Rise at 11? China’s Single Time Zone Means Keeping Odd Hours


Some days, the sun doesn’t come up until 10 a.m. or later. People eat lunch after 2 p.m., or even after 4 if they’re not in a rush. The school day stretches so late that children can’t get home in time to catch their favorite cartoon shows.

Why are the clocks in Urumqi, China, so far out of kilter with the cycles of the sun? Because of a legacy of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party’s desire for unified control. Though China is almost as wide as the continental United States, the whole country is officially in just one time zone — Beijing time.

So when it’s 7 a.m. in the Forbidden City, it’s also officially 7 a.m. 2,000 miles to the west in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region — even if the stars are still out there.

That can lead to headaches — and lost sleep. “It’s hard to adjust,” says Gao Li, a sanitation worker in Urumqi. “I often think we must be the only people who eat dinner at midnight.”

So schools, airports and train stations operate at odd hours; national exams are sometimes given in the dead of night; and restaurants stay open for dinner into the wee hours.

The eccentricities of the clock also tend to divide people in Xinjiang by ethnicity. The Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims who consider the region their homeland, tend to set their clocks two hours earlier, to more closely match the local day. But the Han Chinese who live there, members of China’s predominant ethnic group, generally follow Beijing time. The discrepancies can be a source of confusion and frustration, especially for younger people who frequently socialize across ethnic lines.

Jin Xiaolong, 28, who teaches parkour, a French athletic discipline, says scheduling classes with his Uighur friends in Urumqi can be a challenge.

“I used to arrive early, all alone,” he said. “I’d go to a restaurant to eat, wait some more, and eventually grow impatient and start practice by myself.”

Now, he makes a point of clarifying to his friends: He only deals in Beijing time.

Follow Javier C. Hernández on Twitter @HernandezJavier.


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