KASHGAR, CHINA — The clock in the lobby of the International Hotel shows it is almost 11 p.m., too late for dinner and bad news for two hungry travelers.
Not to worry. Take an underpass to cross the wide main street of China's westernmost city, turn down a dusty alley of crumbling ocher storefronts that opens up into a lively public square behind a mosque. Families with children are watching television at an open-air restaurant. The scent of cumin wafts from a grill where lamb sizzles on skewers. Next door, a chef makes noodles strung between his hands like a game of cat's cradle.
Over here, it's not quite 9 p.m.
Kashgar, a city of 350,000 built around an oasis along the old Silk Road, has two time zones, two hours apart. How you set your watch depends not only on the neighborhood, but on your profession and ethnicity, religion and loyalty. People living on both sides of the time divide say there is little confusion because they have as little to do with each other as possible.
When communist China was formed in 1949, Mao Tse-tung decreed that everybody should follow a single time zone, no matter that the country is as wide as the continental United States.
But Uighurs, the dominant minority in China's northwestern Xinjiang province, balked at running their lives on Beijing time, which would have them getting up in the pitch dark and going to sleep at sunset.
"It is as ridiculous as having Los Angeles following New York time," said Alim Seytoff, who left Xinjiang in 1996 and is now secretary-general of the Uyghur American Assn. in Washington.
"That is the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government that they try to impose one time zone."
So the Uighurs follow their own unofficial time, which is two hours earlier -- in effect following the dictates of the sun rather than of Beijing, about 2,000 miles away.
The separate time zones are in fact a metaphor for the chasm between the Uighurs and Han Chinese living in uneasy proximity in Xinjiang. Since 1949, the ethnic Chinese have grown from 9% to more than 40% of the province's population, and Uighurs accuse the Chinese government of suppressing their culture and faith.
The Uighurs are a Muslim people who look more European than Chinese and use a Turkic language sprinkled with Arabic.
There is only minimal socializing between Uighurs and Chinese. Uighur men say they don't go out at night with Chinese colleagues because they don't share the habits of drinking and smoking. Intermarriage is rare. Few Chinese in Xinjiang bother to learn the local language and they avoid Uighur neighborhoods. ("Don't go eat over there at night!" a Chinese employee at the hotel warns guests. "It's full of Muslim people.")
Schools, government offices, post offices all use Beijing time. So do the airports and railroad stations. Some bus lines use Xinjiang time and others Beijing time.
Local people have strangely adjusted.
"Confusing? Not confusing at all! You can ask anybody how easy it is to convert between Beijing time and the local time," insisted a Chinese woman working at the Kashgar inter-city bus station, which is running on local time until April 1 and then switching over. "We use Beijing time in every aspect of our lives. It is only our comrades, the ethnic minorities, who use their local time."
Ali Tash, a 28-year-old tour guide, said it's really quite simple. Pointing at empty sofas in a hotel lobby, he explained how he would set up a hypothetical meeting with a Chinese friend and a Uighur friend. "So I say to the Chinese guy, come at 4 o'clock, and to the Uighur guy, come at 2 o'clock, and then everybody will be there the same time. No problem."
Modern time zones dividing the world into 15-degree-wide slices of longitude are a relatively recent invention, designed to stamp uniformity on the globe and make railroad travel more efficient. Until the late 19th century, the standard practice had been for each town to set its clocks to noon when the sun reached its zenith.
China is big enough to span five time zones but is the largest country in the world to insist on a single one. In contrast, Russia has 11.
"The reason goes back to a long Chinese imperial tradition in which the emperor is in control of time because it has a cosmological significance," said James Millward, a Xin- jiang scholar at Georgetown University.
Millward calls the Uighurs' insistence on using their own time a "classic weapon of the weak."
"These are the kind of things that people do in authoritarian societies. Like telling a joke with a twist, it is a way of expressing independence that is subtle enough that you don't get into trouble," Millward said.
Uighurs appear proud of keeping their own time. A Uighur boy of about 8 playfully grabbed the wrist of a foreign visitor in the market to look at her watch. Seeing that it was set to local time, he gave a big grin.
The Chinese government has not always been so tolerant of chronological deviation.