TEFL Tip Tuesday: Why Your First Day of Teaching Will Probably be a Disaster and Why That’s Ok!

It’s been a while but I’m back with another TEFL Tip Tuesday. This post was inspired by a recent Q&A we held at the language centre I work in. It was for new teachers arriving in Myanmar and teaching English for the first time, we were asked to give them one piece of advice about the job and well, without even hesitating I said “Your first day will most likely be a complete disaster, but that’s half the fun!” and speaking from personal experience it’s the most honest advice I could give!

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My first week of teaching went less than smoothly but I loved every minute!

Whether you have previous teaching experience or not, chances are your first lesson as a ESL teacher is going to be a complete disaster. Yes, I said disaster and yes you’ll probably agree with me about ten minutes into your first day that absolutely nothing you planned is…well… going to plan!

Let’s rewind a little bit here. Back to before you’ve even walked into that classroom; because I imagine if you are reading this it is because you are looking for advice for your first day on the job and therefore, have not even stepped into a classroom unassisted yet. More likely than not you’ve just completed some kind of course in ESL/TEFL/TESOL (whatever acronym they slapped on your certificate) and although it may feel like a blur of irregular verbs and classroom management techniques, you’d be surprised how much of this TEFL stuff is now second nature to you.  This stuff is in your brain now. For better or for worse you are a qualified, certified English teacher. All that’s left to do is get that first, actual, real life lesson out of the way.

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Me and the girls after our Graduation from Xplore Asia’s TESOL program.

Let me be the first to tell you, that though it will probably go down in history as one of the most chaotic and or awkward hours of your life it will also be the first story you tell anyone back home when they ask you about your TEFL experience. It’s one of those funny in hindsight kind of experiences and as with any first, it is completely unavoidable.

 

So, let’s get it over with!

 

Your first day; you’re bright eyed and bushy tailed, eager to get into that classroom and show those tiny humans (or possibly fully grown adults depending on how you get placed) your plethora of knowledge of the English language. Only one problem though… this classroom does not have a computer, nor does it have a HDMI cable so that carefully put together introduction slide show you prepared is gone, out the window, useless!! OK, ok just stay calm and ignore the fact they’re all staring at you expecting greatness, like you’re Captain America and the fate of the universe rests solely in your trembling, sweaty hands. Improvise, the limit does not exist when it comes to the possibilities of a board and some chalk. Any lesson can be converted from powerpoint presentation to chalkboard masterpiece with enough energy and imagination.

A chalkboard masterpiece?

Before you know it the hour’s up and it’s onto lesson two and then just like that you’ve somehow stumbled your way through an entire day of teaching (your first day of teaching!!!) with only a few sticky fingers and a scattering of biscuit crumbs in your hair. Did 90% of what you had planned end up on the cutting-room floor? Probably. Did you have to use brain muscles you didn’t even know existed when one particularly mischievous teenager pointed to THAT word in the dictionary and asked you to explain it, even though he knows perfectly well what it means!? Well, yes but it’s nothing a trained professional like you can’t handle. And, did any student for one second suspect that you were kind of winging it for half, if not all, of the lesson? Nope! They had no idea. Believe me when I say they are much more interested in having a good time and learning something new than they are in whether or not your lesson plan has been followed to the exact second. As long as you open with something fun, use a bit of magician’s deception (read: big hand movements and distraction tactics) when things go slightly pear shaped, improvise your way around faulty technology or just plain non-existent technology and end your lesson on a memorable note then you did a pretty good job from where I’m standing. It may feel like a disaster in the moment but really the only person thinking that is you and when it’s all over that first lesson will be a cherished memory and one hell of a story.

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Note the tiny piece of paper he is drawing on, a particularly tight budget in my first semester meant I had to ration my paper handouts. This resulted in a few complaints from students but it’s nothing a few stickers can’t distract them from!

Your first day of teaching will probably be a disaster, that’s ok! Trust me, if it went 100% perfectly then you’d have a hard time keeping up with yourself for the rest of the semester. Some people will definitely take to the role more naturally than others, it’s just the luck of the draw, but no one in the history of the world has had a perfect first day on the job. I really do believe that the more disasters you encounter early on, the better teacher you become. It’s not just your students that should be learning in the classroom, your teaching technique and style will have to evolve and adapt with each new challenge that is thrown your way. No two days are ever the same and in my opinion it’s the best part of the job! Throw predictability out of the window, you’re a TEFL teacher now!

 

For more TEFL tips check out on of my previous posts:

TEFL Tip Tuesday: Cultural Differences and How to Handle Them

If you are a TEFL teacher then you are probably about to move to a completely new country with completely new and sometimes confusing cultural differences. The first thing I want to say is; don’t see this a bad thing. It can be and is a wonderful learning experience and a way to open your mind to other cultures so embrace them!

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We weren’t told about the Sports Meeting Opening Ceremony until we showed up to empty classrooms!

Cultural differences can present themselves in some weird and wonderful ways, in and out of the classroom. They can range from kids falling asleep in class to fellow teachers giving you little to no information about what is happening at the school. It can be frustrating and it can seem like they are doing these things because you aren’t performing well as a teacher but let me assure you that unless someone has come up and told you that you aren’t doing a good job or that something needs to change then these occurrences are nothing personal!

I have had kids fall asleep in class before, this tends to happen mostly in my middle school classes, I do not take it personally and I often leave them to sleep unless the class is laughing at them. The reason I don’t let this affect my class is because I know how hard these kids work every day. They are often awake well before me, with their school day starting with a 6:30am run around the campus, and are still in school when I’m climbing into bed for a Netflix marathon, they finish classes at 10pm. I design my classes as a safe and fun environment for my students to learn and practice English in, so I never get mad at a kid if they happen to fall asleep in class.

In the U.K. we are used to having instant access to all the school’s timetable information at the beginning of the year. We know in August when the last day of school will be at the end of the year and we know exactly what days off we will receive for each holiday. This is not always the case in China and I have learnt to just go with the flow a bit. This cultural difference can definitely be the most frustrating of all the ones I have come across but the best advice I can give is just to stay calm and every now and then give your school a gentle reminder that you might need to know how many days off you will receive over the Spring Festival so you can start booking your travels. Most of the time if they aren’t giving you any information it is genuinely because they themselves don’t have it yet, my school has to wait for the government to tell them when the exams will be before they can tell me when my last day of term is and that is just the way it is. This semester it meant that I was told the Friday before my last week of term that I only had a week left and it meant changing my lesson plans completely to combine two weeks into one and abandoning the rest of them. A mild annoyance but in the long run it gave me a longer holiday and meant I didn’t have to work on Christmas or my Birthday so I wasn’t complaining!

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Cultural differences mean that my students had an exam on Christmas day, something that would no doubt cause riots back in the U.K.

At the end of the day every country is different and if you can relax and embrace those differences you will grow a better understanding of the world and how it works. How we handle these differences can vastly change our experience of a country and I have always found that calm and understanding gets me further than annoyance and anger. So, be aware that things aren’t going to be the same as home and incorporate them into your understanding of the country and even your daily routine and you will come out the other end will the best experience you can get!

For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?

TEFL Tip Tuesday: Back it Up!

Computers are unreliable. Computers in Chinese schools are extra unreliable! There will be times when you arrive in class only to be told by a student that the computer is not working today. What are you going to do?! You spent a whole hour on your lesson plan, you have funny videos to show them and word games that require the code you stored ever so safely on your powerpoint presentation but didn’t think to write down in your notebook!

One of my first ever lessons the computer didn’t work so I had to do my whole lesson using the blackboard.

 

This all sounds very dramatic and worst-case scenario, but it can happen. Unless you want to sit in silence with your kids for an hour or, even worse, sing that lovely song you had downloaded and planned your lesson around out loud yourself… Having a backup plan for days when technology fails you is vital to your TEFL experience.

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My lesson planning notebook.

The first thing I advise you to do is write your entire lesson plan in a notebook, I have a specific notebook for planning my lessons and while it might seem like a waste of time to write it all down when you have created a perfectly good powerpoint, let me tell you it is an important tool to have. (If you aren’t a fan of handwriting your lesson then you can always use that handy lesson plan template they told you about back when you were learning the ropes. Type it up on your computer, print it out and carry it with you. Personally, I am a fan of the hand-written lesson plan but that is just me!) The reason I encourage you to have your lesson plan to hand at all times is because, when you think about it, your original lesson can most likely be adapted to work without using a computer. Some schools don’t even have computers in the classrooms! So apart from missing out an interesting video or funny gif you can present each class with the same lesson, computer or no computer.

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School in Thailand don’t usually have computers…

Say for example you are doing a lesson on personality traits, this could rely heavily on a computer for video examples of different personalities. Maybe you have a word game for a warmer, write this word game down in your notebook as well as all the possible answers you can think of (or that the internet told you about, but where’s the fun in that?) It might seem like common sense but honestly sometimes I create the warmer on my laptop and completely forget to write down the actual game in my book, I’ll open my notebook to see that all I have under the warmer heading is “word grid game”. GREAT, AILEEN!! What word did you decide on? What order did you put the letters in so that it isn’t obvious what word you they are trying to find? And what are some answers to the game so that when the students tell you it is too difficult you can rapid fire off some words to show them how easy it actually is?! The game can be easily transcribed from your notebook onto the board and actually I usually write the game on the board anyway to make sure everyone in the class can see it.

Crisis averted, you make it through the warmer and now you move on to presentation, this is where those videos would come in handy. The first thing I recommend is to have flashcards printed out, this was not possible at my school as we did not have access to a printer but if you can print flash cards then do print flash cards!! The second tip I have for this situation is to break out your inner artist and get drawing. Every school will have one of three things; a whiteboard, a blackboard or paper. Write the words alongside little illustrations showing what the word means, you may not be the best at drawing, but this is just an opportunity to have a laugh with your students about your artistic talents or lack thereof…

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All the emotions that grade one know… I know some of them aren’t emotions but they are six so I let them off with it!

Then comes the practice section of your lesson. What were those question and answer couplets again? If you power point was working, they would be right at the front of you mind but there is no computer today so what can you do? Have no fear the lesson planning notebook saves the day again! Write down your questions and answers in your lesson plan and not just on your presentation. This actually helps whether you have a working computer or not. Trying to remember the questions and answers with your back to the computer is just asking for a clever student to correct you on your sentence structure. A quick look at your notebook lesson plan and you are sorted. Just make sure that any changes you make to your powerpoint you also make to your notes!

Production is easy, the students do all the hard work there. You can close your book and watch the magic (or chaos depending on the class) happen as your students communicate the new language with each other. No technology needed!

Ok so this is all well and good but what if your lesson can’t be translated from digital to analogue quite so easily? Well I admit that is a bit of a dilemma. The best thing to do in this situation is to have a collection of games that you can fall back on if it is indeed a computer free day. (I will be writing a post soon all about my favourite TEFL games and why they work so keep an eye out for that). There are so many good games out there and the kids will love the fact that they “don’t have to do work” for a whole lesson. Of course, these are educational games so they are still learning… just don’t tell them that.

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It is always handy to have a set of pictionary cards on you!

The last thing I have to say on the theme of having a backup would be to literally have a backup. I have two usb sticks, this might seem like overkill, but my school’s computers tend to occasionally corrupt my usb which is less than ideal. There was even one class that I completely avoided plugging my usb into the computer, for pretty much the whole semester because every time I did it would stop working after that class! So my advice is to save it to your computer, save it to your external hard-drive and then save it on two usb sticks. Take it from someone how has lost a whole semester’s worth of lesson plans… BACK IT UP!

For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?

TEFL Tip Tuesday: Thinking Outside Box.

Welcome back to TEFL Tip Tuesday! This week I’ve been experimenting in my classroom and it has completely changed the way I think about teaching. These posts usually come from something I learned last semester and now use in class but if there is one thing I know about life, it’s that you never stop learning new things. So this TEFL tip is almost as new for me as it is for you!

I have this habit of getting stuck in a rut, scared to try new things in case it doesn’t work out and disrupts my safe little bubble that I have created for myself. Now I know what you’re thinking, I moved to a completely new country by myself into a job I had no practical experience in, doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of person who is scared to try new things does it?! Well that’s just it, with me I’m either in my safe little bubble or I’m making a drastic change to my life or the way I do things. Recently I’ve been a bit bored when teaching my classes; besides my one grade two class I’ve used the same format in my lessons for almost a year and, well, it was time for a change! It’s not that the classes themselves are boring, in fact depending on the topic I can get some very entertaining answers, but I wanted to find a way for my students to practice their English that wasn’t just a question and answer session with the person next to them. This is what led me to this week’s lesson plan.

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What is the opposite of a staring contest?

All my classrooms have exactly the same layout; about fifty students at square desks, split into seven rows, squeezed into a medium sized square room. This was the box I needed to think outside of. I was taught the PPP structure of lesson planning in both of my TEFL courses and I really do believe in it but it can be difficult to get such a large class to participate in a communicative production activity that isn’t centred around them sitting at their desks. Add to that the fact that my school has strong focus of textbook led lessons, the thought of doing any kind of activity that involves rearranging the classroom has always slightly worried me. So, naturally, I decided to dive right into the deep end and do a lesson on directions that had the students practically turn their classroom upside down.  I first split the class into two teams. Three people from each team created a maze and five people from each team were blindfolded and directed through the maze by the rest of the class using the new target language. The first team to navigate all five people through the maze were the winners.

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This looks like madness but I was assured they had a plan…

Now, I’m not recommending that you start with something as drastic as turning your classroom into a maze but I am suggesting that you think about how you can use the classroom differently. How can you engage your students in a new and exciting way? I made the game a bit mysterious by sending the five students from each team out of the classroom before I explained what was happening, this made the students who remained in the classroom feel like they were in on a secret and therefore more engaged when I explained to them that they were going to create a maze out of desks and chairs. The students outside of the classroom found the mystery exciting and were eager to impress their classmates and win the race through the maze. This got the whole class working together (with a few exceptions that tried to sabotage their own teammates, but there will always be at least one troublemaker when you teach over one thousand kids) and made them excited to use the English they already knew as well as the new language they learned at the start of the lesson.

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Working together!

The most important thing that I learned this week is that although thinking outside the box can be scary and the results can be uncertain, it is so worth the risk! I’ve always found that using games and fun activities works best in my classrooms but now I know that I can take it to the next level and I encourage you to do the same!

For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?

Chengdu: More than just the Panda capital of the world

Think of Chengdu and the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Giant Panda Research centre but as I found out recently there is a lot more to this ancient town than the fluffy face of the world wildlife foundation.

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Young Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Panda Base

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in Western China and has some outstanding places to visit that weren’t even on my radar before my visit in July. It took four hours to travel to Chengdu from Xi’an on the fast train, I accidently booked myself onto a first-class carriage but no complaints from me (that leg room was more than worth the extra £5)!

The metro system in Chengdu is easy to navigate for the most part, as long as you check the map before you get on the train it is almost impossible to get lost. There are however a few places that are not accessible by the metro lines such as the main market street, the panda base and the Leshan Buddha which is actually located outside of town (I will be writing a separate post all about how to get there soon because it is a bit more complicated than other attractions in Chengdu).

My accommodation was perfectly central and easy to get to from the main railway station when I arrived in Chengdu. I stayed in a quirky little backpacker’s called the Blacksmith Hostel and I have to say you definitely get what you pay for. If you are looking for luxury then I maybe wouldn’t stay here but it was perfect for me and my tight budget. My only complaint would be the lack of insect screen on the windows as the room was almost constantly filled with mosquitoes and I ended up covered in bites, literally from head to toe! The toilets and showers were both accessed from the balcony which made the thought of going to the toilet slightly unappealing in the middle of the rain storms that frequented my stay. I maybe wouldn’t stay there again, but it fulfilled it’s primary purpose of somewhere to pass out at the end of each day.

 

I spent 3 full days in Chengdu and hardly even scratched the surface on what the city has to offer but if you are heading there anytime soon then these are the places I recommend visiting;

 

  1. The Chengdu Research of Giant Panda Breeding

No trip to Chengdu is worth the journey if you don’t make it up to the research base on the outskirts of the city. This is usually the main reason people visit Chengdu and it was definitely my motivation for booking a trip to Sichuan province. The base is currently home to around 83 pandas varying from new born cubs to adults and is by far the best place to see these adorable creatures up close. The base has been working in Giant Panda conservation since 1987 and has played a huge role in taking the bears off the endangered species list. It rained the entire time we were at the base, but it was still one of the best experiences of my life. Being able to see pandas up close and watching them interact with each other was beyond anything I had ever imagined before. There are plenty of places to eat around the park as well as a panda museum and red panda enclosures; definitely enough to keep you occupied for a whole day.

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You’ve never seen a happier human than me next to a group of panda bears!
  1. The Leshan Buddha

The largest sitting stone Buddha in the world, Leshan Buddha has to be seen to be believed! This impressive stone structure took 90 years to build and was completed only after the death of the Monk who originally commissioned it. There are two options to view the Buddha; you can take a boat down the river to right in front of the towering monument or you can view it by climbing to the top of the cliff face it has been sculpted out of and descending the steep stone steps that are carved all the way down the side of the figure’s surrounding walls. We opted to do both, and I would highly recommend this if you have the time.

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The Buddha from the boat
  1. Chengdu Museum

Firstly, this is a completely free activity, so you have no excuse not visit the museum! Secondly, I spent so much time wondering from floor to floor and learning about Chengdu’s history that the place was closing by the time I strolled out of last exhibit… oops! Seriously though this should definitely be on your list of things to do if you are interested in the history of the places you visit. The museum covers everything from the first settlers in the area all the way up to the present day including a very detailed and fascinating showcase of traditional Chinese shadow puppets. Add to all this that it is right in the centre of town you really have no reason not to have go and check it out.

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I waited ten minutes for this guy to leave so I could take a photo of the shadow puppets and ended up liking the photo with him in more than the one without…
  1. Jinsha Site and Museum

While you can find most of the information about the Jinsha site in the Chengdu museum if you are interested at all in archaeology then it is worth-while going to the Jinsha site to see the excavation process. As well as the impressive archaeological site there is a whole museum dedicated to the important finds found on location including the beautiful “Golden Sun Bird” a ring shaped piece of foiled uncovered in 2001 and the “Golden Mask” an eerie gold mask believed to be over 3,000 years old. Also on the site is a beautiful bamboo garden and “ebony forest” surrounding the two museum buildings.

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The excavation site at Jinsha Site Museum

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of history there is to find in Chengdu. I arrived knowing only that I was desperate to visit the Panda Base and left with a deeper understanding of the city and it’s culture. I could easily return to Chengdu and have a completely different list of things to do, there is just so much to this city it truly took my breath away. I know it is easy to book onto a tour that takes you to Beijing for the Great Wall of China, to Xi’an for the Warriors, Chengdu for the Pandas and back again, all in one week! But, if you can, I highly recommend spending at least a week in Chengdu in order to fully experience everything this city has to offer.

Xi’an: How to get to the Terracotta Army and what to expect when you get there.

My time teaching first grade at Sanxin School came to an end at the beginning of July when the summer holidays began. There were many tears, some of them mine, many hugs and more high fives than I could count, but it is not good bye! I might not be their English teacher next semester, but I will still be able to visit them in when I have time off teaching middle school. I had such an amazing group of kids over the past few months and the last week of school with them was so special but more about that in a later post! For now, I’ll get on with what you came here for; The Terracotta Army.

With school out for summer and contract completion bonus in hand I decided to explore some more of China. The Terracotta Army was one of the things I was most excited about when I made the decision to come and teach in China and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. It definitely has to be seen with your own eyes to appreciate the sheer size and scale of the place!

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The scale of this place blew my mind!

We flew into Xi’an airport from Zhuhai, a small town just South of the village I teach in. The airport in Xi’an has a bus route but, for ease with all of our bags, we opted to take a taxi to our hotel. The taxi ride from the airport to the centre of town takes around half an hour depending on traffic, we arrived around 8pm so there was very little traffic between the airport and our hostel inside the old city wall.

We stayed in “Bestay Hotel Express” and for the price we paid the rooms were great. The first night three of us stayed in a family room which is a bunk bed that has a double bed on the bottom and a single bed on the top with a reasonably sized private shower room and toilet. After the boys left for Beijing I moved into a one-person room, it was a bit on the small size but how much room does one person really need for one night anyway?

The night we arrived we took a wonder down the Beiyuanmen Muslim Market, jam packed with food stalls and souvenir shops. This sprawling market is a feast for the senses. The Muslim Quarter is the hub of the Muslim community in Xian and is located to the north of the West Street in the city centre. It covers several blocks of the old city and it is definitely the place to go if you are looking for fantastic street food and a keepsake or two.

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Beiyuanmen Muslim Market
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Mango ice-cream made from scratch!!

Saturday morning it was a reasonably early rise to make the most of our only full day in Xi’an. From our hotel we took the public bus straight to the main train station. To the right-hand side of here you will find a coach service to the Terracotta Army. Don’t worry about getting on the right bus, you will be waved down by multiple enthusiastic bus conductors all desperate for you to get on their bus. We literally jumped onto a moving bus as it drove out of the station! I am sure, however, that we would have easily found a stationary bus if we hadn’t been herded onto our coach by one very determined woman so don’t feel like you have to jump onto a moving vehicle.

The bus will drop you at the entrance to the main square, this is a good place to stop for something to eat if you arrive around lunch time. I found the food was priced around the same as the rest of China, but drinks can be almost three times the price, so look out for that when you order. Leave the square to the right and follow the stream of people towards the main entrance gate. Here you will find the ticket office, make sure you have cash on you before you arrive because they do not accept card or WeChat pay.

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Egg fried rice from the main square.

You come through the gate into a garden and there is about a fifteen-minute walk through this before you actually reach the hangers built to protect the historical site. Hanger one is by far the best in terms of showing the massive scale of the Terracotta Army site as it has had the most excavation work done to it out of the three hangers that are open. If you are interested in the archaeological process, hanger two has the best examples of warriors still half buried in the ground. Hanger three is the smallest but gives you the best views of the warriors close up and in situ (you can see them in glass casings in hanger two if the hanger three is too crowded for you). There is also a museum on the site with the bronze chariots that were found on the site as well an exhibition about Pompeii, which I was not expecting to find in the middle of China if I am being honest!

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Hanger 1: Front Entrance View.
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The warriors are reassembled and put back where they were originally found.
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One of the reconstructed warriors on display in hanger two.
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Hanger three.

The Terracotta Army took us the whole day to explore and was absolutely fascinating to see in real life! To think that something of that scale can remain hidden for thousands of years until one farmer needed to dig a well blows my mind. Another bucket list item ticked off the list!

Trip details and costs:

  • Flight from Zhuhai to Xi’an: £60
  • Taxi from airport: £15
  • Bestay Hotel: £15 per night, per person
  • Bus from Xi’an to the Terracotta Army: £1
  • Terracotta Army entrance fee: £15