SQueeze
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Joined: Thu Mar 20, 2014 11:33 pm

Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Fri Nov 10, 2017 12:39 pm

Background

Continuing from Kazakhstan, the trip report of which could be read here on the following link

http://www.airliners.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1373919

we then found ourselves further west in the Caucasus - a tiny little corner of the world whereby Europe and Asia are not so clearly definable. Geographically, this area is probably Asian. Culturally, it is much less obvious, Azerbaijan is definitely more Turkic with very close cultural and religious ties with Turkey and the rest of the Middle East. Georgia and Armenia are more Christian. And all three were sovietised and Russified to some extent.

Part 1: The Flight

Airline: AZALjet
Flight: J2 8225
Aircraft: A320 (4K-AZ77)
Class: Economy
Load: 95%

The first part of this trip report is the flight AZALJet from Baku (capital of Azerbaijan) to Tbilisi (capital of Georgia). Azerbaijan Airlines is the main full-service flag carrier and it has spawned 2 newer Airlines in the last 2-3 years. AZALjet is supposed to be the first low cost subsidiary serving routes in the former CIS and the Middle East. Unlike its counterparts in Europe and Asia, I find the model is more of semi Low cost. Yes, seats and luggage are chargeable, but meals are included. This is the airline that I will be reporting on. Just a day before my flight, AZAL had also launched another subsidiary - Buta Airways. This is an ultra lowcost flight where everything is chargeable including meals and hand luggage.

For comparison, on the day of travel, mainline AZAL (operated by QR) charged S$350, AZALjet charged S$120, and Buta Airways as Low as S$45 when it first launched and increased to about S$90 closer to the date.

My journey started at Baku’s sleek new Terminal.

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The main hall is a common hall of one-storey with departure area adjacent to its arrival area.

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Check-in counters for AZALjet is at the end of the terminal building and it was a smooth experience with very little queue.

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From here, one has to take an escalator up to the 2nd storey where the immigration and security are located. Post-that is the transit lounge area which is spacious and beautifully daylit from the roof above. It’s a really pleasant airport although the quietness at that afternoon hour might seem boring.

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Throughout the transit area are all these different stylish pods where various F&B joints are located.


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And beyond this zone, the gates are located in a spacious open area.

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We headed up another floor where the lounges are located.

There are two business class lounges which are very empty.

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Since we were flying economy class and were using our Priority Pass lounge access, we were not allowed inside these seemingly spacious and well-furnished lounges.

Instead, we were directed to another lounge in the centre of the floor with no open views whatsoever.

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It has a bar and buffet area at the centre and rather funky looking birdcage chairs.

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The food was really good, I have to say .... Simple things but the quality was top notch.

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Definitely I had to have local beer anywhere in the world.

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We spent a good hour in the lounge before we had to make a move and boarded.

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The flight itself was nothing to shout above. It’s a standard economy class flight in 3-3 configuration. There are also 4-5rows of business class which was not sold in AZALjet. I think it was a last minute equipment swap to a mainline plane. Since I am no frequent flyer with them, I am not sure if there is shared fleet between AZAL and AZALjet for fleet flexibility.

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It’s an A320 that evening. If I am not wrong, the original flight was supposed to be an A319.

Legroom was okay. Good enough for my height.

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Browsing through their inflight magazine - an article of the new airline just launched the day before

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Their network is mainly regional and European-centric although they do have flights to New York, Beijing, and Bangkok is just launched a few days ago.

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Its widebody fleet

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It’s a very short 279 miles hop from Baku to Tbilisi.

Despite the short flight, a decent meal was served. The crew worked really hard tonight with a cart manned by 3 people. 1 for taking order, 1 for preparing drinks, and 1 for distributing meal. Very efficient.

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The flight was relatively uneventful and we landed on time at Tbilisi Airport. Disembarkation was by stairs and I was face to face with my first sighted AZAL fleet.

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Tbilisi airport is much more basic than Baku’s which really tells the wide discrepancy between the two countries’ economic wealth.

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SQueeze
Topic Author
Posts: 249
Joined: Thu Mar 20, 2014 11:33 pm

Re: Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Fri Nov 10, 2017 12:40 pm

Part 2: Baku, Azerbaijan

I had heard of Baku’s wealth but it is still not quite like what I imagined it to be. Parts of it is like London, parts of it seem to be very much like Nice or the Côte d’Azur. Elsewhere is more Muslim. And ultra contemporary architecture dos the cityscape.

Historically, Baku started as a Silk Road Town and Old Baku definitely has that feel. This is definitely more oriental than European. The heritage district is definitely well-restored (a UNESCO site) although I feel the planning and rejuvenation would be required to make it less sleepy. It’s still an interesting and surreal place and to note that it seems every house has a Mercedes. A village full of Mercedes. Remember Baku is ultra wealthy! I don’t think I have ever seen as many Mercedes in any other city.

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Adjacent to the old town and still within walking distance is Baku’s main commercial area which is more European or Mediterranean in flavour for sure. One could be forgiven to mistake such scene as the South of France?

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Beautiful buildings dot this area.

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As are beautiful well-kept Parks.

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In the night time, the city bustles and dazzles. This could be anywhere in Europe.

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Towering above the city, the Fairmont is quite a landmark on the hill above Old Baku. It’s shaped like flames which is a literal interpretation of Azerbaijan’s unique landscape of oil, gas, and fire. Yes, just outside the outskirts of Baku, there are flames burning on the ground due to the presence of natural gas seeping from the surface. Personally, I have a love hate relationship with this building. I hated it when I first saw it (too loud and ostentatious) but then I grew to like it. It somewhat grew on me as I walked around it and saw it from different angles.

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The view from the top of the hill is stunning. It does remind me of Marine Drive in Mumbai but of course Baku is much more polished.

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Elsewhere in the city, grandiose monument buildings are built from oil wealth. and Mercedes is indeed everywhere!

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This is probably my favourite building, the late Zaha Hadid’s most fluid work - the Heyder Aliyev Centre, a cultural centre (museum, concert hall). I am usually not a fan of her buildings but this one trumps almost every other contemporary architecture of the 21st century. It looks so light, elegant, beautiful, and effortless. Yes, I find her many other works too ‘effortful’.

This building is just so gracious - a masterpiece.

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These snails are so great as well. I rode on them!

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So is this sculpture of angelic wings.

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The rest of Baku (at least the visible parts to most tourists) definitely shout ‘I am wealthy!’ But there are also less wealthy parts which feel similar to Turkey just behind the well-polished facades not even a block away.

Food was definitely a highlight of my short stint here and I can’t speak any more highly of the elegant complexity of its flavours: sweet, sour, spicy notes, and of its textures: nutty, soft. It is one of the best cuisine I ever know of.

The most amazing plov (pilaf) with dried apricot and nuts. I ordered a fish dish with it as well and it was light and fresh. Superb.

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Sadj: chicken roasted on hot pan and again peppered with apricots, nuts, and spices.

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And bread with levengi stuffing which is essentially made from onions, walnuts, raisins, albukhara and alcha seasoning. SOunds very foreign? The taste is indescribably delicious. Sweet, sour notes with intense complexity. Amazing.

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My impression of Azerbaijan? Impressive well-polished city, amazing amazing awesome food, but the people are a little cold and unhelpful (contrary to the more warming Kazakhs). The taxi driver from the airport tried to extort me while already on the way (meter not run and I had to bargain there and then paying double the fare of an uber car). There are a lot more men on the streets than women and I wouldn’t say I felt most at ease although I believe it’s a very safe city. Beneath its sleek surface, I think there are a lot of issues but I would rather not comment further.
 
SQueeze
Topic Author
Posts: 249
Joined: Thu Mar 20, 2014 11:33 pm

Re: Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Fri Nov 10, 2017 12:41 pm

Part 3: Tbilisi, Georgia

Just a short hop away, neighbouring Georgia is culturally, linguistically, and geographically feels a continent apart.

Georgia is staunchly Christian and it has been so for almost 2,000 years. It’s one of the earliest Christian nation. And nothing speaks more of its history than its Churches.

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The interior is beautifully painted and the patina of time is giving it quite a character.

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Walking around the Old Town, it has been much better renovated than Baku’s. At least it’s bustling and lively and it’s nice to walk around for a few hours.

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It's a very quaint charming place with small town feel and lots of F&B offering which makes it more bustling that the museum-like Baku Old Town.

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Carpet seller! Yes, we are still on the Silk Road.

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Deeper into the Old Town, there is a small gorge. Who would have expected that this is in the middle of the city. But it is.... and with precariously-balanced houses on top which is a dense neigbourhood.

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There is a waterfall at the end of the gorge. It’s not a particularly spectacular place but if you know that this is right in the middle of the city, then one can appreciate it better.

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Adjacent to the main touristy area of the Old Town is the Bath District. This is supposed to be the oldest part of Tbilisi and yes, it feels more Turkic / Ottoman era here. There are still a handful of sulfur baths in this area. I didn’t try any though ... it was a hot day and I didn’t feel to get into anything warm.

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Tbilisi has a European Russified heart as well. Rustaveli Avenue is its main thoroughfare and yes, it feels European although it definitely feels less wealthy.

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Travelling by metro in different countries is always fun and a good way to know the local ways. And Tbilisi’s is no exception. Caution though: there are a lot of beggars, and they can be heart wrenching as most of them are old ladies. The country definitely has been struggling since the collapse of the Soviet Union, not to mention tensions with Russia, and they have other complicated issues such as breakaway Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. There are noticeably much fewer younger population (I suspect a lot of them are working in Europe or Russia). And they are left with these struggling elderlies.

Soviet modernist architecture is hauntingly beautiful

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The train is still from a long bygone era. It;s like walking into the past

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But it's convenient and clean

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I also took a day trip to the old capital, Mtskheta (don’t ask me to pronounce 5 consonants in one breath). Yes, I heard it spoken and Mtskhe is pronounced as it is in One sound.

It’s a sleepy town with more tourists than residents but quite picturesque .

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The focal point is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral church (again difficult to pronounce to non-Georgians).

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It was a hot day so let’s try a wine ice cream. Yes, wine is a staple here. They even claim its birth here 8,000 years ago. And yes, I love their wines.

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Food is another awesome awesome amazing adventure here.

It’s unlike anything we had seen or tasted before. If there is a best description I can give, it’s like French food with spice. The sauces are amazing. Rich and savoury.

As are the dips and in this case, the stuffing like mixture of the top of the fish made from pomegranate.

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Just like elsewhere along the Silkroad from China, some sort of dumplings will be part of the national cuisine repertoire. In Kazakhstan, it was manty. In Georgia, it’s Khinkali. It’s a soup dumpling. Here, the skin is a much thicker. It seems the further away from China, the thicker the skin is? Xiaolongbao is thinnest, followed by Tibetan momo, then Kazakh manty, then Georgian khinkali. At least these are the most familiar ones to me.

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This is the most famous national dish: Kachapuri. Cheese is also a national obsession. It’s a farmer's country in the hills.

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So what’s my impression of Georgia? I thought i like it better than Azerbaijan although I think I still have an issue with the coldness of the people. I also had the worst taxi driver in my life who asked for USD60 on arrival instead of the GEL60 I assumed on boarding. I couldn’t believe people could be such crooks. The food is definitely one of my favourites in the world. The sights are not blockbuster but they have their own charm. The city has a sort of balanced between rejuvenation, dilapidation, realness, and history. It’s not as polished on the surface and as such, I feel more soul here. Would I come back again to Azerbaijan or Georgia, I am really not sure. I quite unlikely although I am sure I would be craving for their amazing food in some time.

So... that’s the end of this trip report. Thank you for reading and I hope it has been an entertaining read to a little-known corner of the world
 
igtrader88
Posts: 18
Joined: Thu Mar 16, 2017 11:52 am

Re: Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Fri Nov 10, 2017 2:36 pm

Interesting report, I would add that the food in Armenia is also very good, do Yerevan if you have a chance.
 
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hirofumi
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Re: Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Fri Nov 10, 2017 2:37 pm

Wow, I had no idea Baku Airport was such a futuristic modern airport! And the city seems to have a good mix of all cultures. Georgia looks a lot like a laid-back version of Europe. Wine ice cream? Yummm. How was the use of English language in these countries? Beautiful photos and wonderful explanations.

If looking for friendly people everyone around me who has visited Iran said they were so hospitable. May be that'll be a good destination (unless if you've been there already). I'll be visiting there next month.
 
345tas
Posts: 113
Joined: Sun Mar 09, 2014 7:05 pm

Re: Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Fri Nov 10, 2017 3:10 pm

Terrific read, and pics.

A journey to Baku looks in order even for the airport alone.

From what I see and hear, both countries also have amazing natural beauty outside of the city, particularly Georgia.
 
Cush
Posts: 306
Joined: Sat Feb 14, 2009 4:42 am

Re: Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Fri Nov 10, 2017 6:04 pm

Great trip report! I was able to experience Baku Airport this past January and it blew me away! I couldn't believe how nice and modern it was. Wow! I brag about it to everyone that i meet. I should be flying through here again next month on my trip back to Kazan, Russia.
Fly me to the moon let me play among the stars.
 
767747
Posts: 2151
Joined: Wed Jan 26, 2005 10:08 am

Re: Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Sun Nov 12, 2017 6:09 pm

Great report and photos! It looks like you had an amazing trip.
I love to fly!
 
debonair
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Joined: Sat Jan 03, 2004 10:50 pm

Re: Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Tue Nov 14, 2017 11:21 am

Nice TR, but AZALjet was replaced by Buta Airways as the one and only LCC of the country.

You will find a pretty good article of the take-over here (but you have to use Google translator):
https://www.azadliq.org/a/28610696.html
 
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turk223
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Joined: Sat Aug 23, 2003 4:16 am

Re: Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Wed Nov 15, 2017 6:05 pm

Great report! Now, you have me interested in visiting...
 
N415XJ
Posts: 696
Joined: Thu Aug 14, 2014 4:04 pm

Re: Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Wed Nov 15, 2017 11:10 pm

Awesome report! Baku's airport looks absolutely stunning. It's hyper-modern but still has a lot of unique character, unlike other modern buildings which can appear cold and lifeless. Also, AZAL's livery is beautiful- I guess the Azerbaijanis have a great sense of style!
 
SQueeze
Topic Author
Posts: 249
Joined: Thu Mar 20, 2014 11:33 pm

Re: Hopping across Eurasia: Azerbaijan and Georgia with AZALjet

Sun Nov 19, 2017 1:14 am

hirofumi wrote:
Wow, I had no idea Baku Airport was such a futuristic modern airport! And the city seems to have a good mix of all cultures. Georgia looks a lot like a laid-back version of Europe. Wine ice cream? Yummm. How was the use of English language in these countries? Beautiful photos and wonderful explanations.

If looking for friendly people everyone around me who has visited Iran said they were so hospitable. May be that'll be a good destination (unless if you've been there already). I'll be visiting there next month.


Hirofumi san, English doesn’t get far in these parts except in high end establishments. Russian would have been more handy.

Iran is Very high on my list. Next year definitely I will be going. I look forward to read your report. Must be a lot of interesting flights and airplanes. Now, before they are all gone.


igtrader88 wrote:
Interesting report, I would add that the food in Armenia is also very good, do Yerevan if you have a chance.


Yup yup. I am thinking of doing Iran and Armenia next year together.


debonair wrote:
Nice TR, but AZALjet was replaced by Buta Airways as the one and only LCC of the country.

You will find a pretty good article of the take-over here (but you have to use Google translator):
https://www.azadliq.org/a/28610696.html


Good to know.


N415XJ wrote:
Awesome report! Baku's airport looks absolutely stunning. It's hyper-modern but still has a lot of unique character, unlike other modern buildings which can appear cold and lifeless. Also, AZAL's livery is beautiful- I guess the Azerbaijanis have a great sense of style!


Indeed. And lots of money :D


Cush wrote:
Great trip report! I was able to experience Baku Airport this past January and it blew me away! I couldn't believe how nice and modern it was. Wow! I brag about it to everyone that i meet. I should be flying through here again next month on my trip back to Kazan, Russia.


Kazan is one place I always want to visit!

767747 wrote:
Great report and photos! It looks like you had an amazing trip.

turk223 wrote:
Great report! Now, you have me interested in visiting...


Thank you.

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