Among the most important dates on the Muslim calendar is Ramadan – a month-long observance during which devout Muslims fast from morning till nightfall, a practice accompanied by increased prayer and charity. While it may sound like one of the world's less fun holidays, Ramadan's daytime asceticism is balanced by feasting at night and increased fellowship throughout the month, culminating in Eid al-Fitr (Kaizhai Jie, 开斋节), a day-long blowout celebrating the end of the fast.
The best place in Beijing to take in Ramadan's festive spirit is Niujie, or "Ox Street", a neighbourhood southwest of Xuanwumen that has long been home to the city's largest population of the Hui ethnic minority, who are traditionally Muslim. The place is full of historical sites and street vendors selling original Muslim food.
Niujie Mosque, the oldest and largest mosque in Beijing, was first constructed during the Liao dynasty (996AD) for the area's growing Muslim community, of which a large proportion still resides locally. Featuring traditional Beijing-style architecture, the mosque is fully functional, and stands as a lonely reminder of the old hutongs that once filled the area, now replaced by monolithic apartment blocks.
The centrepiece of the mosque is its splendid Worship Hall, found at one end of the main courtyard, which is laid out in the traditional siheyuan style typical of temples. Notice the Islamic inscription and motifs on the double pavilion towers as well as the minaret, from which imams would traditionally call for prayer (today, the imam calls from in front of the hall).
In the corner of the courtyard sits a more-than 300-year-old black copper cauldron that was once used to cook congee for worshippers on the last day of Ramadan, but now serves mostly as a rain catcher.
While non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the grand prayer hall, visitors can still stick their heads in to marvel at its interior, which is covered with an impressive fusion of traditional Chinese and Islamic designs. Feast your eyes on the red columns, which are decorated ornately with gold Arabic inscriptions and motifs, and stretch to the far end of the hall. The main worship hall is restricted to men only, though women have a separate (albeit much smaller) prayer hall on the northeastern wing of the complex.
The mosque also doubles as a school of Islamic philosophy, scripture and language, as evidenced by the classroom featuring an old-school blackboard located in the west courtyard.
On the way there, you'll come across the imam's tombs, where original tombstones for foreign religious leaders are displayed behind glass (in front of which are more modern versions).
For most of the day, the mosque offers a quiet sanctuary from the bustle of street life, but the place comes to life with worshippers at prayer times, particularly during the lunchtime call to prayer beginning at 1.30pm. During Ramadan, the mosque is packed out with worshippers who come to pray and break their fast with post-worship snacks. Come around 7pm during the festive month and you'll witness religious orthodoxy collide with ravenous feasting. If you're lucky, you might even be offered a treat by some friendly worshippers.