An odd pastime of mine is looking up obscure flights, simply for fun. Lately I’ve spent a bit exploring options in central Asia, as I’d like to visit Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan someday (among lots of other places). This allowed me to stumble upon a perplexing schedule for a China Southern flight.

We really arrive 10 minutes before we left?

The flight that goes backwards in time

The fact that some flights “go backwards” in time isn’t exactly news. Most that cross the international date line from west to east end up arriving at an earlier time than they departed. Sometimes they arrive during the previous day. My Qantas return flight from Brisbane did just that when I visited Australia for a week on the cheap. Check out this Jetstar flight from Sydney to Honolulu as an example:

It leaves at 4:25 p.m. and arrives at 6:00 a.m. the same day. It’s like Groundhog Day. You get to repeat it a second time.

What is odd about the China Eastern flight is that it has a block time of a mere 1:50 and has a scheduled arrival time 10 minutes earlier than departure. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a flight that does this outside of those that cross the date line. I’ve seen super short hops that arrive at basically the same time they left. They are simply in neighboring time zones. But losing time?

Apparently you get to travel 10 minutes backward in time if you fly from Urumqi, China to Almaty, Kazakhstan on this China Southern flight. Urumqi is at GMT+8, while Almaty is at GMT+6. The two cities are barely 500 miles apart. Even crazier is the fact that China at GMT+8 borders central Asia countries that operate at GMT+5. The flight from Urumqi to Tashkent lands exactly when it arrives.

How is that for wonky?

The odd time zones of western China

Western China drew the short straw when it comes to time zones. Actually, they didn’t really get any say in the matter. As a matter of national unification, Mao Zedong changed the country to a single time zone.

This leads to some interesting sights in the western part of the country. In Kashgar, China’s westernmost city of a reasonable size, you may experience sunset a mere hour before midnight. It could be completely disorienting if you aren’t expecting it. Plus, the extreme difference leads to two time systems being used concurrently. Talk about confusing.

Urumqi overwhelmingly uses Beijing standard time, as there are a large number of Han Chinese who have migrated there. Beijing standard time is their system; they wouldn’t conceive of using something else.

But other cities that are predominantly minority Uighur population tend to disregard the time imposed on them by Beijing. Some places will post two schedules, one in Beijing time and the other in local time. In more rural areas, Beijing time isn’t even on the radar.

Imagine for a moment if the U.S. operated the same way. The distance across China is roughly the same as across America. If everywhere had to adopt East Coast time, the sun wouldn’t come up in California until 10:30 in the winter. Sunset would be at midnight in the summer. The reverse would be just as bad. New York would have a 2:30 a.m. sunrise in the summer months. It’d be a mess.


I’ve probably either bored you or intrigued you by my musings on the oddities of time zones and traveling rapidly across them. One thing is for certain, though. Changing multiple zones at a time is always disorienting. We experienced utter exhaustion re-starting a day on our recent trip to Paris (SEE: 3 Days in Pars: Day 1 – Surviving the Jetlag).