Turkmenistan Airlines just made news recently. In early February, it was banned from EU airspace, and the UK followed suit. So I feel fortunate that I managed to get to try this enigmatic, and elusive airline just recently prior to the ban and transitted through a little-visited country.
I have been eyeing Turkmenistan Airlines for years on my occasional trips between India and Europe. But it’s proven to be elusive. Until very recently, it was not bookable with online agents and it still doesn’t have a global website to book online from. To make a booking, I had to email their office in Delhi, and the flights were always full since they only fly to Delhi once per week on Saturdays and my work trips were confirmed only a week or two in advance and seats are usually sold out at such short notice. A few times I dropped by their office in Connaught Place, an old-school airline ticketing office from another era. A few times, the staff even told me to book Air India when I was insisting to waitlist myself on their flights. They were bewildered why I wanted to fly via Ashgabat and not flew direct to Europe with Air India for the same price or cheaper.
Late last year, I managed to fix a work trip a month in advance and seats were still available on Turkmenistan which I discovered by chance on Skyscanner as they recently uploaded their availability into the GDS. They offered the cheapest business class fares between India and Europe at INR50,000 (usd700) and I snapped it.
So this became the most anticipated trip of the year to end 2018.Part 1:
Flight: T5 536
Aircraft: 737-800NG (not a MAX although it was so new that I thought it was)
Class: Business Class
On a cold Saturday morning in mid December, I arrived at Delhi Terminal 3 for the flight I had been waiting for for years.
Unlike the usual business crowd on a weekday, Saturday morning is usually an interesting time when Delhi has flights to places like Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and the likes and today’s security queue is quite a curious sight to me since I have been fascinated by Central Asia since a long time. These people look like they come from another world, another era.
Turkmenistan Airlines opened a few counters for its single weekly flight. Passengers seem to be mostly Turkmen in origin. They are quite recognisable with their tall colourful head dress.
Business class has its own counter, and this is where I spent the next 10 minutes being scrutinised about my unconventional route to Europe. As usual, check-in agents in India don’t quite believe that Singaporeans do not need visas to enter the UK and I had to point out the many UK passport stamps I had in my passport to prove. He also seemed surprised that I bought the ticket online. I figure it must be just recently that T5 started selling tickets in the common GDS. I bought mine at cleartrip.com
Warning notice is in English and Russian although there is also a Turkmen headline on the top right. The interesting I noted here was the coconut. Coconut? Really? Forbidden? Why? May be their President doesn’t like coconuts ?
My boarding passes were soon printed and it was then smooth sailing through a quiet passport control and security line.
To my disappointment, Turkmenistan Airlines does not offer lounge access to business class passengers in Delhi, so I headed straight to the Gate, 1 hour before departure.
It was a long walk and I was trailing behind these Turkmen ladies with beautiful and colourful head dresses.
Delhi’s waiting area is actually very pleasant and spacious. It’s definitely better to wait here than in the windowless low-ceilinged SilverKris Lounge on Friday evenings.
I had my first peek of the elusive airliner, green-liveried Turkmenistan Airlines, which just arrived from a red-eye sector from Ashgabat.
Boarding was on time and on boarding, I had better glimpse of the airliner. It’s a 737-800NG. Yes, and I didn’t expect they have such a brand-new aircraft. I knew it was going to be a 737-800 but I thought it’s going to be one of those older models which Jet Airways fly. I didn’t have high expectation. This plane is 2 years old or so.
The seats are spanking new, but unfortunately the blue looks like a generic design by the manufacturer, except for the ethic motif details at the seat back. Layout is standard 2-2 layout with standard reclines and standard pitches for regional flights.
There is a leg rest. But I can’t recall if there is calf support too.
I peeked through to the economy class section which spots the same seat colour design. By this time, I was trying be discreet as I was warned once already by the crew for not taking pictures. I also encountered such aversion to pictures on Uzbekistan Airways and I already expected the same here.
The crew was actually quite nice. They were not super warm but they were not cold either. I have no complaints. Their apprehension for photography, I think, is more of an inherited behaviour from Soviet times more than anything like an unfriendly culture.
The unusual thing here is that there is a portrait of a handsome man perpetually smiling at everyone mounted in the front of each cabin. The President is watching. Imagine sitting at first row....
Amenities were then distributed before take off. They were these bright green pillows and basic thin white slipper slippers...
And then a very nice colourful blanket was also provided. The blankets came in various colours. I actually wanted the purple one but it ran out.
In flight magazine.
Which, of course, had to feature the President.
And the new 737MAX was proudly being featured. Hmm… considering recent news, this would not have been a great advertisement.
Safety card is in 3 languages.
Looking out of my window, I watched these boxes being loaded one after another into the flight. Looks like this flight is quite a trade caravan of the 21st century.
This took quite awhile and we were delayed by almost an hour before we started to taxi towards the runway.
A Corendon livery trailed behind. Corendon doesn’t fly to India. I think this must be one of Spicejet’s many wet leases.
And then soon after we were off into the hazy skies of Delhi.
When we reached cruising altitude, we had a good view of the Himalayas in the distance.
We crossed into Pakistan airspace above Lahore. Currently, at the time of writing, this airspace is closed and the flight to Turkmenistan would take much longer.
I am very fascinated by this portrait. Also it is the only inflight entertainment available.
Slightly more than an hour into the flight, a sumptuous meal arrived comprising of 3 breads, salad, cold cuts, dessert, and a big main of rice and beef. The presentation was not particularly appealing, although I find it interesting because it looks like something that comes from the soviet era.
I like the packaging of the condiments.
Despite its appearance, the food was actually very delicious. I would even rate it as one of the best economy class meal ever. The rice was moist, beef was tender and fell apart easily. The bread was fresh and not dried out. It was so good and this is the proof. I mopped it all clean.
So I asked the crew if the very delicious food came from Delhi or Ashgabat. They said it was flown since the night before from Ashgabat. Wow. Well done for a challenging task.
The meal was ended with tea and chocolate. By the way, I think it's a dry airline. I was not offered any alcoholic beverages. Not that I asked.
Then I spent the next hour or so admiring the stunningly beautiful views of Afghanistan. It started with a flat desert, then it gradually rose to mighty rugged mountain ranges, and then it flattened out again as we entered Turkmenistan airspace. These are some of the best views I have ever seen from an airplane window.
2.5 hours later we approached Ashgabat.
We flew over wide empty highways.
And came face to face with a bird. I believe this is the VIP terminal.
And then a big bird! What an airport terminal design! Turkmenistan is now famous (or infamous) for its weird architecture.
The control tower also has a weird design.
There are very few other airlines that fly in here. Most airliners here are Turkmenistan Airlines only.
We disembarked into a glossy and flamboyant new terminal building.