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
I started my journey on a Saturday morning in the familiar Delhi airport.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Business class passengers have their own priority queue and we skipped the long line.
First sight of Air Astana.
Business class seats are similar to Jet Airways's domestic fleet arranged in 2-2 configuration and there are 7 rows of it!
Legroom is not much but ok for a 3 hour flight. There is also a footrest.
Service started with warm towels and drinks. Champagne was served (a Taittinger)
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.
Checking out the magazines and reading materials.
The fleet is all modern western fleet.
And this is their network. Both Almaty and Astana are now hubs, similar to VN's dual hub in SGN and HAN.
And then amenity kit by Christian Lacroix was distributed.
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.
And then we started a long taxi towards the runway. Passing a few exoticas - such as Royal Bhutan
Soon after we took off into Delhi's typically hazy atmosphere.
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!
IFE content is decent but it's nothing like the on the bigger carriers like SQ of course.
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.
And then the meal service started with beer and nuts. And i would have to pick Kazakh beer of course!
A full alcohol service was available too.
Mood lighting during the drinks service.
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.
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.
And soon after, we crossed the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. It is so high that it feels like scraping the top of these mountains.
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.
My friend's choice was the chicken breast fillet. And again, this was moist and well-cooked with a rich Flavoursome sauce. Very impressed.
Dessert was however a let down. Indian Malai sandwich was overly sweet (probably ok for Indian tastebuds but not foreigners).
And the passionfruit cheesecake had a funky flavour to it.
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.
And the lakes are of brilliant turquoise Colour.
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.
As described before, our route skirted the great mountain ranges.
We started descent while just above Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.
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.
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.
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. Untitled
by Charles Chan
, on Flickr
We disembarked at a remote gate next to another Air Astana plane.
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.
It was just as horrible inside the baggage reclaim hall. 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.