Oh Babushka!: Ukraine International Airlines Economy Flight from Yerevan – Kiev – Almaty

Ukraine International Airlines

Flight Numbers: PS 614; PS 537

Flight Time: 3 hrs; 5h 45 min

Equipment: B737-800/900

Seat: Bitch Seat, Window Seat

I was trying to fly from Yerevan to Almaty. The cheapest ticket by far, was Ukraine International Airlines, which has me backtracking, flying Yerevan -> Kiev -> Almaty. Since I have plenty of time, it wasn’t a big deal to me.

As I learned, cheap tickets sell seats. It was my first time flying Ukraine International Airlines, and it was quite a learning experience for me for several reasons.

Check In: Print Your Boarding Passes at Home

My adventure started at check in. I did online check in rather late, and ended up in the bitch seat for the Yerevan – Kiev flight. It’s a short flight, so I will live. But that’s not the adventure. Being a full service airline, I assumed that I can get a boarding pass at the counter for free. Well, I was wrong. At the check in at Yerevan International Airport, the ground agent told me that I had to get a digital boarding pass, or my own printed boarding pass, failing which, I would have to pay for a boarding pass (she wasn’t nasty or anything). Thankfully, I was there rather early, so generating a mobile boarding pass was still possible. Lesson learned: When flying Ukraine International Airlines, please generate mobile boarding pass, or print at home. It has the Ryanair model of boarding passes.

Ukraine International Airlines

Boy! That’s Not Legroom

The flight itself – I am not a huge fan of the seating. It’s regular 3-3 like most B737s, and although it reports as average legroom, there was something about UIA that made it feel very cramped. I am just 1.63m/5”4, so if I felt the squeeze, I imagine so did everyone else. It really felt a lot more like a budget airline’s legroom than a full service airline’s average legroom. They served some drinks for the Yerevan to Kiev flight.

Oh Babushka! A Memorable Seatmate

The Kiev to Almaty flight was quite eventful, thanks to my seatmate. For the Kiev to Almaty redeye flight, the flight left with only one empty seat, and I managed to score that seat. But once again, things didn’t exactly work out as planned. A babushka, also a customer of size (COS) planted herself down in the middle seat beside me, leaving the aisle seat empty. I tried to gesture to her that she could move to the empty aisle seat, but she didn’t, so for the first 2 hrs of the flight, she leaned 30% of her body weight on me.

When I picked through the literature at the seat pocket, I noticed that food was for sale. Hence, I assumed that UIA uses the BA (and several US legacy)’s model of having food for sale. As it turns out, UIA does provide food for free on certain flights, and the Kiev – Almaty flights is one of those. As it was pretty late, I declined food.

Well, the babushka beside me found the concept of rejecting free food to be rather alien. She got very concerned that I might fly hungry. She poked me in the belly, and then poked her own belly, presumably indicating that I am too skinny for my own good (flattering, if untrue). She then fished out bread rolls from her handbag, and proceeded to stuff those bread rolls into my hands. At this point, I quite honestly didn’t know how to politely decline the bread rolls in my hand, so I simply had to eat them up.

Probably about 3 hrs into the flight, she finally got that it would be more comfortable for both of us if she moved to the empty aisle seat, so I finally got some extra room to my side.

Ukraine International Airlines

In conclusion

Despite being a full service flight, UIA’s model is closer to a budget airline. Do pre-print/generate your boarding pass, and you might or might not have food. The babushka beside me is also a lovely person, and made the flight one of my most memorable ones!

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Hotel Review: DoubleTree Yerevan

DoubleTree Yerevan

Elite Status: Hilton Gold

The DoubleTree Yerevan is an 4-star Hilton property in downtown Yerevan, within walking distance from Republic Square. I spent two nights here using Hilton points rate, using 60,000 points for two nights.

DoubleTree Yerevan

Check In/Check Out

I showed up at noon, and was given a room immediately. Check out was fast, too.

Room

As a Hilton Gold, I was given a high floor room. The room is of a decent size, with the King bed occupying majority of the room. There’s a long table by the wall, and a mini-fridge. Interestingly, the contents (3 bottles of soda) of the mini-fridge was complimentary according to the front desk. The wardrobe has a safe and ironing board.

DoubleTree Yerevan

DoubleTree Yerevan

There are power outlets by the bedside, and the wifi worked fine during my stay.

DoubleTree Yerevan

Bathroom

The bathroom is fairly standard-sized, with a rain shower, toilet/bidet, and single sink vanity. It also has something that you don’t see often – towel warmer! While the weather wasn’t cold during my stay, it’s always nice to have a warm towel.

They stock CrabTree & Evelyn products.

DoubleTree Yerevan

DoubleTree Yerevan
Food

I chose breakfast in lieu of points as my Hilton Gold amenity. Breakfast has a large selection, but it didn’t vary much over the two days I was there. You can get a substantial breakfast.

DoubleTree Yerevan

DoubleTree Yerevan

Amenities

There’s a 24hr gym at one of the top floors, but I didn’t check it out when I was there.

Overall

Although it is located in downtown Yerevan, DoubleTree Yerevan is located ~10 min walk from Republic Square, i.e. some ways from tourist attractions vis-à-vis other major chains like Marriott. However, it’s a perfectly functional hotel. I wouldn’t go out of my way to stay at it, but also have nothing bad to write about it.

Lounge Review: Yerevan International Airport Converse Bank Airport Lounge

Yerevan International Airport Converse Bank Business Lounge

Location: Entrance within Duty Free

Hours: 24 hrs

Access Method: Priority Pass

Yerevan International Airport Converse Bank Business Lounge

Yerevan International Airport’s Converse Bank Airport Lounge is a long lounge vaguely separated into four areas, and almost spans the length of the airport’s departure waiting area. There’s a TV area with some sofas, a dining area with dining tables and chairs, a sofa area, and an area with lounge chairs.

The floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the departure gates, so you can see when your flight starts boarding. There’s also a smoking room.

Yerevan International Airport Converse Bank Business Lounge

Yerevan International Airport Converse Bank Business Lounge

Food/Drinks

The food is sandwich and snack in nature. They feature local wines. I didn’t try the food, but did get some soda.

Yerevan International Airport Converse Bank Business Lounge

Bathroom/Shower

The bathroom was clean.

Yerevan International Airport Converse Bank Business Lounge

Service

Brisk – dirty dishes were cleared quickly.

Wifi / Power Outlets

Wifi worked well when I was there. There were power outlets by the window.

Overall

The food selection is somewhat underwhelming, but the spacious lounge is a comfortable spot to get some drinks and get some work done while waiting for a flight.

Yerevan International Airport Converse Bank Business Lounge

Marshrutka & Hitchhiking: Daytrip from Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park for under 2 USD

Ala Archa National Park

What led me to Ala Archa National Park? In Chinese culture, the Tienshan mountain range is this mystical place where highly-skilled swordsmen live in seclusion. It’s also the site for magical cure-all “snow lotus” that’s supposed to cure all ills. Ala Archa National Park is part of the Tienshan mountain range, and about 30 min car ride from Bishkek. I didn’t find swordsmen or the elixir of life, but I did find heaven on earth.

There are some places on earth of exquisite beauty that you don’t believe exist, until you visit them for real. My little slice of heaven on earth is Kyrgyzstan’s Ala Archa National Park. Thankfully, it didn’t break the bank. It costs 115 KGS, or less than 2 USD.

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Total price: 115 som
25 som: Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park by Marshrutka
80 som: Ala Archa National Park Entrance fee
10 som: Oto Say to Bishkek

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Getting from Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park

The easiest way obviously involves hiring a car or a taxi, or simply booking a tour from Bishkek. The above still won’t break the bank. Roundtrip prices start from about 30 USD. But I’m not about easy. I am about cheap – I took marshrutka 265 to get from Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park.

Marshrukta 265: Getting from Osh Bazaar to Ala Archa National Park

Marshrutka 265 leaves from Osh Bazaar. I’m not entirely sure about timing, but I’d say marshrutkas seem to leave every 20-30 mins or so. I got there around 10.30 am, and the marshrutka left at 11 am. The marshrutka actually doesn’t go all the way to Ala Archa National Park, it stops at Kashka Suu, but because several other passengers were headed that way (school kids, an older lady), the driver decided to drive there all the way. He didn’t charge extra, but charged the standard 25 som.

Where to find Marshrutka 265 at Osh Bazaar?

It is by the bus station on Toktogul Street by Osh Bazaar. You should be able to find it near the junction of B. Beyshenalieva Street and Toktogul Street. I pinned it on the map below (the Post Office pin). That is where the bus starts. Ala Archa National Park or Kashka Suu is its last stop.

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At Ala Archa National Park

Hitchhiking: First Entrance to Second Entrance
The bus dropped me off at the first entrance of Ala Archa National Park, where the entrance fee of 80 som was collected.

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From the first entrance to the second entrance, it’s still a good 8 km, uphill. There were taxis waiting there for the ride, but I decided to test out how easy it was to hitchhike. Having said that, I was prepared to walk the whole way, and budgeted the time for it.

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Hitchhiking wasn’t very hard, actually. For the trip up to the second gate, I got picked up in under 20 mins by a trio going up to the national park for a photo shoot.

Second Entrance
When you arrive at the second entrance, you’ll see an Alpine hut. Hiking at Ala Archa National Park can take as long, or as short as you want. There are people who go on long hikes and bring their camping gear for overnight camps. I wanted to do this as a day trip, and was mindful of the fact that I potentially had to walk all the way back to the first entrance to catch the marshrutka back to Bishkek.

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I took the River Trail (turn right), and slowly strolled for only 1 hr round trip. Although the hike was very short, the views were truly rewarding. The Ala Archa River has the most mesmerizing color. Fall is also upon Bishkek, so some of the leaves have turned yellow and orange.

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Long story short, do it. You’ll be happy you visited Ala Archa National Park.

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Getting back from Ala Archa National Park to Bishkek

At about 2 pm, I returned to the second entrance, and started walking down towards the first entrance. It took less than 20 mins before three young men stopped their car, and picked me up. They were on a trip to get some fish from Kashka Suu for their family. They dropped me off at Oto Say, where I grabbed a mashrutka for 10 som back to Bishkek Park.

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Some thoughts on Daytrip to Ala Archa National Park

If I were to do it again, I would probably hire a car so I have more time to hike at Ala Archa National Park. Unfortunately, the cost of a solo traveler hiring a car is prohibitive. If you have travel companions, I would suggest hiring a car, or at least the taxi from gate 1 to gate 2.

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I think locals are amazing in their generosity. It was actually the first time I ever hitchhiked, and it was very humbling to have to live off the generosity of others. Having said that, I wouldn’t advice people to continually tax locals by hitchhiking. It was a great experience, and I was very thankful to them for their generosity, but don’t abuse it.

Also, do bring a rain jacket. The weather changes rapidly in the mountains – it went from sunny to drizzle in a matter of minutes.

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Hotel Review: Hyatt Place Yerevan

Hyatt Place Yerevan

Elite Status: Hyatt Globalist

Hyatt Place Yerevan is a 4-star Category-2 Hyatt limited service property centrally located in Yerevan’s Republic Square. The 8-story building is a standard Hyatt Place, with a very solid breakfast.

I spent one night here using points, paying 8,000 Hyatt points.

Check In/Check Out

Check in was a little bit delayed, because they were having some trouble coding the card, but beyond that, standard brisk check in and check out.

Hyatt Place Yerevan

Room

As a Globalist, I got a standard King room, but on a high floor. It didn’t have views, since it looked into the building opposite the Hyatt Place.

The room is of a good size, with a large sectional couch by one wall, and a large King bed. There’s a long work desk by the wall, wardrobe with safe/ironing board, and a mini-fridge as well.

While welcoming elite members is not the standard procedure, Hyatt Place Yerevan actually delivered a small platter of cheese, honey and bread sticks, along with a bottle of wine. The gift was appreciated.

Hyatt Place Yerevan

Bathroom

Hyatt Place Yerevan

The bathroom is a bit small, but they packed in a lot – single sink vanity, and a tub with shower.

They stock Barney Kenet MD products, which is okay.

Hyatt Place Yerevan

Hyatt Place Yerevan

Food

The breakfast is a surprisingly good spread. They have an egg chef who made cooked-to-order eggs. The breakfast area was also well-stocked with breakfast pastries, fruit, and there were several hot selections as well.

Hyatt Place Yerevan

Service

Friendly and professional.

Amenities

There’s a 24hr gym on site on the second level, but I didn’t check it out.

Overall

Hyatt Place Yerevan’s location works both ways. Its Republic Square location makes it excellent, but when I stayed, there was some construction. The windows are also not completely soundproof against the festivities that might occur in Republic Square. The property is very much a standard Hyatt Place, but it has good breakfast, and goes beyond for elite recognition.

Hotel Review: Holiday Inn Tbilisi

Holiday Inn Tbilisi

Elite Status: IHG Platinum

Holiday Inn Tbilisi is a modern 4-star Intercontinental Group property located near the Technical University metro station. It was a lifesaver.

First off, I screwed up. I booked it sometime back, somehow forgot that I was taking an overnight train, and booked it for the wrong night. When I showed up at the hotel, the front desk manager was a bit quizzical, but he actually didn’t give me a hard time. Instead, he assured me that it was not going to be an issue as they still have rooms, and he went above and beyond. I was actually early for check in. He ushered me to the restaurant for a free pot of tea, while they expedited a room. It was ready within 30 mins.

I spent one night here on points – 20,000 IHG points.

Holiday Inn Tbilisi

Check In/Check Out

Although I showed up at 11.30 am with the reservation for the wrong day, Holiday Inn Tbilisi actually accommodated me. It took them 30 mins to get the room ready, and while waiting, they provided me with some tea in their restaurant.

Check out was easy as well.

Holiday Inn Tbilisi

Room

I was given a deluxe room in the second highest floor. It is large, and offers views of Tbilisi. There’s a King bed, two large lounge chairs, and a long desk by the wall. About 15 mins after I settled into the room, a staff member also brought in a welcome amenity consisting of a platter of dried fruit and nuts, and a beverage.

There are power outlets by the bed, and wifi worked fine during my stay.

Holiday Inn Tbilisi

Bathroom

Holiday Inn Tbilisi

The bathroom features a very long sink with double taps. There’s also a tub/shower combo on a raised wood platform, along with toilet and bidet. Initially, I was a bit skeptical about the shower, as there’s no barrier, but the platform drained the water away.

Holiday Inn Tbilisi

They stock Archive-brand shower amenities, with some interesting scents like Green Tea and Willow. I found it pleasant.

Holiday Inn Tbilisi

Service

What can I say? I totally screwed up this one, and they were so amazingly gracious about my screw up, and went above and beyond in their generosity towards me. Their service scores an A+++ from me.

Amenities

They have a beautiful lap pool, and a 24 hr gym. The lap pool’s temperature is perfect, and the area around the pool is very inviting. They also provide poolside service.

Holiday Inn Tbilisi

Overall

Although Holiday Inn Tbilisi is located some ways from downtown Yerevan, it was quite easy to reach downtown by metro (~15 min). It has an amazing lap pool, and their service is just excellent.

Overnight Train from Baku to Tbilisi

Baku - Tbilisi Overnight Train #38

Train Number: 38

Travel Time: ~13 hrs

Travel Class: 4-bed sleeper, upper bunk (kupe)

Price: 34 AZN (~20 USD at time of writing)

Departure Time: 21.50

Arrival Time: ~ 11.00

To save on one night’s accommodation and also travel efficiently, I booked a second-class, four-bed train from Baku to Tbilisi. The trip took about 12 hours, although quite a bit of it was basically waiting to clear immigration on both ends.

Baku - Tbilisi Overnight Train #38

Booking the Ticket

Azerbaijan Railways actually has a website, where you can book the tickets online. I did muck around the website, and even got as far as selecting seats. In the end, I didn’t click through to buy, although there are reports of people being able to do so online. I am not sure how payment works, although for sure, it is possible to purchase online. Why? Because when I showed up at the train station to buy my ticket, the attendant asked if I were here to collect my online ticket. During popular months of travel, I’d suggest you purchase online, just to guarantee your seats.

After checking that there was plenty of availability, I decided to just buy my ticket the day before departure. I rolled over to the railway station, which is at the 28 May metro station. Follow the signs for “Railway Station” exit, and then turn left. The railway station is at a mall of sorts, and the ticket sales is near the KFC in the mall.

In the middle of the ticket sales is an attendant. You want to talk to her to get a queue number. I waited for about 20 mins before I was served. Remember to bring your passport. I told the ticket agent my route, date, and class of service (in English), and she ticketed it in 5 mins. Online reports of cash-required are outdated. I was able to purchase my ticket with a credit card at the window.

Baku - Tbilisi Overnight Train #38

The Trip

I’d say the announcement system wasn’t particularly helpful. Thankfully, at around 9.30 pm, there were only two trains. I just walked down the platform, and located my train, which wrote Baku-Tbilisi.

If you can’t understand your ticket like me, just approach the ticket attendants. They will point you in the right direction and tell you your seat number as well.

The four-bed cabins are pretty okay. At around 10.30 pm, a train staff came by to distribute bed linens, so you won’t have to sleep on their rather well-used pillows. I actually passed out for a good 9 hours, and by the time I woke up, we were already at the Azerbaijan-Georgia border on the Azerbaijan side.

On the Azerbaijan side, the immigration officers board the train, and proceed to check out passengers individually, so expect an interview with the immigration officer. After about 1.5 hrs, the exit immigration was done, and after about 20ish minutes, we were on the Georgia side.

On the Georgia side, they simply boarded the train, collected everybody’s passports, and processed them in a building. They did call some individuals, although that is more the exception than the rule. At about 10 am, we pulled away from the border and headed towards Tbilisi.

The train pulled into Tbilisi station at around 11 am. The Tbilisi railway station is actually very close to the Station Square metro station. Just exit the railway station at the ground level, take a right, and you’ll be at Station Square metro station.

Overall

The train journey was pretty fine. They don’t have anything on board, so bring supplies. Also, although I didn’t personally venture, apparently, according to my German cabin-mate, the bathroom is nasty. It is not the Orient Express, but it’s a functional overnight train ride. The few daylight hours we had on the train weren’t particularly scenic; I am not sure if this would be different for a day-time train.