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Taipei Puts Taiwan on the Map

A compelling place, the capital city thinks big -- in architecture, pan-Asian food and culture.

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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.

To Asia-wise travelers, Taipei is reminiscent of Tokyo. And this is not entirely coincidental. Japan occupied Taiwan not just during World War II, but for the 50 years from 1895 to 1945. That experience has left a clear and enduring cultural imprint.

Taiwan generally, and Taipei especially, has the best Japanese food outside Japan. I dined on impeccably fresh sashimi in my hotel, the Shangri-la Far Eastern Plaza, which has one of the city's best Japanese eateries, Restaurant Suntory.

Taiwan, awash in hot springs, has also embraced a meticulous, Japanese-style onsen bathing culture. Taipei even has a hot springs district, called Beitou, where spa hotels pipe in scalding geothermal water from the mountains. Villa 32, a luxury spa hotel in Beitou, offers Japanese-style lodging, complete with blond tatami floor mats and sliding wooden doors.

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Japanese and Western influences are much in evidence, and Taipei also has a jones for Thai food, but the city is unmistakably Chinese. Even there, eclecticism reigns. Although Taipei is just an hour by air from Hong Kong, where the Cantonese dialect of Chinese predominates, this city and the rest of Taiwan speak Mandarin, the version of Chinese spoken throughout mainland China.

Chinese food, too, is diverse, with virtually every region of China represented in Taipei's restaurants: rice and dim sum from Guangdong, hot and spicy soup from Hunan, hairy crab from Shanghai, noodles, duck and lamb from Beijing and Inner Mongolia. Locals explain this gastronomic bounty by recalling that Chiang Kai-shek brought chefs from all around China with him when he was forced to leave the mainland with his defeated Nationalist army following the Communist Revolution of 1949.

Chiang, who died in 1975, is memorialized in the central city. A massive memorial dominated by a statue of the generalissimo and guarded by stone-faced soldiers looms near the stiffly named National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall. In the museum, hagiography sometimes trumps history. Chiang's medals and swords fill glass cases, and his black Cadillac with mirrored windows is on display. He is pictured in wall-mounted photographs with world leaders: Eisenhower, Churchill, Sun Yat-sen.

I enjoyed a less martial side of Taiwan on the outskirts of town at the National Palace Museum, a recently renovated, sprawling hillside complex that houses treasures of Chinese art and 5,000 years of Chinese history, also brought to Taiwan by Chiang. The museum includes splendid holdings of jade, exquisite ivory carvings as delicate as lace, artful bronzes, landscape paintings, vintage coins and early pictographs that evolved into the characters used in Chinese writing. It is a must-see for anyone interested in Chinese culture.

If you hunger for more than art, the museum's recently opened five-story restaurant Silks Palace serves traditional specialties, among them Yunlin Goose -- boneless goose meat seasoned with honey, salt and onion pepper and steamed with alcohol and chicken broth.

Silks Palace is a place for an elegant repast. But Taipei is also justly famous among Asians for its homey neighborhood restaurants and street food. Locals savor heaping bowls of steaming beef noodles just about anywhere. An easy mix of locals and travelers jam the always-busy Din Tai Fung restaurant and dig into succulent pork and chicken dumplings -- bursting with flavor and delicious juice -- and wash down the food with oolong tea grown in Taiwan at elevations of up to 10,000 feet.

Near Din Tai Fung ,in the traditional neighborhood Wanhua, is an ideal place for dessert: Ice Monster, a no-frills sweet spot favored by locals who go there to snack and cool off in Taiwan's characteristic heat and humidity.

When you finally have had your fill, Taipei serves as the prime jumping-off point for the rest of Taiwan. A smooth freeway system follows the island's west coast to the city of Taichung. Smaller roads lead into the mountainous interior and out to the jagged, rocky east coast before looping back to Taipei.

Also newly available: The $15 billion, north-south Taiwan High Speed Rail line, which opened in 2007. Inspired by Japan's shinkansen bullet trains, it is one of the finest and fastest railroads in the world.