One sunny Sunday earlier this month, several hundred Mongols gathered in a parking lot in Citrus Heights to celebrate Genghis Khan's 850th birthday and the opening of the Mongolian Cultural Center.
They grew misty-eyed at the sounds of the steppes: a horse-headed instrument with two strings reminiscent of a wild horse neighing, and an epic ballad celebrating the vast skies, grasslands and forests of Mongolia.
For 70 years under Soviet rule, Mongolians were forbidden to celebrate Genghis Khan. But in Sacramento they can keep their storied history alive while taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by American education, free enterprise and free speech.
About 700 Mongols live in Sacramento. They have adjusted quickly to life here.
"Maybe it's in our blood; we can adapt faster to any environment," said entrepreneur and community leader Enkhbat "Alex" Lkhamsuren, 37. "Since the old days, Mongolians were nomads, used to moving from place to place."
Lkhamsuren speaks Mongolian, Russian and English. "Each Mongolian jumps on the language, and culture gets inside," he said. They've adapted to the 100-degree summers here and, many say, they still weather the 40-below winters when they return to visit Mongolia, covering the huge expanses on horseback. As a boy growing up in the capital of Ulan Bator, Lkhamsuren said he and his family rode their horses across the steppes to visit relatives living in yurts.
"In school, they taught us how Genghis Khan was a bad man who killed people until 1986," Lkhamsuren recalled. Then, when Mongolia went from a Soviet socialist republic to a nascent democracy, "the same teacher was telling us Genghis Khan was a national hero who built the Mongolian empire and made this independent country possible," Lkhamsuren said.
But as Mongolia struggled through anarchy and chaos to find its democratic footing, "I said hey, I'm going to America to see where democracy was born."
At 23, Lkhamsuren landed in San Francisco, took ESL classes and moved to Sacramento in 1999.
"I started working as a pizza delivery guy for $4.75 an hour," he said.
Then he worked for Comcast as a technician. In 2002, he moved to Dish Network, then became a partner in AAA Satellite. Lkhamsuren now owns Satellite Avenue, a dish installation company with 36 employees, nine of them Mongolian immigrants.
Mongols who have settled here can be found working as UC Davis professors, cooks, cleaners, truck drivers, poets, writers, accountants and cable installers.
"The Mongolian population is small, but Mongolian people are smart, educated and have good hearts," said Bayarundral Tsentsenddorj, 22, who arrived here two years ago and is studying accounting at Sierra College.
There are actually two Mongolias inner Mongolia, which is part of China, and Mongolia the independent democracy. "Mongolians are not part of China, we're totally different," said Tsentsenddorj. "I'm really proud I'm Mongolian, our ancestors have passed down our history, culture and traditions."
Sunny Buchert, one of the first Mongolian immigrants in the Central Valley, arrived in 2000 and did not speak English. She's now a business technology analyst for SMUD. "Mongolians are very ambitious, highly educated people who push our kids very hard," she said.
Lkamsuren, his wife, Baigali Tumer, and their twins Edward and Elle born on July 4, 2009 now live in Gold River.
Tumer, who worked at Burger King while her husband was delivering pizzas, learned how to speak English by watching her favorite show "Sex and the City." Lkamsuren said he learned English by watching "Friends."
She cooks Mongolian delicacies: boiled beef, "buuz" (beef dumplings with onion and garlic) and "suutei tsai" (milktea with salt).
Lkhamsuren helped establish the Mongolian Cultural Center which offers language and traditional music classes so that his twins can learn both cultures. "When they grow up they're going to ask, 'Who am I?' " he said. "And this center is going to help them."