Fifteen years ago we had a real Spider-Man climb up here," says Jefferson as we stand atop the 508-metre high Taipei 101, one of the world's tallest buildings. Well, that's what it was until Dubai's Burj Khalifa staked out a claim. "No kidding! The French Spidey shocked us all by climbing up without any ropes or harness," emphasises our guide.
Although Alain Robert had made headlines for scaling many of the world's skyscrapers without support - much like the fictional superhero - this bit of news still comes as a bit of a surprise, shock rather, given the fact that even climbing the 2,046 steps to get to the top of 101 is no mean feat. Of course, we had preferred the elevator that whooshed up at an unbelievable speed of 55.2 feet per second. Even at that vertiginous height it's difficult not to be charmed by the glitzy skyscraper whose design is inspired by something as simplistic as bamboo boxes stacked one on top of the other. "It's also meant to symbolise prosperity and good fortune." Jeff (we happily shorten his name) lets us know that the circleshaped floor we are at represents ancient money and 101's division into eight sections is so because this number is an auspicious one in Chinese culture.
Everything about Taipei 101 inspires awe -from the largest and heaviest damper in the world that keeps its balance intact especially during high-speed winds and earthquakes, to the stunning exhibition gallery that houses natural corals in muted pinks, burnished oranges and emerald green.
A little later, we walk into the iconic eatery, Din Tai Fung 101, renowned for its soup dumplings. And it has an interesting story to boot - about its founder, Yang Bing-yi, who gave up his oil business in 1972 to start selling xiaolongbao (another name for steamed dumplings), that became such a rage that Bing-yi, now 93, has over 159 branches across the world.
It's a treat looking into behind-the-glass open kitchen where cooks in white-hued attire complete with headgear and masks (looking more like medical researchers) prepare varieties of dumplings. Each one is meticulously handcrafted and then given the avatar the guests have ordered for.
Offering a taste of history is the most prominent landmark of Taiwan - the CKS Memorial Hall dedicated to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. The octagonalshaped building that stands at the far end of the largest open ground in Taipei, houses a large bronze statue of the former president of the Republic of China. But what attracts most tourists here is the impressive change of guard ceremony that takes place every hour between 10am and 4pm. In the vast open grounds, people walk around enjoying the clean Taipei air and youngsters play instruments and practice drills.
We are soon on our way to taste some tea with an India connect. "The Assamica tea bushes here are believed to have first come from India," says Jason who we meet at the Wang Tea house in Dadao Cheng's Old Tea zone. "The climatic conditions and soil here have given them a different - probably a more delicate and elegant flavour," he adds.
Belonging to a family that set up the tea business in 1890, Jason not just takes us on a fascinating tour unveiling the different processes of manufacturing tea but also answers all our queries about the best way to brew tea and the varieties available. While the Oolong tea comes from China and the black variety from Assam, it is the family's secret recipe of roasting and blending them that gives their tea its special flavour.
A leisurely walk past traditional red-brick homes towards the Dinhua Street offers a vibrant Chinatown experience. As I stand admiring the stunning Xiahai City God Temple with devotees lighting incense sticks, a youngster smiles, "This is our Matchmaker'sTemple. We come here to find and pray for everlasting love."
Treating myself to a peanut roll with ice cream, I wander around fascinated by ceramic plates being sold on the pavement to shops offering herbs, medicinal tea, ginseng and even bird's nest and dried mushrooms "used not just for cooking but also medicinal purposes," explains Jeff. A short bus ride takes us to the Dadaocheng Wharf. Walking along the banks of the Tamsui River, it's not difficult to imagine that the area was once a hotspot for trading companies from across the world. As we admire what looks like a real sailing boat, Jeff tells us that while trade activities may have been discontinued here, the wharf's become a vibrant hub not just for boat tours but also for sports activities like cycling, dance and music bands.
And just before sunset, photographers cannot have enough of the magic that the golden orb spreads across the landscape.
MUST-DO ACTIVITIES IN AND AROUND TAIPEI
The Lungshan Temple - with its palace architecture design and innumerable statues of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian deities.
Street markets - experiencing this is an absolute must. Among the most famous of night markets in Taipei is Shilin that offers the latest in vogue at fairly good bargains. Food/drink stands, restaurants, souvenir shopping are the other attractions.
Electronics Market - Visit the Guang Hua Market if you want to pick up any electronic items. Even if you donft, itfs still fun checking out the latest gadgets.
Rainbow Village - An hourfs drive away, this village is famous for its prettily painted homes. Done by a Taiwanese elder as a form of protest against their demolition, these paintings are in vibrant almost child-like designs.