Time for confusion

By Andrew Matheson

We gather in the hotel lobby to head off on another day’s exploration in Xinjiang, in the far west of China.  It’s 9 am, and the sun has only just peeped over the horizon.  But it’s summer.  What’s going on?  Time zone confusion, that’s what.

After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 the whole country was placed in one time zone.  Where once there were five different clock settings across the vast nation, now everyone danced to Beijing time.  Administratively simple, but not convenient for those out in the far west.

But life continued pretty much as normal in the far western province of Xinjiang.  Offices still opened at, say, 9 o’clock in the morning — but this felt like 7 o’clock.  Just to confuse things even more, there is an informal Xinjiang time that’s two hours behind Beijing time, which is used locally but doesn’t officially exist.  There are political undertones to this.  I asked a member of the local Uighur community whether he had to specify which time was being used, every time an appointment was made.  No, he said.  “If the village committee schedules a meeting for 4 pm, it’s Beijing time, as they’re from the government.  If a friend asks me to come round at 4 pm, I don’t have to ask; it’s local time”.

Without delving into local politics, it’s worth clarifying which time zone someone is using when setting up an appointment.  Otherwise you could be two hours early, or two hours late, depending on who’s talking with whom.  On our tour we’ve stuck to Beijing time for simplicity, though I have had to check at every point what time we’re talking about.  And many tour members have had their phones reset to Xinjiang time, which doesn’t officially exist.  Apple versus the government of the People’s Republic of China.