Nayla Tawa: The Road Back

While most of her peer’s flocked south in search of warm lazy beach days and dripping umbrella drinks, UCLA student Nayla Tawa’s spring break found her duct taped to her snowboard for 2 days with a broken back in three places, broken sternum and a severe knee injury in the remote backcountry region of Kyrgyzstan.

Nayla, duct tape and the backboard
photo credit Jerod Anklam

Born in the Alps of France, Nayla spent her childhood traveling across western Europe, trekking through the mountains of Nepal, kayaking the coast of Baja and crossing the white dessert of Egypt all by the time she turned 18.

Some people get anxiety from stepping into unknown territory, or walking into a room of strangers who don’t speak your language, or don’t dress the same, but for me that is what calms me.

Her adventurous spirit only expanded with the passing years, pressing her to push past her comfort zones and down unknown paths. Drawn time and time again to the cultural exposure and universal human sprit she discovered by traveling to unfamiliar societies in estranged places.

The fear that I find many people having about those areas that we don’t know, or those people that we don’t understand, very often proves to be something that we make up in our heads. The more you travel, the more you talk to people from different backgrounds, or different cultures, you realize that in the end we are all simply human and we all share the same human emotions and dreams.

She had no camera and only minor in film and minor production and directing experience when her friend invited her on a backcountry ski trip in Kyrgyzstan where she would split board with 40 tribes for a week. Her passion for snowboarding and travel was the initial motivation, but when her film professor over heard her spring break plans and suggested she make a film, Nayla’s perspective shifted. Not eager to feature herself, she reached out to the local community in search of a story and found one:

photo credit Hayat Tarikov

Kyrgyzstan. One of the worlds poorest countries, home to some of the worlds best skiing regions with a very underdeveloped ski community. These three variables combined with a ski hungry local, Hayat Tarikov with a passion for improving the living conditions of his community, lead to a story centered around the struggles and rewards of building up the local economy through community-based environmental tourism.

The relationship between people and their natural environment is my inspiration. More so, I believe an individual has the potential to effect change in his/her environment.

Nayla had only been in Kyrgyzstan for three days when, one cold and snowy afternoon, her taxi lost control and swerved off the road at 60 miles per hour. With the snowboard fashioned into a stretcher, Nayla and four of her friends were taken to the local hospital where they waited for two days, with out running water and questionable hygiene, before they were evacuated back to the states.

It took a full year of creative cast fashion statements and diligent rehabilitation before Nayla could even think about actively getting back into the outdoors. When she heard about the Adventure Film School she was not fully recovered but was encouraged by founder Michael Brown to apply in hopes that she would be ready when the time came.

With optimism and hard work Nayla was cleared by her doctor just one day before it was time to strap on the skins and camera gear for the 2013 Colorado Backcountry, making the 5 mile back country trek her first test back in the outdoors. Her short film featured her struggle of the last year and was a touching resolution of personal triumph as she was reunited with the natural world she loved deeply.


With the Adventure Film School experience under her belt and a healthy body, Nayla is currently returning to Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan to finish the project she had started 4 years earlier – still aiming to provide ski gear and training to the burgeoning local community to create a locally sustained winter tourist industry. But her story and her crew has grown significantly over the years, and this time, she will be incorporating broader cultural layers affected by the change, as well as her own story and experience. The expected release date of her film is early 2017 so keep an eye out for updates on the progress and follow her on her journey at instagram @returntokg, her personal instagram @naylanator, her facebook page at Return to Kyrgyzstan or check out her website for more information.