tourist town. In the historic city center stands a recently rebuilt bell tower, which is near a number of restaurants and a line of taxis. The old garrison walls have been preserved, but now house a modern exhibition hall that displays relics from the late Qing Dynasty and onward.
In 1912, in the aftermath of the Xinhai Revolution that brought down the Qing, a Nationalist-affiliated army in Ili launched a revolt in Xinjiang and executed the last general, Zhi Rui. In the ensuing years, the area lost much of its military and cultural importance, and gradually became a Central Asian backwater.
All of these details have been worn smooth by the winds of time. Today, a region that played a significant role in the rise and fall of the great Mongol and Manchu empires is home to a variety of ethnic minority peoples, including the Uyghurs, Han, Kazaks, and Hui. Only a smattering of tourists and historians remind people of Tughlugh’s mazar or the bell tower where Ili’s last general was murdered.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A view of Tughluq Timur’s mazar in Huocheng County, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Sept. 11, 2017. Courtesy of Ma Te)