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Liang Hong, left, and Zhang Xinyu visit Chernobyl in August, 2012. Seen here visiting Chernobyl in August 2012, have spent the past eight years skipping across the globe by commercial aircraft, boat and car filming for their show, On the Road. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Xinyu

They have snuck into Syria, been invited to the presidential palace in Mogadishu, visited Osama bin Laden's villa, gazed at the sites inside Baghdad's Green Zone and wandered around Chernobyl. They have climbed into a volcano, swam with piranhas, camped in -54 C and sailed around the world.

Move over, Rick Steves, Anthony Bourdain and Karl Pilkington. The small screen has a new set of headline-grabbing explorers, whose daring videos have together attracted more than a billion views – and the ire of China's censors after drone footage they shot was used by rebels to spot Islamic State fighters.

Liang Hong, 36, and Zhang Xinyu, 38, have spent the past eight years skipping across the globe by commercial aircraft, boat and car.

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Their adventures have made them among China's most famous online figures. Along the way, they also have become accidental representatives of a rising China at its most inviting. They are neither commercial conquerors nor political meddlers. They are instead fellow travellers, concerned about historic preservation, intrigued by the past and determined to reveal the most remote and hostile corners of the world as they are experienced by ordinary people.

"We are just recording the road we've been travelling these past few years," Ms. Liang said. "We are both people who cherish life."

"A flower growing in a place hit by a depleted uranium bomb. That's what we look for," Mr. Zhang said.

While filming for their show, On the Road, they have cooked Chinese food for troops in Iraq, been robbed in South Africa and handcuffed in the United States.

Next up during their fourth season: exploring with a plane they will fly themselves, and expect to land at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Once they've finished that, they will trace the Arctic Circle around the top of the Earth – a trip that will see them spend a lot of time on Canadian soil.

Their wanderlust is emblematic of a China increasingly hungry to see the world: Chinese travellers made 120 million trips abroad last year. In 2014, they spent more than $210-billion on foreign travel, and Ms. Liang and Mr. Zhang offer a preview of the future, where a more daring generation skips Vancouver for the Northwest Passage and favours the Amazon over Amsterdam.

Many are like Ms. Liang and Mr. Zhang, whose backgrounds offer few hints they would one day set foot in more than 160 countries. Both have mothers who are accountants. They grew up poor but together, first meeting when she was four and deciding at an early age they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together; they married in Antarctica.

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As an adult, he went into business, selling tofu before expanding into international trade, which took him to Syria, Iran, Libya and North Korea.

But the earthquake that hit China's Sichuan province in 2008, killing 70,000, caused him to abandon the pursuit of profit. "The most important thing in life is to experience all kinds of things and see the way all kinds of people live," he said.

As they began to travel, they brought along video cameras and, when they came home, invited friends over to watch.

One guest suggested other people might want to see the couple camping in the Russian winter and traipsing around Chernobyl – and suggested uploading videos to a Chinese equivalent of YouTube.

Making the show is expensive: Once, to get out of Afghanistan, they chartered an IL-76 transport for $1.4-million. Their third season cost $4.5-million to produce, and online ad revenues bring in barely enough to cover the Zhongnanhai cigarettes Mr. Zhang sucks back in quick succession.

But the couple bring so many views – 1.1 billion, at last count – that sponsors have opened their wallets. Mercedes-Benz, Asus and DHL pay for prominent product placements, even when the couple came up with ideas that bordered on foolhardy.

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When Syria hit the news last year, they heard constant mention of a single name: Kobani, a city that had become a battleground for the Islamic State.

But what was life like for people there? "I just wanted to go and look," Mr. Zhang said.

Their videos show them sneaking into Syria in armoured cars protected by masked men with machine guns. "The first time I saw Kobani, I could not say anything. I was like, 'Is this a city? This is just a heap of rubble,'" Ms. Liang said.

In a city few outsiders have visited since war broke out, they found piles of unexploded ordnance and danced with a battalion of female Kurdish soldiers. At a cemetery for soldiers, bodies were buried in graves so shallow that a fetid odour lingered.

The couple were granted permission to interview three captured Islamic State fighters, who were dragged out with their eyes covered and, not long after, executed.

They even used their camera drone to help Kurdish fighters spot Islamic State artillery and machine gun positions. It made for dramatic footage.

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But the Syria episodes hit the Internet last November, the same month the Islamic State executed a Chinese hostage; soon after, every second of On the Road was yanked, raising worries the hosts had fallen afoul of censors unwilling to countenance edgy material.

The couple says it's not true: "Some terrorist organizations took us as their enemy. We might be at risk. They were kind of trying to protect us," Mr. Zhang said. As evidence, he said, the full suite of 87 past episodes is returning to the Chinese Internet, beginning in June. The couple are currently in flying lessons to prepare for their next season.

Being Chinese, it turns out, confers all manner of advantages for the traveller. In dangerous places, kidnappers value them far less than whites. "Were I not Chinese, there's no way I would have left the north of Iraq alive," Mr. Zhang said.

What they have seen has changed the couple. In the past season, Ms. Liang noticed she was laughing less. "I kept breaking into tears."

One instance stood out: Ms. Liang was in her bullet-proof car when men and children began pelting it with rocks.

"The reason was very simple. It's because I'm a woman driver," Ms. Liang said. Her tears were out of "deep pity for these people. They have lost so many basic rights that should belong to all human beings, under the rule of an extremist force."

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But if that sounds like the kind of support for universal democratic human rights that might resonate with Western observers, the couple's travels have led them to very different conclusions.

Travelling in the wake of the Arab Spring has left Mr. Zhang disillusioned. "At the outset, I thought freedom of speech was very important," he said. But in Libya and Iraq, the remnants of democratic uprising and American intervention have not been pretty.

"One of China's virtues is its social stability," Ms. Liang said.

It's also a country whose people are convinced no problem is too intractable to solve – be it building the world's highest-elevation bullet train, or, perhaps, quelling ancient religious conflict.

Seeing firsthand the ravages of sectarian conflict made the couple question whether something can be done. They now want to hold a concert in Jerusalem, to invite a Jewish and Arabic poet to the stage and have them "rhyme together hand in hand, one in Hebrew the other in Arabic," Mr. Zhang said.

They want to broadcast the concert live and have pitched the idea of a two-hour ceasefire while it is under way. "The Kurdish military in Iraq agreed to halt fire, and the Syrians also signed on," Mr. Zhang said. (The Globe was unable to verify this claim.)

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He rejects the idea that it's a fantasy.

"It's not a dream," he said. "It's a plan."

With a report from Yu Mei

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