The town of Zharkent, the capital of an agricultural district focused on the production of corn, is the last major Kazakhstani settlement before the Khorgos border crossing with China. Established in 1882 close to the Russian Empires border with China, on an ancient trading route, it was renamed Panfilov in 1942 in honour of Major General Ivan Panfilov, the commander of the 316th Rifle Division and a hero of the defence of Moscow. It is laid out in a grid pattern, with the main thoroughfare, Zhibek Zholy Street, a line of trees and flowers decorating its central reservation, bisecting the town from west to east.
Zharkent is heavily populated by Uygurs. In the 1880s, 45,000 Uygurs and 5,000 Djungans moved from western China into Zhetisu, an emigration caused 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, and the resident Islam-oriented population was allowed to choose where to live. Russia withdrew its troops from the upper Ili Valley and stationed them in Zharkent, founded for this purpose, 20 kilometres from the new border. Within a year, Zharkent was granted town status. Its location in the fertile Ili Plain and its strategic position favoured the development of beer and tobacco production, handicrafts and trade.
Zharkent lies on the northern edge of the Ili Plain in an area awash with change. Southeast of the town lies the Karakum Desert, a little sister of it's namesake in Turkmenistan, (they have in common 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. Adventurers will find beautiful places to roam in the valleys of the rivers Usek, Burchan, Tishkan and Chizin.
The town of Zharkent only has one sight of note but it is a striking one, a Tsarist-era mosque whose design is an exuberant medley of central Asian, Russian and, especially, Chinese influences. In 1887, the leaders of the Muslim community of the young town decided to raise the funds to construct a mosque. The main sponsor and chief organiser of the project was a merchant named Valiakhun Yuldashev. He engaged a Chinese chief architect named Hon Pik. A popular local tale runs that Hon Pik had produced a dazzling building in China. The jealous patrons of that structure resolved on its completion to have him executed, so that he would be unable to repeat his triumph. Hon Pik learnt about their plan and fled, a commission from distant Zharkent coming as the ideal answer to his problems. Zharkent folk will tell you that the glorious structure that he built in China has not survived, and thus that their mosque has no equal. The mosque was completed in 1892. It survived a major earthquake, as well as neglect in the early Soviet period, when it was used as a store. It was restored in the 1970s and turned the Zharkent Mosque into Architectural and Historical Museum, thus the Soviet authorities chose to highlight its architectural worth rather than religious function. It remains officially a museum to this day.
With its floating roof, the Zharkent Mosque looks more like a pagoda; it combines elements of Chinese and Central Asian architecture in an almost gay manner. The place of worship, with space for 1,000, the surrounding buildings of the small mosque, the Koran school and the main portal, were made without the benefit of nails, from Tien Shan spruce from the Ketman Mountains.
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.
The main mosque building across the courtyard clearly shows off its Chinese influences. It is surrounded by a line of red-painted wooden columns which support the protruding green roof, turned up at the corners. The beams running beneath the roof are brightly decorated with floral patterns. The wooden interior, spacious enough to hold 1,000 worshippers, is equally impressive. 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.