When you’re traveling, getting the time right can be crucial. Unfortunately, time-keeping is one of the trickier aspects of traveling, as thousands of people discover each year when they miss their flights, schedule appointments on the wrong day or inadvertently call a client in the middle of the night.
When trying to figure out the time in say London or Singapore, the first thing most people take into account is the time zone. Theoretically, the world is sliced into 24 neat wedges, each of which is an hour’s difference from each other. By convention, the times in each wedge, or time zone, is offset from the time on the main clock in Greenwich, which gives the Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT. So theoretically, every city in every time zone running to the east of Greenwich should be GMT + 1, GMT + 2, etc, while all those to the west are GMT – 1, GMT – 2 and so on. Sounds simple enough? Read on.
Confusing Time Zones Around the World
Keeping track of the time zones may seem relatively easy, especially if you have a good map, but the tricky bit comes when crossing state and/or country borders, because due to local political and geographical practicalities, most countries have their own peculiarities. For example, Russia, being such a vast country, covers all of 11 time zones, while China, which is even more vast, uses just 1 time zone (UTC + 8). Though it makes it easier for visitors to China to adjust, it does mean that in parts of the country, you can get sunrise at 9am and sunset at 10pm.
Then there’s the Malaysia – Thailand border, where countless travellers have found out with dismay that the two countries, though neighbors, do not share the same time zone. Malaysia is one hour ahead of Thailand, thanks to a political decision made in the 1960s so that Peninsular Malaysia would share the same time zone as the two Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, which are located on Borneo further to the east. Incidentally, this is why Singapore shares the same time zone as Malaysia; as until 1965, the island was a part of the Federation of Malaya, and after their secession, the Singaporeans chose to keep the same time zone.
Russia is a particularly good example of how political decisions affect time-keeping, as in 1930, in accordance with a Soviet directive, the clocks in Moscow were put ahead by one hour, creating Moscow Time, which is 3 hours ahead of Greenwich Meridian Time. Every other major city in Russia sets its clock to take Moscow Time into account, so that today the local time in each city can be anywhere from ahead to behind its GMT by anywhere from half an hour to one hour – except in the former Soviet Republics Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Another deviation from the neat, 24-time zone model is the half-hour time zone, which is best illustrated by Australia, where travellers moving east to west or vice versa have to take into account both the normal hourly Eastern and Western time zones and the Central half-hour zones. Australia isn’t the only place where half-hour time zones occur however; Newfoundland in the United States is the other famous example. Iran, Afghanistan, India and Myanmar also have areas where this is, officially, in effect (of course, in these countries, the local concept of time is much more flexible, so a half-hour difference give or take has far less impact than it would in the States or Australia). Most unusual of all is Nepal, which offsets its clocks not by a neat hour, or half hour – but by 15 minutes (GMT + 5:45).
Dealing With Daylight Saving Time
Another issue to take into account when figuring out the time is Daylight Saving Time (DST), a time-adjustment method that is used in many locations around the world. In countries where DST is in effect, clocks are put forward one hour in spring at the end of March, and one hour back in autumn at the end of October (hence the phrase, ‘spring forward, fall back’), theoretically to take greater advantage of available natural light during the summer months. Unfortunately, the real-life situation isn’t as simple.
Though most major industrialized country (in a temperate region) will observe DST, Japan is famous for refusing to do so. Countries in the tropical regions almost never bother to, since they have more than enough sunlight already. In countries that do observe DST, not every state within it will do so; for example, in the United States, Hawaii doesn’t follow DST because it is tropical, but neither does Arizona and parts of Indiana. In Canada, most of Saskatchewan famously refused to follow DST, while many of its other cities have to deal with a tricky combination DST with Mountain Time, Central Time and Eastern or Western Time. The time-keeping problem also gets complicated when a state decides that it doesn’t want to follow DST anymore, or vice-versa; the most famous example is Arizona, which decided to get rid of DST in 1995 – except for its Navajo Indian Reservation, which still follows DST.
And to add the finishing touch, not all countries go on DST at the same time. For example, British DST begins on the last Sunday of March and ends on the last Sunday of October, while American DST starts on the first Sunday of April and the last Sunday of October; so traveling from the US to Britain in the last week of October can be a disorienting experience if you’re not prepared for it.
Keeping Track of the Workweek
Not only do some places keep different times, they also keep different days as well, or more specifically, different work days. Though most of the Western world considers Sunday to be the day of rest, in other places, the rest day falls on Friday, while in others it takes place on Saturday. The differing idea of when the rest day falls all depends on the religion practiced by the locals.
In many (but not all) Muslim majority countries, the holiest day is Friday, so the weekend takes place of Thursday and Friday, and the workweek begins on Sunday. This is the case throughout most of Arabia and in the state of Kelantan in Malaysia. In Israel, the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday and for the Israelis, the weekend is from Friday to Saturday, with the workweek starting on Sunday.
Though some companies in both regions will operate according to the Sunday-rest day model, most notably the multinationals, many of the smaller local companies follow the local rest-day traditions, and as many busy executives have discovered to their chagrin, it doesn’t pay to try and do business on the wrong day.
Keeping Track of the Year
If dealing with time isn’t enough trouble, you may also have to take the year into account as well. Don’t look now, but depending on which part of the world you’re in, this might not be 2006. If you’re in certain parts of the Middle East or Africa for example, this is the year Hegira 1427, while in China you would consider it the Year of the Dog. The reason for all the confusion is because there’s at least three major calendars being used around the world today; and if you’ve noticed that much the hullabaloo has to do with religion (or culture, in China’s case), then you’d be right.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII revised the old Roman, or Julian, calendar that was in use then, so that it followed a solar year of 365.2422 days per year. Since most of the western world at the time was Catholic-dominated, the Gregorian calendar, as it was called, came to be the predominant method of time-keeping in most – but not all – of the West. Many Orthodox countries however refused to change to the new calendar, and for a long time kept to the Julian calendar. Many of these countries only agreed to change to the Gregorian calendar in the last century, and even today, many countries, such as Greece and Ukraine, still use the older calendar to keep track of their traditional events.
Though the Gregorian calendar follows the solar year, another equally ancient and established form of time-keeping is the lunar calendar, and outside of Europe and the Americas, it is still widely used, either as a standalone calendar or in conjunction with the Gregorian calendar. Many of the more developed countries in Asia, such as China, Korea and Thailand, follows the joint-calendar method, with the Gregorian used for purely business and civil administration purposes, while timing the many traditional holidays using the lunar calendar. This is why the dates for the major events, such as Ramadhan and the Harvest Festival, are always changing. It’s worth noting however that even if the official policy of the country is to use the Gregorian calendar, oftentimes the further away you go from the cities and more developed areas, the more likely you are to find the locals using the traditional methods of time keeping.
If you’re in the Middle East however, be prepared to completely give up the Gregorian calendar, as many of the Arabian countries use only the lunar Islamic calendar, which takes its starting point from the month the Prophet Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina. In the more cosmopolitan areas such as Dubai, visitors can see calendars dated as well as 2006, but the further away from the cities, the less likely this becomes. Incidentally, since the lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year, Islamic festivals will usually shift about 11 days earlier in each successive solar year.
And all of the above are just a few of the better known examples of exceptions and anomalies when it comes to figuring out the time in another part of the world. So, the next time you make an appointment in the Ukraine, or decide to go on a holiday in Vietnam, do triple-check the dates to make sure you don’t make a costly, or embarrassing, mistake!