What It’s Like Backpacking in Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan as an American

Dreaming of quitting your job to go traveling around the globe? Well, one American did just that on a quest to visit every country in the world and ended up at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“There was an eerie silence and stillness in that moment, and those simple three words will forever be engraved in my mind,” Eli Snyder, a 25-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri, told Newsweek, recalling the moment a Taliban official at the border looked him the eye and said “Welcome to Afghanistan” during his visit back in January.

Americans are advised against traveling to Afghanistan. The U.S. Department of State warns that “travel to all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe.” Its current travel advisory for Afghanistan is “Level 4: Do Not Travel, due to armed conflict, civil unrest, crime, terrorism, and kidnapping.”

Eli Snyder in Afghanistan.
Eli Snyder is pictured in Afghanistan in January. “I live for visiting places as dissimilar as possible from how I’ve grown up in suburban America,” he told Newsweek. ELI SNYDER

On May 17, three Spanish tourists were killed and four other foreigners were wounded in Bamiyan, a city just outside the Afghan capital of Kabul, after gunmen opened fire as the group walked through a market. The attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State group, is believed to be the first assault against foreign tourists since the Taliban’s takeover in 2021.

“In general I felt safe in Afghanistan…safer than big cities in the U.S. and Western Europe after dark, that’s for sure,” he said. “I live for visiting places as dissimilar as possible from how I’ve grown up in suburban America outside of Kansas City. Sometimes this means visiting a dangerous place. But it remains true, as I’d much rather visit Pyongyang [the North Korean capital] than Winnipeg.”

He has been sharing his travel adventures on his social media accounts (@snydtheexplorer on TikTokInstagram and YouTube) and recently shared snapshots from his trip to Afghanistan in a viral TikTok video posted on May 15, which has garnered 1.8 million views.

His latest viral post comes as travel is set to reach “record highs” in 2024, with global tourism spending expected to reach $2 trillion, according to a December 2023 survey by market research firm Euromonitor International.

Jet-setters say they’ll cut down on other areas of personal spending to prioritize leisure travel this year, according to a global survey of over 10,000 travelers across nine countries, conducted by Ipsos and the Hilton hotel group.

‘Absolutely Out of Body Experience’

Snyder, who is currently spending a month in Buenos Aires, was inspired to visit Afghanistan after seeing the country named among the favorite places of travelers who have visited every country and hearing “the best things about the hospitality, nature and food.”

He spent 10 days in Afghanistan, visiting Kabul, Bamiyan and the Band-e-Amir national park in the Bamiyan province in central Afghanistan, as well as the city of Mazar-e-Sharif and the town of Balkh in the Balkh province in northern Afghanistan.

Snyder was accompanied by Valentin Oeckl, a 22-year-old who’s traveling from Germany to Australia without flying. The pair met in Islamabad, Pakistan where Oeckl was staying in order to get a visa for entry into Afghanistan.

Snyder warned: “Only the most experienced traveler should consider traveling to Afghanistan without a guide, and even then, it will be a daunting experience.”

However, he and Oeckl could not afford to pay for a guide, so they navigated the country without one, which was “the most challenging thing.”

Eli Snyder in Afghanistan.
Left, Eli Snyder, on the left, with Valentin Oeckl. Right, Snyder walking in a street in Afghanistan. ELI SNYDER

He noted: “Afghanistan isn’t a country you visit for tourist attractions per se, but a country where you can walk out of your doorstep and be immediately stimulated by the ongoing ebb and flow of daily life.”

There are too many memorable moments from the trip to recount, Snyder said, but the most poignant one was when he crossed the border into Afghanistan from the town of Torkham in Pakistan.

Snyder recalled: “We had walked through the long corridor of barbed wire fences, and found ourselves alone in the Afghanistan immigration office. We handed over our passports to the Taliban official, who stamped us into the country, looked at us in the eyes and said ‘Welcome to Afghanistan.’

“From then forward, everything was an absolutely out of body experience. But perhaps the craziest part was the end of the trip, when we would wake up and go walk around the markets, chatting with locals and the Taliban as if it were just another day,” he added.

The “only hairy moment” during his trip was on the morning of his first day in Kabul. He and Oeckl didn’t have their permits yet and were walking to the office of the country’s Ministry of Information and Culture.

“We were apprehended and they were stern with us for not having our permits, but mostly they were just curious to see two tourists walking around Kabul without a guide,” the traveler said.

Eli Snyder in Afghanistan.
Eli Snyder picture with locals in Afghanistan. “I’d much rather visit Pyongyang [the North Korean capital] than Winnipeg,” he told Newsweek. ELI SNYDER

Staying Safe While Exploring Afghanistan

Snyder’s “top tip” for keeping safe on a trip to Afghanistan is to explore the country with a guide. He noted: “Of the micro niche tourist scene that exists for visiting Afghanistan, a gross majority have a private guide to assist with daily activities and Taliban interactions. The issue is that guides cost thousands of dollars due to the demand and the fact that people will pay anything for safety.”

Snyder also said he was able to navigate the country without a guide with the help of tips from a blog by Diána (@theglobetrottingdetective on Instagram), a Hungarian solo female traveler who traveled around Afghanistan for four weeks.

“Without her trip reports, I wouldn’t have had the confidence, information, resources, contacts etc…to successfully and safely execute my trip,” he noted.

“When you smile at someone and look them in the eye, displaying a warm and sincere and non-threatening demeanor, it is the most effective method to diffuse any instigation that I’ve ever known. Just smile, be kind, and you’ll be alright wherever you are,” he noted.

What It’s Like Backpacking in Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan as an American