Clifford Coonan: Don't ask me, I'm on Xinjiang time

Kashgar Notebook: This is an example of how central rule from Beijing can chafe
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's 7pm and the waiting staff is still eating – an unusual sight in China, where normally restaurants are full at this time. But this restaurant will not get full for another hour at least, because it is in Kashgar in Xinjiang province – as far west as you can go in China.

Here, Muslim Uighurs observe their own clock, shrugging off Beijing Central Time as an imposition, a chronological inconvenience.

In 1949, when the communists seized power, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered that the entire country should follow a single time zone, even though China is as wide as the United States and spans a landmass big enough to include five time zones. For the Uighurs, this is an example of how central rule from Beijing can chafe, forcing them to get up in the pitch dark and go to sleep before the sun has set.

Outside the restaurant, market stallholders slowly shut up shop and contemplate their evening meal. The sun is still high in the sky.

"Imagine if Los Angeles had the same time as New York, it would be crazy, no?" said one street trader.

Kashgar is a key staging-point on the ancient Silk Road between Asia and Europe, 4,000 kilometres from Beijing and a Central Asian hub en route to the high mountain passes leading to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

Uighurs are Caucasian in appearance, and speak a Turkic language. When making arrangements in Kashgar, you have to be very careful, as local Uighurs set their watches two hours behind. There have been periodic efforts over the years by Beijing to enforce central time, but generally the use of local time is tolerated. People stay up late, and get up late. In winter the sun doesn't rise until 10 a.m.

For some, the imposition of Beijing time is emblematic of the way Han Chinese culture has been imposed. Ethnic Chinese made up less than nine per cent of the population at the revolution, but now Uighurs account for only nine million of Xinjiang's population of 19 million. It may be too late for the Uighurs.

From prison to paradise

Uighurs from Xinjiang began an unusual odyssey this week, moving from jail in Guantanamo Bay to the Pacific paradise of Palau.

Is it possible to imagine a greater contrast between the arid desert of Xinjiang and the lush tropical island nation?

They were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan and handed over to the US military, but subsequently declared not to be enemy combatants.

Since then they have been stuck in legal limbo, and Palau accepted the Uighurs as a humanitarian gesture, although Beijing disagrees with the US finding them innocent, and says they are separatist extremists.

The adjustment could prove difficult, though perhaps easier than that faced by five of their fellows accepted by Albania in 2006.