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Taipei Puts Taiwan on the Map

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Taipei flaunts the tallest building in the world, a 1,670-foot behemoth with eight vertical sections that pierces the sky like a stalk of metallic bamboo; cooks up the best Chinese food in Asia; and hosts the most magnificent museum collection of Chinese art and antiquities in the world. Yet, Taipei, the bustling capital of Taiwan, is virtually off the map for Americans.

It shouldn't be. The metropolis of nearly 3 million is a compelling place, and it is the gateway to Taiwan, a de facto nation of 23 million that mainland China regards as a renegade province. Western executives who parachute in to do deals should stay a while. The island is prosperous, democratic, winningly quirky and surprisingly trendy -- no place more so than Taipei.

Taipei's appeal begins with its rugged physical setting. When viewed from the 91st floor observation deck of Taipei 101, which became the world's tallest building when it opened on New Year's Eve in 2004, Taipei seems swallowed up by the natural landscape. From these heights, the visitor's eye is drawn out past the edge of town to dramatically serrated mountains -- their sharp ridgetops swirled with mist, their slopes cloaked with subtropical greenery -- then drops down to rolling parkland and the river snaking through the craggy natural bowl that envelops the city.

At the base of the building -- 38 seconds away on the world's fastest elevators -- upscale shops such as Mitsukoshi and L'Oreal festoon a five-story shopping mall. Outside, on the street, things are really buzzing. People zip around everywhere on motor scooters. Teenagers with hair streaked in neon colors slurp tapioca "bubble'' milk tea through wide plastic straws -- a fixture in the world's Chinatowns that began in Taiwan. Everyone is chatting, taking photos and text-messaging on handsets; at night, gaggles of young people congregate at meeting places such as the MRT subway's Ximen station, their faces illuminated by glowing mobile phones.
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