Revival in Vladivostok, Russia's 'Wild East'

Vladivostok's Gold Horn Bay and the incomplete bridge to Russky Island There is a seven-hour time difference between Vladivostok and Moscow

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In Soviet times the port of Vladivostok was home to the country's Pacific Fleet. The collapse of the USSR hit the city hard, but now Vladivostok - which is only 160km (100 miles) from North Korea - is experiencing a makeover ahead of an international summit in 2012.

"We often drive over to China to buy clothes: it is so much cheaper," says Vasilisa, the charming university student who is my guide to Vladivostok.

She has also been to China, as have many of her contemporaries, to study the language. Other local women go for the men.

"There are perhaps 38% men to 62% women here," says Viktoria, a translator who speaks exquisite English.

"Many girls go to China and Korea to look for husbands. Chinese men come here, too, looking for wives. It is a kind of necessity," she adds.

In Vladivostok, in so many ways, geography is destiny.

Dasha, showing me the stunning views at the edge of town, says, "How do you like our city?" as everyone does, perhaps a little proud and a little nervous about a foreigner's reaction to this port.

From Our Own Correspondent

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As the capital of the Russian Far East it always had the stuff of myth - for European Russians, as well as foreigners and for me. I had always wanted to see it - it had somehow lingered for a long time, a fantasy on the margins of my imagination.

Not surprising, perhaps. According to my old pal, the Moscow TV journalist Vladimir Pozner, "Russians and Americans had a certain feeling that each was the great 'Other', if only because you had the Wild West, and we had the Wild East."

A city of water, Vladivostok is on a peninsula with a setting as glorious as that of San Francisco. The streets run along old rollercoaster hills, the Gold Horn Bay beyond, the great blue Pacific stretching out to Japan and then, forever, to the United States. It is closer to Alaska than to St Petersburg.

A map of the Russian showing Vladivostok

And wild it is, especially the surrounding Primorye region, where the last of the great Siberian tigers are now protected on a reservation not far from the city.

Vladivostok is relatively new, a port city which until the turn of the 20th Century only had one high school.

In 1905, the Trans-Siberian railway arrived, its last stop, at a pretty little Edwardian train station on the harbour. You could come all the way from Europe and then get the boat directly to Japan.

It is the coastal location that has given the city its commerce - shipping, immigrants and fishing.

One morning I meet Steve from Grimsby. He is a fish buyer for the Findus firm and was in town to examine the catch.

My hotel is the Hyundai, which testifies to the city's other big business: importing cars from South Korea and Japan.

And immigrants. On a stone step near the harbour sits a Chinese man in an ancient Mao jacket, smoking, face impassive, looking out to sea - and perhaps to home.

Construction of the bridge which will connect Russky Island to the mainland The bridge connecting Russky Island to the mainland will have a 1,104m (3,622ft) central span

Until 1991, as the headquarters of the Soviet Pacific Fleet, Vladivostok was a closed city, but now it is finally gearing up for the future.

The 24th summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) grouping will be held next autumn on Russky Island, a few minutes off the coast.

The university is to be moved to Russky, too, though everyone hates the idea. Critical to it all is a bridge intended to connect it - and another island - to the mainland.

For the moment, the entire centre span is missing. New roads are still unmade, the new airport unbuilt and as your nose and mouth fill up with dust, the workers hang around in the cabs of their earth-moving equipment Soviet-style - eating lunch for most of the afternoon.

Still, there are plenty of signs that change really has come. Vera Glazkova reigns in the cool white art gallery she owns.

At the spiffy film complex cafe, women roll out juicy dumplings and at the Philharmonia Hall cafe, my regular hangout, there is fabulous cappuccino. Not to mention the phalanx of drop-dead gorgeous women, exquisitely dressed.

And every morning, one of them sits in the window, long legs crossed in her six-inch (15cm) heels, sipping her espresso and looking out to sea, perhaps waiting for her ship to come in.

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