On an island just off the coast of Shanghai, an abandoned village is being reclaimed by Mother Nature. A dense layer of ivy covers the houses, climbing walls and breaking through doors and windows. Parts of the village are permanently inaccessible, giving it a mystical air, like something out of a fairy tale.

The village of Houtouwan is located on Shengshan Island, one of a group of 394 islands known as the Shengsi Islands in the Zhoushan Archipelago at the mouth of the Yangtze River.

With more than 500 houses, Houtouwan used to be home to more than 2,000 people, mostly fishermen and their families. People began to leave in the 1990s, lured away by the chance of a better life on the mainland. By 1994, the village was almost completely empty.

Abandoned village China covered ivy
A map showing the location of the Shengsi Islands in the Zhoushan Archipelago at the mouth of the Yangtze River Google Maps

Reuters photographer Damir Sagolj describes the scene: "Time stood still and nature started reclaiming what is hers. The village now looks not unlike what I've seen in Chernobyl and other similar forsaken places. Inside the houses all is covered by fine moss and colours fade away. Tiny branches, like veins on old man's legs, spread all around, decorating the emptiness."

A few years ago, tourists started coming; at first just a few and then – as photos of the ghost village spread on the internet – more and more. Nowadays, several hundred people visit the village every day, climbing over the hill from a nearby town.

Even some old residents have returned. Local officials asked Cheng Shizhang, former head of the village's communist party, and some other elders to spend a few hours a day in their old village every day "taking care of tourists". Former neighbours accompany him every day, selling water to visitors. That's the only thing currently available for sale in Houtouwan but the selection will almost certainly improve as the village's fame increases.

Ironically, as photos and stories like this one are shared on social media, the village may soon be busier than it ever was in its heyday.