"Azerbaijan is hot right now." That's not just a marketing moniker I'd seen on a billboard at the airport, but an accurate description of the wall of fire in front of me.
My eyes water as smoke fills the air and flames dance across the 10-metre stretch of hillside, the heat so intense I can feel my cheeks burning.
Not Dante's Inferno, but Fire Mountain, on Azerbaijan's Absheron Peninsula, some 25 kilometres north-east of the capital Baku.
"Some say the natural gas fire has burned continuously for 4000 years," says my guide Ramin Bagirov. "Others say it was lit accidently by a shepherd's discarded cigarette in the 1950s." What is known is that when Marco Polo visited in the 13th-century he wrote about the mysterious fires dotted across the peninsula.
Known as Yanar Dag the flames are the result of Azerbaijan's rich gas reserves, which occasionally seep to the surface. In ancient times these fires were fundamental to Zoroastrianism, an obscure religion that was founded in Iran and flourished in Azerbaijan in pre-Islamic times. Bagirov explains that even though fire rituals may have lost their original value, Azeri people still follow them as annual traditions.
"Each year on March 20 we celebrate Novruz and the coming of spring by jumping over a bonfire seven times," he says, with the look of glee that only a young man can muster.
Today the hill is devoid of any Jack Be Nimble wannabes, just our small group of 12 on a "Highlights of Azerbaijan and Georgia" tour with Intrepid Travel. Having a guide as informative and open as Bagirov is the key to unlocking the mysteries of this enigmatic country, whose Persian name means "Protector of fire".
To learn more about Azerbaijan's ancient fire worshippers we head east of Baku to the Fire Temple of Ateshgah, a castle-like religious complex that has drawn pilgrims to its eternal flame since the 10th century. "To Zoroastrians, fire is the symbol of purity and link to the supernatural world," says Bagirov. "No ritual can be performed without its presence."
While the Zoroastrians worshipped the flame as it came straight from the ground from a natural gas vent, it was the Hindu and Sikh pilgrims from India who built the temple in the 17th century.
Shaped like a caravanserai (travellers' inn) the complex has a walled courtyard surrounded by cells for worshippers. In the middle stands the burning altar, a four-pillared dome positioned over a natural gas vent, with pyres blazing from each of temple's four chimneys. Having burned for centuries, the fire is now fed from Baku's main gas supply.
We hear the flames before we see them, roaring, clawing demons, whipped into a frenzy by a windstorm that has blown in from the Caspian Sea. Stepping through the archway feels like entering a different realm, one that is raw and elemental on the outside, yet distinctly calming inside.
Back on the road to Baku we pass an extensive oil field, where "nodding donkeys" pump Azerbaijan's black gold to the surface. Nicknamed the James Bond oil field after it was featured in the movie The World Is Not Enough, it represents the Azerbaijan of today as it races towards a prosperous, resource-driven future.
And that's the delight of a journey to Azerbaijan, where past and present are never far away from each other.
Qatar Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Baku, Azerbaijan, via Dohar. See qatarairways.com
Intrepid Travel's 10-day Highlights of Azerbaijan and Georgia, starting in Baku, costs from $2338 a person, twin share. See intrepidtravel.com
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Intrepid Travel.