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Old Oct 13, 18, 9:13 pm
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Join Date: Dec 2002
Location: USA
Programs: Alaska MVP, Marriott Lifetime Titanium (United Silver), Hilton Gold
Posts: 765

I once read on these forums that with frequent flier miles you can go wherever you want, or whenever you want, but not both. Maybe that's why I had no good answer when people asked why I was going to Kazakhstan. In the beginning, knowing that I’d be due for a vacation in June 2018 and an announced end date to SQ’s amazing 57,500 mile U.S. to Middle East *A award I figured it’d be a great opportunity to check out Georgia. To avoid fuel surcharges on SQ partners, I booked IAH-MAN on SQ and then had to pay only modest surcharges for MAN-IST-TBS on TK. I’d initially hope to fly back from GYD, and EY had availability, but AA insisted that GYD-AUH-LAX would require two awards (since GYD is in "Europe" and AUH is in the Middle East) so I decided to get creative and booked a 75,000 mile AA “India/Central Asia to North America” business award TSE-AUH-LAX and separately purchased a one-way coach ticket on Air Astana (KC) from GYD to TSE with a stopover in ALA.

If you’re interested, my prior reports are:
1. ElAl NYC to TLV in Coach
4. The world is round! SEA-SFO-PVG-BKK-HKT-SIN-PVG-ZRH-FRA-ORD-SEA on UA, LX, LH F, TG, SQ C, and 3K Y
5. SEA-IAD-MUC-VCE-FRA-BKK-HKG-DPS-BKK-BRU-FRA-SEA on UA/TG A380/LH/CX C, TG, the JW Marriott Hong Kong, Conrad Bali, and GM Chedi Club
7. SEA-DXB in Emirates Business Class
8. To the Serengeti: LAX-DXB-DAR-DXB-LAX on EK F/J w/ Photos

If all goes according to plan, this report will include:
1. Singapore Business Class IAH-MAN
2. Turkish Airlines Business Class MAN-IST-TBS
3. Scenes of Kazbegi/Stepsaminda Rooms Hotel Kazbegi (a Design Hotel)
4. Scenes of Baku
5. Air Astana Coach GYD-ALA-TSE
6. Scenes of Almaty and Astana
7. Etihad Business Class TSE-AUH-LAX

Let's get flying!
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Old Oct 13, 18, 9:28 pm
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Singapore Air Business Class IAH-MAN

June 9, 2018
Singapore Airlines 15, IAH-MAN
A350-900, 9V-SMS
Depart: 7:10pm
Arrive: 10:10am+1
Duration 9:00
Seat: 19D

We’d flown in to Houston on a red-eye the night before our trans-Atlantic departure and spent much of the day resting and relaxing at the exceedingly convenient and surprising pleasant IAH Marriott. By mid-afternoon we were more than ready to be moving on and were in line at the Singapore Air check-in desk when it opened 3.5 hours before departure. We were quickly invited up to the counter but the agent obviously needed to look up the airport codes in our itinerary before tagging our checked tags all the way to TBS.

Unfortunately, we were a week too early for the IAH Polaris Lounge so we were directed to the United Club and spent the next couple of hours walking around airside and visiting a couple generic United Clubs and an even-less impressive KLM Crown Room via Priority Pass before making our way to the gate at the scheduled boarding time to find most folks already boarded. I quickly snapped a couple of pictures of our A350 before heading down the jetway.

A350 prior to boarding

Loading up for the long journey

We were met at door 2L by several smiling flight attendants and quickly shown the short distance to our seats at the bulkhead in the front of the second business class cabin. Slippers, socks, and the menu for the entire IAH-MAN-SIN journey were at the seat when we arrived and we were quickly offered magazines followed by a choice of water, orange juice, or champagne. As departure time approached, the flight attendants distributed exceedingly hot towels, and took drink orders for after takeoff.

Cabin view on boarding, I wasn't the only photographer on board!

A few minutes before our scheduled departure time, the pilot came on the p.a. to announce that everyone and everything was aboard and that our flight time was expected to be 8:25. Doors closed a few minutes early at 7:05 and 15 minutes later we were airborne.

Drinks and tepid nuts were served quickly once we were in the air. I ordered a sickly-sweet Singapore Sling and settled in for the overnight flight. Many have criticized SQ’s new A350 business class seats due to the awkward foot cubby on most seats, but the bulkhead row had no such restriction and I could comfortably extend my legs in any direction or take advantage of the “leg shelf” on the inside of the seat.

Regular seat with small foot cubby

Bulkhead seat extended leg shelf

Meal orders were taken after the cocktail service was complete. Meal service began with appetizer, bread, and drink refills from a cart about one hour after takeoff. The meal began with an Alaskan king crab and mango salad (there was no choice, and no green salad course). As passengers finished the salad, the appetizer plates were cleared and main courses were delivered individually from the galley

Crab salad and garlic bread

I ordered a chicken stir fry as my entrée and with the addition of some chili sauce (available on request on SQ) it was quite tasty (although, as business class meals go, it was more functional than fancy). Other choices included a salmon filet, beef tournedo, and lamb biryani. As the meal finished, I neglected to take a picture of the lovely apple crumble cake which was served with an excellent cinnamon whipped cream but did enjoy the selection of cheeses shown below which were offered from a cart to complete the meal.

Chicken stir-fry

Brie, Saga Classic Blue, and Manchego Cheese

After washing up, I requested that my bed be made on and one of the flight attendants flipped the seat forward into a lie flat position and offered a thin mattress pad, second pillow, and a decent quality blanket. Flights from the US to western Europe are hardly long enough to enjoy both great service and a good night’s sleep. I managed only about 3 hours of sleep before being woken by the sound of breakfast preparations from the galley approximately 2.5 hours outside of Manchester.

While I was resting, our route of flight and taken us south of DC then over Nantucket and we were just approaching Galway when I awoke. As soon as I was up and moving, I was greeted by name and offered a beverage. I ordered a yummy cappuccino which was followed quickly by a hot towel.

Lights were tuned up in the cabin and breakfast service began in earnest 1:45 before arrival as the galley curtains were opened and carts rolled into the aisle. Tables were set and a choice of coffee and juices was offered, a few minutes later a nice fruit plate was served along with a United-quality croissant.

Breakfast fruit

The breakfast menu mention yogurt, cereal and muesli but I was never offered any (nor was I interested enough to request it), I think due to a simple flight attendant oversight. Breakfast choices included an omelet and waffle but I’ve never been particularly impressed by how well western breakfasts hold up to the challenges of galley ovens so instead opted for seafood noodle soup which hit the spot.

Soup for breakfast!

The pilot came on the p.a. about 45 minutes before landing to wish everyone a good morning and we landed from the west at 9:45am Manchester time a few minutes ahead of schedule. Although many on the flight were continuing onwards to Singapore, we hustled off the plane and towards the airport train station as we had time for a few hours of sightseeing before out connection.
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Old Oct 14, 18, 1:05 am
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That seafood noodle soup looks like a real treat for breakfast!

Looking forward to Kazbegi and Kazakhstan.
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Old Oct 17, 18, 4:23 am
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The catering on SQ15 looks a lot better than when I flew it last February. Looking forward to the rest!
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Old Oct 18, 18, 9:48 pm
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Turkish Airlines Business Class MAN-IST-TBS

June 10, 2018
Turkish Airlines 1996, MAN-IST
A321, TC-JTG
Depart: 4:30pm
Arrive: 10:30pm
Duration 4:00
Seat: 2C

After several hours of walking around in downtown Manchester we headed back to the airport and got in the business class queue for Turkish Airlines check-in. After helping a large group ahead of us (or a small group with a lot of luggage, I’m not sure which) the check-in agent called us to the front but seemed to be clueless at what to do with the bag tags I’d handed him from Singapore Airlines. After insisting he needed to enter the tag numbers into his system so that the bags would be loaded, he called a supervisor over and got things straightened out, then handed us boarding passes through to Tbilisi, fast track passes, and a lounge invitation.

Manchester Airport itself was pretty dreadful with among the slowest security queues I’ve encountered in some time and the overcrowded, under-provisioned Aspire lounge. Despite a general lack of information the flight status screens in the terminal, I knew our flight was not going to be on time because the inbound aircraft from Istanbul was about 40 minutes behind scheduled. Despite that, the outsourced Manchester TK ground crew managed to lose even more time and boarding began 60 minutes behind schedule. We were thrilled to be continuing our eastward journey and as we settled into our comfortable recliner seats were offered menus, a package of hazelnuts, and a choice of non-alcoholic pre-departure beverages including an excellent “homemade” lemonade with fresh mint. I’m not sure whose home TK uses to make their lemonade but my compliments to them!

TK A321 Business Class Seat

The doors of our plane finally shut an hour after our scheduled departure time but after a wait to push back, plus a slow taxi it was another 45 minutes before we were airborne from 23L and I knew our 1:25 layover in Istanbul was in serious jeopardy.

As we approached our cruising altitude the crew came through to take drink orders and appetizer trays were offered with an assortment of Turkish meze, a garden salad, and the mango panna cotta dessert. Breads were promptly offered from a basket. Turkish is known for its Do&Co catering and the appetizers, and the starters did not disappoint. For an entrée, a choice of either Turkish meatball, swordfish, or rigatoni was offered. I stuck with the home-airline food and went with the meatball which was flavorful if ever-so-slightly overcooked.

First and last course served together

Turkish Meatball entree

I reclined my seat and slept for a couple hours before being awoken by an announcement from the flight deck that the sun had set and that those who had been fasting for Ramadan could partake of their Iftar meal. After two nights in a row of red-eyes, I had no issue quickly falling back asleep and didn’t stir again until we were about an hour out of Istanbul. Expecting that we would be running for a plane in Istanbul, I ordered a Turkish Coffee which was served with Turkish Delight.

We landed in Istanbul from the west and were parked at a remote stand at 12am. Despite the presence of a dedicated business-class bus, our 11:55pm flight to Tbilisi was long-gone by the time we reached the terminal and we were sent upstairs towards immigration and the transfer desk.

What do you do when you miss the midnight flight from Tbilisi to Istanbul? Catch the 1am!

June 11, 2018
Turkish Airlines 376, IST-TBS
A321, TC-JTG
Depart: 1:10am
Arrive: 4:30am
Duration 2:20
Seat: 4D

We were fortunate that there was a short line at the transfer desk and, without discussion, we were quickly handed two business class boarding passes for the 1am flight to Tbilisi (the flight ended up having only 6 of us in the 16-seat front cabin). The line was even shorter at security and after a long, brisk, walk we were at the gate for our flight with about ten minutes to spare before boarding.

The boarding routine on this flight mirrored our last flight with refreshing pre-departure beverages, packaged hazelnuts, and menus on offer. Doors were closed five minutes before our scheduled departure time and we pushed five minutes late and were quickly airborne into the Istanbul night.

Despite being half the length, the service on this flight was similar to the MAN-IST leg. As we climbed, the crew quickly closed the curtain between business class and coach, offered hot towels, and took drink orders. Unfortunately, the early morning departure qualified this flight for a breakfast service and trays with fruit, excellent Turkish honey, pepper clotted cream, pepper and tomato spread, Turkish cheeses and vegetables were served along with a selection from the bread basket.

Everything but the entree

For main courses, the choice on offer was scrambled eggs or a Turkish grilled flat pastry. I was looking more for fourth meal than breakfast and opted for the pastry which was a bit doughy but all-in-all the meal was quite impressive for a sub-2.5 hour flight.

2:30am breakfast

The service was prompt and trays the lights in the cabin were turned down 40 minutes after takeoff and stayed that way until 20 minutes before landing when a final hot-towel was offered as we began our decent. Our flight traveled due east from Istanbul roughly parallel to Turkey’s northern border and we landed in Tbilisi from the northwest at 4:15am local time.
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Old Oct 27, 18, 3:38 pm
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Kazbegi (Stepsaminda) Rooms Hotel Kazbegi

Kazbegi (Stepsaminda) Rooms Hotel Kazbegi

Although we spent a few days in Tbilisi, I don’t think my writing or photos offer much to the existing material you can find online about the City (and we stayed in a non-points hotel). However, I do think it’s worth calling attention in this forum to an outstanding SPG-affiliated Design Hotel ~3 hours drive north from Tbilisi: the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi. The hotel is modern, and homey, with friendly service and delicious Georgian food and the scenery in the surrounding area is spectacular. Furthermore, at only 25,000 Marriott points/night, it can be a tremendous value in the peak summer season.

The hotel is oriented towards the spectacular Gergeti Trinity Church in the foothills of Mt. Kazbek on the Georgian/Russian border.

View from the hotel porch at sunset on a cloudy evening

From the porch of a mountain-view room on a clear morning.

Stylized view from the hotel lawn

View from Gergeti Church back towards the hotel (it's the large building just below the forest in the center of the picture)

Whole trout for dinner in the hotel dining room
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Old Oct 28, 18, 6:37 am
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Excellent and thanks for writing this. Georgia is now on my must visit list.
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Old Oct 28, 18, 8:43 pm
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Beautiful photos!
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Old Oct 29, 18, 6:36 pm
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Wonderful photos - I am looking forward to the rest of your trip.
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Old Oct 29, 18, 10:43 pm
Join Date: Dec 2012
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Great photos. I particularly love this scenic ones!
Originally Posted by gba View Post

View from the hotel porch at sunset on a cloudy evening

From the porch of a mountain-view room on a clear morning.

Stylized view from the hotel lawn

View from Gergeti Church back towards the hotel (it's the large building just below the forest in the center of the picture)
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Old Nov 3, 18, 10:03 pm
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Scenes of Baku

We spent three nights and two full days in Baku staying at the lovely JW Baku which was an amazing 10,000 Marriott points/night at the time we booked. We were upgraded to a spacious Junior Suite and enjoyed a lovely breakfast in the pleasantly quiet concierge lounge. Baku itself was an intriguing mix of early 20th century, Soviet-era, and ultra-modern architecture. I'd recommend it as a destination for folks looking for somewhere that’s both a bit off-the-beaten but accessible and easy to manage as a tourist in a couple of days (we also spent a day in Sheki, home to the incomparable Khan's palace but they did not allow pictures inside and the outside is less extraordinary).

Heydar aliyev cultural center exterior

Heydar aliyev cultural center end view

Flame Tower close-up

From many locations, the Flame Towers seem to rise above the City

View from near the flame towers towards the waterfront

View from the JW Lounge towards the flame towers. Military parade preparations are taking place in the foreground.
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Old Nov 10, 18, 2:34 am
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Originally Posted by lhrpete View Post
Excellent and thanks for writing this. Georgia is now on my must visit list.
I have been fortunate to visit on several occasions, and really, do yourself a favour and visit.
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Old Nov 16, 18, 10:01 pm
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Air Astana Coach GYD-ALA-TSE

June 20, 2018
Air Astana 112, GYD-ALA
E-190, P4-KCC
Depart: 1:00pm
Arrive: 6:15pm
Duration 3:15
Seat: 13A

Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Airport has been called the best airport in Russia and the CIS by SkyTrax. Although the pronouncements of that organization are often greeted somewhat skeptically by the experts on these forums, we founded it to be efficient, calm, and pleasant. We spent the time before boarding in the nearly deserted Priority Pass Lounge before heading down to our gate a few minutes before the scheduled boarding time

World's quietest Priority Pass lounge?

Boarding was delayed due to a broken jetway and we ended up being re-directed to the lower level of the terminal to a bus gate for a short ride (with all passengers on a single bus) out to our aircraft. The whole process was a bit of a hassle but only set us about 35 minutes behind schedule and the announced 3 hour flight time meant we’d only be slightly delayed into Almaty.

Bus boarding

Within the US, a 3 hour flight on a regional jet, even one of the nicer Embraers, is, at best, routine. On Air Astana, however, the service and amenities on this short flight exceeded those you’d get in coach on the longest flagship intercontinental flights operated by the US carriers.

Amenity kits and blankets were waiting at our seats when we boarded. The amenity kit included slippers, ear plugs, toothbrush and toothpaste, a pen, a lotion packet, and an innovative eye mask that said “wake me up for meal” on one side and “do not disturb” on the other.

World's best economy amenity kit?

As we taxied to the runway, the flight crew came through the cabin offering newspapers and hard sucking candies before conducting an exceedingly quick exceedingly monotone safety demonstration. We had a short taxi to runway 33R and made a right turn after takeoff to head out across the Caspian Sea.

Bye Bye Baku!

Kazakh landing cards and hot towels were offered as soon as the crew was able to be up and about. Roughly 45 minutes after takeoff the crew came through with the lunch and beverage cart. The lunch choices were described as beef or chicken. I opted for the chicken which was served with potatoes, a salad, roll, and brownie. The service was efficient with hot beverages offered towards the end of the meal.

Who knew you could buy an oven for an Embraer?

The scenery out the window went from the blues of the Caspian, to the yellows of the Kazakh plains, to the lush green of the Almaty region and the Tian Shan Mountains as we made our approach ~45 minutes behind scheduled due to the late departure out of Baku.

Welcome to the City of Apples!

June 22, 2018
Air Astana 954, ALA-TSE
A321, P4-OAS
Depart: 3:40pm
Arrive: 5:25pm
Duration 1:45
Seat: 13K

After dazzling us on a 3 hour international flight, Air Astana continued to impress on this short domestic leg. The domestic gate area at Almaty airport was relatively small but we were able to check-in and get through security quickly and had a bit of time to wait in the domestic gate area before boarding was called for our flight.

Like with our flight out of Baku, hard candies were offered before departure. Unlike our flight out of Baku, we pushed back early. As we leveled off the crew came through with a hot pasta snack and a choice of drinks

Carbo-loading on Air Astana

The rest of the flight was quick and uneventful, the crew made an additional candy run before arrival and we landed early at an international gate in Astana and had a lengthy walk through various corridors to the domestic baggage claim and a bit of a wait for our bags before meeting our driver to transfer to our hotel.

All in all, I have nothing but good things to say about Air Astana and recommend them strongly for all your Central Asian travel needs!
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Old Nov 17, 18, 1:11 am
Join Date: Feb 2008
Location: Stockholm
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Interesting report. I'm reminded I should travel more in the that region of the world. I've been to both Kazakhstan and Georgia but it's been a while and I should go back.
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Old Nov 17, 18, 8:16 am
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Not sure if it´s the quietst PP lounge ut at least one of the nicer ones….
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