Taipei old and new

At 509 metres high, Taipei 101 is the tallest building in East Asia, and for a few years held the title of tallest in the world.

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In an otherwise low-rise city, it stands in splendid isolation as the city’s premier landmark. Its vertical rhythm differentiates it from other tall buildings, and is intended to suggest the form of a bamboo plant.

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While Taipei 101 has now fallen to number 3 in the world height rankings, it retains a number of records, including the world’s fastest elevator.

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Travelling at a speed of over 1 km per minute, it whisked us to the 89th-floor observation deck in double-quick time. Although there was no real impression of speed inside the lift car, there was a helpful illuminated display to let us know how high we were and how fast we were going.

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The 91st-floor outdoor observation deck was closed today (no explanation was given) so we viewed the city through the floor-to-ceiling glass of the indoor observation deck. Taipei tends to be very hazy, limiting the visibility of more distant areas, but there was a great view of the area of the city closer to the tower.

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World Trade Center

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Dr Sun Yat-Sen Memorial

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The 2 General MacArthur bridges over the Keelung River, and Yang Ming Shan mountain in the background

At the heart of Taipei 101, a huge metal ball forms part of a tuned mass damper, protecting the building from excessive movement in high winds and earthquakes.

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This ball is 5.5 metres in diameter and weighs hundreds of tonnes. It is the biggest of its kind in the world, and the only one open to view by the public.

The lower floors of Taipei 101 are given over to an upscale shopping mall. The exposed structural elements of this atrium seem to combine a 19th-century Industrial Revolution aesthetic with a science-fiction sensibility.

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After visiting Taipei 101, we hopped on the metro for a visit to Astoria Café. Astoria was founded by a Russian exile in 1949, and was the first western-style bakery and café in Taiwan. The White Russians, who had formed a community in Shanghai having fled the Russian revolution, were forced to flee yet another Communist revolution in 1949 and found themselves in Taiwan.

When we arrived, we were asked if we wanted “lunch or café”. As it was a bit too early for lunch, we opted for café. The menu had an extensive range of coffees and teas. The prices were very high, especially by Taiwan standards ($180 for a cup of coffee, equivalent to around €4.50). I chose a Russian blend coffee and Yuko went for a cold longan tea. (Longan is a delicious local fruit, quite similar to lychee.)

The menu didn’t feature any cake, only drinks. We wondered if we were supposed to buy cakes from the bakery downstairs and bring them up. But we asked the waiter and he brought us a cake menu. The cakes were good value at $50 per slice (€1.25). Yuko had a millefeuille and I had a coffee cake.

The décor is charmingly old-fashioned, with various significant items on display including old photos, samovars and a collection of matryoshka dolls.

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The old-world style of the Astoria stands in delicious contrast to the Temple of the City God on the other side of the narrow street. This was the view from the window seat as I sipped my Russian coffee and nibbled my cake.

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