Nestled in the heart of Xi'an, 400-year-old Gao Fu is a good example of the city's old architectural style. Photos by Victor Paul Borg
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".