Where is the best place in Beijing to photograph…religion?

CHINA. Beijing. Muslim men worshiping at Niu Jie Mosque during Eid ul-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan. 2005

<<Return to the Learning Zone During our workshops over the past few months, I have often been asked the question “Where is the best place in Beijing to photograph….?” Now, you can insert pretty much anything you like into the last part of that question, as queries have come in to me about a myriad of different things. So, I thought it would be interesting to start a new series of posts that answers some of these questions about where I think are the best places to photograph in Beijing.

I have chosen Beijing for this focus, purely because I have lived in this city for nearly 4 years and like to think I have a good idea where things are and where are the best places for taking pictures. I would like to expand this concept to other cities in China, but I’ll start with my ‘home’ city first.

So, for the first part of these new posts, I answer the question “Where is the best place in Beijing to photograph…religion?”

CHINA. Beijing. A woman selling Muslim clothing in the area 'Niu Jie' during Eid ul-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan. 2005

I decided on this question as the first for this series because it immediately struck me as the one with the most obvious answer… Niu Jie (牛街), or in its literal translation, cow street, is the center of Beijing Muslim community and is one of the most interesting and eclectic areas of the city.

I first discovered this area in the autumn of 2005, on my very first trip to Beijing. I was staying in a hostel in the central hutongs south of Tiananmen Square at the time and found out about this area through a member of staff at the hostel who I had befriended (on a completely different note, always make friends with local hotel staff as they will invariably provide you with interesting tips about places off the beaten tourist path…I digress). My new friend from the hotel told me of this very unique area within walking distance that I should try to visit, if I wanted a different Beijing experience.

With map in hand, I headed out to find this area. Located directly south of ChangChun Jie (长椿街) subway station, ‘cow street’ was very easy to find. As soon as I turned a corner into the street, I was welcomed by an array of vendors selling snacks and treats from the back of their 3-wheeled bicycles slash mobile mini-stores. What struck me first was their appearance in that they were all wearing pleated hats, typical of Muslim men.

CHINA. Beijing. Muslim men at Niu Jie Mosque during Eid ul Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan. 2005

As I walked through the area, I peered into local shops with Arabic writing daubed above the doorways and started to tentatively take pictures. I say tentatively because photographing in areas where religion is very evident, demands a respectful and sensitive approach. You must gauge quickly whether people are happy to have their photograph taken and observe carefully when it is not welcomed. Saying this, I found most people to be more than happy to be photographed as long as I smiled, made eye-contact and approached people in an unthreatening manner.

Luckily when I was there, it was during the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, a festival that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. At this time, hundreds of Muslims celebrating the end of fasting for the month, throng the streets. It made for a wonderful spectacle and experience for me walking and photographing amongst the people in attendance.

CHINA. Beijing. Muslim women at Niu Jie Mosque. 2005

As an added bonus for myself, I was welcomed into Niu Jie Mosque, maybe the most famous of all mosques throughout China, to photograph on that day. How did I manage this? Just by befriending a local who saw my camera and gestured to me  to enter the mosque, an action I would not have taken had I not been invited. Once inside the mosque, I wandered amongst the worshipers as they went about their prayers and celebrations. In this situation you have to keep your presence down to a minimum, as much as possible. You make small movements, you move slowly, all in a way not to disturb at all the people and events that are taking place.

In this post you can see many of the pictures that I took at Niu Jie. It really is a fascinating area in Beijing, which isn’t visited as much as many other spots. If you have time and are looking for a somewhat different side to Beijing, Niu Jie is well worth an afternoon of exploration.

Have you visited Niu Jie? What were your experiences? Are there other areas of interest like this in Beijing?

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  1. On the topic of mosques, there’s a more understated one that’s worth checking out if you’re ever out east of town – called Zhangwan Zhencun 张湾镇村 on the Tongzhou Highway. Quite a poor village but small and nice mosque, and you’ll receive a very friendly welcome. If you’re willing to go further afield there’s a stunning mosque in Botou 泊头 in Southern Hebei – can get photos of that one on Google Images. They claim to be Northern China’s largest mosque.

  2. Niujie Mosque was the first place I visited when I was new to Beijing. The unusual architectural style really stood out against the more traditional mosques we were used to back in Damascus. Amazing! Here are a few of my snaps:

    1) https://www.flickr.com/photos/zara-arshad/3330381908/in/set-72157613068587705/
    2) https://www.flickr.com/photos/zara-arshad/3330382120/in/set-72157613068587705/
    3) https://www.flickr.com/photos/zara-arshad/3329548929/in/set-72157613068587705/

    On an entirely diff note, I’m loving the re-design.

  3. Hey Zara! Thanks for stopping in, my friend. Nice to see you posting here 🙂 Thanks for the links. It’s such a beautiful building.

    Glad you like the re-design too!


  4. There’s an old mosque also up in the center of Changping town. The neighborhood is not nearly as colorful as Wangfujing, but the mosque is built in the same style. I have not been able to confirm, but I found an online travelogue that said Changping Mosque is centuries old. If it is really 700 years old, I have to wonder if the town of Changping was named for the mosque, rather than the other way around.

    To photograph Christians in Beijing, I would recommend the final days of Lent (Holy Thursday, Good Friday) and Easter Vigil Mass. Similar to Ramadan, these come at the end of several weeks of fasting and denial. Beitang, Nantan, and Dongtang would be some of the most recognizable and historical churches. Some of the smaller churches around Beijing might also be interesting. While it might be tempting to check out the Christmas services, they can be madhouse. Apparently Christmas services (and particularly Christmas Eve) are something of a massive spectator sport. There are many curious non-believers that go to the Christian churches on December 24th, and by many I mean hundreds. But then again, that might be something to check out, too.

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