Among the Mongols

Steppe by steppe, the hordes are descending on Denver.

When Bold landed at Denver International Airport six years ago, he felt as if he'd gotten off not a plane, but a time machine. Born into a relatively well-to-do Mongolian family -- his father ran the country's largest cement factory, and his mother worked in a hospital -- Bold had been allowed access to both Russian and Czech schools during his formative years, giving him a significant leg up on his countrymen, who attended the far inferior Mongolian schools. After that, he'd worked as a tour guide in Mongolia and assisted significant anthropological expeditions alongside Americans -- but none of that prepared him for the sheer magnitude of the United States, for its wealth, abundance and pace.

On one side trip, his Denver hosts took the then-28-year-old Bold to Chicago, where friends of the family treated him to a night on the town, which at one point landed at a gay bar. "I had never been exposed to anything like that in Mongolia," Bold remembers. "That sort of thing just doesn't happen. I was shocked."

On the flight back to Denver, Bold's host talked to him at length about tolerance and the notion of equal rights for everyone. "That's when I started to see the bigger picture," he says. "If I never came to America, I would not have the same sense of tolerance that I have today. I realized that it's not their fault for being born that way. It's just the way it is. It's amazing how one family can have such an influence on another. One person can help you see things you never saw before. And that makes you more strong. It makes you more truthful."

Devon Bowman
Jim Wagenlander is Mongolia's honorary consul in 
Anthony Camera
Jim Wagenlander is Mongolia's honorary consul in Colorado.

Back in Mongolia, Bold parlayed his unique experiences and excellent English skills into the type of career most Mongolians could only dream of: a stint at the Ministry of Finance, setting up American Embassy-backed lending institutions, conducting essential tour-guide training sessions and helping design official tourism videos for the Mongolian government. But always at the back of his mind were thoughts of returning to the U.S.

"I'm an adventurer, like Indiana Jones," Bold says with a laugh. Indeed, he once led a three-month expedition for a cashmere company into the most remote regions of Mongolia, where they taught nomads the proper methods of sorting cashmere. The trip left even the most rugged of nomads impressed, and Bold's jeep in utter shambles. "And I had seen enough in Mongolia," he continues. "It's not that I don't love it there, but I was well introduced to Mongolian society. I knew the Mongolian government, I knew the Mongolian people. I had seen things, more or less, and I wanted to see more."

When Mongolians think of the United States, they think about Colorado -- specifically, Denver. Not that there aren't other images of America available. Movie buffs in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar have seen all the flicks depicting the mean streets of New York, the buzz of Los Angeles, the torpor of the suburbs -- movies only available in Mongolia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. But ask anyone on the streets of UB what they know of this country, and Denver is bound to come up.

"There is no place in the United States that is more present in Mongolia, and more covered in Mongolia, than Colorado," says Jim Wagenlander, honorary consul for Mongolia and president of the Ulaanbaatar Denver Sister City Committee. In fact, Denver is home to the largest group of Mongolian immigrants in the U.S., somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people. (Mongolia's population is about 2.8 million.)

Four years ago, this strong presence was enough to draw the popular Mongolian trivia show Tsentaur to Denver. Jargalsaikhan, Mongolia's equivalent of Larry King, hosted the program, which was broadcast from City Park back to fans back home. And Jargalsaikhan returned this past May to film a segment featuring Tumen Ekh, a song-and-dance ensemble making their inaugural stateside stop before a sold-out crowd at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts.

In 2003, a Colorado Club was formed in Mongolia so that the many students who'd studied in this state could get together and practice their English, as well as reflect on their common experiences. And soon, the street that fronts the U.S. Embassy in the capital city will change its name to Denver Place.

In the traditionally nomadic country of Mongolia, those wanderers who made it all the way across Russia, across Europe and then across the ocean to Denver remain a source of constant interest. But in Colorado, they go largely unnoticed.

Seated in the living room of his apartment near the Cherry Creek Reservoir, surrounded by portraits painted by his recently deceased wife, Djab Naminow Burchinow shuffles through a stack of papers.

"You'll have to excuse the mess," he says, flipping past a letter signed by President John F. Kennedy, as well as a "Star of Liberty" certificate awarded by the Mongolian government for Burchinow's outstanding contribution to the Democratic Revolution for Mongolia's Independence, Liberty and Human Rights. "Things have been piling up since my wife passed away."

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