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James Wagenlander makes it sound magical. He describes that moment when a Mongolian lands at Denver International Airport, steps outside, and is greeted by swaths of great plains leading towards majestic mountains. A landscape reminiscent of their native country. And in that brief moment, they’ll elate a gasp of appreciation that sounds something like whah! It’s a common expression that Wagenlander, a Denver lawyer who has worked with Colorado’s Mongolian community since the late 1980s, is happy to hear.
That specific “whah” was used regularly in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Denver metro area was home to the largest community of Mongolians living outside of the central Asian country. Around 2,000 to 3,000 Mongolian immigrants called the area home at the time. And while U.S. Census data from 2019 estimates the community now has only about 1,000 people here, the Mile High City’s history with the country is still evident.
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The strong relationship between Mongolia and Denver began as the country attempted to transition from communism to democracy following a peaceful revolution in the early 1990s. At the time, the landlocked nation was struggling economically and many Mongolians began to seek out new educational and economic opportunities. Denver became an American community willing to help.
Formal exchange programs with higher education institutions, including University of Colorado Denver, were the largest draw. Local organizations also helped with the transition. Denver’s Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, for example, was a hub for Mongolians who needed to learn English. “Mongolians wanted to have their children, their children’s children, their spouses, their leadership get educated in the United States,” says Wagenlander, who serves as Honorary Consul to Mongolia. “I’ve led hundreds of people on different delegation trips to Mongolia. … Those from the Rocky Mountain West just become captivated by the land and the people of Mongolia and vice versa.”
As Mongolia weathered its political and economic transition, Wagenlander worked on initiatives that would allow the U.S. to support democracy in Mongolia. Several people in Mongolia’s leadership came to Colorado to learn English, which replaced Russian as the second most used language in the country, he says. Many Mongolians who would go on to become leaders in Mongolian government had long educational stints in Colorado, including Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, who studied at the University of Colorado’s Economic Institute before serving as both prime minister (in 1998, and again from 2004 to 2006) and president of the country from 2009 to 2017.
Former Denver resident Khulan Dashpuntsag was among the many Mongolians who moved to Colorado in the 1990s to pursue higher education. She came over at the age of 20 to study at CU Denver. After she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2001, Dashpuntsag worked in a bank until 2003, when she temporarily moved back to Mongolia. In 2005, she returned to Denver where she had her two children, pursued two master’s degrees in international business and entrepreneurship, and later worked for CU Denver.
In the early days, she says the community was so tight knit that if someone new arrived to town, people would help them find an apartment and furniture. “You knew anyone who was Mongolian, and you knew who was new,” Dashpuntsag says. Denver didn’t necessarily have a Little Mongolia neighborhood or a large concentration of Mongolian immigrants in any particular neighborhood, though.
“Denver was like the landing point for most people, initially, and then everybody sort of migrated,” said Tem Tumurbat, who moved from Mongolia to Denver in 2004 while he was in seventh grade.
In the 2000s, as the first Mongolian transplants got older and their children became college-aged, many began moving to larger cities to pursue educational and professional opportunities. It was easier for immigrants whose legal status had expired to get in-state tuition outside of Colorado at the time, community leaders say. The largest diaspora groups can now be found in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
Even though the population of Mongolians in the Mile High City has shrunk, the culture created during earlier decades remains. “The [Denver Mongolian] community definitely has matured and grown to be a vibrant one, even though the number of people is lower than it used to be in 2006,” Khulan says. Community groups, like the Mongolian Community Association of Colorado, help put on celebrations for Mongolia’s annual Naadam festival each July, usually at Denver’s James A. Bible Park. Institutions like the Mongolian School of Colorado also continue to teach the next generation about their native culture and language.
The connections between Mongolia and Colorado’s capital city also remain numerous. In 2001, Ulaanbaatar became one of Denver’s official Sister Cities. The Denver Botanic Gardens has consulted Ulaanbaatar on its horticultural growth. The Denver Zoo has also helped with research and conservation efforts for Mongolia’s Ikh Nart Nature Reserve.
The two areas also share physical connections: In Ulaanbaatar, there is a Denver Street outside the U.S. embassy. In Denver’s Lowry neighborhood, there’s a dedicated City of Ulaanbaatar Park, which has a large fireplace statue designed by a Mongolian artist. The fireplace is inspired by Mongolian nomadic culture, Dashpuntsag says, because traditionally when people move and settle in a new location, “the very first thing is you set up your fireplace, you boil your first cup of tea and have your tea—that’s a tradition.”
In 2011, Dashpuntsag went back to Ulaanbaatar—Mongolia’s capital and largest city—but says she’ll always consider Denver her second home and will remain a Broncos fan. “Ulaanbaatar is situated between mountains and a valley, and a lot of things are similar. We have four seasons, [high] altitude, and dry air,” says Dashpuntsag, 42, who works for an educational development exchange organization. “I’ve always wanted to come back to work and live in Mongolia.”
Tumurbat, 30, went on to study at the Colorado School of Mines. He then helped start a trucking company in 2010 and is now a private equity investor. He says Denver now feels like home to his family, particularly for he and his sisters. “We all dearly miss Mongolia and our relatives, but we chose to put down our roots here,” Tumurbat says. “One of the reasons we love Colorado is that its climate and landscape resemble many parts of Mongolia, and make us feel like we are closer to home.”
These days, Tumurbat says, the Denver Mongolian community often uses Facebook to connect with each other, and to help new transplants with housing and jobs. The “Denver Mongols” group, for example, has more than 9,000 members.
But regardless of the community size, Wagenlander believes Coloradans and Mongolians will always share a bond. People from both regions, he says, were “born under a big, blue sky” and exude “independence, self-reliance, self-deprecating humor, and friendliness.”