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 
Colorado.
Anthony Camera
Jim Wagenlander is Mongolia's honorary consul in Colorado.
Djab Burchinow has brought Mongolian students to 
Denver for more than a decade.
Djab Burchinow has brought Mongolian students to Denver for more than a decade.
Culture watch: Zula Tserendejid heads the Mongolian 
Community Association of Colorado, and organized 
last month's Children's Performing Arts Festival.
Anthony Camera
Culture watch: Zula Tserendejid heads the Mongolian Community Association of Colorado, and organized last month's Children's Performing Arts Festival.
Baika Puntsag is the pastor at the Amazing Grace 
Mongolian Church.
Anthony Camera
Baika Puntsag is the pastor at the Amazing Grace Mongolian Church.
The Children's Performing Arts Festival.
Anthony Camera
The Children's Performing Arts Festival.

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."

He produces an August 2, 2002, letter signed by Wellington Webb, then mayor of Denver. "I am writing in support of your efforts to provide scholarships for Mongolian students who are seeking degrees in the United States," the letter reads. "As you know, Denver is home to the largest Mongolian population in the United States. It is my belief that your efforts to help Mongolian students develop into professional and educated youths enriches Denver's Mongolian community."

But Burchinow hasn't just enriched the Mongolian community in Denver; he indirectly helped create it.

Burchinow is from Kalmykia, an area on the lower Volga River populated by Mongols in the seventeenth century. During World War II, the Soviet Union rounded up the Kalmyks and sent them to Siberian work camps, effectively killing off half the Kalmyk population. After the war, Burchinow made it to France, then Germany. In 1951, he and other displaced Kalmyks convinced the U.S. Congress to pass a law allowing them to immigrate to the U.S., and then to grant them citizenship.

Settling in New Jersey in the early 1950s, Burchinow got a day job as an engineer with General Electric but spent the rest of his time fighting for his country. He organized a Kalmyk delegation that visited with the likes of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and other world leaders, pushing for the return of the Kalmyks -- as well as several other displaced Eastern Russian ethnic groups -- to their native country. In 1957, that request was granted. Then, while continuing to fight tirelessly for the rights of Kalmyks, Burchinow started lobbying the United Nations to accept Mongolia as a member nation -- an unpopular notion, given the Cold War politics of the era and the belief, championed by both the U.S. and China, that Mongolia was little more than a Soviet satellite state. Three months after he fired off a telegram affirming that Mongolia was an independent state worthy of inclusion in the U.N., the Security Council informed him that his memorandum was being taken under advisement. Three months after that, on October 27, 1961, Mongolia was accepted as a member of the U.N.

"At that time, it was not easy for Mongolians to handle their case at the United Nations," Burchinow remembers. "There was no experienced diplomatic corps, and Mongolians, with their very limited educational background, could not handle themselves on the international scale. We had to start from scratch to try to increase the number of our intellectual and professional people."

That wasn't easy while the Soviets were in power, and it wasn't until the Communists relinquished their control of the Mongolian government that Burchinow was able to really act on the idea. That year, he arranged for three junior engineers from Mongolia to attend classes at the Colorado School of Mines. The next year, in 1990, he arranged for four more to study in Golden. Battumur Munkhbaatar was in that second group.

"The Ministry of Geology was trying to send its specialists to Western countries," remembers Munkhbaatar, who today is a technical manager for the International Uranium Corporation. "And Djab Burchinow was their first contact. He contacted the School of Mines, and the four of us came over on government exchange visas.

"Everything was dramatically different than what we had expected," he continues. "We expected everything that we had been taught by Communist propaganda: a harsh, capitalist country. One of my first impressions of the United States, though, was being in downtown Denver and seeing the free shuttle bus. We had thought that in capitalist America, everything costs money. It was dramatic for us, four guys from Mongolia sent across the world with really no idea what to expect -- but it was an amazing experience."

Burchinow didn't limit his efforts to the School of Mines. Charles Becker, former director of the Economics Institute at the University of Colorado (he's now at Duke University), met him at a 1991 dinner, where Burchinow urged him to bring Mongolian students to the institute. "I remember that evening very well, because I had no idea whether this guy was for real or not," Becker says. "The things he was telling me he had done in his life seemed unfathomable."

But they were all true. And Becker wound up with two of the students that Secretary of State James Baker had brought back from Mongolia. Before Burchinow was done with the Economics Institute, "about half a dozen people came over," Becker says. "We essentially gave them 50 percent tuition waivers, and he negotiated the rest."

One of those students was Irina Khindanova, a woman of Buryat descent (the Buryats are a small ethnic group in Siberia, with common roots in Mongolia) who was the sister of one of the first students at the Economics Institute. Khindanova excelled in the program, earning a scholarship to Williams College for her master's degree, which led to an internship at the New York Federal Reserve, which led to a Ph.D. at the University of California at Santa Barbara, followed by an assistant professorship of mineral economics at the Colorado School of Mines. "Without Djab Burchinow, I would never have been able to come here to pursue my studies," Khindanova says.

And just as Burchinow was exploring ways to send Mongolian students to the United States, Wagenlander & Associates, a Denver-based law firm with a focus on Native American law, was looking to expand its legal horizons. The firm's lawyers decided to focus on Mongolia, because the country shares economic interests -- mining, tourism and agriculture -- with Colorado and has a similar terrain. Jim Wagenlander went to the Mongolian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to secure a travel visa; the Mongolian secretary granted the visa, and asked if, upon his return to Colorado, Wagenlander would keep an eye on the Mongolian students who would soon be arriving in Colorado. Wagenlander agreed, and headed off to the land of Chinggis [aka Genghis] Khan. It was the first of many trips to Mongolia for the lawyer.

"A lot of people from the Western part of the United States, particularly the Rocky Mountain West and northern plains, fall in love with Mongolia," Wagenlander says. "Not only because of its terrain, but also because of the people. They're very similar. I'm inclined to agree with those who say that certain types of people live under the big sky, with sunshine all the time."

Wagenlander's firm began specializing in Mongolian matters, helping the Mongolians rewrite their petroleum law and representing Mongolian companies that had legal disputes with American companies. Meanwhile, Wagenlander himself set up to bring as many Mongolians as he could to Colorado. In 1992 he helped organize the Colorado Mongolia Project, a Denver-based nonprofit that promoted relationships between this state and that country. The timing was fortuitous. On the one hand, Mongolia was a country freshly freed from the clutches of a suffocating regime, eager to reinvent itself -- and wanting the help of the U.S. to do so. And on the other hand, Denver was a city that was already attracting Mongolian students.

That year, the Mongolian ambassador made his first visit to Colorado, a trip that would soon be repeated regularly. And the first Mongolian lawyer came to Denver, too, studying at the University of Denver while interning at Wagenlander's firm. In 1996, the University of Colorado at Denver and the Spring Institute set up programs designed specifically to bring Mongolians to Colorado. And all through this period, Colorado businesses such as Wagner Equipment, the state's largest Caterpillar tractor supplier, were moving into Mongolia.

"What people don't recognize is that much of the Mongolian community grew because in the late '90s, Denver was booming," Wagenlander explains. "There was a shortage of labor and workers, and the Mongolians were very good at filling those jobs and then moving on to second-tier jobs. When your heritage is of herdsmen and living in the countryside, you become very independent and self-reliant. Those skills really helped Mongolians in Denver succeed at the time."

In 2000, Wagenlander was appointed Honorary Consul for Mongolia, and on November, 8, 2001, after years of lobbying by Wagenlander, Prime Minister Nambar Enkhbayar traveled to Denver to sign a partnership with Wellington Webb linking the city of Ulaanbaatar and Denver in the Sister Cities International program. "The city of Denver has established closer academic, cultural and business ties with countries throughout Asia, and the new sister-city relationship is particularly meaningful," Webb said that day.

Three years later, the Colorado Mongolia Project folded, and the Mongolian Community Association of Colorado emerged.

"We always believed that the CMP would become obsolete," Wagenlander explains. "That is why there was such a strong effort to form a Sister City project, because that could take on the international-relations part of the mission while a community organization like the MCAC could focus on the community. For years, the CMP had tried to shoulder both efforts, but the goal was always to help the Mongolian community reach the point where it could take on those sorts of tasks themselves."

While the Mongolian community here is beginning to support itself, there's more to be done. "The spirit of the community here is as strong as ever," Wagenlander says. "But at the same time, I think that understanding and serving a community that is in transition is the hardest challenge. In almost every Mongolian whom I have ever met, there is a strong national sense, a feeling of pride and honor for where they came from. They've always been able to maintain that national strength. But the community is more mature now; it's no longer just made up of people who recently came to the United States. You've got some Mongolians who have grown up here, and those Mongolians may not feel that national self as strongly. Their children aren't exposed to as much history, language or culture."


It's a late Sunday afternoon in June, and in a packed basement performance space in Bonnie Brae, Naranzul Tserendejid -- Zula, for short -- is weeping.

"I'm just so emotional right now," the 27-year-old gushes. She's dressed in a black cocktail dress, and her face is beaming with pride. The president of the MCAC, Zula has put a lot of time and effort into organizing today's Children's Performing Arts Festival. And as young performer after young performer takes the stage before a room full of proud Mongolian parents and grandparents, Zula loses it, composes herself, then loses it all over again.

Zorigt and Mooji Boldbaatar -- a teenage brother-and-sister act who've been in the U.S. only a little over a year -- kick off the show with a dance performance, effortlessly twirling and shaking their way through the same number that saw them take first place in three separate amateur heats in this year's Colorado Star Ball, the state's premier ballroom-dancing competition. They're followed by a young girl in a ballerina outfit who offers no ballet, but pipes out a stirring rendition of "My Favorite Things." Next, a seven-year-old boy belts a prideful tune about Colorado's state flower, the columbine, concluding, in a somewhat off-key fashion, that the flower is a "Rocky Mountain treasure for us all!" Five-year-old Maral Amar then takes the mike and begins reciting a popular Russian poem about a giant rutabaga, only to break down in embarrassed tears and sprint from the stage. Her mother follows Maral out of the room and consoles her in the parking lot.

The audience -- an eclectic mix of Mongolians, some dressed in traditional costume, others clad in Broncos T-shirts and snapping cell-phone photos -- greets each act with equal appreciation. It's not the caliber of the performances that brought them here, but the chance to socialize with their fellow Mongolians.

Zula came to Denver in 1999 to pursue a bachelor's degree in finance at the University of Colorado at Denver. A native of Ulaanbaatar, she'd learned of UCD while studying at a university in Beijing, where the Colorado school offered an international program. (The majority of Mongolia's educated elite go elsewhere for higher learning. Of Zula's high school class of 36 students, she estimates that 90 percent left Mongolia to pursue their studies in other countries.) Zula made friends with several professors there, and successfully applied to transfer to Denver. Her friendships with faculty helped ease her transition into the U.S. -- outside of a few panicked moments on the bus when she was unaware that you have to pull the string if you want the driver to stop, she reports no real culture shock -- but Zula found herself longing for the companionship of other Mongolians. She joined a UCD student club called GURTS -- "exit," in Mongolian -- that met regularly to discuss how to help people back home, and eventually the group started talking about the need for an organization to provide activities for Mongolians here in Denver. That need was filled by the MCAC.

Already this year, Zula has organized three very successful Mongolian history and culture classes for students ages four to fifteen, taught by a former professor at the National University of Mongolia who currently resides in Colorado. The rest of the year promises to be just as busy, since 2006 marks the 800th anniversary of the Mongol State, celebrating the year Chinggis Khan unified the marauding Mongol tribes. On July 16, MCAC will host a Naadam celebration -- the biggest festival of the year for Mongolians, in Mongolia characterized by horse racing, archery and wrestling -- in Garland Park, and numerous other events are planned throughout the year.

There are other community outlets, too. Baika Puntsag opens the doors to the Amazing Grace Mongolian Church at 1630 East 14th Avenue every Sunday at 2 p.m. for worship, with "fellowship" following at 4 p.m. "We were established four years ago," says Puntsag, who also edits Mongolian News of America, which recently moved to a strictly online format and got 20,000 hits in the first month. "And since then we have been kind of like a community center for Mongolians, a gathering place. Every Sunday we have our activities, and our church service, and then afterwards people bring in food and we talk and catch up. It's a place where Mongolians can always feel welcome."

Both Zula and Puntsag are keenly concerned that Mongolian culture in Colorado not be overwhelmed by the dominant American pop culture. "You see some of these Mongolian kids, and they look exactly like the kids back in Mongolia," Puntsag notes. "There's no difference. But when you speak to them, they don't understand a word you're saying. They've never been to Mongolia, they've never been completely surrounded by real Mongolian culture. Somehow we have to teach them their roots. We have to find the key to open their hearts to Mongolia."


But for Bold, Mongolia is the past. His future lies in Colorado.

He got a legal tourist visa to return to America -- although he says you can also buy a visa on the black market, where it costs anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. (In Mongolia, the average annual income is about $1,200.) And Bold simply stayed in Denver -- now technically an illegal immigrant, like a significant portion of the Mongolian community here.

Through Mongolian friends in Denver, he'd arranged an interview with a Korean newspaper that was looking for an English speaker who could help line up more American advertisers. After a fifteen-minute interview, Bold was told to come in to work the following day. When he showed up the next morning with a PowerPoint presentation and a marketing plan, jaws hit the floor. Bold quickly rose through the ranks, and soon was earning enough money to afford an apartment off Parker Road, an area where many Mongolians reside.

Bold's English skills were in high demand, so when the brother of the paper's editor asked to borrow him at his optics shop, Bold found his next profession. After about a month of training, Bold was not only administering eye exams to anyone who came into the shop, but also crafting lenses and fitting frames. He didn't get along with his boss, though, and quit. Bold then worked briefly for a drunk mechanic, but didn't like the environment. So when a friend told him about a Mongolian construction crew, Bold leaped at the chance to sign up.

Working with the construction crew, Bold encountered yet another boss who did not know how to treat his workers. Soon Bold was handling calls for the crew, acting as de facto foreman. And when the boss went to jail on a DUI charge, Bold visited him there.

The man told Bold to round up all of the money they were owed from various construction sites and deliver it to his wife. Bold said that the Mongolians were all owed back wages and had rent due, but the boss didn't care. So Bold went from site to site, collected the money that was owed, paid the Mongolian workers what they were due and gave what was left to his boss's wife. He then informed his boss that he would no longer be working for him.

Afterward, Bold told the crew that he was starting his own construction business. All eight members of the Mongolian crew signed on. One of those members was legal. Using his paperwork, Bold was able to incorporate, get a trade name and acquire all the insurance necessary to run two highly successful, all-Mongolian crews. They work primarily in neighboring states but have a large project on the horizon in Colorado.

"People want us because we do good work," says Bold, who organizes all of the jobs and racks up miles by the thousands on the company car as he checks up on different sites. "At one location, we were doing siding on houses, and the record for completion of a job was five days. We came to the site and completed siding on two houses in five days. They were all wondering, 'How did you do that?' And I told them, 'Well, my friend, we are Mongolian. Like Chinggis Khan.'"

Though business is good, money isn't the only reason Bold wants to stay in Denver. True, it was his initial motivation -- he wanted to stay a few years, acquire a large chunk of change, then return to Mongolia with the financial freedom to pursue whatever dreams he might have. But now Bold's dream is to stay here and become a legal citizen. He's grown attached to the community, likes using his English to help fellow Mongolians with legal problems, purchasing cars -- whatever they need. He's joined MCAC as well as the InterMongol Network, a group whose mission is to "preserve and promote the cultural heritage of the Mongol Nation, to encourage understanding and to strengthen cooperation among different Mongolian regions as well as other communities."

And here in Colorado, he's also finding a spirituality that he never expected. Bold visits regularly with a Korean monk living in Castle Rock, studying the heart sutra in the temple that she has fashioned out of her home. "I've also started going to a Russian church in Arvada," he explains. "Even though I know it washes the brain, I also know there are some good teachings there, values beyond your truck. I want to become a moral man; I don't want to become too religious. The key is finding the mental balance and the materialism balance."

But as Bold's dark-blue Dodge Caravan arrives at the job site, materialism takes precedence. There's work to do. He'd meant to get here earlier, but he had to make a quick stop at a home in Aurora, to replace a small piece of siding from another job. This project is much bigger: constructing new university dorms. Dozens of men from almost as many backgrounds are working quickly to complete a job that's already behind schedule. Bold dons a hardhat and walks onto the site, offering passing pleasantries to several important-looking men with clipboards.

Deep inside the massive skeleton of the dorm, he spies his Mongolian crew. The building is not yet ready for siding, so three Mongolians are keeping busy by installing windows. Bold calls for a lunch break, and his crew members make their way across the vast, open field to one of the company cars. They head across town to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, where they chat rapidly in Mongolian, much to the dismay of the restaurant's only other patrons, a large man in a NASCAR hat and his soon-to-be-large children. The crew discusses the benefits of steady employment, and how those benefits outweigh the long hours, the weeks spent in cheap motels on the prairie.

"When you find a good job," one crew member says, "you don't mind working so much, because it is good work." Having Mongolian bosses also helps.

"More people in the Mongolian community need to start businesses," Bold says. "Like the Vietnamese and the Koreans in Denver. That way, we can grow stronger as a community."

Lunch over, the crew heads back to the construction site and, after going over a few things with the foreman, Bold says goodbye. The crew will stay on the site until late that night, but he needs to check on another Mongolian crew at the far end of the state.

Bold likes to tell a story of his great-grandfather, a Tibetan trader who migrated to the Bulgan province of Mongolia and became quite successful, amassing an impressive collection of treasures and religious items. In the 1920s, as word of Communism's impending control spread across Mongolia and people started hearing that those in the upper tiers of society were being jailed or slaughtered, Bold's great-grandfather awakened a servant who'd always been fond of his daughter, and had him help load the family fortune into ten yak carts, then secretly buried it. The servant later married Bold's grandmother, using some of the hidden fortune to take care of her. Bold's great-grandfather was eventually arrested, but legend has it that he escaped. No one is certain what became of him -- the prevailing theory is that he either collected his fortune and returned to Tibet, or was devoured by wolves.

Bold isn't sure how his great-grandfather's story ended. For his own life, though, he's betting on the fortune.

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