Leh's many excellent bookshops offer a wide variety of books on Ladakh, Buddhism and Islamic history; general reading. They are well worth visiting, and have many titles not available outside India. Some recommended titles on Ladakh are:
Ladakh, Crossroads of High Asia: Janet Rizvi, an entirely enjoyable, meticulously researched overview of Ladakhi Culture, History, economy and Geography. It never lets its precision and accuracy get in the way of its approachability and personalness.
Ancient Futures: Helena Norberg-Hodge, A passionate explanation of, and plea for, the preservation of the traditional values of Ladakh. A remarkable work despite its occasional lack of balance, it is an influential book and a must read for all visitors to Ladakh.
Ladakh was an independent kingdom for nine centuries, but it was very strongly influenced by Tibet and the neighbouring Muslim region. Linguistically Ladakhi is very closely related to Tibetan. Tibet has always been where Ladakhi Buddhists would go for higher religious education, which since the incorporation of Tibet into China has meant the Ladakhis have made the much shorter trip to the Tibetan monasteries in India. The architecture of Ladakh is almost identical to that of Tibet, both of residential buildings and of the monasteries. The class structure, or more precisely the lack of a sharply defined class structure, is common to Tibet and Ladakh, and is in sharp contrast to the rest of India. Related to this is the relatively high status, freedom and outspokenness of Buddhist women in Ladakh and Tibet.
Importantly, a set of cultural practices that keep the population from growing to be more than the land can support, and to prevent a farm from being divided up and thus being unable to support a family, is common to both cultures:
Monasteries: these would take large numbers of the monks and nuns and thus keep the population at a stable level.
Polyandry: a practice where one woman marries all the brothers of a family to prevent the family's land from being divided, was common in both Ladakh and Tibet until well into the 20th century.
Primogeniture: a system where the inheritance after a man's death primarily the land would pass to his oldest son in order to keep farms large enough to support a family.
Khangbu: the little house to which the father and mother would retire once their eldest son married and took over the management of the farm, inheriting the main house along with it.
However, Tibet was far from the only influence on Ladakh. Where Tibet was largely closed off to outside influence, Ladakh was a nation where the caravan trade played an important role. Traders from the neighbouring Muslim lands both Kashmir and East Turkistan, now the Xinjiang province of China were a common sight in Leh's bazaar until the 20th century. The folk music is based on the styles of the Muslim parts of the Western Himalayas; likewise polo was imported from these lands and enjoys popularity to this day with Ladakhis regardless of faith.
Over the last couple of decades the relationship between Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh has deteriorated - possibly due to the complex roles of the communities as minorities relative to each other. Muslims are a minority in Leh, a majority in J&K, a minority in India; Buddhists a majority in Leh, a minority in J&K to Muslims and, in India, to Hindus. Possibly due to the importation of identity politics from the rest of India. Whatever the reason, it has never erupted into the kind of violence seen elsewhere in India at times, but it still may take the sheen out of a place that seems remarkably idyllic, when a new friend says something that's hard not to hear as racist.
The Indus valley is the Ladakhi heartland, with the highest population density, and large amounts of agricultural land. Running parallel, roughly north-east south-west with it are a series of valleys and mountain ranges. North of the Indus valley is the Ladakh range, on the other side of which is the Shayok, and Nubra valleys. South of the Indus is the Stok range, clearly visible from Leh. On the other side is the Markha valley, a popular trekking destination. Farther south-west is a series of minor ranges and then uninhabited valleys we come to Zangskar, with the Kargyak and the Stod rivers joining at Padum, to form the Zangskar river which bucks the trend and flows north through a narrow gorge to join the Indus. To the south of Zangskar is the Grand Himal range marking the southern limit of Ladakh.
To the east of this series of ranges is the Changtang, a high plateau home to nomads. It is known as Kharnak in the west, Samad Rokchen in the north east and Korzok in the south east. Not a true plateau, it has a chaotic assortment of minor mountains ranges not much higher than the wide valleys between them. With no drainage leading out of this area, there are a number of beautiful salt water lakes that make popular destinations for tourists.
An exception to this, are the birds, many of which migrate from the warmer parts of India to spend the Summer in Ladakh. Birds are also, rather predictably, the easiest form of wildlife for tourists to see, and the only thing tourists who don't leave the paved roads, and villages, can be sure to see. For such an arid area, Ladakh may surprise you with the variety of birds, a total of 225 species have been recorded.
The Indian redstart, and Hoopoe, both summer in Ladakh and are very common. Surprisingly, the Brown-headed Gull is seen in summer on the Indus, and on some lakes of the Changthang. Other migratory water birds, include the Brahimini duck, Ruddy Sheldrake, and the Barhead goose.
The Black Necked Crane is famous due to its extreme rarity. It is found only in Ladakh and Tibet. Other specifically high altitude birds are the Tibetan Raven, Red-Billed Chough, Snow-cock, and Chukor.
There are two main raptors in Ladakh. The Lammergeier, a vulture, is relatively common here. It's unusual in that its head has feathers, unlike most vultures. The Golden Eagle, is also found in Ladakh, is closely related and outwardly the same as found in North America.
Hunting by British, so called, "sportsmen" during colonial rule, and more recently unofficially by the Indian army, has taken its toll on the wildlife population. In recent years however things have been improving due to greater popular awareness of the value of wildlife, an awareness that has spread as far as reaching some members of the army.
The Ibex is found in high craggy terrain, it still numbers several thousand in Ladakh, and trekkers often spot them.
The Bharal, or Blue Sheep, is even more common, ranging in the Himalayas from Ladakh east as far as Sikkim. Its unusual in that it is neither a true sheep nor true goat, but has characteristics of both.
The Shapo, or Urial, is a goat, found at lower elevations, mostly in river valleys, and therefore is often directly in competition with domesticated animals. They are now rare, numbering about one thousand.
The Argali, or Nayan, is a relative of the Marco Polo Sheep of the Pamirs. They are impressive animals with huge horizontal curving horns. They are extremely rare in Ladakh, numbering only a couple hundred, however they do have a wide range throughout mountainous areas of the Chinese Provinces of Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Gansu.
The Chiru, or Tibetan Antelope, known in Ladakhi as Tsos is also endangered. It has traditionally been hunted for its wool, which must be pulled out by hand, a process done after the animal is killed. The wool obtained from the Chiru is called Shahtoosh, and is valued in South Asia for its lightweight and warmth, but more than anything else, as a status symbol. Early in the 20th century the Chiru was seen in herds numbering in the thousands, surviving on remarkably sparse vegetation, they are sadly very rare now. The owning or trading in Shahtoosh is now illegal in most countries.
The Kyang, or Tibetan Wild Ass, is one animal that visitors can expect to see from the comfort of a vehicle, if they take a Jeep tour on the Changthang. They favor the rolling grasslands of this area, and with their natural curiosity makes them fairly easy to spot, despite the relatively low numbers, about 1500 individuals. They often seem to be drawn by their curiosity toward a jeep, or trekkers, only to be overcome with shyness and run away. The tendency to repeat this a number of times is most endearing.
None of the predators of Ladakh are a safety concern to trekkers, it is people who are a danger to these animals.
The Snow Leopard, is justifiably famous. It once ranged throughout the Himalaya, Tibet, and as far as the Sayan mountains on the Mongolian, Russian border; and in elevation from 1800m to 5400m. They are extremely shy, and very hard to spot, and as such not well known, it is believed there are about 200 in Ladakh. While tourists are unlikely to see the cats themselves, during winter sightings of the footprints and other marks are not uncommon. Tourists that want to see Snow Leopards should visit during the winter, as at this time the cats descend to lower altitudes, and are more active as prey is harder to find, befriending one of the biologists who come to Ladakh to study Snow Leopards would also help.
Other cats in Ladakh are even rarer than the Snow leopard, if not as impressive, the Eurasian Lynx, numbering only a few individuals, and the Pallas's cat, who looks outwardly like a house cat.
The Tibetan Wolf is the greatest threat to the livestock of the Ladakhies and as such is the most persecuted, there are only about 300 wolves left in Ladakh. They look unremarkable, and outwardly the same as wolves seen in Europe and the Americas.
There are also a few Brown Bears in the Suru valley and the area around Dras. They are not a threat to trekkers