I walked down the brashly commercial "Muslim Street" in Xi'an's town center, a gauntlet of souvenir shops, dull restaurants, neon lights and voracious touts. Then I ducked into an open red door and found myself in a different world.
The cacophonies of commerce were gone, the tranquility had a solemn quality, delicate music from a zither wafted throughout and old buildings basked in the dim light.
It was the Gao Fu, the contemplative and quietest place in the city, and sophisticated specimen of Xi'an's new wave of tourist sights that are being nurtured under the auspices of the local government's Royal City Restoration Plan.
The estate was originally built 400 years ago by Gao Yuesong, a man who in his short life - he died at 31 - rose to prominence in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as an artist and thinker. Then it continued to grow under seven generations of Gao's descendents, who carried the same mantle of intellectual eminence and who continued the family tradition of hosting thinkers as advisors and artists-in-arms.
Now the 86-room Gao Fu belongs to Yang Shuanglin, a wealthy philanthropist who worked with the Sino Norway Historical Districts Protection Program to restore the house and open it as a historic building, no matter the cost.
"I don't want to turn the house into a restaurant or a hotel and I don't measure success by numbers of tourists," Yang told me in his studio, the room where he spent most of his time painting traditional Chinese landscapes. "Commercialization has destroyed too many historic buildings and I want to protect this treasure as it was. It's running at a loss but that's fine with me."
The house is a rare example of Xi'an's old architectural style of designing expansive estates - or "yards" in the traditional architectural lexicon - around four courtyards. Yet Yang was speaking of a quality that transcends the sum of architectural wealth. It's like an aura, and it is engendered by the two facets of the estate "as it was".
On the one hand the household was disciplined, with each room assigned a strict role - rooms have titles such as men's reception, women's reception, girls' room, boys' room and "introspection room", where unruly boys were punished.
On the other hand a sweeping fantasy is conjured by the finesse of the traditional architecture, the elegant stone carvings and the flow of the inter-connecting courtyards.
These two juxtapositions are a mirror of the creative process, the way the fantasy of the creator is channeled by the discipline employed during the rendition. This experience enriches visitors and perhaps fostered the former occupants' intellectual incandescence, an experience that would be lost in the distractions of a commercial establishment.
Only traditional arts find a home in Gao Fu. Yang is vice president of Xi'an's Traditional Painting Institute and one room in the house displays paintings by its members. These add another layer to the artistic riches, complementing the old furniture that is modest and elegant (the furniture was sourced from private collections after the original furniture was destroyed in the "cultural revolution").
Yang paints traditional landscapes, mostly done in charcoal-color ink, depicting mountains, gushing waterfalls, flocks of birds, the odd peasantry farmhouse, bamboo and anthropomorphic trees - paintings that are claustrophobic but simultaneously heavenly and exquisite.
"I have been painting since I was 12 and it's my only passion," Yang said. "Each time I complete a painting, which takes 8 hours, I feel a pride akin to protecting my homeland, like a soldier stationed at a remote frontier."
The house also has a theater and I paid a mere 5 yuan to watch a shadow puppet show. It dramatized a peasant love scene and the excellent execution - the timbre of the high-pitched oration, the thumping and flighty music of the drum and the erhu (the two-stringed violin-like traditional instrument), and the vivacious movements of the puppets - left me feeling the emotional force of unconsummated love.
Afterwards I sat in the courtyard sipping tea (served at a tiny teahouse), and in the quiet house, with the music from the zither fluttering around my ears like butterflies, I felt my mind still and lost in thought. By the time I left the house I felt comprehensively refreshed.