The Ili River (Uyghur: ئىلى دەرياسى‎, ULY: Ili deryasi, official: Или дәряси, UYY: Ili dəryasi?; Kazakh: Ile, ئله; Russian: Или; Chinese: 伊犁河; pinyin: Yīlí Hé; Dungan: Йили хә, Xiao'erjing: اِلِ حْ; Mongolian: Ил, literally "Bareness") is a river situated in northwestern China and southeastern Kazakhstan. It flows from the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region to the Almaty Province in Kazakhstan.

It is 1,439 kilometres (894 mi) long, 815 kilometres (506 mi) of which is in Kazakhstan. The river originates from the Tekes and Kunges (or Künes) rivers in Eastern Tian Shan. The Ili River drains the basin between the Tian Shan and the Borohoro Mountains. Flowing into Lake Balkhash, the Ili forms a large delta with vast wetland regions of lakes, marshes and vegetation.[1][2]


Earlier mentions of Ili river can be traced back to the Mahmud al-Kashgari's dictionary of Turkic languages, the Dīwānu l-Luġat al-Turk (written in 1072–74). In the book, the author defines it in the following way: "Ili, the name of a river. Turkic tribes of Yaghma, Tokhsi and Chiglig live on its banks. Turkish countries regard the river as their Jayhoun (Amu Darya)."[3] The name possibly originated from Uyghur word Il, meaning hook, resembling the river's geographical shape.[4]

Chinese region

Qing bases in the Ili region, ca. 1809. Note that the map is upside down, i.e. the north is at the bottom, and the east is on the left

The upper Ili Valley is separated from the Dzungarian Basin in the north (by the Borohoro Mountains), and from the Tarim Basin in the south (by the Tian Shan). This region was the stronghold of the Qing administration in Xinjiang in the late 18th and 19th centuries. It was occupied by Russia from 1871 to 1881 (from the Yaqub Beg rebellion until the Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1881)).

Presently, the region forms part of Xinjiang's Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. The main city of the region, Yining (Kulja), is located on the northern side of the river (about 100 kilometres (62 mi) upstream from the international border). Until the early 1900s, the city was commonly known under the same name as the river, 伊犁 (Pinyin: Yīlí; Wade-Giles: Ili). Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County in located on the southern side, which is home to many of the China's Xibe people (who resettled there in the 18th century as part of the Manchu Garrison).

There are at least two dams on the Ili's tributary: the Kash River (喀什河) in Nilka County, at 43°51′40″N 82°50′52″E / 43.86111°N 82.84778°E / 43.86111; 82.84778 and 43°51′14″N 82°48′08″E / 43.85389°N 82.80222°E / 43.85389; 82.80222. At least two dams have been constructed on the Ili's left tributary, the Tekes River, and the Qiapuqihai Hydropower Station (恰甫其海水电站) in Tokkuztara County (43°18′14″N 82°29′05″E / 43.30389°N 82.48472°E / 43.30389; 82.48472). There is also another smaller dam at 43°23′41″N 82°29′20″E / 43.39472°N 82.48889°E / 43.39472; 82.48889, on the border of Tokkuztara and Künes Counties.

Kazakh region

On the Kapchagay Reservoir

The region of Kazakhstan partially drained by the Ili and its tributaries is known in Kazakh as Zhetysu ('Seven Rivers'). In Russian it is known as Semirechye (meaning the same).

The Kapshagay Hydroelectric Power Plant was constructed between 1965 and 1970[5] near Kapchagay in the middle reaches of the Ili River. This currently comprises the Kapchagay Reservoir, an artificial 110 kilometres (68 mi) long lake north of Almaty.

The Tamgaly-Tas, a protected site that comprises rock drawings, is located 20 kilometres (12 mi) downstream along the Ili River. The name Tamgaly in Kazakh means "painted" or "marked place" (Tas means "stone").

Ili Delta

Balkhash lake with Ili delta

The Ili River flows into the southeastern edge of Lake Balkhash, where it forms a large delta of about 8,000 square kilometres (3,100 sq mi). The delta is situated between the Saryesik-Atyrau Desert and the Taukum Desert. An area of 9,766 km2 (3,771 sq mi) within the delta has been designated as a Ramsar Site. This site has 427 species of plants and 345 species of animals, including important populations of rare species (Dalmatian pelican, goitered gazelle, marbeled polecat, white-headed duck, red-breasted goose, ship sturgeon, and others).

The delta has also become known for its Wels catfish, which can grow up to 300 lb (140 kg). The Government of Kazakhstan plans to join the three sanctuaries Balkash, Karoy and Kukan (situated in the delta) into one National Park.[6] Until 1948, the delta was a refuge of the extinct Caspian tiger. An introduction of the Siberian tiger to the delta has been proposed on account that it is a genetically close relative of the Caspian tiger. A large population of wild boar, the main prey base of the Caspian tiger, can be still found in the delta. There is also a small population of roe deer. In the drier steppes to the south of the delta live saiga antelopes and goitered gazelles.

Reintroduction of the Bactrian deer, another prey f the Caspian tiger, is currently under consideration. Another potential prey species considered to be reintroduced is the Asiatic wild ass.[7]

Historical connections

The Ili River treaty of 638 AD formalized the division of the Western Turkic Kaganate (552–638 AD) into the Nushibi and the Dulu. It also established the Ili River as the border between the two states.[8] In the 21st century, increasing need for water in both China and Kazakhstan makes the management of the cross-border Ili River a topic of concern for environmentalists and politicians in Kazakhstan (who feel that their country may not get enough water flowing in from China any more).[9]




  1. ^ Ili River
  2. ^ Ili river Kazakhstan
  3. ^ Mahmud Kashgari, Dīwānu l-Luġat al-Turk (En: Compendium of the languages of the Turks). Vol I, p124. 1072–1074
  4. ^ Adil Arup, Ili atalghusi heqqide (Etymology of Ili), Journal of Ili Darya, in Uyghur, 2007
  5. ^ Kezer K, Matsuyama H 2006:Decrease of river runoff in the Lake Balkhash basin in Central Asia. Hydrological Processes Vol. 20 Is. 6 Pp 1407–1423
  6. ^ Masha Vinokurova (Press officer), Olga Pereladova (Head of the WWF Central Asia Programme): Kazakhstan names large inland delta, WWF Information February, 2012
  7. ^ Hartmut Jungius (2010). Feasibility Study on the Possible Restoration of the Caspian Tiger in Central Asia. WWF
  8. ^ Zuev Yu.L., The strongest tribe, Almaty, 2004, pp. 55–6,
  9. ^ Stone, Richard (2012-07-27), "For China and Kazakhstan, No Meeting of the Minds on Water" (PDF), Science, 337: 405–407 [permanent dead link]

Coordinates: 45°24′N 74°08′E / 45.400°N 74.133°E / 45.400; 74.133