SQueeze
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From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sat Sep 16, 2017 3:18 am

Background

This year (2017), Kazakhstan hosts the World Expo and the earlier onerous visa requirement with invitation for Singaporeans has been lifted as of early this year. I have also always been intrigued by Central Asia and with the doors keep opening more and more, I can't resist the temptation.

The Expo is hosted in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, a city built in the middle of 'nowhere' in the Eurasian steppe, a feat of urban planning and architecture that in only less than 20 years has been in the world map.

To get there, I flew Air Astana from Delhi. It is the only carrier serving the route. Monopoly routes are normal in this region with Ashgabat-Delhi served only by Turkmenistan Airways, Delhi-Tashkent only by Uzbekistan Airways, Bishkek-Delhi by Air Manas, and Dushanbe-Delhi by Tajik Airways. Earlier this year I had flown on Uzbekistan Airways whose trip report can be read here ]http://www.airliners.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1356875 for those who are interested.

Air Astana is Kazakhstan’s national carrier. It has won Skytrax best airline in Central Asia and India. Despite controversial opinions around this award, I thought it shouldn't be too difficult to win this award for this region since competition will be mainly with just 9W and perhaps AI. The rest will not be too much a competition - such as Kam Air? Tajik Airways?

My Air Astana journey started in Delhi, and then Almaty, Astana, and finally Baku. Air Astana has been trying to put itself as an efficient cost-effective connecting carrier from east to west with China and Eastern Europe being the focus. From India, where I usually find myself in, only Delhi is currently served (from both Almaty and Astana). This is also a growing market (India to Eastern / Western Europe).

With them focusing on the transit market, prices from India to Baku or Europe are really reasonable for under S$500 for a flexible one-way flight with unlimited stopovers. To make the deal sweeter, upgrades to business class are conveniently offered through their website using a bidding system. It has a user-friendly interface with sliders and just a few clicks. For these sectors (3 hours), the minimum bid is around S$150. Result of the bid is emailed to bidders 48 hours before the flight.


Flight: KC 908
Type: A321
Reg: P4-KBD
Cabin: Business
Seat: 5K
Load: 16/28


I started my journey on a Saturday morning in the familiar Delhi airport.

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Air Astana check-in counter was in Section M, and surrounded by other exotic carriers which are quite a common sight at DEL. That morning, there was Royal Bhutan, Uzbekistan, and Kam Air (Afghanistan).

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Only 3 counters were used by Air Astana, 1 of which for business class.That morning, we flew business class upon confirmation of the upgrade 48 hours before.

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After receiving the boarding pass, we proceeded through immigration and security which were massively crowded that morning. Thank god we upgraded, and it made it worthwhile with the priority security lane.

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Lounge access is also given for upgraded passengers and Air Astana uses the ITC lounge, which I had also used before on an MH and Uzbekistan flights earlier this year.

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Soon after, we had to go to the gate as 11A is one of the furthest away and DEL T3 is a huge terminal.

Long walk towards the Gate as expected.

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And when we reached the gate, boarding had already started. It was crowded. Noticeably, most of the passengers were Indians. And thereafter I noticed that most of them disembarked in Almaty. Who would have known that Kazakhstan is popular for Indians. There was a group tour. And definitely quite a large group of youngsters (college students). Visa restrictions must have been eased for Indians as well.

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Business class passengers have their own priority queue and we skipped the long line.

First sight of Air Astana.

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Business class seats are similar to Jet Airways's domestic fleet arranged in 2-2 configuration and there are 7 rows of it!

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Legroom is not much but ok for a 3 hour flight. There is also a footrest.

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Coat hanger.

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Service started with warm towels and drinks. Champagne was served (a Taittinger)

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And then lunch menu was distributed. It's in 3 languages (Kazakh, Russian, and English). And a full wine menu was enclosed - all are western wines and champagne.

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Checking out the magazines and reading materials.

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The fleet is all modern western fleet.

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And this is their network. Both Almaty and Astana are now hubs, similar to VN's dual hub in SGN and HAN.

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And then amenity kit by Christian Lacroix was distributed.

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Looking out of the window for plane-spotting. I wonder what was that next to Virgin Atlantic in yellow livery. Initially I thought that was Royal Bhutan but then I saw KB on the other side of the pier afterwards.

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And then we started a long taxi towards the runway. Passing a few exoticas - such as Royal Bhutan

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Soon after we took off into Delhi's typically hazy atmosphere.

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IFE in the form of portable iPads were distributed. It is an ingenious idea too to design it in such a way that it can be mounted on seat backs!

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Headphone.

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IFE content is decent but it's nothing like the on the bigger carriers like SQ of course.

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I watched a Kazakh epic movie despite its cheesy acting just for the fun of it. I lasted about half an hour or so. It was quite bad.

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And then the meal service started with beer and nuts. And i would have to pick Kazakh beer of course!

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A full alcohol service was available too.

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Mood lighting during the drinks service.

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And looking out of the windows, is Pakistan. It's an incredible sight to see the abrupt change from desert to the fertile Indus Valley.

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It's also interesting to note that Almaty is directly due north from Delhi, less than 1000 miles away, but just like the Uzbek flight I flew on earlier this year, the route skirted the mountain and we flew westwards first making a detour around the highest peaks of the Karakoram.

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And soon after, we crossed the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. It is so high that it feels like scraping the top of these mountains.

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Lunch was served over this region. And it was delicious.

My pick was the crepe filled with fish and prawns. This was awesomely flavourful and moist with the fish fresh and prawns crunchy. Impressed with the quality.

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My friend's choice was the chicken breast fillet. And again, this was moist and well-cooked with a rich Flavoursome sauce. Very impressed.

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Dessert was however a let down. Indian Malai sandwich was overly sweet (probably ok for Indian tastebuds but not foreigners).

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And the passionfruit cheesecake had a funky flavour to it.

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The meal service ended while we crossed over into Tajikistan just to the east of Dushanbe, its capital. This is another country that is up in my bucket list. Would love to do the Pamir Highway.

Oasis in the middle of the desert is quite a feature.

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And the lakes are of brilliant turquoise Colour.

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Crossing into the the convoluted borders of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, we flew nearby Osh - an exotic Silk Road name in the fertile Ferghana valley. I have always been intrigued by Central Asia for years and these names conjure up imagination.

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As described before, our route skirted the great mountain ranges.

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We started descent while just above Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.

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And then we descended towards Almaty airport, which has mountain on one side, and on the other side an endless grassland all the way to the Arctic Ocean. It's a fascinating contemplation of the Asian continent / landmass. So huge and so deep inland we are.

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We landed on time at Almaty airport and what an assortment of exotica not seen elsewhere: Bek Air, SCAT, Qazaq Air. Unfortunately, for aviation nerds like me, everyone is now using modern western aircrafts. Except for a handful of SCAT regional flights which sometimes still use An-24. I was planning to take an excursion on it but decided not to because we were not having much time.

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ALA is spectacularly set against the backdrop of the Alatau range which is a spur of the Tien Shan which are all connected to the Hindukush, Karakoram, and eventually the Himalayas. This is the convoluted knot of mountains in the middle of Asia.

ImageUntitled by Charles Chan, on Flickr

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We disembarked at a remote gate next to another Air Astana plane.

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Immigration that afternoon was really crowded with a SCAT arrival from Sanya ahead of us, full of sunburnt Kazakhs. The airport is definitely barely coping with traffic as my next segment will prove further.

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It was just as horrible inside the baggage reclaim hall.

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Verdict: so how would I rate this airline. I think its hardware is decent for routes of this length but nothing special (3.5/5). The food is surprisingly tasty and well presented and I would give it (4.5/5). The service was efficient but cold-ish, hardly a smile but never rude (3/5). All in all, it is not a bad airline, but it is not above average.
 
SQueeze
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Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sat Sep 16, 2017 3:20 am

The next 2 days were spent in Almaty. It doesn't have blockbuster tourist sights, and hardly any tourists. But I really love it.

It's the greenest city I have been to, even more so than Singapore. Roads are wide and Super clean. And pathways are shaded by massive trees. The whole city centre is like a giant park.

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I also have a peculiar fascination with Soviet modernism, and there is no shortage of it in Almaty.

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There are a lot of Parks with fountains.

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And the majestic 28 Panvilov Guardsmen where I feel so patriotic :D

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The metro stations are beautiful. And surreally empty. With large distances and relatively low density in park-like Almaty, most people drive.

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It’s also a progressively booming city with quite a few contemporary architecture.

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The food, hmm, however, would be something that has to be acquired, or politely speaking can be described as 'interesting'.

Horse meat is frequently in the menu and this is the quintessential Kazakh dish: beshbarmak, boiled horse meat and sausages on noodles. The meat is quite neutral and very lean (healthy) but it's not much more than boiled water with little bit of salt. That will take a little bit to get used to. It looks like pho but it doesn't taste like one at all.

The bowl of white liquid was something I ordered off the menu without knowing what it was. My adventurous streak got me into trouble this time :D. After googling, I realise it's fermented Camel milk. Oops. It was potent. It was so acidic it made my tongue tingle and it's so strongly fermented that I initially thought there is alcohol content.

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SQueeze
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Posts: 249
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Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sat Sep 16, 2017 3:24 am

Flight: KC 851
Type: A320
Reg: P4-KBC
Cabin: Economy
Seat: 43A
Load: 90%


The next segment is in economy class from Almaty to Astana. They didn't give me a chance to bid for an upgrade for this sector and we had to be contented sitting at the back of the bus.

So we arrived at Almaty airport which, in that morning, was very busy for its size.

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It is not well-signed and we landed up in the international check-in area. We even queued all the way to the counter only to discover that we were in the wrong location.

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The domestic check-in area is in a discreet location to the right of the terminal building. Who would have noticed.

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The Air Astana business class check-in area is located here and right inside there is also what looks like a 'lounge' but it seems to be more like a waiting area in a hospital. All this is land side.

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We soon discovered that our flight would be delayed by 3 hours that day. Darn. And since the waiting hall is pretty drab everywhere, we decided to wait it out at a nice cafe towards one end of the terminal which is definitely better than the so-called Air Astana lounge.

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The cafe even has a terrace overlooking the mountain.

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When it was time for boarding, we proceeded to the landslide waiting area which is a really crowded space. This airport definitely needs a capacity upgrade. This building must have been designed for the number of passengers in the 1970s.

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To our dismay, another half hour went by past the new scheduled departure time and we were still not called for boarding. This didn't reflect well on Best Airline in Central Asia and India.

We finally boarded almost an hour late and today's flight is just a regular flight on the A320 in standard 3-3 configuration. There is a business class section as well which is of similar seats as the one we had taken from Delhi but there were only 4 rows instead of 7.

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The seats don't have any designer touch. Just the generic black.

As a full service carrier, legroom is definitely generous.

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And wow, each seat even has a coat hanger. May be in the winter, everybody has heavy coats?

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Looking out of the window, was Air Astana's 767. If I had known the flight would have been delayed this severely, I would have picked that flight instead. It would be flying to Astana too and onwards to Frankfurt.

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And then we started taxi towards the runway and along the way, we passed many exoticas out here. Starting with Uzbekistan Airways which I had flown on earlier this year.

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Bek Air and Qazaq Air seem to be growing quite a bit in the domestic market. International sectors are still dominated by Air Astana mostly but also SCAT with its many CIS and Long haul charters.

Bek Air has a bright Colour scheme that one can never miss from afar.

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An assortment of soviet-era planes.

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These are An-74s? Really weird-looking.

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We took off and rolled over the endless greenery around Almaty. But in less than 15 minutes we were over an arid area already.

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Very desolate for sure

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And then we flew over Lake Balkash which has a brilliant turquoise Colour.

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Meal service was done around this area, the crew was really friendly. Lots of smiles, and initiative to engage. In fact, we thought it was almost as good as SQ. They were chirpy and they offered me cay (tea), and then still asked if I would like some water separately. Very attentive.

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It was then plain sailing in featureless landscape all the way to Astana, almost 2 hours away.

We descended over Astana's neighbourhood of endless grassland.

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And touched down in the mid afternoon, and then docked at Astana's curious-looking old terminal with its bulbous central dome. This is an apt introduction to the land of bizarre buildings. More to come.

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The arrival experience is definitely better than in Almaty. There must have been recent renovation here.

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Coming out of the baggage reclaim hall, we found ourselves inside the bulbous dome which is a strange space with bubble lifts and atrium, more similar to a shopping centre. Really bizarre.

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We walked out of the terminal to catch a taxi. And along the way passed the new Terminal which we would be catching a flight to Baku from. This terminal is really good and I was stunned by its design, efficiency, and mood. This will be covered in the next installment.

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Verdict: The Y hardware is not anything special with innovative features but the legroom is definitely very comfortable (4/5). The food is surprisingly tasty and warm and I would give it (4.5/5). The service was very warm and SQ-like (5/5). For an economy class segment, I thought this was one of the best ever. Except that the airport is totally bad.
 
SQueeze
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Posts: 249
Joined: Thu Mar 20, 2014 11:33 pm

Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sat Sep 16, 2017 3:27 am

Astana is a bizarre place. There are many weird buildings with dubious aesthetics dotting the city centre.

Such as this tower with a nest and golden egg as its crown.

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Or these two golden giant soda cans flanking the presidential palace.

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Or a pyramid which looks like the Headquarters of some religious sect?

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Or a dog bowl? Etc etc.

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Or eggs and jars? Really weird and I was taking all these photographs to document architectural silliness.

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Or gilded. But at least gilded domes on Mosques look quite appropriate.

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There is also a Mall under a giant tent designed by Norman Foster. On top of it is a year-round beach, which is quite a surreal place here 2000km from the ocean. Imagine it in the middle of Astana’s brutal winter too.

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Elsewhere in the city, everything seems to be oversized. Roads are very wide and so empty that I could take photographs comfortably

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Plazas are really huge.

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And some parts look really surreal with buildings mushrooming out of nowhere in the middle of endless grassland.

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The Expo ground itself is designed more sensibly with relevant contemporary architecture. Although it still can't dispense with a giant glass ball. Kazakhstan loves eggs and balls!

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The sphere is quite impressive from near as the sheer scale can only be appreciated from near. It looks like a spaceship.

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Inside it, is even more like the interior of a spaceship. One starts the journey with an express lift to the top most level and then walking down in spiral down the sphere.

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There are impressive monumental-scale art pieces around as well.

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The theme of the expo is future energy and different countries have different takes on what they are currently doing in this area. Some of the more interesting exhibits is as follows.

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And naturally, I had to visit the Singapore pavilion. It has an interesting installation as a facade and part of the interior. But the presentation is quite boring. And since it is in English, a lot of the visitors didn't have the patience to wait as subtitles are difficult to read. It would have been more engaging for the majority of visitors had it been in Russian with English subtitles.

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So what's my take on Astana? I think it's a weird place and does feel really surreal in parts. It's definitely one of the strangest place I have been to. It is somewhat a cross between Las Vegas, Dubai, and a Chinese city.
 
SQueeze
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Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sat Sep 16, 2017 3:32 am

Type: E-190
Reg: P4-KCL
Cabin: Business
Seat: 1A
Load: 3/9


The last part of this trip report is on Air Astana’s Embraer-190 to Baku. This is quite a bit of a stretch on an Embraer, for a journey lasting 3 hours across almost the entire width of Kazakhstan and then the Caspian Sea.

Curiously, this is also the best experience from Air Astana right from check-in all the way to arrival. The facilities of Astana’s New Terminal are outstanding and the onboard service was truly special, and SQ-like. This segment is a true reflection of Air Astana’s status as Best Airline in Central and South Asia.

The journey started in Astana’s spanking new terminal which is small but beautiful. It was quite busy in the early evening.

Check-in was efficient. On the desk, was placed a nice bouquet of flowers. Truly deserving for business class.

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Immigration and departure hall is an escalator ride up.

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And post-security there is a small duty free shop.

Beyond this, there is not much. It’s really a small and compact terminal building. But it has a pleasant well-lit atmosphere which is quite relaxing. I like airports with warm lighting levels such as this, Mumbai, and Bangalore. It feels like a 5-star hotel lobby.

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Parts of it were eerily empty.

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We were then looking for the Business Class lounge which is not properly signposted. We went up which is usually where lounges are found. But we found nothing other than a basic restaurant and 2 coffeeshops like this on either side.

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SQueeze
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Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sat Sep 16, 2017 3:39 am

The flight that night was serviced by an Embraer-190 with business class arranged in 2-1 configuration.

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It was empty so I had the liberty to move around and Seat 1A was my choice. Later on I realized that Row 1 and 2 don’t have good window positions (too forward in relation to the seat). Row 3 is better.

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Every seat has pillows and blankets and for an evening flight, they also provide one of these neck pillows…

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Service started with juices.

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And then the IFS made her way around, and in SQ style, kneeled with smile, introduced herself, and briefed everybody in business class about the flight. I was impressed by the hospitality. I didn't expect this out of Kazakhstan.

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IFE is again an iPad.

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But it doesn’t quite work mounted this way for Row 1. Too far and the tilt is not right.

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The flight was relatively uneventful.

Like in the previous sectors, the food was really good. And I am convinced Air Astana is one with a consistent catering.

Moist chicken breast

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And a very tasty beef steak

ImageUntitled by Charles Chan, on Flickr

And I just noted their slogan: From the Heart of Eurasia.

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I think it is an apt slogan, and I feel very contented especially on this particular flight.

Verdict: Air Astana is definitely a promising young carrier. They are developing a high-quality hub at Astana with new routes launched from Bangkok and Delhi recently. The service may not be as consistent as SQ and the likes yet, but one can glimpse very promising aspects. Catering has almost always consistently good. May be only the hardware can be improved a little. They do have lie-flat stagger seatings on the 767s which is considered latest-generation but the fleet is quite small. In any case, I believe Air Astana will be successful in years to come and I hope they will join *Alliance!
 
frobozzelectric
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Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sat Sep 16, 2017 8:47 am

beautiful
 
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turk223
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Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sat Sep 16, 2017 4:04 pm

Fascinating! What a great report!
 
345tas
Posts: 121
Joined: Sun Mar 09, 2014 7:05 pm

Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sat Sep 16, 2017 7:40 pm

The Best Trip Report in Central Asia and India, says I.

Almaty looks like a great city to visit, and Astana for the weirdness.
 
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eastafspot
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Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sun Sep 17, 2017 3:12 am

The architecture in Astana does certainly constrast with the Soviet - era buildings. I like it very much tbh!
Too bad there aren't any pix of the lounge at TSE.
Thank you very much for sharing this great TR
Fly with Air Burundi, Air Tanzania, Air Uganda, Kenya Airways and Rwandair...Jumuiya ya Afrika mashariki
 
SQueeze
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Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sun Sep 17, 2017 3:49 am

eastafspot wrote:
The architecture in Astana does certainly constrast with the Soviet - era buildings. I like it very much tbh!
Too bad there aren't any pix of the lounge at TSE.
Thank you very much for sharing this great TR


Oops. That's such a bummer.
Thanks for highlighting.

I had the lounge part of the report! It's an amazing lounge!
 
SQueeze
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Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Sun Sep 17, 2017 3:49 am

We went down again, asked someone, and got directed to the actual Business Class lounge which is so discreetly located with this “VIP” sign.

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It’s a longish corridor in where the receptionist is seated.

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And from there, we got directed to the lifts which bring us to the upper floor where the lounge is located. And wow, it’s a very nice luxurious and stylish lounge. It’s quiet and it feels exclusive. I would even say that this almost feels like the Private Room in Singapore.

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The buffet is not that extensive but the food was really tasty.

Selection of cold appetizers and salads.

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Warm dishes. Considering the lounge is so under-utilised, they didn’t put a lot of things here. The beef on the right was especially tasty.

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Sandwiches and pickles.

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Bread.

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And dessert. All were moist and delicious.

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I didn’t take photo of the bar but it was well-stocked too.
 
mdavies06
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Joined: Fri Aug 07, 2009 10:28 pm

Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Fri Nov 24, 2017 2:16 pm

Thanks for the detailed report. I have been to Almaty but not Astana. I must visit Astana one day.
 
DSS787
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Joined: Fri Oct 30, 2015 12:30 am

Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Wed Dec 13, 2017 12:17 am

Good report. I had the same experience pretty much flying from Almaty to Astana. I liked Almaty way more than Astana, however the airport in Almaty is TERRIBLE!!!
 
ALAfly
Posts: 211
Joined: Sun Aug 24, 2014 8:19 am

Re: From the Heart of Eurasia: Air Astana in J and Y to Kazakhstan Expo'17

Wed Dec 13, 2017 5:57 am

@SQueeze

Wonderful report and enjoyed it very much. Lately just flown on AirAstana from CDG via TSE to ALA and sitting in the back the service they offer is amazing. Expo is amazing and didn't have the time to visit. But looks really great. Such as Astana is like "little Dubai" and there are so many interesting things to see.

@DSS787
I do agree with you. Even that terrible ALA Airport is not as seen others that are not only located in Asia. But I do think that they need to change a good deal of there infrastructure. With a population in Almaty of about 2million they should offer something more then they have at the present time.

Cheers
ALAfly

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